Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, now streaming on Shudder, is an exquisitely painful, impossibly intimate exploration of pain. It’s about uncertainty (indeed its first line is “What do you mean you don’t know?”), tracing the emotional apocalypses that can attend the end of a relationship with an inquisitor’s attention; a coroner’s curiosity. It’s the cinema of the intolerable; it goes about its business with a torturer’s persistence and imagination. I saw it in high school in the same month I first watched David Cronenberg’s The Brood: both came with the warning that they were “weird,” which is a description I associate now with challenging, active fare. You could say Possession is about a married couple breaking up because of infidelity, but that would very much be like saying Apocalypse Now is about Vietnam. Yes, but… I equate Possession with The Brood still now in my mind because both are about the psychic havoc, the florid and manifold indignity of divorce from ground zero to collateral caught in its blast radius, fallout, and if everything goes wrong, the threat of an endless nuclear winter. I came to these films at the right time in my life, I think, because when you’re a teenager going through your first loves, betrayals, reconciliations, and other relative devastations, losing your mind in the fires of love speaks particularly true. Before you’ve grown calloused and remote, every sensation is unbearably acute: cold air on skinned flesh. Possession is an open wound of a movie, an interpretive, avant garde dance that speaks in the visceral, non-literal language of the shapes in which pain manifest when it laces the body. It is one of one.
Mark (Sam Neill) is slight, aggrieved, a businessman (who is possibly a spy) retuned home from one of many trips, carrying the news that his beautiful, foreign wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) wants her freedom from him. Shot in the divided city of Berlin, Possession is loaded with possible interpretations. It’s haunted by the paranoia of the Cold War era, this painful, bloody, often inexplicable separation between two pisces of one whole is not just evocative of the physical reality of the Berlin Wall, but the metaphysical idea of an Iron Curtain. All of Possession operates simultaneously on at least those two levels: the real versus the illustrative metaphor; the legible, real world catalyst and the impressionistic explosion to follow. If The Brood is tied in my mind with Possession, so is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the sensation of pain when a lover tears your heart out is played out in physical dimensions.
In Possession, Mark learns that Anna has taken a lover, an affair that’s carried on for over a year, and he is humiliated. He asks Anna if her lover, Heinrich (Heinze Bennent) is better at sex (he is) and if she enjoys it more with him (she does). She doesn’t want to talk about it but in the agony of a recognizable self-destruction that is very much like a monk’s excoriation of the flesh, Mark in his offended astonishment has to know. Did they do it in this bed? Was Heinrich’s mother in the next room? Does Anna’s best friend Margit (Margit Carstensen) know? Is he there while Anna is talking with Mark on the phone? Each answer sends Mark deeper into his existential spiral. He’s the bull in the late stages of a bullfight, stung by dozens of barbs, made mad by pain and rage, and bleeding out except he’s the one who’s placed the stings — and he’s something less than a noble beast martyred to senseless ritual.
Mark tracks Heinrich down, only to find a man who is his physical and emotional superior: able to further humiliate Mark by beating hm soundly when Mark attacks him; a good and faithful son to an elderly mother; an attentive and patient lover for Anna who deserves it. When Mark imagines her in the arms of her lover, though, he sees her beneath a grotesquerie of flesh that makes her ecstasy an affront to nature. The first several times I saw Possession, my sympathies were entirely with Mark. There were few things harder for me to bear than the threat of infidelity. I was always on the side of King Arthur but as I’ve gotten older, I understand the struggle of Lancelot and Guinevere. Anna has been abandoned to be a single mother in a strange city by an ineffectual man more devoted to his job than to his family. Heinrich values her as more than babysitter and decoration. Mark’s behavior during the dissolution of their union speaks loudly to how he must have been even in happier times. He’s selfish, ridiculous, solipsistic. Anna wants a divorce. The only reason things escalate for both of them is Mark believes he’s the center of this story. Much of the horror of the first hour of Possession is his realization that there’s an entire universe full of events that don’t include him and people who aren’t concerned by him. Anna is a fully-formed human being without him? Unthinkable! And because we’re reared on a diet of entertainments that support the trope of the woman as embellishment for the male story, the idea of it is jarring to us as well. One valuable read of the film is as a Lacanian developmental phase allegory where a child first learns they’re not the center of the universe. This applies to Mark. It applies to the Marks we used to be, too, but hopefully aren’t anymore.
Mark starts looking worse, unkempt, unclean, disheveled. Understanding you are nothing is as hard a lesson as it is a necessary one, but Mark reacts to his diminishment by escalating his attempts to control Anna. He uses threats and intimidation and, finally, he uses his hands. Zulawski shoots Mark and Anna in opposition to one another — sitting at peculiar angles to one another, divided by features of the set like mirrored walls or breaks in a curved bench. The first time we see them in the small apartment they share with their kid, they’re segmented off in separate rooms like opposing tines of a dowsing rod. Roman Polanski did this very thing in Repulsion as his heroine loses her mind after suffering a sexual assault.
Just as Mark and Anna’s trauma is manifested in their behaviors, the first half of Possession expresses their divorce through their physical proximity to one another in an architecturally-segmented environment. Zulawski even has the couple fighting while Anna grinds meat in their tiny kitchen. Everything in the film is heightened, scored to machinery stripping its gears and screaming in anguish. Already harrowing, Possession for its last hour becomes an atrocity exhibition of escalating abominations. Murders by broken bottle and toilet tank lid, a suicide, a male fantasy of being the valiant hero who dies for his ladylove but we suspect it’s just what a disappointing man dreams in the last moments of his disappointing life. Mark becomes mirrored with his rival Heinrich as jilted men possessed by their sexual jealousy when Anna disappears; Anna is mirrored by the gentle, nurturing schoolteacher Helen (also Adjani) who is the male fantasy of the egoless helpmeet; and Anna takes on a monstrous demon lover that will eventually become an expression of the inexhaustibly virile, devotedly attentive version of Mark that she most desires. The final image of the film suggests the price for Anna getting this Mark is her own strength and independence. There are no happy endings in the affairs of men and women.
Possession is structured like a nightmare. It’s disjointed, leaping from memory to memory in abrupt cuts, and from moments of imagined peace to eruptions of fantastic violence. Time compresses and different versions of the same actions played out by different versions of the same people speak to how nothing is real and everything is subjective. An extended section in the middle where Anna, teaching a difficult position to a young ballerina, has Adjani staring directly into the camera as the child screams in pain. In Mark’s eye, Anna is the creator of pain. In Anna’s perspective, primary during her miscarriage in an abandoned subway tunnel, it’s Mark who’s the source of her torment. Adjani’s honesty is terrifying — a walking special effect so exposed it seems a miracle she wasn’t injured in the shooting of the film. Perhaps she was, as Zulawski confirms she attempted suicide immediately following the end of the production. Neill has said he’ll never go the places this film asked him to go again.
Possession is a film about the ultimate unknowability of the other. It’s a literalization through image of concepts, the film Hieronymous Bosch might have made. What would betrayal look like if it were physical? What would jealousy and anguish? It’s a work of profound mythology and religious insanity. Consider how the Bible gives shape and form to concepts of sin and damnation and so Possession is the definitive grimoire, the “necronomicon” (if you will) of Love in its death throes. It’s extraordinarily difficult to watch and it’s just as difficult to look away from. The more bizarre it gets, the more familiar it seems. It exists at the far corner of what is possible in this or any medium. Near the end Anna, crazed and in a moment of tenderness so unexpected it reads as threatening, asks Mark if he believes in God. I don’t. But I do believe in the Devil, and Possession is a warning of what happens when we don’t keep Him in check.
Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available.