The following is an early draft from Agata Pyzik’s excellent book-length debut, Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes between East and West. I’m about halfway through writing a review of it, which I’ll probably pitch to Radical Philosophy or Art Margins. Everyone reading this should pick up a copy immediately. Pyzik’s interpretation of Possession and other films, reproduced below, is one of my favorite sections.
I didnt want that to happen, but it did.
“A woman who fucks an octopus” — that was the way Andrzej Żuławski pitched his 1980 film Possession to the producer, fresh after the success of his French film L’Important C’est D’aimer, about a fallen actress, played by a sad-eyed Romy Schneider, who is made to act in pornographic movies, surrounded by other failed artists, including an unusually melancholic, tender performance from Klaus Kinski. He was also right after the fiasco of his three-hour long monumental metaphysical SF On a Silver Globe (1978) — an adaptation of a futurological fin-de-siècle novel by his great-uncle, Jerzy Żuławski — pulled before completion by the hostile communist authorities and shelved until 1987, when only Żuławski had a chance to “finish” the film. Around that time, he was abandoned by his wife Malgorzata Braunek, actress in his Third Part of the Night and The Devil, due to his famously domineering and possessive personality as a partner and a director. Left in shock and depression, he started plotting a misogynist fairy tale about a monster…
The sleep of reason produces demons, and one of them materialized when Anna, living in West Berlin with her functionary nice husband and child in a neat, three-storey block estate, realized she despised her husband. She confesses that to him. The rest is what happens after that confession.
Possession was made in the golden era of the genre of exploitation, and it must be due to the communal genius that things conceived as forgettable schlock to this day shine with a magnificent mixture of the visceral and the metaphysical, with cinematography, colors, costumes and set design taken from a masterpiece. Argento and the lesser gialli creators, Jean Rollin with his erotic horror, the expansion of an intellectual SF, started and inspired Tarkovsky, all paved the way for Possession, a still unrivaled study of a marital break-up, thrown in the middle of political turmoil in divided cold war Berlin. Still, Possession had a special “career” in the UK, if by career we understand horrible reception, extremely negative reviews and eventually putting it to the “video nasties” list of banned films. “Film nobody likes,” it was deemed too arty for the flea pits and too trashy for the art house.*
Today perhaps we can’t imagine what it was like to live in a city surrounded by barbed wire and under a constant look of armed guards. When we first see Anna, played by a disturbingly pale, un-Holy Mary-like Isabelle Adjani and Mark (Sam Neill), we instantly see something is terribly wrong: their windows are under constant scrutiny, and surrounded by wire — the symbol of political oppression just as of the marital prison, of conventional life.
Mark’s job is not what it seems — he has completed a secret government mission, which he wants nothing to do with anymore. Meeting with mysterious grey-suited men, it’s clear he’s involved in high rank espionage. Anna can’t explain what is driving her towards the mysterious lover. She wears her deep blue, up-to-neck gown of a 19th-century governess, which walks her through all kinds of atrocities as if untouched, as if it’s a secret armor.
The Berlin U-bahn is a character in its own right, scene of her neurotic commutes to the fatal flat on another end of Kreuzberg, again, by the wall, with screaming dramatic graffiti: FREIE WEST and MAUER MUST GO (despite location in the east, it was still included in the West), and in its underpasses is the most terrifying scene of her possession, where she issues green-yellow gunk among terminal gargles. In all this there’s a place for comic relief: the whole character of lusty Margie, played by one of RW Fassbinder’s iconic actresses Margrit Carstensen and her comical enormous leg in plaster, just as her failed courtship of Mark; in one of Żuławski’s turns of surreal genius, when a stupor-ridden Adjani is on the tube, she’s robbed of a bunch of bananas by a homeless man, who takes one and gently puts the rest back to her bag. Luxury goods were an issue in the East, mind you.
