Possession (Zulawski, 1981)

I said in a recent blog post that for some (then) inexplicable reason, Zulawksi reminds me of Ruiz, reminds me of Has. Well, I take it back. Ruiz and Has, maybe. But after Possession (and recalling On the Silver Globe) Zulawski is a class of his own.

It’d be difficult for me to talk about Possession without using the words anarchic and hysteria, both of which I imagine I’ll use a lot in this post.

Sam Neill plays Mark, a man who returns to his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) after an indeterminate time and accuses her of an affair. All hell breaks loose.

For comparison sake, the anarchy that I’m talking about in Possession is reminiscent of something from Bertrand Blier. Or maybe Weekend. Or Repulsion. Definitely Eraserhead in a way. There’s even the absolute emotional craziness of some Bergman films, just less measured than those movies.

I think Eraserhead is a good comparison not only for the aforementioned, or the pervasive sense of doom, but also for the metaphor in each film. If Eraserhead is “about” the paranoia of fatherhood, then Possession is “about” the crisis of divorce. That’s the inciting incident and much of the rest of the film – a lot of it seen from Mark’s perspective – is about a man trying desperately to hold onto his wife, hold onto his sanity, hold onto his son, and just not let the world around him crumble in the wake of his own broken life.

Possession is remarkable for the sheer levels of hysteria reached in the performance. Another film would cut away, would be content to hit a few high notes and end the scene. Not this one. Zulawksi revels in extended scenes of screaming, self mutilation, and…more screaming. Some of these scenes go on for so long and are so well acted that they pass from seriousness to comedy back to seriousness and end in terror.

The last 15 minutes of the film are wild (and are what draw the Blier and Godard comparison for me). The world basically ends (that’s not a spoiler) in a pretty bullet-riddled, paint-blood, frenzied way. The film feels like it could have ended 10 minutes earlier than it does, so the denouement also feels a bit like an “f- you” to the viewer.Yeah, it provides some closure to an earlier, shady corporation scene, but neither are really that needed to make this film work. It feels like an add-on – a good one – as a justification for the complete chaos.

In case you were wondering, this is what the end of the world looks like:

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 7.26.28 PM

It’s actually a really pretty closing frame – one of many for Zualwaki. Much of the commotion is by this point off-screen. There’s a weird sensuality to this moment, and something quite eerie about the very deliberate, even soft attempt at a home invasion (that’s Mark – sort of – at the door, appearing to softly stroke his way inside).

That level of sensuality appears throughout the film. One of the funniest is when Mark encounters Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), Anna’s lover. Heinrich is all sex appeal: shirt open, too much touching, soft voice:

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 7.27.09 PM

That still kind of does the moment justice. It’s funny in how awkward it is, how close Heinrich gets, how tender he is, and how uncomfortable Mark is. I wonder if Zulawksi is also trying to make this more of a slap in the face – Anna’s lover is less stereotypically “a man” than Mark is.

Zulawski sure ain’t afraid to linger on shots and that goes a long way to accomplishing some serious discomfort. Like this shot-reverse between Anna and a crucified Jesus in a church:

The reverse high angle on Anna lasts for 23 seconds! After another cut back to Jesus Zulawski again cuts to Anna-

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 7.18.40 PM

-this time holding for 31 seconds! These reactions are so long. They allow Adjani to really play out her internal tension and simultaneously test the audience’s patience and points to something very wrong with the female lead.

That leads into a 3 minute scene (made up mostly of one very long take) that starts here-

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 7.22.54 PM

-and ends here:

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 7.24.05 PM

If nothing else, Possession ought to steer you pretty clear of a nasty divorce. All this and I didn’t even talk about the creature.


About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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One Response to Possession (Zulawski, 1981)

  1. Pingback: The Best Films of 2016 | dcpfilm

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