Thursday Editor’s Pick: Possession (1981)

by on December 5, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing thru Tue Dec 13 at 2:00, 4:30, 7:00, 9:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

Best film still ever?


Film Forum makes a refreshingly off-the-wall long-run choice with a new print of the uncut (originally released in the States in a shameful 86-minute hack job), uncensored version of Andrzej Zulawski’s crazed masterpiece. Definitely don’t miss!


J. Hoberman
for the Village Voice:

The phrase “over the top” doesn’t begin to characterize Polish director Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 Possession. Made with an international cast in still-divided Berlin, the movie starts as an unusually violent breakup film, takes an extremely yucky turn toward Repulsion-style psychological breakdown, escalates into the avant-garde splatterific body horror of the ’70s (Eraserhead or The Brood), and ends in the realm of pulp metaphysics as in I Married a Monster From Outer Space. Possession is not a movie you can easily scrape off the bottom of your shoe, particularly in the complete two-hour version that is having its belated local premiere this week.


Zulawski seems to have subjected his actors to the sort of intense physical and psychological regimen associated with theatrical guru Jerzy Grotowski. Isabelle Adjani, crowned best actress at Cannes, gives the performance of a lifetime—a veritable aria of hysteria… Not without a political subtext (made by a Polish exile during the year of martial law), Possession is at once a dread-inducing ordeal, a bloody arabesque, and a swooning celebration of Adjani’s long, cloaked form in perpetual motion. The convulsive action reaches its peak, if not its dramatic climax, in the near-real-time scene in which, famously directed to “fuck the air,” contortionist Adjani bounces off the walls of an underground passage, hemorrhaging bloody goo from every orifice. A movie that has to be seen to be believed, Possession is like Rambaldi’s creature: It isn’t necessarily good, but it is most definitely something.



Michael Atkinson in his book Exile Cinema:

Zulawski’s first film after his heartbreaking expatriation and perhaps his most wrathful, included a Carolis Rimbaldi monster that – conveniently, for some – ghettoized the movie as fantasy explotation. What it is is a Petite Guignol plunge into marital fracture. Two years after Cronenberg’s The Brood, Zulawski mutates this taboo-busting scenario from an expression of biological rage to the acute manifestation of crushed romantic dream. Eventually, the tentacled thing grows into a simulacrum of Neill, into a man perfectly formed around the needs of his woman and child. Attaining the screaming pitch of an emergency Caesarean section, Possession doesn’t soft-pedal its horror for the sake of its metaphor, which is easily obscured by the discomfiting bedlam. In fact, the grisly glimpses of Rimbaldi’s hippogriff aren’t nearly as upsetting as the ravenous pas de deux of is protagonists, who come close to simply sinking their canines into each other’s throats.



L. Caldoran for Cinespect:

If the plotline of Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession” were to be condensed into a tabloid-ready headline, it might read: Serial Killer Wife Leaves Secret Agent Husband For Tentacled Manifestation of Her Loss of Faith. The 1981 film, subject of a week-long revival at Film Forum, may initially come off as impenetrably bizarre thanks to its genre melding of absurdist satire, murder mystery, (often literal) kitchen-sink melodrama, psychological horror, and Cold War conspiracy thriller. But it’s thanks to this risk-taking that “Possession” serves as precursor to later down-the-rabbit-hole marital-jealousy films such as “Lost Highway,” complete with use of doubles and a mysterious home movie left on the husband’s doorstep.


“Possession”’s tonal shifts and near-camp hysterical excesses can take some getting used to—and a vague subplot regarding religious faith is frankly not integrated very well. It is, however, a film that rewards repeated viewings to cut through the density and intensity, allowing the viewer to hone in on thought-provoking statements such as “goodness is only some kind of reflection upon evil” and further unravel the characters’ motives.


“Possession” is honest enough to depict the emotional extremes of passion and conflict experienced during a breakup, yet self-aware enough to acknowledge how histrionic and ridiculous such squabbles can appear to outside observers. It’s both uncomfortably candid and deeply cynical. And with its blood-and-gasoline-drenched apocalyptic ending, “Possession” joins the recent “Melancholia” in portraying the sense that it must be the literal end of the world simply because it feels that way.



Keith Uhlich for Time Out New York:

There are marriages on the rocks and then there’s the fever-pitch nonbliss between Mark (Neill) and Anna (Adjani) in this head-spinning masterpiece from Poland’s Andrzej Zulawski (That Most Important Thing: Love). Mere seconds after the unhappy couple reunites outside their Berlin apartment—Mark has been away on some undisclosed bit of business—they’re already at each other’s throats about abandoned responsibilities and purported infidelities. Their bleating would be the frenzied climax of a good many movies, but Zulawski, whose own divorce reportedly inspired this gaping-wound Rorschach blotch, is out to shatter any and all conventional expectations.