The demon can be many things: her anxieties, her neuroses that took the shape of an evil monster. The monster can be also simply a misogynistic punishment for the unfaithful Żuławski’s wife. A chronically decaying demon, built out of corpses, can be also a sum of the traumas his generation had to go through. It is common to say of JG Ballard that everything he ever written, wore the shadow of the scenes he saw in a concentration camp in war-ridden Shanghai. Similarly, it is generally believed of Roman Polanski, that all his films, revolving around pain, trauma, sickly sexuality and claustrophobia, reveal the daily atrocities he saw as a child in Kracow’s ghetto. There’s no doubt Żuławski also went through a traumatic childhood experience, motifs of which he obsessively came back to throughout all his career: war, isolation, madness realizing in taboo eroticism, violence, evisceration, Polish romanticisme fou and our tragic history. Born in Lvov, Ukraine (then Poland) in 1940, he barely survived the war, once nearly hit by a bomb, witnessing the destruction of the city and his family at a very early age. In Possession we observe a growing hostility of the spouses, a decay of the family, of the city, and of the world.
Most of Żuławski’s and some of Polanski’s films, like Repulsion, Cul de Sac, Locataire (The Tenant), all associate eroticism with perversion and anomaly, and fetishism, in a genuinely surrealist way. Sex is creepy, sex involves an exchange of ugly secretions, preceding of our inevitable decay; in fact, sex is a delight in revulsion, in turning to rot, to a corpse, an acceptance not only of dying, but also of dying disgustingly.
Also, due to the amusing, pretty-ugly soundtrack of Andrzej Korzynski (rereleased recently, what’s characteristic, by English afficionados from Finders Keepers), the tale gains the feel of deceit and malice and of a childish game at once: music is here at the same time parodic and deadly serious. Korzynski had a longstanding relation to two Polish directors: the great Andrzej Wajda and to Żuławski, which can be compared to the greatest director-composer couples in cinema: Leone-Morricone, Argento-Goblin/Morricone, Fellini-Rota.** In Third Part of the Night it was more art and free rock and prog — a bricoleur, it’s clear he was taking from wherever he could. Some of his musique concrete experiments may owe a lot to the seminal activity of the pioneering Polish Radio Experimental Studio, and Wlodzimierz Kotoński. In Possession, he takes those typically romantic styles, like tango or waltz, and turns them upside down; similarly, he takes a children’s ditty motif, played on a broken harpsichord, and twists it with sardonic, scary undertones, like a parody of a cheap Hollywood film noir. Every romantic illusion, fantasy of a nice, unproblematic life, must in the end collapse and rear its disgusting head to us. The motifs come back on a loop, signifying the hopeless routine, in which the life of Mark and Anna has hung, and how terrible the way out of it must be.
Anna’s “nymphomania” can be also explained by her lack of orgasm. The whole film revolves around her lack of pleasure, or in general, woman’s incapacity to get an orgasm from the men that surround her. her craving for the beast is a typical freudian case of women’s narcissism grew out of imprisonment and solitude (much like the aristocrat in Borowczyk’s Beast, who also craved a monster as a source of unbelievable ecstasy). “Almost” we hear from Anna each time she has sex with her husband, with a tragic facial expression, typically, almost feeling sorry for him, not for herself. Woman blames herself for the lack of orgasm, never her lover. Neill is in his role often disarmingly, charmingly naïve: he’s chasing his wife, this woman, whom he doesn’t understand a bit, always several steps behind her, disoriented. I’m sure Żuławski wanted to suggest that it is man who is in fact the vulnerable sex, cheated by the deceitful woman. As a proof of that, we have also Anna’s double, their son’s teacher, like in many other films (Third Part of the Night), replacing the (dead) Anna, who’s less demanding in bed.
Anna is disintegrating, gradually possessed by demons: with her body becoming like a lifeless marionette, sleepwalking through the besieged city, with uncontrollable self-harm, shaken by one shock after another, obsessed with bodily mutilation (never before has an electric knife and kitchen automat meant so much in the marital drama). She’s breeding her monster on her neurosis, guilt and repulsion (like Catherine Deneuve keeping a dead rabbit in the fridge in Polanski’s eponymous film). I always actually thought monster is primarily an idea, Anna’s punishment, her thoughts that turn into flesh. A fallen from grace housewife and mother, living on sex like a vampire lives on blood, driven to madness by the increasingly mad Berlin, Anna falls out of her previous gender roles, challenges all the clichés of a woman of her class or position and mocks this spectacle. The only healthy products she keeps in her fridge now are the macabre heads and body-parts of her victims. It’s a story of a woman who stops controlling herself: stops controlling her libido (then of course she must fail as a mother), stops controlling her mind (madness ensues), then stops controlling her body — and then her fluids start to flow freely regardless of decorum: a dress is torn, a woman fucks an octopus, a woman expels vomit, yellow prenatal waters and finally the fetus, shaken, in a shocking scene, through all her orifices.
