Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Surf the Maelstrom: POSSESSION

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 of France, Poland, and Germany. America had switched over to conservative backlash fear mode, VHS profits swelling the scene full of cheap gore and bad hair, flat lighting and teen boys eating and snickering. A truly disturbing genuinely adult film like Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION (1981) was only released here, apparently, in a severely truncated, nearly incomprehensible edit, carved no doubt to resemble something along slasher/softcore lines to fit more closely the things we were used to in our late night cable slots and rental shelves in the wake of the slasher film craze. But while America was cowering at home in front of the VCR with the doors locked, or 'losin' it' at the drive-in, Europeans were still dropping acid and going to the art house cinema... They had more legit reasons to hide at home and be freaked out than we ever did, but maybe that's why they seemed so much less scared. The mass murder and destruction of World War Two (for to process such horror, 40 years is not so long) and the subsequent curtain dividing between sunny tranquil capitalist west and dour, psychotic grey unrestored communist east --they toughened the spirit, defrayed the anxiety about slashers in the seat behind them. Aside from Pearl Harbor and 9/11, Americans haven't had a lot of shit get blown up around us in the USA. Considering the trauma endured just from those two single day events, 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.

Polish director Andrzej Zulawski was born during just such a time and place: nightly bombing raids became like a lullaby for him (he says); part of the comforts of childhood, like a night-light or teddy bear. This weird amniotic death hybrid explains much of POSSESSION's full-spectrum insanity. If you've wondered what it's like to be high on acid while having a miscarriage alone in a Paris Metro station after having to leave a European history lecture because you started frothing at the mouth, this is your movie.

Zulawski get it: when you're gone on strong drugs, baby, none of the old signifier chains apply -that's also art, the Antonioni signifier melt-down. With a head full of mescaline you are just like a child, new to the world, free from labeling and judging your sensory impressions, things are neither this or that, good or bad, they are all just new and 'weird.' Without judgment, it's all good, until you gradually realize it's all bad, because it's gnawing on your leg... and working its way up to your crotch. Whatever it is, better kill it quick, and eat it for its placenta nutrients. Second chakra sacral wheels alight in twisted backfiring surges of desire and loathing, rust and dried blood flaking off the re-ground gears. Eat or be eaten, and don't hesitate. If the cops come in and see you've been eating a helpless old neighbor who came to the door to borrow some flour, well, eat them too. You're on a roll - and you taste great. Or at least it tastes intense.

If you never experienced all that, man, you might not dig all of POSSESSION. But for some of us, those who can still hear colors and see sounds, the ancient, semi-ancient, and recent history of the human race is always clattering on the kitchen floor of our collective mind like a dropped casserole dish that grows Rob Bottin spider legs on contact with linoleum. European border tensions live in our sacral chakras, interlocking serpentine tentacles connect every groin, mouth, and fingertip in the whole of existence, to the tip of our extremities, which is not more infinite than a tomb, and our breathing. The flushing of the toilet sounds like the diving of Stuka followed by VE day revels as the tank refills. But is that American jubilation in the west VE or the screams of East Berlin women being mauled by drunken Russian soldiers? Don't judge, man - you were doing so well. Here, do this shot.

Even if your knowledge of post-war European social psychology and bad trip acid horror iconography is incomplete well, there's bound to be something in POSSESSION still able to suck you down with the cigarette butts into the tangy blood-flavored mud of 70s Euro-horror, which is the same really as just shrugging your shoulders and sashaying toward the exit while the huns are distracted.

POSSESION is set in West Berlin, in an apartment with windows that look out over towards the Wall (so you can see East German guards smoking and looking at you in the distance, feigning neighborly disinterest) But meanwhile everyone speaks English all the time, except when Adjani speaks French while torturing a girl in her ballet class in a super 8mm movie that Neill's fellow cuckold, a sexually fluid and tantric fellow named Heinrich (from the East side), sends over. My point? Less.

And when Adjani moans up at the cross in a church, unleashing a prolonged, piteous whine, one senses Harvey Keitel stirring from his noon feeding, and making a mental note that would lay buried for 10 years until BAD LIEUTENANT.

Still, even if you're type of crazy psychedelic surfer who used to watch the R. Bud Dwyer suicide tape over and over on acid, fascinated by the suddenness of it (one split second Dwyer's in the room, and then BAM - he is completely gone - where'd he go?) even then, that hardcore as you are, Adjani's prolonged miscarriage in the tunnel scene might be too much.  Her convulsive jerkiness might be read as an interpretive dance, encompassing the history of mental illness--from electroshock to the miracle of Clozapine--it's mind-bogglingly fearless and fully committed in ways I just don't think it's possible for American actresses to ever be, nor would they want to, for certainly it won't win them an Oscar. Adjani could give a shit about your Oscars; she just goes for it with more gusto than most American actresses ever dare muster without an A for 'Art' burnished on their chest, not this isn't artsy. Has America ever had any women either this beautiful or this crazy? Nein. The English have maniacs like Kate Winslet, Australia has Judy Davis, who was originally attached to POSSESSION since Zulawski and his casting director loved MY BRILLIANT CAREER (which was why they cast Sam Neill) and maybe her wanting to do it is why she gamely wound up in a similar legless monster sex scene in NAKED LUNCH ten years later.  (it all fits, doctor, since the whole creature / pregnancy angle--a kind of symbol-made-flesh ala 'psychoplasmics' in THE BROOD--was done by Cronenberg two years earlier, with super crazy (Brit) Samantha Eggers). But whom do we have? No one --our actresses can afford good SSRI meds and the best clinical care Beverly Hills ha$ to offer. Their health is Hollywood's loss.

