The first time I watched Possession, I hated it. I found it cartoonishly overwrought, completely disjointed, and so bewildering that when my late-night viewing was over, I just assumed I fell asleep and dreamt large chunks of it (I hadn’t).
Twelve years and close to that many viewings later, Possession is now my favorite movie.
A dramatic turnaround, but hardly one unique to my experience. In a lot of ways, the evolution of my opinion mirrors that of the larger world: since its controversial debut at the Cannes Film Festival 40 years ago, Possession’s reputation and legacy have undergone a remarkable gestation, not unlike the creature at the center of its story. The product of a traumatic mental breakdown spurred by familial disintegration, the film’s initial release came in the form of a mutilated miscarriage, but thanks to the patient nurturing of its small but diligent cult of devotees, it has since mutated into a masterwork of deeply sinister power.
Possession centers around Mark and Anna (Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, both giving career best performances), a couple living along the border of West Berlin (he’s a spy, she’s a ballet instructor) whose symbiotic relationship is so powerful that the violent fracturing of their union ushers into existence an interdimensional demon of pure malevolence, while also bringing about the end of the world. (This…will not all be clear on first viewing.)
I don’t know quite what I expected when I first watched Possession, but it wasn’t what I got. A friend had asked if I’d ever seen it, to which I replied that I hadn’t even heard of it. He went on to describe it in opaque, but intriguing terms, as a relationship drama starring Sam Neill in which a sea monster suddenly appears from out of nowhere halfway through. The film’s director, Andrzej Żuławski, initially pitched his idea to studios in similar, but more titillating terms: it was, in his words, “a film about a woman who fucks an octopus.”
Neither synopsis is entirely wrong, but neither do they capture what Possession actually is. To be sure, the film does star Sam Neill, it does introduce a monster about halfway through its runtime, and a woman most certainly does fuck something resembling an octopus, but the film is so much more than the sum of those selling points . At its core, Possession is about the all encompassing devastation wrought by love–devastation that Żuławski depicts through all manner of emotional, psychological, physical, political and even automotive carnage.
Żuławski’s style has been described as ‘hysterical’, a term he did not care for, but which nonetheless fits. Having seen all of his films, I don’t know that Possession is necessarily the most hysterical, but it is certainly the one in which the hysteria feels its purest. This is because Possession is Zulawski’s most personal film, the product of real suicidal despair following the dissolution of his own family (as in the movie, his wife left him for a New Agey-charlatan), which coincided with his (second) exile from his native Poland following the communist government’s shutdown and attempted destruction of his previous project, his magnum science fiction opus, On the Silver Globe (and astounding film long overdue for its own rediscovery).
By this point in his career, Żuławski was relatively well-known and well-regarded on the international movie scene, less for the couple of films he’d made in Poland up to that point than for his 1977 French production (and the only real hit of his career), L’ Important C’est D’aimer (The Most Important Thing: Love), a dizzying romantic melodrama set against the Paris’s pornographic underworld and starring Euro icons Romy Schneider, Fabio Testi and Klaus Kinski.
So, when his next international production (and sole English language film), Possession, debuted at Cannes in 1981, it was met with a fair amount of interest, especially since it featured Adjani, a big star in her native France, front and center, alongside Neill, who, although still a lesser known quantity at that point, had received good notices for his performance in the Australian drama My Brilliant Career two years prior (it was that role which brought him to Żuławski’s attention, and in fact, the director initially wanted to bring along his Brilliant Career co-star, Judy Davis, for the role of Anna).
Given how assaultive, violent and strange Possession is, it was never going to earn unanimous praise from Cannes’ reliably prickly and capricious audience, but the festival judges couldn’t deny the genius of Adjani’s seismic, shamanistic performance, rightly bestowing upon her that year’s Best Actress award (although the honor was given to her for her roles in both Possession and the Merchant Ivory film Quartet, which also played at the festival).
Had Possession come about two decades earlier, during the height of the international arthouse movement which saw directors like Roman Polanski and Ingmar Bergman earn fame and acclaim for their transgressive, challenging visions, it might have garnered a similar kind of notice, although it would no doubt have remained divisive. However, the ‘80s were a very different time for cinema, one marked by political and commercial regression. Possession received a limited run in France concurrent with its Cannes debut, but it was never released in Germany despite being shot there, while in the U.K. it landed on the (non-prosecuted) Video Nasties list, ensuring both infamy and unavailability.
Worse yet was the film’s treatment in America, where it was released two years later in a totally butchered form, with 40 minutes cut out, and totally re-edited and re-scored. According to Daniel Bird, the curator and writer who worked closely with Żuławski during the last decade of his life, and who, more than any other single person, is most responsible for increased awareness of the director’s work during that time and since, this was hardly different from what Poland’s communist regime had put the director through. “With Possession,” Bird wrote, “Żuławski escaped from Eastern Bloc censorship only to fall victim to the commercial pressures of film distribution in the U.S.”