And then there’s the characteristic claustrophobia of all the interiors, as if the closeness of the eastern border and the restriction by the wall, especially felt in Kreuzberg district, caused a specific Island Fever mentality (Insellkoller). Polanski’s Locataire (together with Last Tango in Paris and Possession forming a great film trilogy about the madness induced by the claustrophobic bourgeois tenements), tells a story of a man increasingly assuming the identity of the previous female tenant, who killed herself (it’s also starring Adjani against her employ as an unattractive, bespectacled woman who grows friendly with Polanski’s character). Similarly, Anna’s monster belongs to the insalubrious, skanky place of their love, feeding on the negative aura surrounding the place, just like on the blood and the headless bodies she brings him. Żuławski had a proper budget behind him, so it is funny and telling, that the beast was made by the special FX specialist Carlo Rambaldi, known mostly for his outstanding work for Ridley Scott’s Alien (as well as Argento’s Profondo Rosso; then he went on to model the little body of E.T., amazingly) and it would be tempting to compare Alien and Possession‘s main females and in many other ways.
The glass-blue eyes of Isabelle Adjani seem to tell the truth beyond recognition, beyond understanding…She knows that the only way through the cold war of Europe and of her own marriage is to live it, become like them: crazy.
All this to the accompaniment of the melody of sardonic music box, deriding the characters. The queasy, sickly and morbid ditty, it owes a lot to Polish Jazz and Komeda’s deliberately frantic note and soundtracks to Lenica and Borowczyk’s animated films, House, or Labyrinth, or Polanski’s Cul de Sac with its fucked up organ melody in a false key, just as the cheap soundtrack to horror movies.. They all belong to something that could be called a Polish surrealist tradition, similar to the experimental Czech cinema. But its synth drivenness is another issue entirely, taking from the italo disco frenzy of the era, Giorgio Moroder’s Munich Machine.
The genius of Possession is that it’s at least three films at once. On the surface it is a horror movie, if slightly metaphysical, a giallo with images terrifying beyond comprehension, with a monster, cannibalism, blood, forbidden sexuality, macabre murders, corpses etc. On another level it is a marital break-up drama, much in the style of many Bergmans, like Scenes from a Marriage or From the Life of Marionettes, with spouses self-harming, humiliating, and tearing each other apart. But that still wouldn’t explain why they act the way they act, at least if we won’t accept the rule of exploitation: there’s no rules, and a plot of no plot. Here, a plot there definitely is, and it develops with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. Because another level of this drama is a political movie, set in the key city of international secret services and a scene of ideological war. Anna and Mark may live the relatively privileged life of expats, in their nice low-rise modernist flat, but are still subject to increasing alienation and isolation, harassed by men of mystery in ridiculous pink socks.
Trouble with sexuality pervades the whole film — woman’s sexuality, the murder of a homosexual couple, Anna’s previous lover ridiculed as an amateur of tantric sex and martial arts, and all this finalizing in a third world war-verging plot. Early 80s were the era of a “second cold war” entering a new phase, a nuclear crisis which could lead to third world war, which is implied by the final carnage between the secret services and the aftermath. Extremely theatrical, like a lot of the rest of the film, it’s very much in the “postmodern” style of the French Neobaroque. To me, Possession is one of the most prophetic movies for the 1980s, predicting the Polish Martial Law of the 1981 and the great depression that followed.
Żuławski’s genius was to see the personal drama as political, and the visceral and the sexual as coming from the social and political oppression. Incredibly stylish, haunted with beauty and austerity, it’s a world torn between Marx and Coca-cola (with Anna in one scene smashing the portraits of the classics of Marxism) and Żuławski is not necessarily a Marxist. The choices of many in that generation, and later — which they made as soon as capitalism entered Poland — wore serious traces of reacting over a trauma. Still, Żuławski remains a Romantic: revealing that love is the darkness, against the common, desexualized, sanitized convictions within capitalism.
** — observations I owe to one of Żuławski’s greatest experts, Daniel Bird.