The phrase over the top doesn't begin to characterize Polish director Andrzej Zulawski's 1981 Possession. Made with an international cast in still-divided Berlin, the movie starts as an unusually violent breakup film, takes an extremely yucky turn toward Repulsion-style psychological breakdown, escalates into the avant-garde splatterific body horror of the '70s (Eraserhead or The Brood) and ends in the realm of pulp metaphysics, as in I Married a Monster From Outer Space.
Critics found Possession risible when, cut by some 40 minutes, it opened in New York on Halloween 1983. I confess I was one, terming it “a sort of arty Basketcase … difficult to recount with a straight face.” But I never forgot it; Possession is not a movie you can easily scrape off the bottom of your shoe, particularly in the complete two-hour version, which is having its belated local premiere this week.
Zulawski seems to have subjected his actors to the sort of intense physical and psychological regimen associated with theatrical guru Jerzy Grotowski. Isabelle Adjani, crowned best actress at Cannes, gives the performance of a lifetime — a veritable aria of hysteria — as an increasingly distraught, unfaithful wife who (literally) brings her (or our) delusions to life; wide-eyed and gasping for breath, Sam Neill is fiercely ineffectual as her volatile, betrayed husband. Not just extremely performative, the movie is also wildly atmospheric. Carlo Rambaldi, the special-effects whiz who put the Alien in Alien, contributes a memorable slime monster, and West Berlin has never seemed bleaker.
Not without a political subtext (made by a Polish exile during the year of martial law), Possession is at once a dread-inducing ordeal, a bloody arabesque and a swooning celebration of Adjani's long, cloaked form in perpetual motion. The convulsive action reaches its peak, if not its dramatic climax, in the near–real time scene in which, famously directed to “fuck the air,” contortionist Adjani bounces off the walls of an underground passage, hemorrhaging bloody goo from every orifice. A movie that has to be seen to be believed, Possession is like Rambaldi's creature: It isn't necessarily good, but it is most definitely something. —J. Hoberman
POSSESSION | Written and directed by ANDRZEJ ZULAWSKI | March 1-7 | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | cinefamily.org