Unsurprisingly, the U.S. edit of Possession was reviled by most who saw it—including, somewhat hilariously, fellow Soviet émigré and auteur (as well as a former personal acquaintance of Żuławski’s) Andrei Tarkovsky, who called it “unspeakably revolting” and laid the blame for the film’s entire conception on “money, money, money.” (It’s tempting to think Tarkovsky might have felt different had he seen the original cut of the film, except that he and Żuławski are, in many ways, each other’s polar opposite aesthetically and philosophically, so chances he’d have been personally offended anyway.)
For the next 15 or so years, Possession remained mostly forgotten, although it lingered in the memories of those who had seen the original cut (including Italian maestro Dario Argento, who credited the film’s bold color palette for inspiring the cold blue look of his 1982 giallo, Tenebre), as well as the psychotronic video set who found even the mangled U.S. version worthwhile.
(I’d note that, for as despised as that cut is, when I saw a screening of it at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theater around 2011—on a double bill with Polanski’s Repulsion, natch—I thought it made for an effectively unsettling and memorable viewing experience, even if that version is, for the most part, utterly incomprehensible.)
Żuławski continued making brilliant and controversial movies in France and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland, up to the year 2000, which saw the release of his last feature for 15 years, La Fidélité. The same year his directorial career came to a halt also marked the beginning of a wider international reappraisal of his previous work, thanks to the first release of Possession—in near-original form—on DVD. A barebones set with a not-great transfer, the release brooked little attention at the time, but was nonetheless essential in starting the movement that would eventually earn it its proper due.
Over the decade that followed, a number of arthouse retrospectives of Żuławski’s filmography—most of them overseen by Bird—were bolstered by a steady rise in media coverage of the man and his films: blogs and news articles, interviews, podcasts, and even a couple of books (most notable is Possession’s prevalence in Keir-La Janisse’s highly acclaimed House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, the first printing of which repurposed Basha Baranowska’s iconic poster art for its cover).
Then, in 2008, a boutique physical media brand, Mondo Vision, was formed with the express purpose of releasing restorations of Żuławski’s work on Blu-ray, starting with his Dostoevskian-erotic thriller La Femme Publique (1984), and continuing with L’important c’est d’aimer, L’amour Braque (1985) and Szamanka (1996) over the following four years. Four years after that last release, they finally put out Possession in a loaded set that stands as a legitimate piece of art in its own right (this is true of every one of their releases, any of which I’d put up against the best work Criterion has ever done). Since then, Mondo Vision has released one other Żuławski film—1992’s phantasmagoric Chopin biopic La Notte Blue—and announced a forthcoming collection containing his first three Polish films (The Third Part of the Night, Diabel and On the Silver Globe), although there’s been no new word on the latter for almost five years now.
In the middle of this decade, Żuławski stepped behind the camera one last time for an adaptation of the great Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz’s deranged, philisophical murder mystery Cosmos. Sadly, he was ill throughout the production, and passed away before the film received its international release in 2016 (although he did live long enough to complete it). As far as final artistic statements go, there are few as worthy of their creator’s greatness as Cosmos, and while it’s reception in America was muted, it did result in a couple more Żuławski retrospectives (as did his passing).
In the time since, awareness towards his body of work, and in particular Possession, has continued to grow thanks to a number of films and projects that have openly borne its influence, including the Mexican horror drama The Untamed and the music video for Massive Attack’s “Voodoo in My Blood”, both from 2016, as well as Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Argento’s Berlin-set Suspiria and Gaspar Noe’s orgiastic nightmare Climax, both from 2018. Two years ago, Żuławski’s son Xawery–upon whom the character of Bob in Possession is based, and an established director in his own right–directed his late father’s final script, Bird Talk, a semi-autobiographical story containing several clips and music cues from Possession, and which features a fictional version of Andrzej contemplate the film’s legacy all these years later.
Just a few months ago, Possession received another physical release, this time in the form of a massive, four-disc French set that includes a brand-new 4k transfer of the film. Like the previous Mondo Vision release, the high cost (worth every penny, by the way) and limited number of copies will keep many a curious viewer from purchasing it. This, combined with the film’s lack of availability on streaming services, guarantees that Possession will remain underseen–although no longer unknown–for the immediate future at least.
This is something I find simultaneously lamentable and relieving, for while I would love nothing more than for others to experience Possession, a part of me also wishes for it to remain in the shadows, something I get to introduce people to the way it was introduced to me. At the risk of being accused of ‘gatekeeping’, I also find the film so profound, and it means so much to me personally, that I can’t help but feel you should have to do a little bit of work to find it. I know these concerns are selfish and petty at base, but the prevalence of the film’s most notorious scene—in which Adjani undergoes a full-body seizure in an underground U-Bahn station (Żuławski instructed her to ‘fuck the air’)—on social media doesn’t help to change my mind. I’d rather the film fall back into obscurity than see it reduced to a meme.
But I also recognize that, ultimately, the film’s power won’t be reduced one iota should its profile continue to rise. At this point, it probably is only a matter of time before it does show up on one streaming platform or other. Once that happens, I have no doubt that Possession will join the canon of respectable world cinema. It will then have moved from grindhouse flop, to weird horror curio, to cult classic, to arthouse masterpiece, to bonafide cinema classic, and, like the unholy abomination within the film itself, its ascendance will be complete.