Beware, unsuspecting reader, for there are such things as movies that toxify, films so radioactive you watch and squirm and worry about long-term genetic damage. One such menacing lurker, Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), arrives at Metrograph in a new 4K restoration, and if it doesn’t fry your skeleton, it’s not for lack of trying. It is well-known as the only Zulawski film to gain any kind of initial U.S. distribution — an exploitation grindhouse run in 1983 arranged by amateur entrepreneurs — and it is a hyperventilating madhouse keen to poison the memory of any unprepared viewer.
Which is something that could honestly be said, to varying degrees, about any Zulawski film, but Possession is an extremity even in his raucous filmography. Boiling blood on the fringes of European film culture for over 40 years, Zulawski (1940–2016) made films that test the expressive limitations of traditional movie materials, like acting and story. Love is a gory battlefield of torture and frustration, the camera careens and rockets fish-eyed around clusters of contorting humanness, performances start at 60 and climb to primal-scream apoplexy. Zulawski’s aesthetic could be characterized as an attempt to un-regularize human existence, to electrocute complacency. Possession is his most merciless plunge into psychodrama, a scenes-from-a-marriage in which the spontaneous generation of oozing monsters isn’t the most appalling thing going on.
The marriage in question — between Mark (Sam Neill), a Cold War spy off assignment, and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) — is ruined at the start. Aussie and French, they live in West Berlin with a young son (Michael Hogben), within sight of the Wall; she’s repulsed by her husband, but never articulates why. (Everyone, including the Germans, speaks English.) It’s all tense and spiteful in measurable human doses at first, until Mark discovers Anna’s lover, and a restaurant meeting between them ignites into a hair-raising brawl. Then, the characters and the movie toggle toward full-on raving madness, as Mark decides to battle his way back to marital normalcy, and Anna reacts to him as though being torched with napalm (Adjani’s selfless screaming won both a César and Best Actress at Cannes). The relentless face-offs are preposterously intense and upsetting, jacking right into that sense of being a kid and watching your parents go at each other hammer and tongs. Time also starts to slip — as the two rant and scramble in their semi-hidden pursuits, their semi-traumatized son seems abandoned in their flat for days at a time. Often you keep track of what day it is by the couple’s wounds (electric carving knife, beatings, plain old stabbings) and the freshness of their bandages.
What’s found when a hired detective discovers Anna’s other other life (her cultured lover, played by Heinz Bennent, eventually succumbs to helpless jealous hysteria too) is best left uncategorized — except to say that we see Anna begin to give birth to an entity during a seizure on a subway platform. It was designed and built by special effects virtuoso Carlo Rambaldi, and at one point she moans about the tentacled thing being tired: “He made love to me all night.” (This is the strangest film on Rambaldi’s resume, equidistant between Alien and E.T.)
Zulawski’s style assault becomes all metaphor at last, and Possession morphs into a nightmare parable about the psychic cannibalism of relationships, with both characters literally almost turning themselves inside out in order to survive. As in reality, the dynamics are knotted and hairy, complicated by doppelgangers (the whatever-it-is begins to evolve, and Anna has a double, too, the son’s helpful, compliant green-eyed teacher). But Zulawski never gets schematic; he prefers to bring the pain, as in the late scene when Mark finds Anna in thrusting coitus with her spawn-creature, staring up at him pleadingly and grunting “almost” over and over.
You could treat Possession like an ’80s body-horror film made by someone who’s read all of Lacan, but that would short-sell Zulawski, who by temperament always prioritized going elbow-deep into the psychosexual muck. This film is as mucky as it gets, even as it displays a profound, but seemingly self-aware, unease about women — a shortcoming the filmmaker considered, self-colonoscopically, in movie after movie. Absurd, vicious, and hot to the touch, the movie could become your gender-combat anthem — or it could ruin your year. ❖