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 the loss of the WTC, we haven't had a lot of shit get blown up in the USA... nothing like the rampant destruction endured by Germany, Russia or Poland in WW2. Considering the trauma endured by Middle America just from watching 9/11 on TV, can you imagine the whole Eastern Europe mindset of watching your whole country more or less go through a giant Nazi thresher machine, while you be living 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, and something must have clicked in his mind, so when it came to making films he seems to have some weird association of bombs and destruction with 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 have been on acid long enough to have a miscarriage in a full spectrum of colors 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 family as good. 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 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, and unresolved European border tensions take their toll on later generations later the way 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 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; 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 Euro artistry. 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. Hmm, maybe it would be helpful to have this film introduced by a history professor, after all. But even they'd probably want to scroll through the endless screaming of that Metro miscarriage. If you're the type of crazy like me, who used to love to watch the R. Bud Dwyer tape over and over while coming down off bad acid, 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-crashing wave of 'reality' at least once, 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) 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 on the crest of that Poesy maelstrom.
Oh yeah, 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; that's why Neil's best when being cockblocked by some younger, looser man, i.e. Harvey Keitel, Billy Zane, even Jeff Goldblum -- so his innate petulance has context. He bristles well. That sense of his being incomplete, of a man missing a few key pieces (and losing more as the film goes along) serves him dutifully in POSSESSION: No doubt he'll lose Adjani, but to a half-formed insectoid bunch of goo? Dude, that's cold!
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 Messerschmidts bombing us to hell is like a soothing nursery school lullaby.