I like storytelling. I appreciate it. It's a good friend to have coffee with. But I am passionately in lust with style. I will climb out my bedroom window to meet style in the middle of the night anytime, anywhere.
When a director can mix the two, so much the better (Cocteau could do it, so could Hitchcock, and presently Burton and Aronofski straddle the fence well). But most of the surrealist and visually-stimulating directors I admire are unabashed stylists (The Brothers Quay, Beineix, Lynch, Jodorowski, Russell, Argento, Godard, Fellini, Maddin, Bergman, and so on). They don't often bother with the narrative aspects. Their movies are moving canvasses of imagination.
I had never seen any of Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski's movies before finally catching 1981's Possession, apparently his first and only English-language film. But every flick fan is on the precipice of discovery at one time or another… and now, I want to see more Zulawski.
I have since learned that Possession won star Isabelle Adjani an award at Cannes the year it premiered, and polarized reporters. I decided to look around online to see what people thought of it, and was quite frankly shocked to see not a single good review (granted; I didn't give up my lunch hour to scour each and every site). I was surprised that so many of the reviewers took everything they saw so literally… Adjani's character isn't really screwing a squid! It's called allegory. Some of the critics wondered about the "cloning" of the characters. It's called metaphor.
Let me back up a tad. Much like Cronenberg's gory, bizarre version of The Fly, there's a pre-CGI days "creature" in this movie. It's reminiscent of something from Invasion of the Body Snatchers as imagined by h.p. lovecraft. It's not entirely believable by today's standards, but effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi's (Deep Red, Alien) work holds up admirably. And Zulawski was savvy to keep most glimpses brief and shadow-cloaked. And remember: it's a nightmare. It's not supposed to be a real octopus!
Like many European arthouse films, Possession is so cerebral it's stupid. Don't try and figure it out. Go insane with the characters, and dive headfirst into their horrible sadomasochistic love (very much along the lines of Jodorowski's black and white Fando y Lis, but with the extreme color profusion of Beineix's Betty Blue). Are the characters even real? I don't know, and I don't care. Possession is an ostentatious, absurd waterfall of beauty and horror and I let it wash over me.
Adjani, and Sam Neill as her husband, are fearless and frightening in their extreme performances. She's a manic marvel, and to revisit his early work made me think of very strongly of Jude Law when he's playing it seductive, crafty, predatory and reprehensible. I'd never equated Neill with Law before, but to me the similar vibe was uncanny — and most intriguing. Neill is always good (most recently as the snaky Cardinal Thomas Wolsey on the HBO series, "The Tudors"), but he's never really shaken me before. In Possession, he's an earthquake of emotions.
Most impressive of all is the cinematography, by Bruno Nuytten (he lensed Godard's visually lush Détective, and he is married to Adjani — he later made his directorial debut with her in the title role of Camille Claudel). Nuytten mixes it up with impressive, and never, ever traditional dolly shots, interminable tracking, hand-held, slow push-outs, and so on. His work involving mirrors and staircases (two of my own favorite fixations) is truly breath-stealing. I felt giddy just watching it from a visual standpoint alone — add in the amazing acting, gory semi-story, and vomit of obsession, and you have a near-perfect art film!
Possession is a hypnotic, hysterical movie that's definitely not for everyone. Not even a few. But if it's for you, you'll be in its thrall forever.
= = =Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson