Over the last few years — since a new 35mm print began circulating in the United States, first at festivals and career retrospectives (starting with New York’s aptly named Hysterical Excess) and eventually filtering down to repertory houses around the country –- Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION has gained a lot of very enthusiastic new fans, who relish the ferocious intensity, feverish grotesquerie, and absolute singularity of Zulawski’s vision. This is one of the strangest films you are likely to see this side of the post-narrative, experimental avant-garde. So it’s not surprising to see it turn up as a midnight movie this weekend at the Coolidge, just one week after the same treatment was accorded to VIDEODROME (1981), another film to which all of the above adjectives could be fairly applied.
But while VIDEODROME — for all of its fuddling, exhilarating confusions of epistemology and narrative time — can be understood as a kind of cautionary nightmare about the interpenetration of humanity and its media-machines, POSSESSION is a much more narrowly personal work. It’s “about” a divorce – Zulawski’s real-life divorce from his real-life (ex)wife. The film opens in a relatively straightforward melodramatic mode: we are introduced to Anna and Mark (played by Isabelle Adjani, glaring, and Sam Neill, all but frothing) — a young and beautiful married couple living with their small child, Bobby, in a West Berlin apartment overlooking the Wall — right at the moment when their marriage comes apart. To the accompaniment of a series of screaming matches, Mark suspects Anna’s infidelity, confirms it, and moves out, spending the next three weeks cowering in bed alone, brooding, losing the ability to speak, and growing a nice beard. His hard-core grieving done, he snaps out of his fugue, has a quick shave (first things first), and heads out to vanquish Anna’s lover and effect a reunion.
All of the above is distinguished almost exclusively — and it’s not nothing; in fact it’s a hell of a thing –- by the spellbindingly total commitment of the leads, who bring a quality of deranged obsessiveness to dialogue and thematic material that wouldn’t be out of place in ten out of ten soap operas. You might have the strong impression at this point – I know I did – that you could be watching a bad film. A hilariously bad film, marked by incredibly brave performances. And although it’s rarely, if ever, mentioned in the proliferating encomia produced by POSSESSION’s growing cult following, you may never fully shed that impression. I know I didn’t.
But it’s never boring. Even (especially?) at its most preposterous, POSSESSION’s mad momentum is sustained both by the aforementioned performances and by Zulawski’s signature visual style, a frenzy of hyper-kinetic camera work, plunging close-ups and dizzying edits that serves to further aggravate an atmosphere already charged with frayed nerves. And after Mark meets, threatens, and receives an artfully martial head-bashing from Anna’s lover Heinrich, the film descends into the deeply weird territory for which midnight movie screenings were made.
Suffice it to say that in an abandoned apartment in the apparently unpopulated neighborhood of Kreuzberg, Anna is pursuing her true love, a lover who won’t drive her crazy, and he is neither Mark nor Heinrich, nor anyone else, not exactly, at least not yet. You might say she’s fashioning her true love out of spare parts she’s culled from them, from others, and above all, from her own needs and desires. In the movie’s most famous scene, thanks to which Adjani won the Best Actress award at Cannes, and for the duration of which you are likely to shake your head in awe, disgust, hilarity and horror, Anna gives birth, as if performing a particularly novel variation on a Frankensteinian theme, to a new animal, a slimy and tentacular animal — which, as it grows through subsequent scenes, will both come to know her carnally (okay, THAT may be the movie’s most famous scene) and come to replace, in every sense, her husband Mark, whose body is snatched and rehatched.
But what, you might ask, about Bobby, her beloved but neglected son? All I can say is, don’t hold your breath. And don’t open that door. POSSESSION is a shrieking vertigo about dispossessed people in the throes of a nervous breakup, trying to force the world into an order they can live with even as they cave into the disorder that they are. For you it’ll be two hours of harrowing fun. Go have it.
5/16 & 5/17 – Midnight
Coolidge Corner Theatre
290 Harvard St