|Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Heinz Bennent
Polish auteur Andrzrej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) is a masterpiece of hysteria; like an over-the-top wedding cake, it piles layer upon layer of desperation, absurdity and horror onto its’ characters, and, unbelievably, they carry it home. Just this side of risible, Possession stays grounded enough to be affecting via its fabulous casting, which includes Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, and simple but powerful conceit: a violently disintegrating marriage. While it is perhaps best known today for its creature-feature bona fides, courtesy of Carlo Rambaldi, of E.T. fame, and inclusion in the early ‘80s British “Video Nasties” outcry, Possession deserves a place alongside the early works of Haneke and Cronenberg when it comes to psycho-sexual nightmares. It may be completely bonkers, but it does exactly what it sets out to do, and then some.
Interest in the film has resurged in recent years, culminating in last winter’s 35mm-restoration run at New York’s legendary Film Forum. Having been presented there with the same adulation as the works of Hitchcock and the Italian neo-realists, it’s hard to imagine Possession ever having been relegated to the depths of VHS bargain-bin infamy. And yet that’s where it stayed, despite Adjani’s Cannes and César awards for her performance, for decades. Now, it’s finally getting the full Blu-ray treatment, and the results are nothing short of stunning.
Without giving too much away (and without spending the hundreds of words it takes to summarize Possession‘s needlessly complicated plot), the film focuses on Neill’s return to his frightful marriage to Adjani after a long absence, which the audience takes to be espionage-related. It’s never fully explained, but Zulawski’s canny use of his Berlin setting, butting up against the Wall, gives Neill’s every move an air of urgent mystery. Every now and then, we’re treated to a cut-in of a faceless guard glaring through binoculars; even though the streets are continuously empty, there’s a strange claustrophobia that permeates every scene. Someone’s always watching, and it isn’t just the viewer.
Though Neill turns in a bravura performance, the real star of Possession is Adjani—not a surprise, given Zulawski’s history of promoting (and bedding) young, beautiful French actresses. However, this is no casting-couch favor; Adjani’s performance is staggering in its sincerity, even as her character goes from unhinged to unbelievable to nearly unwatchable. She screams and cries, fucks and kills, loses her mind, has moments of transcendence, and drives everyone around her insane. Reminiscent of Isabelle Huppert at her most devastating, Adjani’s performance comes straight from the gut and goes for the jugular from minute one. You’ll be shocked as soon as she comes on screen, and, incredibly, you’ll be even more shocked when she leaves it almost two hours later.
The other star of the film, even more than Rambaldi’s bizarre, tentacled monster, is Bruno Nuytten’s incredible cinematography. The film is a symphony of long takes and entire scenes composed of sweeping, hand-held shots pivoting around the main characters. In today’s moment of Malick and Anderson being congratulated for any shot lasting longer than ten seconds, Possession is instructive in its use of camera movement and editing to communicate its characters’ states of mind, or more accurately, states of confusion.
The director’s cut of Possession, released by UK’s Second Sight Films is a revelation. Zulawski”s original color scheme (cold in the couple’s apartment, warm in Adjani’s secret apartment) has been fully restored, so we can now enjoy this film as was originally intended. The print itself looks excellent and one can not detect any sign of DNR or sharpening filtration. The film grain is intact, but never obtrusive, except for a few dark shots, and the overall presentation retains a true filmic look.
The English LPCM Mono track sounds full and clear across the full spectrum. Dialogue is clear. There is no real hiss or any kind of audible distortion. Overall, the sound presentation is just as good as the visual presentation.
The Blu-ray has a treasure-trove of special features that will whet the interest of even the most casual viewer. From in-depth discussions of the film’s making in Berlin and its controversial reception in the UK and US to an interview with composer Andrzej Korzynski, basically everything you could want to know about the film is investigated at length (even the artist behind the film’s famous poster gets a featurette). There’s a full-length audio commentary with the director, and another with Frederic Tuten, one of the co-writers, that deliver great insight into the production conditions Zulawski and his team faced. His relationship with Hollywood is fascinating, as is his discussion of the various challenges he faced in pulling together a multi-national production. You’ll learn more from the special features on this disc than from reading a biography of Zulawski or researching the history of post-war Polish cinema.
Simply put, Possession is a must-see for anyone who loves early body horror, Sam Neill, Isabelle Adjani, innovative long takes, or gratuitous bodily fluids.
~ By Lita Robinson