‘Possession’: In which Isabelle Adjani’s sex scene with a monster isn’t the odd part
Warning: watching Possession will probably make you feel like you're losing your mind. But don't worry, you'll be in good company, right alongside Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, the stars of Andrzej Zulawski's trippy, Strindberg-by-way-of-Cronenberg autopsy of a marriage on the skids. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, an uncut print of Possession will screen at Film Forum for a week-long engagement.
You might know Possession as "that weird movie in which Isabelle Adjani has sex with a hideous monster." But it's weirder than that. Zulawski, who directed and co-wrote the film, immerses us in the intense confusion and emotional tumult surrounding Mark and Anna (Neill and Adjani) after she tells him that she doesn't love him anymore.
Zulawski, like Swedish playwright August Strindberg before him, drew upon his real-life experiences going through a messy divorce. And like Strindberg, Zulawski represents relationships between men and women as being a matter of irrational human agency. Only an agnostic could invent Possession, a film in which hysterical emotional breakdowns are complimented by (or perhaps are the cause of?) bizarre paranormal psychic phenomena, including the seemingly spontaneous creation of a tentacle monster that eventually turns into and tries to replace Mark.
What's most confusing about this scenario is how normal Possession's topsy-turvy events seem. Or, more accurately, how there's no normalizing character who is willing to ask, in a calm, rational manner, what exactly is going on. Everyone in the film loses their minds, even Bob (Michael Hogben), Mark and Anna's young son, who eventually dives into a drawn bathtub with all of his clothes on. Even the most innocent and naive have their breaking points, it seems.
But Mark and Anna weren't always like this. In the beginning of Possession, they meet and try to explain to each other, in a relatively calm fashion, what's happening. Zulawski presents dialogue in the film's first 10 minutes as if we, the viewers, are voyeurs walking in on the film's subjects in mid-conversation. These talks only partially make sense to us, especially the post-coital chat Mark and Anna have in which she nervously asks him, “Were you unfaithful to me?” Mark replies, with an obscene amount of serenity: “The truth is—not really. Were you? There’s always someone else when these things happen.”
He's got a cocky lilt to his speech and it sounds like he enjoys having the upper hand in this conversation. Anna, on the verge of tears, lies: "Not in this case."
After this introductory segment, Mark and Anna lose the ability to communicate sensibly. It's like they're reading ponderous textbooks when they're talking to each other and thus are only digesting a portion of the information they're receiving. Without the ability to trust each other, Mark and Anna both start to act out in their own ways. He acts like a hurt school boy, his eyes bulging as he looks for excuses to dismiss or think less of Anna. Even the comically aloof Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), the man Anna cheated on Mark with, notices this aspect to Mark's post-break-up personality. Heinrich subsequently recommends that Mark should "just accept Anna's ways ... The key being the infinitive: to accept."
But when does the really crazy stuff come in, you ask? That's just it: In Possession, the totally mundane is also totally crazy, and vice versa. After Heinrich tells Mark to accept things as they are, they have a cerebral but tellingly unhinged conversation about God, of all things, and they both agree that God is like a disease:
Heinrich, while seated with his leg crossed on an exercise bicycle: “There’s nothing to fear, except God, whatever that means to you.”
Mark, finally having stopped searching Heinrich's apartment for Anna: “For me, God is a disease.”
Heinrich, without missing a beat: “That’s why through disease we can reach God.”
Zulawski also apparently believes in the soundness of this apparently unsound philosophy. His faith in Mark and Heinrich's ramshackle pontificating is inexplicably confirmed by the film's aesthetic, especially the spasmodic way Possession was edited and shot. The camera frequently spins around objects several times or lurks around corners or dives under obstructions for no apparent reason.
Just by watching Possession, you, the viewer, go through a transitional period of denial, the kind that comes with any infection. Then, hopefully, you accept what's happening to you as normal. And then you see the film for what it really is: a film-shaped virus.
Heinrich and Mark's exchange also explains the deranged abandon with which Neill and Adjani tackle their respective roles. Though Neill makes googly eyes and swings precariously in his home's rocking chair, Adjani clearly is the better over-actor. Adjani has to freak out on a totally separate histrionic plane than Neill does, like in the scene in which she screams while bashing her groceries around an empty subway tunnel or when she sobs in terror as she looks up at Christ on the cross while something, possibly Jesus, creeks and creeks and creeks.
Adjani also has two roles to Neill's one: She also plays Helen, Bob's schoolteacher and a dead ringer for Anna. Nobody but Mark notices Helen's resemblance to Anna and once he's made the connection, he never brings it up again, as if it were just an everyday occurrence. She has to be a benevolent know-nothing saint and a femme possessed, too--no mean feat.
And oh yeah, how about that evil tentacle-monster thing that Anna has shacked up with after she leaves both Mark and Heinrich? The monster, which was designed by E.T. creature-designer Carlo Rambaldi, is a sentient being that thrives on psychic violence. It's mired in filth and goop and sex and sin and confusion.
If you get up to the part in Possession where you finally see it, you won't laugh at it. By that point, you'll be too estranged to care. Don't mind the tentacled elephant in the room; he's just another symptom of the film's particular brand of madness.