France – Germany 1981
‘I don’t make a concession to viewers, those victims of life, who think that a film is made only for their enjoyment, and who know nothing about their own existence.’
This is a bold statement from Polish director Andrzej Żulawski.
No doubt some of the victims will walk away from his movies, not as convinced of his independent genius as Żulawski appears to be. But movies need the occasional madmen. Lars Von Trier and David Lynch have both been embarrassing but they make great movies.
Despite what the director thinks about his unique purpose, Possession is not a masterpiece or even a great film. Unlike the work of Von Trier and Lynch it reminds you of the work of other people. The early section has the atmosphere of The Trial by Orson Welles. Possession, though, lacks the visual imagination that exists in that film. The influence of Antonioni is also obvious. Tense sterile conversations amongst strangers contrast with the hysterical arguments of the intimate. The emotional peaks of Possession are its highpoint.
No one can accuse Possession of lacking ambition. It mixes domestic conflict, male anxiety, metaphysics, theology and nihilism. Because of the power of some scenes, the film is essential viewing. At its worst, though, the movie is embarrassing. To have leaden instructional dialogue and somehow be obscure does reveal genius but not of the kind that Żulawski imagines. Żulawski ignores what Lynch, Antonioni, Von Trier and Michael Haneke all understood. Films are not like novels. Tilts towards profundity cannot be done by the auteur alone. In the cinema the profound requires the imagination of the audience, the victims that Żulawski regards with contempt. And nothing encourages an audience to be imaginative like the veil and careful construction. Lynch, Antonioni, Von Trier and Michael Haneke may be bold but they all accept the need for ambiguity. They know not what to say. Orson Welles is different. He resists restraint but, like Elvis in rock and roll, he is a capable show-off and we indulge him.
Possession consists of various themes and, although some sections are exceptional and make the film essential viewing, they do not overlap well. The result contains thematic failure. The existence of different narratives or ambitions within the film has led some critics to say the film is about division. Perhaps but much of the film insists on connectedness. There is simultaneous conflict and curiosity, and the desires of the hidden monster embrace all. The Berlin Wall, which can be seen from the flat of the married couple whose drama dominates the film, is a symbol of division but it also signifies curiosity and the connection of those in conflict.
A director, who wants to help us understand our existence, assuming that this is a valid ambition that can be realised, has an obligation to structure. He will also need to highlight his themes with something other than absurd dialogue. That may be me sounding like just another ‘victim’ in the audience but most of us have this odd sense of entitlement and we value an aesthetic experience. Neither do we lack curiosity about our existence.
D H Lawrence mixed social realism, metaphysics and existentialism but not in the same book. Lawrence understood male insecurity and the domestic world of the working class. Many Britons and me saw our society differently after reading his masterpiece Sons And Lovers. Later Lawrence misunderstood the dialectical power of exceptional art, assumed he was really clever and began to preach. The great talent became a conceited windbag, and the rest of us soon became bored. The statement Żulawski makes about victims implies that he thinks his worth consists of his merit as a thinker. Talent is more important than IQ for successful movies and books. An artist can lift the scales from the eyes of ‘the victims in the audience’ but not without craftsmanship and guile. At their best Antonioni and Haneke are masters of sly suggestion.
Possession has three main elements. These are the collapse of a marriage, the exposure of male and female anxiety that follows and what is our relationship to God and existence. Żulawski may be obscure but he is not subtle. His willingness to confront and expose helps him to capture domestic disturbance and male vulnerability. The anger in the relationship of the husband and wife is raw and brutal. The honesty in these confrontational scenes is accurate and will make viewers flinch. Anybody who has gone through a painful divorce will know that a warring couple can alternate extreme cruelty with compassion and tenderness. Emotions rule, and none of it makes sense. While the parents flail on the other side of the abyss, their small child sits alone in the other room, an ignored victim. After the glib advice from agony aunts that separated couples should try and remain friends for the sake of the children, Possession offers uncomfortable realism. In these circumstances there is no common sense. All you can hope is that people recover.
The film is also honest about male jealousy. Male competence and power are no insurance against loss and sexual betrayal. When the male lover and husband meet, they are tactile, curious about each other. Both are disturbed by being members of a ‘vulgar triangle’ that is defined by a woman that neither of them understands. Each man touches the body of the other, thinking that perhaps their identity has changed and includes what has been a previously invisible entity.
The entity that really disturbs is the monster on the bed in the secret apartment that the wife uses as a retreat. The monster is impressive and compares well to modern CGI creations. Halfway through the film the monster appears to represent the male aggressors that insecure men think have inexplicable power over the women that they need. Such men can release the devil inside the woman that the insecure male loves.
Both the wife and the schoolteacher are played by Isabelle Adjani. The face remains the same but she changes her hair and contact lenses. We marry someone we think we know and divorce a stranger. The breakdown of a relationship raises doubts about what we may mean to each other and whether our understanding of each other has consequence or if we are just mysteries that bump in the night. Using Adjani for two parts may have been a response to Bunuel who once used two actresses to play one character. He called his film The Obscure Object Of Desire.
If Żulawski had settled for that, the film would have not been short of ambition. Żulawski would have been pitching his talent against a great avant-garde filmmaker. We could have spent the rest of our lives pondering the hidden meanings of Possession, as we might with a film by Haneke and Von Triers. Such ambition, though, is not sufficient for this particular genius.
When the husband meets the schoolteacher of his son, they soon talk philosophical mumbo jumbo. This is followed by conversations between the husband and lover about God. These are embarrassing but, worse, Heinrich the lover looks and acts like Barry White would if he was slim, white and German. It is difficult to know what weighs him down more, his philosophical doubts or his missing medallion. These musings suggest that because we are afraid of an unknowable God we all terrify each other. Maybe this is why in relationships we need constant assurance.
Like the husband, Heinrich is rejected by the wife. She has found a new lover, the horrific creature. The creature may be gruesome but at least he is medallion free. If the monstrous creature is God, then we have an alternative horror version of the birth of his son. This final element in the picture is not without interest. We are obliged to consider the myth of a woman chosen by God to give birth to his celestial relative as unpleasant and sadistic. Much, though, has gone before and the elements jar. The ending is not a breakthrough in philosophical thought but extravagant whimsy.
Any film that exposes raw vulnerability and pitches its characters into a metaphysical hinterland in the way that Possession does has to make demands on the actors. Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill are at times unrecognisable as their emotions touch extremes and their identities are threatened. Adjani received the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival of 1981 for her marathon performance as the wife. No doubt Sam Neill recognised the effort and talent. Part of him, though, must have thought that this is the woman who has betrayed me with not only a middle-aged German disco dancer but also a monster and even God.
For a while the film was classified as a ‘video nasty’. Censors work for those who have power. Possession is not violent but subversive. In the United States the film was cut by 27 minutes. This edited version is no longer available. It is doubtful whether this editing improved the film but within Possession there is a good perhaps remarkable film, hidden in untidy surroundings similar to the shabby apartment that houses the creature that exists to terrify us all. We may be victims but we are also mysteries. And that entitles audiences to respect.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.