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Friday, July 16, 2021

Feelings Change: Anger, Fear, and ‘Possession’ in Andrzej Zulawksi’s Nightmare Divorce

Few movies depict emotional turmoil as effectively and daringly as Andrzej Zulawksi’s Possession. It is a challenging and sometimes inscrutable film, both for the mind and the emotions. Zulawski struggles through a number of deep issues throughout the course of the film; issues that speak to some of humanity’s deepest pains and fears. In many ways it is about loss— loss of political ideals, loss of faith, and loss of innocence. But most of all, Possession is about the fear, pain, and anger that comes from the loss of a marriage. 

From the opening moments, we are thrust into Possession’s gray-toned world and into its political subtext. The first shots are of the Berlin wall, memorials marking the spots where people were killed attempting to flee the east side of it, and ruined and decayed portions of the city. Mark (Sam Neill) is a spy returning to West Berlin from an assignment in the Communist Block but has just learned that his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) plans to leave him. The Wall is a constant reminder of Mark’s true occupation. He often watches from the window of his apartment, which overlooks the Wall, to see Soviet guards spying on him through binoculars. This only heightens the film’s sense of foreboding and paranoia as the political world outside seeps into Mark’s personal struggles.

Possession was born out of personal strife and political disillusionment. According to Zulawski, the creature in the film in part represents an evil ideology that had, unbeknownst to Anna, planted its seed within her and grown to bear grotesque fruit. He had grown intensely resentful of the oppressive Communist regime that he had grown up with and spent much of his career under in Poland. His two previous films, The Devil (1972) and On the Silver Globe (finally released in an incomplete form in 1988), were arduous experiences to make and release under the iron hand of the government censors. It was while making On the Silver Globe, a protracted eighteen-month labor, that he began to conceive the idea for Possession. The political themes are ever-present in the form of the colorless grey cityscapes and the looming Berlin Wall but are ultimately esoteric and elusive to western and post-Soviet audiences.

The other themes of the film remain far more universal and timeless. Though tangential at the beginning, the themes of the loss and corruption of faith becomes far more central as the film goes on. Mark has become a hardened cynic who feels that “God is a disease.” Heinrich, Anna’s new lover, feels that he has connected with some informal version of God through his drug use, travels in India, and most of all his affair with Anna. Heinrich’s mother seems to be a person of more traditional faith and speaks of the body, the soul, and their separation as a cross hangs on her wall. But even she has lost her faith by the end.

The most potent exploration of faith in Possession is Anna’s. In a home movie made by Heinrich that shows up on Mark’s doorstep, she speaks of the “two sisters—Faith and Chance” and the eternal struggle between them. To Anna, they wrestle, claw, and try to destroy each other, keeping their eyes locked on her the whole time. She also speaks of a third possibility that attempts to destroy them both. She is unable to completely articulate this possibility but calls them “cancer or madness.” The film’s most infamous sequence begins with Anna staring up a crucifix, unable to articulate words. Instead, she moans and wails her unspeakable pain to the unhearing wooden statue. She then leaves the church to ride the subway. As she leaves the station and walks down a long tunnel, something overtakes her, and she begins to convulse.

The scene was one of the last shot for the film, and Adjani had reached a point of absolute knowledge of her character and apparent trust in herself and her director. According to Zulawski, the only direction he gave her was to “fuck the air.” What appears in the film is the first take of two—a second was shot only because the cameraman believed that someone’s foot had entered the shot, but it was not nearly as good as what was captured the first time around. The moment is so intense, and Adjani performs with such complete abandon that there has been speculation that Zulawski mistreated her to capture the moment. There is really no way to know for sure, but according to Zulawski, it was simply complete commitment on Adjani’s part. Zulawski had only positive things to say about Adjani and praised her professionalism and dedication. He also credited her and her connections in the Italian film industry with bringing the great Carlo Rambaldi on to design and build the film’s creature. 

The scene culminates with Anna miscarrying in the subway tunnel in a flood of vomit, blood, and green bile. She reveals to Mark that it is not a child, but an idea that was lost in this scene. “What I miscarried there was Sister Faith. And what was left is Sister Chance. So, I had to take care of my Faith, to protect it.” What she perceives as her faith, Zulawski perceived as an evil ideology that had taken root in her. Throughout the film, it grows, changes, and feeds. It corrupts, destroys, and evolves until it becomes something that looks pleasant but is rotten to the core. Still, because Anna birthed it and it loves her as she wants to be loved, she cares for it and does unspeakable acts for it. Because these are esoteric ideas and never spelled out in a simple fashion, they remain with each viewer to struggle through for themselves. Is the creature a religious ideology or a political one? Maybe it is a little of both or perhaps even neither. It depends wholly upon the perceptions of each person to discover what this Lovecraftian creature means to them.

