Andrzej Zulawski, Possession, 1981, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes. Left: Mark (Sam Neill). Right: Anna (Isabelle Adjani).


DESERVEDLY NOTORIOUS, and now revived uncut by Film Forum, Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film Possession plunges into a vertiginous free fall of amour fou, lust, hysteria, and unnameable, uncontainable passion. A perfect match to the destabilizing urges under fresh study in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, this is mania without analysis: Consumed by someone somewhere else, young mother Anna (Isabelle Adjani) effectively abandons her husband Mark (Sam Neill) and their boy. Guilty of his own absences, Mark enters a frenzy of desperation and jealousy. He eventually tracks down Anna’s ludicrous lover Heinrich (the late Heinz Bennent), but the finding reveals little about the mutant extravagance behind Anna’s unexplained disappearances, outbursts, and distrait silences.

Zulawski stages his expressionistic danse macabre in a bleak West Berlin, shooting the couple’s apartment complex and the underpopulated streets with the exhausted, bright lucidity of an insomniac’s gaze. But the setting would be nothing without Adjani, embodying an emotional wraith, eyes shifting from melancholy to tantalizing secretiveness to cold fire. Her inscrutability at first appears conventional; early in the film she greets Mark sullenly after his return from a mysterious business trip. But as her husband digs in, the outbursts grow wilder; every kitchen implement seems a deadly weapon. Neill, apparently directed to deliver lines as if stream-of-consciousness, holds nothing back; we in turn become absorbed in their careening among rooms, or in a simple, repeated gesture, like Adjani’s madly fluttering hands.

Possession’s oft-hyped special effects—menstruating walls and a phallic creature in Anna’s secret second apartment—care of Carlo Rambaldi, are only the most overtly surreal embellishment to a movie that’s already bent by DP Bruno Nuytten’s wide angles and nervous circling camera. (In another surreal touch, Adjani does double duty as Anna’s green-eyed doppelgänger, a milk-fresh schoolteacher who catches Mark’s eye.) The is-this-for-real factor of its excesses sees descendants in the likes of Werner Schroeter’s 1991 Malina (starring Isabelle Huppert in a perpetually flaming flat), though the influence of Possession’s tweaking of art/suspense/horror/melodrama sometimes seems overshadowed by Cronenberg.

While it’s hard to describe Zulawski’s experiment as pleasurable, its follies are surely familiar to lovelorn viewers. Fascinating and off-putting, the film ends with perhaps the only possible denouement to a romantic apocalypse; finally, the filmmaker’s orchestration of chaos feels like the natural order of things.

Nicolas Rapold

Possession runs December 2–13 at Film Forum in New York.