252. POSSESSION (1981)

AKA The Night the Screaming Stops

Recommended

“…Viktor Shklovsky wrote about how the job of the artist was to come up with a device that made the familiar seem strange. The ‘strangeness’ sets our brain a challenge, and the process of dealing with it is engaging – not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one too… In Possession, Żuławski made a marital breakdown ‘strange’ by showing ‘the horror’ – this was not Scenes from a Marriage – it was something else.”–Daniel Bird

“Nothing wants to bite anymore – they want to lick.”– Andrzej Zulawski, from the Possession commentary track.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Heinz Bennent, Margit Carstensen, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton

PLOT: Mark, an agent for some unspecified agency, returns home to his wife, Anna, and son in Berlin only to find that Anna has taken a lover. She splits her time between her home and her lover; however, Mark still wants her, causing extensive conflict between them. He uncovers a previous affair with a man named Heinrich, but she also left him for another—and finding the identity of her current lover leads to mayhem and a rising body count.

Still from Possession (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Andrzej Zulawski conceived Possession in the wake of several events—the collapse of his marriage to actress Małgorzata Braunek after being allowed to return to Poland from exile after the international success of 1975’s The Most Important Thing Is To Love, and the subsequent production and shutdown of On The Silver Globe and his second exile from Poland.
  • Zulawski originally pitched the film to Paramount Studio head Charlie Bluhdorn, calling it “a movie about a woman who f**ks an octopus.” They passed.
  • The film played at Cannes and Isabelle Adjani won “Best Actress,” sharing the award for her roles in both Possession and Merchant/Ivory’s Quartet.
  • The final film was chopped up by distributors. The U.S. release was notorious for being a total misrepresentation of the movie: the distributor removed about 40 minutes, reshuffled scenes, and added optical effects to play up and sell it as a horror movie. The Australian version made similar cuts. It wasn’t until 2000 that the original version was available to be seen in the U.S.
  • Possession was briefly released in the UK, but on videotape it was later banned as a “video nasty,” a classification intended for extreme horror films with no artistic merit.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film with many memorable images, mainly close-ups of the characters in various stages of mania, the one that sticks is of Adjani’s Anna being serviced by something coiled around her… and writhing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink socks; subway miscarriage; Anna’s lover

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It starts out as a domestic drama turned up to 11, which then goes up to 15. The intensity is compelling, especially when most other relationship films at the time went for quiet decorum. Possession throws all that right out the window. And then at the midway point, it drops the bottom out of expectations with the introduction of the Creature.


Possession international release trailer

COMMENTS: There seems to be no major disagreement about Possession joining a list of “weird” anything. The fur begins to fly in the interpretation, as in “WTF was THAT!?!?” As witnessed by Pamela De Graff’s List Candidate write-up for this site a few years ago, not everyone is going to love this film—but there should at least be some respect for it. And, in my opinion, unless one is aware of certain characteristics in Zulawski’s work, Possession will seem to be an incomprehensible mess.

Zulawski states in the DVD commentary that Possession is, at heart, a “story of a woman possessed, not living in the reality of the Communist regime and having a very strange affair,” and that it is rooted in autobiography. He has also mentioned in interviews that the film is a “fairy tale for adults.” In that respect, it’s very similar to what accomplished with Eraserhead, which was “a dream of dark and troubling things” and also had autobiographical elements. Possession is the Polish Eraserhead. Another parallel with Lynch is Zulawski’s description of the film as “a soap opera, pulled into another dimension,” which could also be applied to Lynch’s “Twin Peaks“—a work in some cases misunderstood, but much more successful with the public at large.

As with Lynch’s films, there’s the tendency of critics to want to overanalyze a film that doesn’t provide pat answers and leaves an audience to provide their own interpretations. So, this isn’t a strict analysis/breakdown of Possession—more like a signpost of items to help you enjoy your journey even more.

If you view Zulawski from his first feature film, and then the next, you can see patterns in the seeming chaos: there’s the sweeping camerawork (Bruno Nuytten’s work, aided with camera operator Andrzej Jaroszewicz) and the division/doubling motifs. In Possession the doubling starts in Berlin, which was a divided city at the time (the Berlin Wall is an omnipresent character here). There are several doublings in the characters: Anna and Helen (“bad” and “good”); Mark and a double appearing at the film’s end; and Mark and Anna at a point in the film switching their roles/behavior as Mark at one point seems to catch Anna’s”‘madness.” Even the title has dual meaning, and Anna encompasses both meanings.

What’s not mentioned as much as the hysteria and the creature are the film’s philosophical underpinnings. It is the tale of a marriage breaking up amidst many factors, some internal (which Anna states in the 8mm footage of her teaching a ballet class, and her soliloquy on the twin sisters of “Faith” and “Chance”), some external (the affair with Heinrich, Mark’s absences due to his job). And, like most fairy tales, some factors are visualized to the point of surrealism (the creature and its birth/externalization and transformation, or the mysterious organization that Mark works for).

