Back in 1983 the New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby reported how Zulawski's cult movie reveals a familiar cultural divide: "One critic reported that the Cannes audience was ''traumatized'' by it. New York audiences may be reduced to helpless laughter." In other words, Possession will either be the most ludicrous film you have ever seen...or you are a pretentious European.
Now here's the thing. This movie shouldn't really have worked for me. In fact it shouldn't work for anybody, but I have a known immunity to the kind of spiritual upheaval that movies like The Exorcist supposedly induce. On a fundamental level, I can't take personifications of evil all that seriously. And yet, although far from traumatised, I was thoroughly entertained, and yes, to a certain extent, disturbed.
It appears that the actors were instructed to deliver their lines — more often than not apparently scripted by a committee of depraved psychotics with phrasebook English — at an emotional pitch fluctuating in and out of what would generally be regarded as normal. Every so often however there are little gems of more lucid dialogue which catch the attention, as if emerging from a neblina of nonsense. ("For the first time you look vulgar to me..." Sam Neil also spouts a lot of stuff about a dog that comes to die under the porch and yelps 'as if it's seen something real'.)
Something similar is going on with the plot. If ever there was one, Zulawski goes about losing it willfully almost from the opening. Yet most of the scenes still function to drive the narrative onwards, while many imitate the familiar tropes of the genre.
And this is against a backdrop of what I can only describe as histrionic symbolic overload. It's as if the subtext has stormed the Winter Palace of comfortable bourgeois meanings and basically ransacked the place.
If the words and actions are almost empty of meaning, the streets of Berlin we behold are almost empty....but tellingly not completely so. For instance, when Heinrich emerges from the apartment block bleeding, attentive viewers might spot another man running away in the distance.
It's true that Europeans of a certain age will tune into some of this visual suggestion a little more easily. Berlin itself was then the über-symbol of the darker side of European imagination, and cropped up all over the place in the popular culure of the time, such as in this tune from the Mobiles produced a year later. (An 80s aesthetic that was successfully satirised by Not The Nine O'Clock News. I suppose you could read Possesion as some sort of satire too! It certainly has instances of intentional comedy.)
Here the divided city provides a canopy under which Zulawski can connect a disparate collection of religious and poltical meanings. In particular it serves as the big daddy of the film's emblems of duality and duplication in this tale.
Now if it really were all a load of crock, I don't think I would have fround it so either so gripping as a viewer, or indeed interesting as a writer, because I genuinely think Zulawski was experimenting with a number of techniques here for telling a story in a tangibly outreageous manner.
Anyway, if you are going to watch it, seek out the uncut European version. The Yanks, in their wisdom, decided to lop off forty five minutes and rearrange the sequencing of some of the crucial scenes in the hope of creating the kind of sense that North American audiences generally appreciate.
The complete version features the seemingly endless scene below in all its gory glory (and in its proper place in the plotline.) Just before Isabelle Adjani's extended freak-out and subsequent expulsion of all kinds of unpleasant fluids, there occurs one of those inexplicable but powerful moments in the movie — and which V has singled out as her favourite — where the French actress, shot to resemble the Madonna (I think!) looks up at a carved image of Christ on the cross and squeals in a somehow disturbingly muted fashion.