Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Surf the Maelstrom: POSSESSION (1981)

One of the cool things about Europe as opposed to the states is that if they like a trend, they keep it, and so even as late as the 1980s there were still sexy, druggy, fucked-up movies coming out, long after America had switched over to conservative backlash fear mode, VHS profits swelling it full of cheap gore and bad hair. A truly disturbing film like Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION was only released here, apparently, in a severely truncated, nearly incomprehensible edit, carved no doubt to resemble something along slasher/softcore lines for those VHS profits. But while America was cowering at home in front of the VCR with the doors locked, Europeans were still dropping acid and going to the art house cinema... and they had much more reasons to be freaked out than we ever did, namely the mass murder and destruction of World War Two (for such horror, 40 years is not so long). The USA never lost a city to carpet bombing, for example. Even now, aside from 9/11, we haven't had a lot of shit get blown up in the USA by other governments or terrorists, certainly nothing like the rampant destruction endured by Russia and Poland in WW2. Considering the trauma endured by Middle America just from watching 9/11 on TV, can you imagine watching your whole country more or less go through a giant Nazi thresher machine, while you're a child up in it? It might make you a little twisted.

Cult director Andrzej Zulawski was born during a time and place of nightly bombing raids, so the sound of falling bombs became like a lullaby for him, part of the comforts of childhood, and this weird association comes out in the full spectrum insanity of POSSESSION, for the benefit of all mankind. Naturally, if you're high on acid, or had a rainbow-colored miscarriage while trying to exit the Metro, or just tried to sit through a European history lecture while still "rolling" from the night before, POSSESSION is your movie. Because in that state of rolling, you too are freed of labeling bombing raids as bad and no bombs as god. It's all good, until you gradually realize it's all bad, because it's gnawing on your leg... and working its way up fast.

The rest, they might not dig all of POSSESSION. But for some of us, those who can--on a clear day in the San Fernando Valley--still hear colors and see sounds, a film like POSSESSION makes us realize that the ancient history of the human race is all present in the current moment, clattering on the kitchen floor of our collective mind, like a dropped casserole dish that grows Rob Bottin spider legs on contact with linoleum, and unresolved European border tensions take their toll on later generations later the way wings of butterflies in Jersey create tsunamis in Japan, even when they're still cocooned.

Knowledge of European history and mindsets is important to really dig Euro-horror, and even art films like Krzysztof Kieślowski's semi-redundantly-titled and, relatively overpraised "Three Colors Trilogy," which I never would have like had not my Argentine filmmaker ex-wife been around to explain things, Similarly there's bound to be some bizarre iconographic disconnect if our knowledge of post-war European social psychology is incomplete when it comes to these deep trenches of druggy sophisto shock. Are the two versions of Adjani's character in the film--the helpful nurturing babysitter/teacher and the monster-loving schizophrenic--a before/after Russian occupation thing? Is the monster the 'Big Other' of communism? When did the Wall come tumbling down? Wait, that was Germany. But West Germany is where this film is set. Yikes. The point is.... the point is sharp... sharply doled.

The point is that if you're at all like me, the type of crazy psychedelic surfer who used to watch the R. Bud Dwyer suicide tape over and over, in quiet awe, like a baby with their first peek-a-boo game (one split second Dwyer's in the room, and then BAM - he is completely gone - where'd he go?), well, even then that prolonged miscarriage scene might be too much. But DAMN does Adjani go for it. She's got more gusto in this single scene than most actresses muster in their entire careers.

Perhaps the only way to really understand and love this film is to be temporarily insane yourself, or at least to remember what it's like to have the terrifying freedom of flying fast and loose atop the ever-inward spiral of the maelstrom and have the experience now forever etched in your Silver Surfer memory. I'm thinking of Poe's story "A Descent into the Maelstrom," wherein a sailor finds himself on a damned ghostly boat hovering ever on the edge of a vast never-ending whirlpool wave. Our hero eventually escapes and is rescued only to find his ship mates no longer recognize him: "My hair, which had been raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say too that the whole expression of my countenance had changed." Sometimes that change of countenance has to happen: you've seen too much; you've peered beyond the veil and the veil has left its gnarly mark.

