Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Zulawski’s Possession

East German border guards can see Mark and Anna’s apartment from their posts along the Berlin Wall. It ought to be the perfect setting for the dissolution of their marriage. However, their union will not be merely severed. It will be torn limb from limb in former Andzrej Wajda protégé Andrzej Żuławski’s notorious art-house pseudo-horror film Possession (trailer here), which finally opens theatrically in all its uncut, restored glory at New York’s Film Forum this Friday.

Previously released in a butchered shorter cut, Possession has something of a reputation—and rightly so. Essentially, it is everything Lars von Trier’s The Antichrist was billed as, raised to the power of ten. If that gives you any trepidation whatsoever, than Possession is not for you, but if you are open to it, take a deep breath and let’s get into it.

Mark is some sort of freelance spy returning home after a long assignment. Strangely though, his wife Anna is less than thrilled to see him. In fact, she can hardly stand to be in the same room with him. Indeed, it turns out there is another man she is determined to leave Mark for. This sends her insecure husband into a self-destructive bender, involving violence directed towards her and to a greater extent, himself. Obviously, this is not a great environment for their son Bob, the symbol of innocence throughout the film, whom Mark deliberately uses as a weapon against Anna.

When he finally rouses from his stupor, Mark hires a private detective agency that follows Anna to a creepy unfurnished apartment in a down-market neighborhood. While Anna might want some space from Mark, she seems to be enraptured by a “thing.” Rather intimately, in fact. This is where things start getting weird and even bloodier.

Mark and Anna could probably use a psychiatrist and an exorcist. They certainly should not be around powerized kitchen appliances. What unfolds is absolutely harrowing and completely bizarre. Żuławski’s control of the audience is masterful. He simultaneously cranks the tension up to nosebleed levels, while constantly bombarding viewers with jolt-inducing imagery. You cannot really call it a horror film, but that is probably the closest applicable label.

The combination of Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani is the kind of intriguing pairing that might convince cautious cineastes to take a chance on Possession. Both leads totally go for broke throughout the film, but it would probably be more accurate to say they develop a convincing anti-chemistry together.

Still, Adjani also has some remarkably delicate scenes with Neill as Helen, Anna’s doppelganger (don’t ask, it would take too long to explain). Indeed, her exquisitely sensitive and vulnerable appearance makes her characters’ transgressive behavior all the more jarring, especially her five minute freak-out in the West Berlin metro. Frankly, it feels more like twenty-five minutes. Just when you think it cannot get any more shocking, she reaches a new level. However, the raw, visceral power of her performance is undeniable, justly recognized at the Cannes Film Festival with the best actress honors.

Adjani’s longtime partner cinematographer Bruno Nuytten gives the film a classy polished look that suggests auterist genre classics from the likes of Polanski and Kubrick. Yet, for all its blood and inhumanity, Possession is not a scarring film for anyone with a fair number of cult films under their belt. Though there is violence, it is never committed out of sadism (just why characters do certain things is another matter entirely). Nor is Possession a nihilistic film. Notions of right and wrong, good and evil, have very real meaning in this world. It is just the case that the latter have the overwhelming upper-hand against the former.

Possession is a true experience. It is draining to watch, but when it is over, you know you have seen a film. Big, bold, and intensely personal, it is a genuine masterwork from Żuławski. Highly but judiciously recommended to those who fully understand what they are getting into, Possession begins its special one week run at Film Forum this Friday (12/2).