"IF YOU HAD ONLY SEEN WHAT I SAW!"
This line is screamed by a distraught and bewildered character about ninety minutes into Andrzej Żuławski's Possession, and after the movie ended it's pretty much what I wanted to run down the sidewalk shouting at strangers. It's the kind of film that, as a film fan, you come across maybe a dozen times in your life. One of those movies where you just can't believe what you're watching, and you NEED to tell others all about it.
I'd heard the synopsis beforehand - a couple's marriage disintegrates as the result of an affair, before things take a turn for the supernatural - but I was unprepared for the way this movie just keeps rushing headlong toward the edge of sanity, then hurling itself off that precipice. Over and over, for 123 minutes. To quote author/friend of BMD Dan Whitehead, Possession is "one of those movies that clearly only made sense to the guy who made it." But to lump it in with personal "visions" like The Room or Glen or Glenda is to sell the film's technical and emotional merits very, very short.
In fact, it's startling just how much legitimate skill is here, in the service of utter madness. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani throw themselves into their performances as if their loved ones are being held hostage and will be shot in the head if the actors don't give each scene everything they've got. Neill is flat-out astonishing; I have to admit I'd mostly regarded the actor's wheelhouse as "calm voice of reason or authority" in whatever film he appears. Here, it's as if Klaus Kinski climbed into Sam Neill's handsome skin and takes it on a very dark ride. Neill's Mark comes unglued near the beginning of the film, having a nervous breakdown to rival Willard's in Apocalypse Now and, not unlike that film, we're then dismayed to discover that he's our touchstone for the remainder of the narrative.
Mark is being cuckolded by Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), a suave, tanned, New Age nonsense-spouting Lothario whose reaction to being confronted by Mark is to caress and embrace him. He's like a leathery, touchy-feely Anthony Hopkins, and brother, it WORKS. When Mark becomes violent, Heinrich beats his ass with some sort of show-stopping, effeminate martial arts. It's a scene which immediately made Heinrich my favorite thing in the movie, but he becomes even more amazing after learning the love triangle actually has a fourth side, sending him literally bouncing off the walls and demanding money from Mark "to restore my harmony."
Isabelle Adjani, as Mark's wife Anna, takes things to another level entirely. She's a woman coming apart at the seams - laughing, crying, self-mutilating as her extramarital transgression seemingly drives her to the brink of insanity. There's a scene which looks to have inspired a similar moment in Bad Lieutenant, in which Anna has a conversation with a figure of Christ on the cross, consisting only of wounded howls and grunts. She's also secretly fucking a tentacled monster in a dirty old apartment in Berlin. This plot detail, mind, is revealed nearly an hour into the film - a film which up until that point is a comparatively straightforward portrait of a marriage in ruins. The film's style is such that the revelation of her Lovecraftian Other-lover isn't that jarring; from very early on, you know you're watching a film in which anything can happen. Then Anna has a kind of miscarriage out of her ears and mouth in a subway tunnel.
Legend has it Ms. Adjani (who won an acting award at Cannes for this film) was so emotionally devastated by this shoot that she attempted suicide upon its completion. It's the kind of larger-than-life story that sounds as if it must be fictional - until you watch her in the movie. I'm convinced the story is true.
So, yeah, Possession is one of the craziest films I've ever seen, but there's not one moment that isn't 100% compelling. The movement and staging of every scene is like a series of hypnotic dance sequences, between actors delivering a very heightened reality and a Steadicam operator who probably died of exhaustion when production wrapped. The camerawork is dizzying and masterful, and it tells me that whatever issues Żuławski was working through (allegedly a divorce, surprise surprise), he wasn't operating in a vacuum. Cinematographers and performers just don't BRING IT the way they do here unless they're on board with the director's vision in mind, body and spirit. But the best compliment one can give the film is that it's a complete original. I sense no cinematic influences (though there is some thematic overlap; Cronenberg's The Brood comes to mind), no trends being followed. This is a singular work, and it's on the viewer to decide if they will embrace and celebrate the film's unique pleasures, or turn their noses up at two hours of often jaw-dropping cinematic insanity.
Possession was released on DVD a few years ago, but is currently out of print in the States. (edit: it was recently restored and released on Blu-ray.) I was privileged to catch a 35MM repertory screening hosted by Joseph A. Gervasi of Philly's Exhumed Films. Turner Classic Movies runs it occasionally late at night. I suggest finding it. Its rewards are strange, but bountiful.