Prepare yourself: Things only get crazier as Mark is consumed by jealous rage, and the manic Anna retreats to a decrepit apartment, where something literally monstrous is gestating. Doppelgängers materialize, Mark has several hilarious run-ins with a spastic karate-chopping horndog, and Anna has a subway-tunnel seizure of such bat-shit intensity that it surely helped solidify Adjani’s Best Actress win at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. Possession incorporates more and more fantastical elements as it goes on—such as a spectacular goo-and-gore-covered creature built by E.T. designer Carlo Rambaldi—but the story somehow remains rooted in the harsh realities of human experience. That the film is much more than a gawk-at-it freak show is testament to Zulawski’s talent for making even the most exaggerated behavior resonate with pointed and potent emotion.



Victor Galstyan for Senses of Cinema:

A celluloid canvas of such intense emotional torment that it can effectively act as a two-hour advertisement about the inescapable dangers of marital union.


It is in many ways a classic melodrama – an “inhibited soap opera”. What makes Possession so unique is that it dares to let go of logistical barriers, accentuating the bareness of emotions that are exposed for us to see like bleeding wounds. This is reflected in Zulawski’s direction of his actors. Adjani and Neill seem to be in a state of cataclysmic seizure for most of the film: their bodies are in constant and aimless movement, lurching and jerking as if trying to exorcize some unspeakable evil. Of course, the pay-off is that Adjani does exorcise the darkness within in the form of a slimy, tentacled monster courtesy of Carlo Rimbaldi.


Brunno Nuytten’s amazing cinematography, with its astonishing pre-steadycam, handheld camerawork and a palette of blues and greens, perfectly captures the rotting and diseased atmosphere of Zulawski’s hermetic universe. Also notable is the pulsating score by the wonderful Polish composer Andrzej Korzynski, which plays like a demented death march and manages to be terrifying without a single violin around. After many years in near obscurity, Zulawski’s œuvre is slowly being rediscovered by new audiences who may be responding to his curiously moralistic (or Catholicist) brand of anarchy. And whether one likes looking into Zulawski’s imploding crystal ball or not, one has to admire his courage for consistently beating his own cinematic drum in this most undemocratic of arts.



Budd Wilkins for Slant:

A high-concept laundry list can be a bit misleading, however; Zulawski’s sensibilities are most assuredly his own, and Possession bears its maker’s unmistakable stamp. From film to film, regardless of the works’ generic pigeonholing, Zulawski tends toward the psychodramatic of a particularly philosophical, even metaphysical and theological, bent. Surrealism has left its imprint on his temperament in a fashion similar to fellow countryman Roman Polanski. Both employ dreamlike imagery and black comedy, though effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi’s creature design owes more to H.R. Giger than anyone in its melding of the polymorphous, phallic, and purulent. Since Possession‘s release in 1981, critics have encountered enormous difficulty with its classification. Sudden bursts of bloody violence and slimy creature effects indicate a proximity to the horror genre; the finale with its car chases, explosions, and shootouts seems to parody an action film; other affinities have already been noted. What’s most striking is that Zulawski embeds an extremely personal narrative, reflecting his own recent breakup with actress Malgorzata Braunek, in the midst of this eclectic hybridization.

Many directors have taken full advantage of Adjani’s exotic, ethereal French beauty; only Zulawski saw beyond the exquisite surface to something unsettling. Most disconcerting is the way Adjani can register almost demonic ill-intent while never losing some trace of the alluring. Then there’s the astounding scene in a subway station: Having just left a church where she whimpered and silently pleaded for some kind of surcease from a crucified Christ, Anna goes into full freak-out mode, smashing her grocery bag against the wall and then writhing and flailing around in the congealing liquids and foodstuffs, before going into mock labor (or maybe it’s one of those epileptiform seizures), adding menstrual blood to the fluidic equation.



Maitland McDonagh for Film Journal International:

Positioned as a horror movie upon its initial U.S. release (in a truncated version), this delirious psychodrama — imagine Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by way of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist— still defies classification and will polarize viewers as thoroughly as it did 30 years ago.


The first half of Possession is peculiar and the second half is bizarre, but it all makes emotional sense; you don’t have to know Andrzej Zulawski wrote it while going through what must have been the mother of all breakups to recognize the emotional rawness and irrational behavior, even after the narrative runs amok. Because here’s the thing: People do go crazy when relationships go bad. Murder, mutilation and literal monster spawning are the nightmarish faces of character assassination, financial destruction and the psychologically damaging use of children as weapons—not too subtle, but potent. And I venture to say that if Possession had opened in an art house it 1981, it would have been accorded the same reception as Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. But grindhouse audiences could spot an art-house movie slumming as horror and stayed away in droves, while most critics—of the few who saw it—dismissed it as trash with pretensions.


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