Saturday, April 06, 2013
Imagine you’re a highly respected director, albeit one working under the strictures of state censorship. You’ve poured two years of your life and all of your creative endeavours into an epic science fiction movie. So epic that it’s going to boast a running time of three and a half hours. So epic that it’s the biggest budgeted movie ever to come out of your home country. Imagine that it’s almost in the bag when the Minister for Fucking Over Artistic Endeavours (or whatever title the shitty little apparatchik is glorying in) decides on a complete whim that your film is contentious. Before you know what’s happening, the production’s been shitcanned, the sets torn down and burned and even the motherfucking costumes have been buried in fucking big hole in the middle of nowhere. You’re left sans film, there’s a very real possibility that your career is over, and the powers that be have marked your card as a dissident.
That’s a pretty grim scenario, right? Now imagine, on top of all this, that your marriage disintegrates and your home is snatched away from you as brutally as your film was. I’m guessing that you’d be a tad pissed off. You’d be pissed off at the government, pissed off at politics, pissed off at petty bureaucrats who are allowed to wield too much power. Pissed off your ex, pissed off at whomever she’d throw you over for, and pissed off at the callous, unfeeling, utterly disinterested world that was continuing to go about its business without giving a shit about the heartache, rejection and soul-destroyed angst that you were going through.
Ladies and gentleman, please give an empathetic Agitation of the Mind welcome to Andrzej Zulawski. And someone get the guy a drink, he’s earned it!
‘Possession’ – a film as brutally cathartic as David Cronenberg’s ‘The Brood’ (also inspired by the director’s divorce) – starts with Mark (Sam Neill) trying to reintegrate with his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) after a period of separation. It’s quickly established that during their time apart he’s been engaged in some level of espionage. The exact nature of his mission is never made clear, even when Zulawski revisits the subplot as Mark’s enticement back into the field ends violently in the final reel. Whatever Mark was engaged in, all we see is the aftermath – a debrief by a bunch of pompous men in suits; a payoff in grubby used notes; and finally a burst of gunfire. This, Zulawski’s saying, is politics.
A similar aesthetic characterises the scenes between Mark and Anna. They tear into each at every opportunity. Jealousy, recrimination, suspicion, dependency issues, sexual hang-ups – so much dirty laundry gets aired you’d be forgiven for thinking that the address Anna goes sneaking off to (much to Mark’s chagrin) is a laundrette. This, Zulawski’s saying, is marriage. Or, more explicitly, marriage in its death throes. Caught between the couple is their son, Bob (Michael Hogben). Between the significance of Anna’s name and the importance of their son in the drama that unfolds (or rather, the drama that spills messily across the screen), I’ll throw out a one-off reference to Tolstoy: ‘Possession’ as the most fucked-up take on ‘Anna Karenina’ ever made. Discuss.
In fact, file under “fucked up” in general. Let’s revisit that address Anna keeps sneaking off to. It’s a tenement in a shabby area of Berlin, the wall running alongside it like a scar. The wall is almost a character in its own right, but it never gets the monolith iconography that even the most dour spy thrillers afford it; here, it’s more of a presence, forever in the background or glimpsed from a window; unwanted, but a constant. Mark has a private detective follow her. MILD SPOILER (because frankly, when an overtly gay detective takes any case in a European film he’s got very little chance of making it to the end credits): a scene of violence ensues that’s as grand guignol as anything in Argento, but without the rococo stylisations. The lurch from downbeat character drama to geysers of bloodletting is sudden and disorientating, but it’s only a prelude to the major revelation: Anna’s liaisons with …
Ah, and there’s the rub. If you’ve seen ‘Possession’, or even know it by reputation, you’ll know what I’m referring to. If you haven’t seen, then I really don’t want to ruin the headfuck for you. Let’s just say that ‘Possession’ comes complete with the kind of imagery that earned it a place on the DPP’s “video nasties” list back in the 80s. European arthouse rubbing shoulders with exploitation quickies? Thank the tabloid-wielding guardians of public morality that my home country seems to breed. Needless to say, they missed the point.
‘Possession’, despite its title and imagery, is not horror. It is not exploitation. It exists at a pitch of emotional hysteria, the intensity of which never wavers. There’s a heightened emotionalism to all of Zulawski’s work. It’s present here in Mark’s confrontation with Anna’s new lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) – a confrontation that commences with Heinrich’s homoerotic overtures to Mark and culminates in the revelation that he, too, has been cuckolded; in the scene where Heinrich’s fragile, self-delusive mother (Johanna Hofer) comes belatedly to terms with her son’s philandering; in Mark’s burgeoning obsession with Helen, Bob’s teacher and a dead ringer (if polar opposite personality-wise) for Anna; in Bob’s imploration to Helen at the end of the film, after an act of rebirth/substitution has brought an entirely new and unexpected dimension to the proceedings, not to open the door and admit … ah, but that would be telling; and it’s present, most spectacularly and disturbingly, in Anna’s almost balletic meltdown in a subway, a scene that seems to last longer than you can bear to watch it, that proves Adjani as both an utterly fearless actress and a force of nature, and that – cumulatively – renders Anna as desperate, delirious and – again, despite the title, dispossessed.
‘Possession’ is a difficult film to watch, even harder to like, and one that you’re only likely to forget if you’re clinically dead.