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Movie Review: Zulawski’s POSSESSION

The first complete American retrospective of the polish director Andrzej Zulawski just kick-started with a presentation of his 1981 Possession by the Cinefamily in Los Angeles in the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax. The event is presented in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute New York. This is indeed a rare opportunity to see new 35mm print in all its gory, fever-pitched glory. The screenings go on through the end of April. BAMcinématek in New York is presenting a parallel showing.


It might be the easy way out to label this exploitation cinema, and let teenagers raised on CGI laugh at the octopus-like monster, that lives in the restroom and flails around the bed sheets, covered in blood (as realized by Carlo Rambaldi, E.T. creator, who also worked on Alien special effects, or later Dune). Even if we chalk up the movie’s attendance to this brief tentacle erotica reference, the viewing experience goes well beyond the gimmicks.


The excess is naturally intentional. Nothing happens randomly, without substantiation. The shock value is calculated. One must give serious thought to the hints dropped along the lines, like pieces of a puzzle. While violence and psychological unraveling of two protagonists play out prominently, there is political dissent happening in the peripheral vision. The film was filmed in West Berlin, and Mark (Sam Neill’s character) is frequently gazing out the window of his apartment, staring at the Berlin Wall. It’s right there, topped with barbed wire. Is he watching the sentry change? What is his job, exactly?


Clearly, he has been following someone, spying on somebody. “The subject” wears pink socks we are informed, curiously in the form of a question. This very person then appears later to share with Mark an eerie unexplained conversation about a dying dog. It has been a topic occurring in Mark’s life more and more frequently, as the plot thickens, foreshadowing his own demise. His childhood pet crawled under a porch to die. He crawled after it to see what compelled the dog to do so. We watch an image of a dog that was shot like dog, it seems. The corpse is floating in some stagnant water near the Wall, interrupted with an abrupt cut to an armed guard. Is morbid curiosity of a child the subject of the conversation, or is Mark cautioned here?


I might talk about the infamous sequence, where Isabelle Adjani is threshing in a subway as if in a trance, and dismiss it as over the top. Many do. In 1983 New York Times outright questioned Adjani’s Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1981. The late Vincent Canby had no kind words to spare for the film. Still, when the viewer is so surprised by the grotesque and the absurd, the hysterical laughter can be accepted as a catharsis. This is Zulawski recovering from his own divorce, transcribing the experience onto a desolate empty city landscape. Perhaps the camp is not so campy, at a second glance.


Isolation of modern existence is captured skillfully. There is something otherworldly about how we live our lives, married existence being the epitome of seclusion from the rest of the world, an insular experience, with small tip-toes into the world where food is bought, where the child is dropped off for schooling, where a business meeting is conducted. The only thing supposed to be really real is “family.” The term resounds, as Mark is trying to persuade Anna to abandon her lover. You do it over the phone, he tells her, he is not your “family,” we are. A viewer may understand why some breakups are done using post-it notes.


It really could have been but a psychological drama, spare, with beautiful cold color scheme: the beige trousers Sam Neill is wearing, the striking blue dress on Isabelle Adjani, the grey sidewalks, and always the grey sky that look like it’s just about to rain. First, there is the suspicion. Then, there is the questioning. The mistrust turns into rummaging through her belongings, only to find a confirmation. Finally, she fesses up. “Have you been fateful?” she asks in response to accusations. “Not exactly” is his answer.


Zulawski captures the self-doubt of the jilted. Mark wonders just how great this new lover is, eaten up by jealously, only to discover a laughable aging drug addict who mumbles incoherently about god – “whatever that means to you.” No, this man is not superior. So, “why” remains the central question. What petrifies, is the inability to comprehend the choices of the people we care about. Can you really fully know anyone?


At one point, Mark watches footage of Anna, in order to perhaps understand their untoward marital union. As she abuses a ballet student, Anna explains that she is pushing the girl, because the pupil has no will of her own to be the best. She proceeds to state she is with Mark, because he pushes her the same way. Once he turns violent and punches her till her mouth bleeds as she tries to talk, maybe it’s only the articulation of their existing relationship. The insanity is insidious; it creeps in subtle gradation. One is left to wonder whether there was a specific moment when it all went to hell, or were they doomed from the start.


The key to viewing this film perhaps lies in the most neglected, marginal element. Bob. Bob is the child, that is left alone in an empty flat for days, while his mother is visiting a lover, and his father is recovering from a delirium, as though going through some sort of a drug withdrawal. Bob is hungry, skinny, and filthy; the place is a mess. He is then handed over to a family friend first, later to his teacher. He needs tucking in, but nobody is doing the tucking. His home is turned into a battleground, his tiny clothes are strewn about, and everything is piling up: the anger, the anxiety, and the dirty dishes. Bob is trying to set the record in holding his breath underwater, like many children do. But, at the very least, when he throws himself into a tub fully clothed, one must understand this is his safe place. Where sounds are distorted, where arguments don’t sound real. This is the real terror that is taking place. Maybe this whole time we were watching from the perspective of a child, whose parents are replaced by monsters and strangers. They look like his family but are not really them.


I was taken back to The Tenant (1976) by the scene where Mark, who is badly wounded, drags himself up a staircase. He cannot escape police who are following him, and so he throws himself over the railing and plummets to his death. I thought it was a joke of sorts, considering Adjani starred in both movies. There is also the common element of a doppelgänger. Except here it is meant to be comical. I think farcical elements were introduced throughout the movie to generate the eerie feeling of “I cannot believe this is happening.” It mimics the epiphany one might have in the middle of an argument with the person they thought they loved so much, they wouldn’t mind changing their diaper when he or she grows old. Sure, the film is overwrought nervously, extreme in many ways. But so is a life falling apart.


One can choose to watch it as a dark comedy. For example, Heinrich is nothing if not funny. The two detectives and their clumsy investigative methods are also beyond silly. It’s just that the evil look in Sam Neill’s eye, the twisted hostile mouth, that is not overacting at all. A lover suddenly hell-bent on destroying you, on hurting you, there is the real line drawn between the slapstick and the horror. No matter what your personal preferences are, Zulawski certainly is courageous and unconventional. As audiences we should be so lucky.

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The Author

Tatiana Sulovska

Tatiana Sulovska

Tatiana recently left LA for NYC, thus suddenly pizza became pie and freeway congestion was swapped for subway delays. This had no effect on her film preferences. Her heart belongs to art house cinema. All time favorites: My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant), The Mirror (Tarkovsky), Drowning by Numbers (Greenaway). She is currently pursuing a J.D., holds a graduate degree in international relations, worked as a journalist, accounting manager, and interpreter.