music friday: 35 years ago today
once more with feeling

possession (andrzej zulawski, 1981)


That first word isn't meant to imply that Possession is a great movie, or even a good one. But see it once, and you won't forget it.

It's so hard to pigeonhole the movie that the best description I've seen has J. Hoberman of the Village Voice essentially throwing up his hands:

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.

The violent breakup all by itself is so intense it is often hard to sit through. Isabelle Adjani plays Anna, an unhappy wife married to Sam Neill's Mark. "Unhappy" doesn't really get it, though ... "possessed" is a better word for what Anna is going through, although it takes a long time for Zulawski to get to what that might actually mean. Adjani is one of France's most honored actresses ... she has won five César Best Actress awards, a record (the Césars are the French equivalent of the Oscars ... she has two Oscar nominations as well). She got her first César for Possession, and it's easy to see why. The part is over the top, and she plays it to the hilt ... you can't take your eyes off of her, for better or worse. She's extreme, which isn't necessarily excessive ... Anna is extreme. Next to Adjani, Sam Neill can only look astonished, which is also appropriate for the part.

I expected an incoherent film, which wasn't the case. Zulawski starts in the middle, and doesn't concern himself much with hand-holding, even when the plot turns fantastical. But mostly he runs right past any notion of coherence, just making sure there is never a dull moment, even if it is occasionally incoherent.

Adjani really is amazing, but at a price ... she has said that playing Anna took a long time to get over, and there are rumors that she tried suicide (rumors encouraged by Zulawski, who almost seems proud of the fact). Your opinion of her performance in Possession will depend in large part on how much you appreciate this kind of acting.

The U.S. release was botched ... it's hard to pin down the facts, but about 40 minutes of the 124-minute film were cut, and other changes were made. This made a film which was already complicated into something incomprehensible, and it was pounded by critics. Time has been kinder ... it is now #611 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Here is the most famous scene from the film. I'd give a Spoiler Alert, but I'm not sure a movie like this can be hurt by spoilers. (Directing the scene, Zulawski helped told Adjani to "fuck the air".)


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