Possession Review


Looking down the Video Nasty list of movies outlawed in the eighties in the UK, you see a lot of gore movies, rape revenge flicks, some Fulci, some Argento and, strangely, Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. It is probably the only film nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes to appear in such company, and its presence is largely due to the film's outre credentials rather than artistic pedigree. With a butchered US video release adding to its particular cachet, Possession became that octopus sex horror movie.

The film itself was born out of twin events that beset the director. Effectively blacklisted in Poland with On Silver Globe unfinished, halted by the communist government, and facing a break-up with his wife and the mother of his son, Zulawski came to the US and then Europe, an exile and alone. Possession was born as his next project out of personal tumult, political exclusion and the director's particular need to express pain and passion as few other artists do.

Set in Berlin, overlooking the wall that split the city in two for nearly 30 years, Possession deals with the turbulent marriage of Anne and Mark. Mark seems to work for a shady arm of government and is away a lot, his wife Anne looks after their young child and has grown apart from her husband because of his absences and her own passions. The action opens with the two ricocheting over their small post industrial apartment, hacking meaning, revenge and reaction from the one they once loved.

Anne's affair is discovered with Heinrich, and Mark challenges him only to be beaten by the "superior" man. When Anne disappears, both men look for her, Mark hires a detective to trace her and learns she has another home now - the detective goes missing too, and Mark happily tells Heinrich where she is. Once uncovered, Anne's new lover is not what either of them imagined and those same shady former employers of Mark are chasing down Mark, Anne and it.

If his first western project, L'important c'est d'aimer, was a passionate trial of true affections, then Possession is even less optimistic, deliberately ending in an apocalypse of sorts with one time lovers replaced, perhaps improved upon, by new versions of themselves. The fracture of happiness which begins with burnt out affections widens until the world and the people in it have been destroyed or replaced.

Where other film-makers explore break-ups in rows, custody battles and subtle character interplay, Zulawski considers such civility a lie, opting to release his lost lovers into maniacal rages, scary physicality where they crash off walls and perform grandiose self harm. Adjani as Anna is particularly fearless in surrendering to the rabid demands of the feeling, her birth sequence in the metro is terrifying and touches on that boundary between acting and naked, almost unwanted, self-revelation in its own relentlessness.

The sole criticism I have of Possession is that the film borders on self indulgent therapy. Whilst the director's art reveals much about the world and explores that terrifying otherness that exists when division begins, the peculiarly personal nature of characters like Margi and Heinrich suggests that personal scores become more important than the goal of expression and the existence of the audience.

Still, perfection is never the goal of the director's work and the impossibly personal pain contained and loosed in Possession is intoxicating for all its poison and bile. Simply, one of the most moving and challenging films you could ever see, an experience not for the squeamish or fragile. Possession is tremendous cinema.

The Disc

Second Sight have wisely put together this disc with the help of Daniel Bird and David Mackenzie, formerly of this parish. Bird's relationship with Zulawski and insight make him an excellent choice for narrating the extras on poster art and the main documentary on the film, and the commentary itself. As the director can be a tad cantankerous, the commentary is not always harmonious but enjoyable all the same. Bird's long documentary pieces together interviews from the director, co-writer and key figures in the film's production discussing the marriage break-up and exile before going into issues like the unfortunate cut US release. The poster art piece features Bird appreciating Basha, the women responsible for the iconic image on the blu-ray's cover.

Now this is the first release of a Zulawski film that I have seen on the blu-ray format, and after appreciating the great work on the excellent Mondo Vision DVDs, I had very high expectations knowing that David had been involved with this release too. The good news is that the transfer is brighter and more detailed than any previous releases, however it is not an outstanding image offered here with darker interior shots lacking some shadow detail and there being some use of edge enhancement that is more noticeable than I would have hoped for. Still, this is as good as the film has looked, presented in its original aspect ratio, complete as the director intended.

One delight of the HD format is lossless sound and here having the LPCM track makes me very happy. Yes, it's mono but the clarity and definition aids a film of shouts and whispers greatly. The subtitles are clear to read and optional.

Returning to the extras, a 30 minute interview in French with the director deals a lot with his relationship with Adjani and how he unintentionally used her then lover and his DOP Bruno Nuytten to get her to make the film. Other featurettes look at the shooting locations in West Berlin now, the original US home video version compared to this integrated cut and interview Christian Ferry, the man who got Zulawski out of Poland, and Andrzej Korzynski, the director's long time friend and composer. Finally, co-writer Frederic Tuten records his own commentary to accompany the film with prompts from Bird - Tuten is very good, still fond of the film and thankfully a good counterpoint to the frantic action on screen.


A great film gets an ok HD release that should open it up to genre fans, arthouse lovers and Polish Cinema freaks. Perhaps a better transfer may come later but a nice haul of extras.

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