Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

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, 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 (1981) 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.

The twisted cult 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. The rest can be experienced today by being high on acid while having a miscarriage alone in a Paris Metro station after trying to sit through a European history lecture, and having to leave because you started frothing at the mouth. When you're gone on LSD, baby, none of the usual signifier chains apply; like Zulawski you are freed of labeling bombing raids as bad and no bombs 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. Whatever it is. Or is it working down, and if so from where? Second chakra sacral wheels alight in twisted backfiring surges of desire and loathing, rust and dried blood flaking off the re-ground gears.

If you never experienced all that, man, you 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, semi-ancient, and recent 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; unresolved European border tensions taking their toll on later generations later the way wings of butterflies in Jersey create tsunamis in Japan, even when they're still cocooned. It's all connected and suddenly you can see the interlocking serpentine tentacles connecting every groin, mouth, and fingertip in the whole of existence, which is not more infinite than you supposed at all, but really no bigger than a tomb.

Either way, prior 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. If your knowledge of post-war European social psychology is incomplete then when it comes to these deep trenches of druggy sophisto shock, well, there's bound to be some bizarre iconographic mud sucking you down with the cigarette butts and tangy blood-flavored mud, which is the same as getting it, anyway.

Me, I'm not that well-versed in the Eastern European bloc, so the two versions of Adjani's character in the film--the helpful nurturing babysitter/teacher and the monster-loving schizophrenic-- might be a before/after Russian occupation thing and 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 (their apartment looks out over the Wall and I've no doubt those East German guards smoking and looking from far away up at the camera with neighborly disinterest, are real. But meanwhile everyone speaks English, except Adjani goes into French when torturing a girl in a ballet class in a super 8mm movie Neill's fellow cuckold, a sexually fluid and tantric fellow named Heinrich, sends over. My point? My Circe? My surcease of sorrow bodkin?.... it's got a point... sharp... sharply...

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

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, though Adjani's ryhthmic spazzing out in some kind of one woman show of interpretive dance encompassing the history of mental illness before the Age of Clozapine--is really mind-bogglingly fearless and fully committed in ways I just don't think it's possible for American actresses to ever be. DAMN does Adjani go for it. She's got more gusto in this single scene than most American actresses muster in their entire careers. The English have maniacs like Kate Winslet, Australia 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 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, which Cronenberg made two years earlier. But whom do we have? No one --our actresses can afford good SSRI meds and the best clinical care Beverly Hills ha$ to offer.

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 wipe-out catalogue. 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." 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 year bender. Or just got old, suddenly, as it always is.

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 of Kate Winslet.

In fact, 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 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 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 of the beast to a horrified gay detective before bashing his brains in with a jar of paint. She's so crazy by then she makes Klaus Kinski seem like Water Pidgeon.

By this time 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 receiving electro-shock therapy in the midst of a MACBETH monologue. Her character splits between two poles, one Adjani as nurturing elementary school teacher potential love interest vs. homicidal birther/fucker/painter of her own monster (ala Susan Hogan and Samantha Eggers and in THE BROOD), blazing insane nightmare woman, shrieking and miscarrying an array of colors as if dissolving a painting in her womb to start again. (there's a kind of mention that she brought the ejected fetus whatever-thing over to that apartment and its been her sick lover ever since - is it a metaphor for art, a masterpiece, 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? It's ambiguous of course, cuz it's artsy first, horror second, but both far more than others.

Oh yeah, SAM... 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 cock-blocked by some younger, looser man, i.e. Harvey Keitel, Billy Zane, even Jeff Goldblum, so his innate sexually frustrated petulance has 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 he's suddenly big as all the ocean and the land; he makes you want to keep an eye on him so he doesn't suddenly appear behind you, smiling and showing 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 or something) lies in his ability to ride this tide of lunacy with confidence, able to match crazy for crazy, and then some. Wherever Adjani's crazy boat's going, he's going to match her, 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 more or less on 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 -- 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 truly psychotic younger brother. His accent here in POSSESSION 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 in LOLITA - a scene where he must be restrained by hospital orderlies after Lo flees, for example, has an amped up 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 he's got a bit of Timothy Spall floating around his features, as if the mirror halves of his face, the line down the middle from third eye to under the nose to chin is all starting to crack open like an egg hatching somme newfound man. Which considering Adjani is doubled here, it's only natural to assume the monster she's sleeping with is slowly turning into him. During his big initial meltdown he seems to be suffering from serious withdrawal of either heroin or alcohol --the latter I've experienced and handled it very similar to him, shaking and twitching, barely able to talk, trapped in isolation

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.

Sometimes you can't get at the audience with a razor, 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 screaming sound of Stukas dive bombing his neighborhood to hell is like a soothing nursery school lullaby. It doesn't help, maybe, in our day and country, not to know exactly where to 'pinpoint' evil the way they could in 80s East Berlin, before the Wall fell... when the Wall was still there, and left a city cleft and splitting like Neil's face when riddled by bullets, before he's finally 'finished.' And the Wall comes down like his old corpse cocoon with a bloody thud, and the Coke Machine future comes clanging up the Elbe like a refunded pffenig. 


  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.


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