When a film gets labelled as a cult movie it usually means that the film doesn’t have a great reception on its initial release. It could have been badly reviewed but actually misunderstood, just plain bad or even banned upon its release. The most famous example of banned cult filmmaking is represented most starkly in the list of ‘video nasties’ which were titles banned from release in the UK for their gratuitous violence or dark thematic content by the sensitive 70s and 80s BBFC. Some of these were trash with titles like Driller Killer (1979, Dir. Abel Ferrara) or Cannibal Holocaust (1980, Dir. Ruggero Deodato). However other titles have gained huge popularity partially helped by the infamy of the list, films like The Evil Dead (1981, Dir. Sam Raimi) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Dir. Tobe Hooper) later being recognised as hugely competent and important examples of genre filmmaking.
Now, Possession (1985, Dir. Andzrej Zulawski) was one of these ‘video nasties’ and having seen it I can perhaps understand why it wasn’t received by a conservative ratings agency with open arms. Not an easily digestible 2 hours this one, but for sure a worthwhile one. The film has intrigued me for a long time and after finally watching it I have to say that this is one that if you enjoy extreme filmmaking, this is a must watch. Following the breakdown of his marriage Andrzej Zulawski embarked on a project that no doubt just added fire to the flames of his already messy divorce. Think Polanski and his response to the murder of his wife in through the violence of his Macbeth (1971, Dir. Roman Polanski). Zulawski is channeling similarly bleak feelings, screaming at the top of his lungs about his divorce.
Sam Neill plays Mark, a man sent back from a mysterious mission and it soon becomes clear that he has successfully and almost totally isolated himself from his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) who has been caring for their son in his absence. The details of his mission or his job are never fully explained and honestly I’m not sure it matters that much, what does matter is that Anna has cheated on Mark in his absence. This is news that neither of them seem very well equipped to deal with as soon the screaming starts. No sooner has Mark found out the infidelity than he is smashing up a café and holing up in a hotel room for 3 weeks on a crazy marital problem bender. The hysteria of the film really is both its strongest suit and also is its least palatable, what will turn off a huge amount of viewers. Watching Possession in light of having seen last year’s deeply divisive Mother! (2017, Dir. Darren Aronofsky) you really understand exactly where he was looking for inspiration. Aronofsky does in that film a pretty decent impression of the extremity of expression that Zulawski nails in Possession. Divorce and marital strife are examined by Zulawski in broad strokes with neither the husband nor the wife being without blame for the events of the film.
To describe exactly what happens past the set-up is mute as the film is not ultimately about plot in plain terms. The couple go nuts in the first 10 minutes and only become more unhinged and extreme as the runtime counts down to the explosive final act. This is not to say that the whirlwind of emotions that the film expresses are done in an amateur way, it may be the most overwrought apocalyptic vision of this kind of story that you may ever see but Zulawski handles it all in his stride. He and DOP Bruno Nuytten swirl the camera around the action of the film with deft Steadicam and handheld photography only adding to the disorientation. The film is almost never still with almost every conversation being done in frantic movement with the camera following or preempting each movement almost working as a supernatural third character in the story. The virtuosity of the camerawork comes to a head perhaps the most well-known scene in the film. Set in an underground station walkway Isabelle Adjani’s justifies her Cannes best actress award in spectacular form. Her characterisation of her sheer descent into complete madness is almost balletic, the camera creeps around her as she throws herself around the harsh artificially lit space. The power of her performance is really crystallised in this scene and her commitment to the role is extraordinary, she seems to completely sink into he madness of the film and is powerfully effective in remaining a figure of shuddering possession and brutality throughout. I may seem hyperbolic in my reading of her turn but it really can’t be understated, it is very rare you see an actor commit in the way Adjani here does.
Andrzej Zulawski here places himself amongst the best examples of extreme filmmaking with his nightmare of marital problems and cart-wheeling madness, a truly brilliant piece of underrated European filmmaking. See this if you can stomach it.
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