As I’ve been slowly making my way through Andrzej Żuławski’s catalogue for Diabolique, I think the title I’ve dreaded writing about most is the director’s only English-language film and his most well-known, Possession (1981). Made in the wake of his divorce from actress Małgorzata Braunek and the frustrating, failed production of On the Silver Globe (1988), shut down due to interference from the communist Polish government, Possession is ultimately about the breakdown of a marriage in divided Berlin. It attracted to cult cinema fans because of its numerous horror genre and crime film elements, as well as an almost violently disorienting sense of the surreal. To my dismay – and probably more so Żuławski’s, though he commented that this is how he initially pitched it to a producer – it seems to be generally known as the film where a woman fucks an octopus.
Mark (Sam Neill) returns home to Berlin from an undisclosed assignment somewhere in the East, possibly espionage-related, that has kept him away from his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), and young son, Bob (Michael Hobgen). But Anna is planning to leave him and it comes to light that another man, the suave yet domineering Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), has been in the picture for some time. Despite the fact that their marriage is rapidly disintegrating, Mark is desperate to get Anna back. He has her followed by a private investigator (Carl Duering), who learns that she rents a dilapidated apartment, where she keeps a horrible secret.
Possession has frequently been labelled a horror movie, with numerous critical comparisons to David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), another film that examines the devastation caused by divorce and the literally monstrous potential of female sexuality. But one of Żuławski’s many strengths as a filmmaker is his penchant to defy genre and use it to his own ends rather than the other way around, a tendency that can also be seen in films like The Third Part of the Night (1971), The Devil (1972), and Szamanka (1996). Labelling Possession a horror film is unfairly limiting. It does have a monster: a nightmarish, tentacled mass designed in essentially one night by effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi (of Alien fame) that is not only Anna’s lover, but was also birthed by her. And it does have numerous, often gory acts of violence, including self-mutilation and murder.
But the film’s monster — and its horror elements in general — are little more than a MacGuffin. It follows an emotional logic that is governed only by the chaos and horror that accompanies the dissolution of its central romantic relationship, a journey undertaken by Sam Neill’s Mark. A loose stand in for Żuławski himself, Mark is actually the last in a line of somewhat passive, bewildered male protagonists that guide the director’s early films, including The Third Part of the Night, The Devil, and L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), a type he wouldn’t return to until his recent, final film, Cosmos (2015). Mark’s sole motivation is to get Anna back, though it seems increasingly like his interest lies in possession rather than love. Control and domination — psychological as well as physical — are important themes of the film. Mark demands Anna’s return, not with romantic gestures, but by telling her, “you must restore order.”
Ingeborg Bachmann, remembered for her affairs with writers Paul Celan and Max Frisch as much as for her own poetry, said in an interview, “Fascism is the primary element in the relationship between a man and a woman.” Anna’s actions — hysterical and nonsensical as they may seem — can be understood as attempts to exercise control over an environment in which she has none, in which control is constantly usurped. Mark asks what she really wants, but won’t let her speak. And Heinrich, who imperiously states, “no one has a right to impose his will on anyone,” is the most manipulative of all.
Their ultimately united attempts to encroach on Anna’s freedom, which includes harassment, surveillance, physical abuse, and the employment of a private detective, mirror the film’s Berlin setting: a city divided on one side by the cheery, forced optimism and political corruption of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, and on the other by the claustrophobically impoverished communism of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. While Heinrich initially seems like a comical figure, Żuławski described him as “dangerous like poison,” and connected him to a wider discussion about Possession, the legacy of communism, and Anna’s search for freedom. He discussed the fact that Heinrich perhaps believes he has liberated Anna. Żuławski said, “Maybe in a sense, he did. That reminds me of an old communist saying – Liberated towards what? What do you want to do with your liberty? Do you liberate in order to destroy?”
Anna’s search for liberation is the true center of Possession’s universe and she is the reason why I have such a profound, admittedly uncomfortable attachment to this film. As a teenager and young adult, I didn’t really have any female role models or even really fictional female characters to whom I could relate. In my mind, being biologically female was circumstantial and had no more or less of an impact on my identity than being left-handed or being born in the 1980s. You can imagine my delight, then, at a relatively minor line in Possession: Helen — Bob’s school teacher and Anna’s double — says, “There is nothing in common in women except menstruation.”
But because of my difficult personal history, I have a more challenging time encountering female characters who have dealt with sexual trauma and/or mental illness. This is due to the fact that, unlike their male counterparts (at least in terms of mentally ill male characters, as male rape/abuse survivors are almost nonexistent on screen), both mainstream and cult cinema generally present them as little more than hysterical stereotypes. For example, as much as I love Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Polanski’s sniveling heroine, utterly devoid of personal agency, is one of the worst perpetrators of this type in modern genre cinema.
Anna, though, is a revelation. I’ve heard criticisms that her behavior — brought startlingly to life by Adjani in one of the most remarkable performances in cinema history — seems overwrought and unbelievable, but to me, it was more than just plausible, as I lived several of these moments. I saw Possession for the first time in my early 20s and it was incredibly liberating to see this acted out on screen and presented at face value. Żuławski, never one to coddle his audience, mercifully refuses to explain her actions away and never apologizes for her. Her seeming psychosis can’t be chalked up to a single act of horrific trauma, but rather is just the accumulation of Hamlet’s “slings and arrows,” the gradual psychic erosion of life itself.
