The nerve-fraying dilemmas of Andrzej Zulawski

Isabelle Adjani in Possession. ()
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Simon Abrams

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There's a kernel of pathological fatalism at the heart of many of Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski's high-strung dramas. Unlike the subdued, introverted dramas of contemporary filmmaker like Jerzy Skolimowski, the films of Zulawski (pronounced "Zhu-wahv-ski") are histrionically gloomy. There is no such thing as sublimated tension in a Zulawski film.

In Possession, Zulawski's most internationally infamous movie (it was one of the titles on England's "Video Nasties" watch list during the '80s), Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill go through a messy divorce that indirectly causes sporadic bleeding from Adjani's mouth and the spontaneous appearance of doppelgangers, a deranged German adulterer and a sickly but menacing alien love child, designed by E.T. creature designer Carlo Rambaldi.

Possession is emblematic of the frayed-nerves logic that guides Zulawski's films, which are often characterized by manic subjective camerawork that makes director of photography-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld's hyper style in Raising Arizona look tame. So it's fitting then that Film Forum's recent and very popular repertory release of Possession has led BAMcinematek to host a complete retrospective of Zulawski's feature films.

Ironically, BAM's series title, "Hysterical Excess," has annoyed Zulawski, who had planned on visiting America for the first time but was advised not to by his doctor.

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"'Hysterical’ is a word I abhor,'” he recently told J. Hoberman. It fact, it's not wrong, but it misses something in its implication of abnormally exaggerated behavior. To the outside viewer Zulawski's films are definitely hyper-real exaggerations of protagonists' inner turmoil. But movies like Possession also try to foster a contextualizing sense of emotional logic that makes the motives of characters' actions more ambiguous than shrill.

For instance, in The Third Part of the Night, Zulawski's 1971 debut film, Zulawski liberally recounts his own father's experiences during World War 2. Michal (Leszek Teleszynski), a young Polish man whose family—mother, wife and young son—are slaughtered in front of him by the Nazis. Michal escapes and tries to fight back. To Zulawski, joining the resistance is not heroic but rather a grueling and probably futile act of defiance, as is shown during a sublimely exaggerated chase scene. In it, Michal sprints up staircases, through streets, over walls and away from a hale of bullets. Michal then bumps into a woman who he is convinced looks exactly like his wife, a scenario that Zulawski would revisit later in Possession, where Neill's emotionally devastated soon-to-be-divorcee starts a relationship with his wife's doppelganger (also Adjani).

Like Possession's lead protagonist, Michal is given several signs that this woman is not in fact the reincarnation of his wife and that the boy that he helps her to give birth to during their first chance encounter (!) is not really his son. But Michal does not heed these signs and instead imagines that this is his chance to undo every mistake he previously made with his family. So Michal, like Zulawski's father, elects to serve as a test subject for scientific trials that require him to become infested with lice.

Michal is the first of Zulawski's many male protagonists to contract a demented form of womb envy and willingly become a host for intense and all-consuming psychic maladies. But with illness comes clarity. Michal eventually starts to think that the impact of political action isn't that much greater than passivity. And he slowly learns to identify with the man whose family he's effectively stolen after he meets that man, now wandering around with a black hood over his head. That hood is basically the only thing keeping the ghostly absentee father from emotionally disintegrating like Michal inevitably does by film's end.

So it stands to reason that this hooded figure is murdered right after he takes his hood off. Michal watches in an awe and terror from a window and recalls that he previously saw this man, a resistance fighter. He was struck by the look he then saw on that man's face: a tantalizing attitude of indifference towards a political cause he'd already literally bled for. Michal will soon identify intensely with that feeling—once he totally loses it. Without spoilering anything, let's just say that Michal discovers that he is just as replaceable as the man whose patriarchal role he so needfully usurped.

Another movie that helps to crystallize the recurrent "Zulawskiean" theme of the fearfully seductive power of losing your mind is Devil, a polemical sophomore feature and apolitical protest that's also about the futility of political action. Devil begins with a resurrection: a Polish nobleman and ex-soldier named Jakub (Teleszynski again) is dragged out of a pile of bodies somewhere in the bowels of a decrepit convent by a shadowy and probably insane figure (Wojciech Pszoniak). This mystery man is part Lucifer and part Judas, a point explicitly driven home in scenes where this nameless man in black accepts the contents of a small coin purse from representatives of the Prussian regime before forcing Jakub to sign a contract. Jakub eventually goes on a spree and murders a lot of people in a mad fit of rage.

So throughout Devil's two hour-runtime, Jakub is bedeviled by Pszoniak's maniacal trickster until he reaches his breaking point and paints the 18th century town red. Jakub even murders his own mother—in public—nd then he's unceremoniously shot in the head. That kind of frenzied anti-catharsis marks him as the perfect patsy for Pszoniak's mercenary instigator.The idea that the Prussian government could hire Pszoniak's man to drive Jakub mad in a wild attempt to justify a new program of martial law is equally crazy. But it's a situation that Devil's contemporary Polish audiences had to face in real life (see Michal Oleszczyk's characteristically rewarding article for further information on Devil's political critique). Naturally, Devil was swiftly banned in Poland.

Which weirdly brings us back to Possession. Like Devil and The Third Part of the Night before it, Possession revolves around the weird, contradictory notion that urgent action both must be and can't be taken to remedy an immediate and escalating problem. Reuniting with Adjani's now-psychotic character would only further infect Neill with an already barely suppressed madness. Death is the only escape, making it fitting that both Possession and The Third Part of the Night feature homages to the denouement of Andrzej Wajda's A Generation, in which a young Polish partisan is chased up a staircase by Nazis. When the young soldier realizes that he just can't win this fight, he commits suicide by jumping to his death. It's the Zulawskian thing to do, really.