The most relatable element of the film, more than either its political or religious aspects, is the relational struggle at the center of the story. For all its subtexts, the film is most about the dissolution of a marriage and the child caught in the crossfire of his parents’ battle. The film was written from a place of pain and anger over the disintegration of Zulawski’s own marriage. Like Mark, he returned home from many months abroad to discover that his wife was having an affair. Possession is ultimately his attempt to exorcise his pain and anger. 

At first, Mark pleads with Anna, then tries to reason with her, in hopes that she will think of their son, Bob. “Feelings change, but without you I wouldn’t feel anything at all,” he tells her as he attempts to reconnect. It is a scene that appears intimate but emotionally the couple could not be more distant. Though they lie side by side, naked and vulnerable, they might as well be miles apart. From there, both Mark and Anna go through various stages of madness. Though Adjani’s performance is often the focus of attention, Sam Neill gives an equally daring and often unhinged performance in the film. 

Mark becomes obsessed with the idea that Anna had an affair while he was away, and soon discovers that she did. When he confronts her about it, Anna feels no remorse. In a scene in the Café Einstein, Anna says, “no one is good or bad, but if you want, I’m the bad one. And if I knew he [Heinrich] existed in this world, I would have never had Bob with you!” Mark flies into a rage and tries to attack her, throwing and smashing chairs as he pursues her before the staff of the café restrain him. Mark then falls into a deep depression and moves into a hotel room. Time seems to have no meaning. He is completely unable to care for himself and sits in piles of his own filth. When he finally comes out of it, he asks a housekeeper how long he has been there. She tells him three weeks.

Mark pulls himself together and heads home to find Bob in a similar state. The young boy has been left to fend for himself for an unknown amount of time. He is covered in peanut butter and jelly, the only food he has been able to find, amidst a littering of toys and clothes. This seems to bring Mark back to some sense of reality. Throughout the course of the film, the moments he is with Bob seem to ground Mark, giving him purpose and sanity. When he tries to reconnect with Anna, he once again descends toward madness. The unfortunate collateral damage is Bob.

Some of the most powerful moments of the film are those that involve Mark and Anna emotionally stabbing at each other. Each wants the other to feel just as much or more pain than they do. At the same time, each also seems to want the other to hurt them back. If Anna hates Mark more than he hates her, somehow it is her responsibility, and vice versa. Eventually they get to the point of numbness. They just want to feel something, anything, besides hatred for each other, even to the point of self-destruction. During an argument, Anna uses an electric knife to slice her neck. After dressing her wound, Mark uses the knife to cut his own arm several times just to feel some kind of logical pain, even if the act itself is irrational. Both Mark and Anna are lost in the turmoil of being unable to understand their own intense and contradictory feelings. Mark in particular hates Anna but fears he cannot live without her.

A momentary stabilizing force for Mark is Helen (also played by Adjani), the absolute doppelganger of Anna. Where Anna has become ice to him, Helen exudes warmth. The fact that both Mark and Anna find replacements that look exactly like their former spouse is a key and mysterious element of the film. One look-alike is purely good, the other is purely evil. Ultimately it remains unclear if the evil overcomes the good or if good stands firm against it. The ambiguous ending to the film leaves a lingering sense of dread but perhaps a glimmer of hope that Helen will heed Bob’s warning and leave the evil at bay. 

Along with David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), Possession remains one of the great horror films (and indeed films period) about divorce. Horror is a particularly potent way to address the pain, anger, and conflicting emotions involved in the breakdown of marriage. While Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) and A Marriage Story (2019) can effectively depict the realities of divorce and child custody turmoil, these horror films can tap into a deeper root of emotion that is difficult to express in entirely reality-bound films. Though neither The Brood nor Possession spell it all out for us, they strike emotional chords that few movies are capable of reaching. 

Ultimately, Possession is a meditation on the meaning of its title. That one single word can take on several connotations. Is it a film about being taken over by an outside force? The anger that Mark and Anna feel take them to the point of complete loss of self. They both descend into hatred and madness and give themselves over to false hopes that can only destroy them. Or is it a literal outside evil as in demonic possession? Perhaps it is an exploration of the feelings of ownership one person has over another in a marriage relationship. The film refuses to give easy answers. It demands deep thought and emotional struggle. It is an exploration of the complexities of interpersonal relationships and the difficulties, and perhaps impossibilities, of love, marriage, and the bonds between humans. Maybe it all comes down to a simple fact expressed early in the film: feelings change. Beyond that, people evolve, struggle, grow, and sometimes regress. But perhaps the film posits that change is good and we are far better off when we embrace it.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3674282/feelings-change-anger-fear-possession-andrzej-zulawksis-nightmare-divorce/

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