I know I’m certainly not the only writer or fan to have this reaction. In the introduction to House of Psychotic Women, Kier-la Janisse’s seminal volume on female hysteria in film — which doubles as a memoir — she wrote, “It all started with Possession… There was something terrible in that film, a desperation I recognized in myself” (7). Anna is a physical manifestation of the absolute horror of emotional intimacy, which provides a more palpable sense of terror to Possession than either tentacled monsters or bloody murder. Her inability to understand or even express herself becomes a like contagion, a force that must be exorcised, and it makes her act in increasingly erratic and incomprehensible ways throughout the film.
In Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, she writes about this nebulous sense of loathing, disgust, and taboo as a way to define the self. “‘I’ am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During that course in which ‘I’ become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit” (2). Anna’s actions — which include self-mutilation, destruction of her home, unrestrained screaming, and what can only be described as a psychogenic miscarriage with noxious physical side effects in a subway tunnel — are almost literal interpretations of Kristeva’s theory.
While it’s easy to make sense of abjection as that which is repulsive or even outré, Kristeva notes that it is primarily about breaking down order and control, another key element that aligns it with Possession. She writes, “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order” (4). It’s not that Anna doesn’t love Mark, but she’s unable to reconcile her desire for independence with the necessarily confining aspects of romantic and domestic life. It is when Mark (and later, Heinrich) forces the issue and becomes more controlling, including a brutal scene of spousal abuse, that she becomes more reckless and ultimately violent.
During one of their biggest fights, he both begs and commands her not to walk out the door. As a last resort he tells her pointedly, “Please don’t make me force you.” She screams in his face, “You can’t stop me! I’ll open the window and jump.” It’s not that Anna actively wants to commit suicide, but she is physically incapable of abandoning her struggle to discover who she is and what she wants without the rigid social structures that accompany committed relationships or even motherhood. At one point Helen says to Mark, “It’s so sad for you that freedom seems to mean evil,” a comment that seems to relate to this conflict with his wife.
On the surface level, there is a film noir-like duality between Anna and Helen, respectively recalling the tropes of femme fatale and the dutiful wife. Though they are physical doubles, Anna is violent and seductive, a danger to the family unit, while the majority of Helen’s screen time is concerned with childcare and domestic activities. It is partly this stereotypical vision of motherhood that Anna rejects. Kristeva describes abjection as a kind of “narcissistic crisis,” a desire to return to a “self-contemplative, conservative, self-sufficient haven” (14). Bob, Anna and Mark’s young son, becomes tragically caught up in these selfish impulses that both parents, but particularly Anna, exhibit.
Żuławski — obviously sympathetic to both families and children — uses the child as something of a moral barometer, shifting the audience’s sympathies in favor of either Mark or Anna. Early in the film, in order to try to manipulate Anna, Mark tells her he won’t see Bob, but is soon proven a caring father. Maybe the most heartbreaking moment concerning the child is when Mark returns home from days in the hospital and finds Bob left all alone, for an undisclosed amount of time. If you’ve never been neglected by one parent and then had to witness the agonized reaction of the other, it looks a lot like this.
Even before the film’s midway point, Anna has become obsessed with her monstrous offspring to the exclusion of all else. Kristeva writes that the abject is inherently perverse, taboo, and that it “kills in the name of life” as Anna literally does, to protect her progeny/paramour. “Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance” (15). The octopus creature is a manifestation of this alchemical process and is itself a force of creation. At one point in the film, Anna expresses a desire to “pierce reality” and the creature seems to have literally done this, resulting in more doubles than just Anna’s mirror image, Helen, but other, more alien duplicates that seem to have sinister intentions.
In this sense, Possession shares much with Żuławski’s first film, The Third Part of the Night: biographical elements, uncanny doubles, imminent apocalypse, and a sense of the sublime. Kristeva writes, “The abject is edged with the sublime. It is not the same moment on the journey, but the same subject and speech bring them into being… The symptom: a language that gives up, a structure within the body, a non-assimilable alien, a monster, a tumor, a cancer” (11). As I explained earlier, the monster is really only a MacGuffin, but remains a visceral (and viscous) symbol of Anna’s existential terror, a simultaneous longing for life and death that is profoundly erotic.
I’m reminded of a line from Measure for Measure, when the lovelorn, imprisoned Claudio states, “If I must die I will encounter darkness as a bride, and hug it in mine arms.” This morbid sensuality seems an inherent quality of Adjani’s — she would exhibit it in other films from the period like — The Story of Adele H (1975), The Tenant (1976), and especially Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) — but also bleeds through the film’s general framework. While the use of nudity and physical contact is sparing and almost chaste, Żuławski, with the help of writer Frederic Tuten, makes particularly compelling use of dialogue, building a strangely erotic layer into the language and verbal tone of the film.
And while the character of Anna is undeniably a masterwork — and Possession itself — she is not Żuławski’s ultimate creation, but is the key to understanding a transitional point in his career as a director and thus in the unique series of female protagonists that would follow. Almost all of his subsequent films — La femme publique (1984), L’amour braque (1985), Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989), La note bleue (1991), Szamanka (1996), and La fidélité (2000) — are defined by complex women. Like Anna, these characters (and the actresses that portray them) traverse a broad range from the basest abjection to the most sublime depictions of romantic love, in both cases often violently defying social constraints.
In conclusion, my frustration with Possession is two-fold, almost contradictory, and is certainly focused at filmgoers rather than the filmmaker himself. On one hand, it is directed at those who praise the film but fail to seek out any of Żuławski’s other offerings, despite the fact that this is easier to do with every passing year. On the other hand, it is also with those who write off the film for being absurd or purposefully not making any sense. It makes far too much sense to me and remains one of the finest films to aggressively and honestly tackle the subject of emotional agony.