Perhaps it's because the terrifying freedom of flying fast and loose atop the ever-inward spiral of the maelstrom is just not an American thing anymore. It used to be. We had Poe and we had Melville. In the former's "A Descent into the Maelstrom," for example, a sailor finds himself on a damned ghostly boat hovering ever on the edge of a vast never-ending whirlpool wave, trapped in a time loop. 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."

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. Or you've aged 100 years in a goddamn 13-day bender. Or just got old, suddenly, as it always is when you 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 the color 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 of Kate Winslet.



In fact, the hair and split subject aspects of POSSESSION are there in 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 bi-polar mood swings reflected in Adjani's careening back and forth between the sterile apartment she shares with Neill and their son, Bob, and this decayed East Berlin apartment building with its goop-covered floor and writhing tentacled lover, looking like a decayed animal carcass swathed in glistening rainbow brown blood / oil paint palette runoff and being devoured by long large white worms. "He's very tired, he's been making love to me all night," Adjani says before bashing a cop's brains in with a paint can.

At such times as these, Adjani makes Klaus Kinski seem dull as Walter Pidgeon.

By this point in the film, Neill has more or less detoxed and is playing the clean-cut parent, subject to fits only when Adjani comes careening back to put laundry away (in the fridge) and throw some cold cuts from the pantry into her suitcase and carve herself up with an electric knife while shouting and convulsing like she's not in their kitchen at all but receiving electro-shock therapy in a mental hospital while performing a MACBETH monologue. Now split between two opposite roles (either two characters or a fragmented persona), one is a nurturing elementary school teacher / potential love interest  (ala Susan Hogan and Egger and in THE BROOD) the other is the homicidal birther/fucker/self-mutilating/cop-killing painter of her own monster, a blazing insane nightmare woman, shrieking and miscarrying an array of colors all over the Metro, as if dissolving a painting in her womb and reproducing it as performance art. (there's a kind of mention that she brought the ejected fetus whatever-thing over to that apartment and its been her sickly lover ever since).

Is this monster a metaphor for her art, the way a true artist is in a state of exalted frenzied madness when working on their project, giving themselves over completely, maybe never to return, except in the form of that immortal art? A squid. Three Olives. A feather. A dead bike messenger. bombs.

Oh yeah, SAM... whom I never liked much in films like DEAD CALM or THE PIANO (or worst of all, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS). He's just somehow dislikable, 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 cock-blocked by some younger, looser man, i.e. Harvey Keitel, Billy Zane, even Jeff Goldblum, in order for his wormy smug petulance to have context. But when delivered from being just a weird side platter of Pierce Brosnan /Anthony Perkins surf-and-turf, when given a part that calls for truly insane and giddy grace, and looking young and actually handsome, he's suddenly big as all the ocean. He makes you want to keep an eye on him so he doesn't suddenly appear behind you, or show you his new razor from your insides out. What makes him such a good secret agent (his last mission was something across the Wall where he'd been sizing up some scientist defector in pink socks) lies in his ability to ride this tide of lunacy with confidence and eye-for-eye madness glint. Wherever Adjani's crazy boat's going, he's going to be on it, bob for bob. Sometimes going under, sometimes rising above, absorbing everything and everyone he sees. From his son's crashing toy airplanes to his rival's 'love of everything,' he's always reacting and seeing deep, surfing the crest of that Poesy maelstrom.

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 -- in which he was cast 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-- in acting style--Neill could be like Mason's psychotic younger brother. His accent here and the way he can start refined, and wind his way down slow spiral staircase into jealous madness by the end of the scene, is reminiscent in many ways of Mason--especially in LOLITA, such as in the scene where he must be restrained by hospital orderlies after Lo flees, for example, which finds a methamphetamine mirror in Neill's being piled on by the entire staff of 'Cafe Einstein' after chasing Isabelle Adjani out the door in a whirl of empty wooden chairs. His nose and face strangely cleft, teeth crooked, Neill's still got a bit of Timothy Spall floating around his features, as if the mirror halves of his face didn't quite line up, like it's ready to split down the center, to open like an egg hatching some newfound man. But he knows how to fucking act. During his big initial meltdown, for example, he seems to be suffering from serious withdrawal of either heroin or alcohol --the latter I've experienced, and I handled it very similar to how he does, shaking and twitching, barely able to talk, trapped in isolation. Good times.

And like Neill, Mason 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.


So there's your moral: sometimes you can't get at the audience with a razor, so you have to use the only thing you can find that's even sharper, and sometimes that thing is named Sam Neill. POSSESSION stabs us with him until even the screaming sound of Stukas dive bombing his neighborhood to hell is like a soothing nursery school lullaby and the scorching beauty of Adjani is like a freezing of the blood in the veins and on the floor. Lick it up, like a good dog.. (tape cuts off)

7 comments:

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

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

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  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.

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  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!).

    -Ulveman

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  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

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

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

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