Roger Ebert Home

No Exorcist Can Handle Possession

May contain spoilers


To call it overwrought would be an understatement. Andrzej Żuławski's 1981 masterpiece, butchered upon its original American release and relegated to spurious video-nasty circulation, is now returning in all its hysterical glory, as a part of Brooklyn's BAMcinématek complete Żuławski retro, which will then move to Cinefamily in Los Angeles. Featuring what is arguably the bravest female performance ever put on film - namely, Isabelle Adjani's Cannes-winning turn of shamanistic intensity - the film dares its viewer to enter a trance-like state, in which genres blur and mate to yield a new level of cinematic expression.


"Possession" opens with the end of a marriage: Anna (Isabelle Adjani) tells Mark (Sam Neill) she needs to leave him, even though she doesn't understand why. "Maybe all couples go through this...?", she wonders in their early, perfectly civil nighttime conversation, right before things go really crazy. As Anna becomes unhinged, sneaking off to an unseen lover and professing her newly-found independence in a variety of violent ways, Mark's reduced to mumbling "ma-ma-ma" over the phone, before curling up in a fetus-like position on his bed. Very soon, rows begin and quickly get physical - they involve mutual battering around as well as garish self-mutilation. Not exactly a cinematic shrinking violet, Żuławski casually punctuates one of the couple's shouting matches by throwing an unrelated car crash into the shot, just for added emphasis. It's all like a fast-forwarded Ingmar Bergman film on bad acid; "Scenes from a Marriage" as played in a home-made abattoir.


The movie enters its second, violently surreal act, when we learn of the true nature of Anna's extra-marital tryst: she regularly visits a dilapidated apartment, inhabited by a blood- and sex-starved monster, whom she both nurtures and couples with. Żuławski boldly literalizes the trite 'beauty and the beast' premise when Mark finally witnesses his ultimate trauma, peeking at his wife having sex with the creature - her limbs all mixed up with its tentacles. (The monster's design is courtesy of the great Carlo Rambaldi, who concocted it exactly one year before presenting the world with its ultimate cuddly friend, "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial").


Judging from the above, "Possession" is not exactly the kind of movie you'd expect to have been inspired by real-life events - and yet that's exactly the case. Żuławski wrote the script after his marriage to Małgorzata Braunek (the Polish star of his first two movies) hit the rocks and it was left to him to take care of their son Xawery (nowadays a celebrated director in his own right). With Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" as an alleged source of additional inspiration, Żuławski and his co-screenwriter Frederic Tuten put together a viscerally acute portrayal of male jealousy and rage, which includes a double set of not-to-be-revealed doppelgängers and is ultimately about the perils of personal freedom taken to its extreme.

Shot on location in divided Berlin, the movie makes a great, conspicuous use of wide-angle deep-focus photography, which renders each interior eerily compressed and all exteriors airy and ominous at the same time. "Possession"'s first image is that of Berlin wall itself, and Mark and Anna's place overlooks one of the wall's outposts, with the communist eastern part of the city looming in the background as a reminder of a violated, enslaved reality that the film's Polish director knew all too well (having been kicked out of his country twice). What's more, many shots of the main couple are organized so that the growing division between them is mirrored by dual composition, with Mark and Anna reigning over separate halves of the frame.

Contrary to William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" (1973), which relied on (often brilliantly used) horror-genre gimmickry, "Possession" is pervaded by a genuine sense of casual dread and sadness. It's not mere 'Satan' that takes over Adjani's body - it's evil itself, albeit defined in purely secular terms. In a notoriously graphic scene of Adjani's hyperactive convulsions in the Berlin subway, Anna gives birth to something even the director hesitated to define - and yet it's that something that causes the world's fracture in the film.


If one would try looking for comparisons that best describe Żuławski's sensibility, it would probably be wisest to position him mid-way between Brian DePalma and Ingmar Bergman. For all his love of cine-hyperbole, which often makes his movies feel like mere strings of 'grand' sequences, Żuławski doesn't share DePalma's slickness - or his heartlessness, for that matter. Instead of reducing his cinema to formal pyrotechnics, Żuławski remains deeply engaged with the secrets of the human soul, which he perceives as being forever torn apart by violent contradictions. In that alone, he's a deeply romantic director: a passionate explorer of what's most self-destructive about us. And yet, one feels him strive for an elation that would prove redemptive enough to help us carry on despite our deeply divisive desires. Even if "Possession" was once described as "a movie about a woman who fucks an octopus", there's no mistaking the fact that deep inside, Żuławski's cinema is all about searching for grace.

Michał Oleszczyk

Michał Oleszczyk is a film critic and scholar based in Poland. In 2012, he has been named the Critic of the Year by the Polish Film Institute.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

The Beach Boys


comments powered by Disqus