In terms of the spiritual and political aspects, one reading could be that Anna externalizes her feelings due to living in that divided political climate. Another reading could also be that the occurrences are externalizations of her spiritual needs. In either case, the creature eventually morphs into an image of Mark by movie’s end, and essentially takes his place. By the end—which does appear to be the literal “End,” with the sounds of planes and bombs falling— Mark 2 and Helen are brought together, yet remain separated, just as Mark and Anna have been throughout the film.

possession-1981-still 2

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Possession starts on a hysterical note, stays there and surpasses it as the film progresses… Pic’s mass of symbols and unbridled, brilliant directing meld this disparate tale into a film that could get cult following on its many levels of symbolism and exploitation.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“… [it] has been described as ‘an intellectual horror film.’ That means it’s a movie that contains a certain amount of unseemly gore and makes no sense whatsoever.”–Vincent Canby, New York Times (1983, 80 minute version)

“There are plenty of movies which seem to have been made by madmen. ‘Possession’ may be the only film in existence which is itself mad: unpredictable, horrific, its moments of terrifying lucidity only serving to highlight the staggering derangement at its core.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out

IMDB LINK: Possession (1981)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Other Side of the Wall – Daniel Bird’s 60-minute documentary on the making of Possession

Possession (1981) – Official Trailer – The U.S. release trailer that makes Possession look like a standard horror film

Mondo Vision – Description of the Mondo Vision DVD/Blu-ray release, which contains a lot of incidental information about various cuts of the movie

The Projection Booth – Episode 167: Possession – Mike White, Frederic Tuten and Daniel Bird discuss Possession on the popular podcast

The Genre Mask – Daniel Bird considers Possession as a “genre” film for Electric Sheep

LIST CANDIDATE: POSSESSION (1981) – The original List Candidate write-up for this site, which became our most controversial review

DVD INFO: There have been various post-VHS releases of Possession, the first being an Anchor Bay DVD which fetched high prices when it went out of print, and has since been repackaged with ‘s Shock [AKA Beyond the Door II] (1977) as a “Drive-in Double Feature” (buy). In the last 6 years or so, there have been many overseas versions, both on DVD and Blu-ray… but for my money, the one to get is the long awaited Mondo Vision Blu-ray, in Special (buy) and Limited (sold out) editions. This is Mondo Visions’s first Blu-Ray, although subsequent releases will be in this format. It boasts a new HD transfer approved by the director (which was the reason it took years for this release to come to fruition) with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. This release also ports over the director’s commentary from the original DVD release (featuring Zulawski with Daniel Bird).

Extras include an hour long documentary, “The Other Side of the Wall: The Making of Possession“, by Bird, which includes interviews with Zulawski, co-writer Frederic Tuten, producer Marie-Laure Reyre and camera operator Andrzej Jaroszewicz (who worked with Zulawski on The Devil and On the Silver Globe). There’s also a more recent 35-minute interview with Zulawski and one with the French translator of Zulawski’s novels, Eric Veaux.

The limited edition release includes a CD of Andrzej Korzynski’s score, an 84-page booklet, art cards and reproductions of lobby cards, a Japanese movie flyer reproduction, a certificate of authenticity (2000 units of the Limited edition were produced), and comes in a beautiful custom slipcased box. If you aren’t interested in all the swag, the special edition includes the Blu-Ray disc, a 24-page booklet, and comes in a Digipak.

The UK Region B/2 Second Sight Blu-ray (buy) has no commentary track but boasts a few extras not on the Mondo Vision release, such as a second commentary with co-writer Frederic Tuten and interviews with the composer Andrzej Korzynski and poster artist Barbara Baranowska.

4 thoughts on “252. POSSESSION (1981)”

  1. Not much to add to El Rob’s perceptive review except a few personal recollections. #1, my “indelible image” is actually Adjani’s subway miscarriage, which is the single most deranged and hysterical performance I’ve ever seen by an actress. It stuck with me through the years even more than the creature reveal.

    #2, my initial reaction to the film was similar to the view Pamela gave in her controversial initial review of the film. I saw it on VHS in my 20s and I suspect it was a cut/reshuffled version. Still, the full-length director’s cut doesn’t boast “coherence and continuity” as its main selling point, so I’m not sure the bad cut was entirely responsible for my negative reaction. Though it’s hard to remember exactly why I had a bad impression of the film, I suspect the stylized melodramatic acting had a lot to do with it. Rewatching it years later, I appreciate the film much more—even like it—and there was never any doubt that it was weird enough to make this List. Possession was probably one of about 25 or so films I considered as forming a sort of core canon of this project from the very beginning.

  2. I could’ve sworn this was already in the list. Oh well.

    Agree 100% w/G. Smalley on his “indelible image”. Fifty years on, after I may have forgotten all about the film, I will ALWAYS remember Ms. Adjani’s subway freakout.

    Brrrr.

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