Finding Meaning In ‘Possession’

❉ Johnny Restall examines the ferociously strange and surreal natal nightmare.

Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) opens with a simple premise: Mark (Sam Neill) arrives home in Cold War Berlin, to find that his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) has apparently been unfaithful. However, the story soon twists into something far more disturbing… Traumatic, horrifying, and hysterical, the film has lost none of its power in the 40 years since its release in May 1981.

Its closest cinematic cousins are probably David Cronenberg’s 1979 The Brood and Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing (1980), but neither is quite so ferociously strange and surreal. The film had enough bodily fluids and gore to make the infamous 1980s UK ‘video nasties’ list; yet it is also a fearlessly-acted domestic drama, and a political allegory, riven with spiritual longing.

The script, by Zulawski and American author Frederick Tuten, actually had an autobiographical basis. Zulawski’s previous marriage had ended acrimoniously, and the director had also been effectively exiled from Poland, after the Government closed down production on his film On The Silver Globe (finally released in 1988). These ‘divorces’ from both partner and country mirror the divided couple and city at the heart of Possession.

From the opening credits, the Berlin Wall dominates the locations used for shooting, including the view from Anna and Mark’s apartment. Turmoil, uncertainty and separation define everything; when Mark returns in the first scene, he picks up and puts down his bags three times, as if he no longer knows whether he is home or not.

Mark and Anna consistently appear on opposing sides of the frame, proceeding to attack each other’s physical space. They begin their early confrontation at Café Einstein sat in mirrored poses but each facing away from the other at a sharp right angle, trapped behind their tables, linked by posture but pulling apart. Their meeting descends into a bitter, physical quarrel, Mark hurling tables and chairs aside as he pursues Anna, their violent personal rupture spilling out into the claustrophobic environment.

The film takes a cathartic glee in the violence the couple inflict on each other, particularly the way it assaults the order of their surroundings. One particularly vicious encounter explodes out into the street, causing a passing truck to spill its load of wrecked cars onto the pavement, as if to add a furious, seismic exclamation mark to the scene. Characteristically, Anna strides away wild-eyed and bloody, in a state of possessed, martyred triumph; Mark meanwhile enthusiastically throws himself into a child’s football game, one of many moments to establish him as an overgrown boy, unable to cope with adult emotions.

Despite the hostile nature of most of their interactions, they are inexorably drawn back together, with Mark admitting, “Without you, I wouldn’t feel anything at all.” Caught between them is their neglected young son Bob (Michael Hogben), whose obsession with submerging himself beneath the bathwater seems to suggest a desire to return to the womb, perhaps a longing to be reborn to stable parents.

The couple’s tortured bond is further emphasised by their ‘new loves’. Also played by Neill and Adjani, they are physical doppelgangers but for their clear green eyes (a colour traditionally symbolising jealousy). They appear to be idealised versions of the unruly real Mark and Anna. Helen, a teacher, dresses in light colours rather than Anna’s dark blue, hair neatly plaited, calm, and tolerant of Mark’s neediness and unreliability. The ‘finished’ version of Anna’s creation meanwhile is confident and assured, literally stepping over the broken Mark. Yet the ambiguous, apocalyptic conclusion suggests that even these ‘perfected’ versions are liable to wreak destruction if united…

The characters are entirely enclosed by their bleak environment, lovingly captured by DP Bruno Nuytten. Divided Berlin surrounds them with conflict, betrayal, and exposure. They appear so resigned to having their lives monitored that Anna does not even seem to notice the comically unsubtle detectives Mark hires to follow her. Mark himself appears to have been some kind of spy, liaising with a mysterious contact in pink socks (presumably a double-agent), who reappears at the conclusion. The personal and the political collide, with loyalties and values collapsing under the strain of conforming and picking a side.

This sense of entrapment is furthered by the restless camerawork constantly circling the characters, emphasising their physical confinement. In response, the actors abuse and destabilise the frame, entering from unexpected angles and assaulting its boundaries with wild, kinetic movements. Mark repeatedly swings into demented close-up from his rocking chair, and throws barely directed punches and slaps. Anna hurls clothing and shopping around, and flails in uncontrollable spasms, most notably in the infamous U-Bahn tunnel scene, with Adjani giving an astoundingly committed, terrifyingly physical performance.

If Mark and Anna almost embrace the physical disorder, Anna’s former lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) spirals in the opposite direction. He begins the film as an insinuatingly tactile, posing figure, believing himself enlightened and spiritual. As the bizarre truth emerges, his poise crumbles and he crashes into walls, staggers as if blinded, and finally ends up face down in a toilet bowl.

Heinrich’s shallow mystical pretensions highlight the unrequited yearning for deliverance which permeates the film. Mark describes God as a “disease”, prompting Heinrich’s retort: “Through the disease, we can reach God.” The characters long for meaning, but the philosophies they create are perverted and ridiculous. They bring only destruction, mirroring the shop-soiled conflict between the Christian, capitalist West and the ‘Godless’, communist East, embodied in Berlin.

Crucially, Anna’s past as a ballet teacher suggests an unsustainable need for perfect balance. Having lost this ‘balance’, her patience and belief are gone, as she explains: “My faith didn’t allow to wait for chance, and chance didn’t give me enough faith.” Immediately before her ‘possession’ in the U-Bahn tunnel, we see her staring with frenzied longing at a sculpture of Jesus. She receives no salvation, and her thwarted desire creates a personal monstrosity to worship instead. Reflecting on her horrific moment of revelation in the underground, she states: “What I miscarried there was Sister Faith.” In a blasphemous touch, she hides her “divine” creation away in a house on Sebastian Strasse, the name recalling the titular saint, obliged to conceal his Christian faith in Roman times. Once Mark’s only previous spiritual insight is revealed to be his memory of hearing the dying yelps of the family dog (“as if it had seen something real”), it becomes inevitable that he too will eventually adopt Anna’s new ‘faith’, embracing the inescapable link between his vision of deliverance and death.

Ultimately, the title Possession seems ironic – for me, the film is really about the lack of it. Lack of self-possession, in the sense of any private self in a world of surveillance, and in terms of personal control, as Anna and Mark surrender utterly to their emotions, heedless of the consequences. Lack of stable personal relationships and trust. Lack of a home or country, exiled on one side or the other by a wrenching divide, torn apart by shifting loyalties. And finally, lack of faith or meaning, left to construct monstrous personal theologies to the utter indifference of any God or Devil, of any denomination. In such a world, the madness of the protagonists seems an almost sane reaction.

❉ ‘Possession’ (1981) was released on Blu-ray via Second Sight Films on 29 July 2013. Currently out of print.

❉ Johnny Restall writes and draws inky pictures. You can find him on Twitter @johnnyrestall.

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