Such things happen all the time, to those who dare to take the voyage into the maelstrom or walk that yellow "brick" road. Some of us are called to the curtain and bid look beyond, and some do, and they get white hair, if not a diploma. I've never seen a film before or since that made white such a violently post-modern wrenching force (not even in Kieślowski's WHITE or Argento's TENEBRE) except maybe in a humorous and romantic way, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, wherein white swallows up whole bookstores and kitchens of Jim Carey's memory.

The landscape of POSSESSION could be summed up in terms of SUNSHINE's mind washing machine, with Sam Neill trapped in inescapable loops with the same woman in different forms, with Winslet's hair changes and mood swings being the perfect anagram for Adjani's split self of nurturing mom and blazing insane nightmare woman, shrieking and miscarrying the whole final chapter of PLEASANTVILLE, bringing gushing color to drippy urban blight interiors and bleached out apartment complexes and corporate headquarters. What makes Neil's character such a good secret agent (his day job, apparently) is his ability to ride this tide of lunacy around him. Sometimes going under, sometimes rising above, he's always more or less on the crest of that Poesy maelstrom.

Oh yeah, a word on Sam Neil, whom I never liked much in films like DEAD CALM or THE PIANO... though that's inevitably why he's often cast, there's just something about him that if you're a dog you'd want to bark at him. Often his characters need to be cockblocked by some younger, looser man, i.e. Harvey Keitel, Billy Zane, even Jeff Goldblum, so his innate petulance has context. He bristles well, though, and plays insane with a giddy grace that makes you want to keep an eye on him so he doesn't suddenly appear behind you.

Whoa, bro, now that I do the math I realize Neill hadn't even yet tried to compete with Zane or Keitel when this film was made. 1981, the same year he rocketed to the bottom as the adult Damien in OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT -- at the request of co-star James Mason who loved him in MY BRILLIANT CAREER! Now we realize the inevitable truth, it's all James Mason's fault and it makes sense, since Mason too is a guy who you can never quite trust no matter how refined and loquacious his character is onscreen. Well, maybe you do trust him for a few reels, but then he takes that cortisone again and he's at you with a knife, thinking you're his son, or mighty Caesar. Sometimes you can't get at the audience with a knife, so you have to use the only thing you can find, and sometimes that thing is named Sam Neill. POSSESSION stabs us with him until even the sound of Stukas and Messerschmitts bombing us to hell is like a soothing nursery school lullaby.


  1. Adjani gives one of the most chilling/terrifying/beautiful/devastating performances I've ever seen in Possession.

  2. Hi, the director of "Possession" is actually Andrzej Żuławski, not Andrzej Wajda. Cheers from Poland!

  3. Thanks Joe, you're right, and you too Chris. That was my dyslexia at work, I've since become able to actually spell Andrzej Zulawski, even if I can't figure out that cool dot on top of the Z you put there.

  4. I'm inclined to agree, this is top notch acid cinema. Last summer my friend and I tried watching this film while we were coming up on bad acid... needless to say, we experienced an amalgamation of intense discomfort, paranoia, disturbance, and confusion and had to shut it off! The film has a brilliant way of creating the most abrasively surreal atmosphere through overbearing acting without being kitschy. The only other film that comes close is Eraserhead. Another great acid terror film is Phase IV (1974), that mean-spirited psychedelic film melted my face off on acid (caused my roommate to run out of the room, bawling her eyes out!).


  5. I like the movie but I dont understand it.what is that squid thing what did it come from.why was sam neil twisting in bed was he on drugs.someone please help me understand the movie completely

  6. Saw this movie last night and it was extremely weird and disgusting. I couldn't sleep at night

  7. Excellent review for one of my favourite movies.Can't wait to watch it on upcoming blu-ray from Second Sight this summer.