by Ayeen Forootan Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Possession | Andrzej Zulawski

July 2, 2020

More comparable to Walerian Borowczyk than any other well-known Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Zulawski never really gained more than a dedicated cult following during his career. Even Possession, a disturbing classic of the horror genre, remains underappreciated by mainstream audiences. The film is set in West Germany, and similar to the state of that territory, divided from its Eastern neighbor by the Berlin Wall for nearly half of the twentieth century, Zulawski’s film is one built on alienation and disintegration. Its bizarre story follows a couple – Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) – situated within this unnerving context, an expression economically portrayed in an early shot exposing the matrimonial dislocation of its two primaries: they are framed within their apartment, their bodies separated by a thick wall at the center of Zulawski’s composition. The stage is set, but it is still some minutes before the film clues us in to Mark’s obsession with the suspected infidelity of his wife.

In this shot, it is made clear how Possession functions primarily on the relation between bodies and the spaces they occupy. The film is about the physical and psychological forces which can consume, and its visual and thematic palette seems to take cues from the brutal, British painter Francis Bacon, an evident source of inspiration for the director. The disrupted minds of the these characters soon begin to manifest in corporeal ways. Bodies malfunction and suggest the titular possession, moving freely out of their axes in disjointed and distressed choreography. Zulawski’s camerawork likewise reflects this disturbance, frequently employing irregular angles and jarring movement, at times even recalling the groundbreaking early camerawork of Orson Welles in service of more pure horror. But all of this mental and figural warping ultimately distills into a repeated gesture that proves crucial to the film: bodies begin to bang into the walls. Such an act not only reflects the historical and political context of the film but also fixes the characters as some version of enfants terribles. There is something primal, almost literally infantile, in this kinetic language: Mark’s empty, dispossessed rocking in a chair or when he curls himself into the fetal position on his bed. This act of violence can also be seen as a desire for rebirth or deliverance, a breaking through to some other side, an escape from confines. Perhaps no better culmination of these concerns can be found than in a remarkably disturbing miscarriage scene, Anna’s limp body wracking against the viscous, tubular walls of the subway station.

Zulawski contrasts all of these spatial and bodily boundaries with a recurrence of openness and its inherent promise of freedom that acts as a dark reminder of its absence. Cityscapes are depicted throughout in long, vacant shots. Characters frequently scream and shout, their shrieks leaving stretched mouths, a vastness found in these expressions of uncorked frustration and pain. And while Mark and Anna gradually, and separately, embark upon a deranged quest for identity and unity as an escape to their particular prisons, even the boundary between good and evil begins to slip; or rather, as Anna confesses to the camera in a bit of meta-ness: “Goodness is only some kind of reflection upon evil.” In this way, Zulawski radically extends the ambiguities of oneness and duality, good and evil, faith and chance by inserting doppelgangers for both Anna and Mark. In Possession‘s final moments, while the bleeding bodies of the pair wither toward peace, their doppelgangers are reborn: one as good-hearted babysitter Helen (also played by Adjani), the other as an actualized monster. The last scene suggests a terrifying eternity: the new Mark appears as a silhouette behind the glass door while the face of Helen teeters between a shimmering light and the dark. The sound of sirens, planes, and explosions continues the film’s potent atmosphere of inevitability as Mark and Anna’s son floats face down in a bathtub. Life will continue to repeat the particular bondage of battle – between beauty and the beast, love and madness, liberation and possession – without mercy, in perpetuity.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.