Thursday, 5 June 2014

Possession - Director’s Cut

Divorce, Cthulhuian Style

Possession - Director’s Cut
1981/2013 France/West Germany 
Directed by Andrzej Zulawski
Second Sight BluRay Region B

Warning: Spoilers possessing the soul of this article... or maybe not, depending on your point of view.

I honestly don’t even know where to start with this movie. It’s gotta be one of the most joyously impenetrable films going.

I bought this one because I kept seeing it recommended in so many books and documentaries about horror over the last few years, as it has a very high standing among fans of the genre, it turns out. The other reason I bought this is the usual, I’m afraid... Fopp records had the Director’s Cut in and... it was very cheap. I mean, um, sorry... it was at a “value for money” price.

Now, if I’d have seen this movie blind, back when it came out, I would have thought it was complete rubbish, to be honest. For this reason, I’m glad I’ve waited until now, when it’s been re-evaluated in light of the new director’s cut (although people loved the original cut too... it has to be said) and when I’m old enough to realise that the hyper exaggerated body language of pretty much all of the main cast is something to be admired and enjoyed with a certain relish... or at least with a pinch of salt.

It also has to be said, and I think this is a given for almost everyone, that if anyone started acting around you in real life even remotely like the main cast here does, you would evacuate the area immediately and probably alert the nearest medical practitioners that they’re going to have their work cut out for them.

The acting wasn’t the first thing I noticed though. So I’ll lay off that for a minute and talk about the first thing that hit me when I pressed play on the disc menu...

The camera.

The *@%&* swooping camera.

The *@%&* swooping camera which is constantly in motion and rarely, throughout the whole film, stays still. It’s like the director has had special tracks laid out in every shot to allow the camera to smoothly go absolutely everywhere and all at once. I can remember maybe three shots... maybe... that had a certain amount of rest in them. Mostly, though, it’s just a celluloid landscape that’s constantly in motion. It’s as if Zulawski never wants the frame to sit still for you longer than a few seconds for a large percentage of the movie. And when the camera does rest for a few beats, it usually cuts out to a new shot with a certain amount of unsettling fury, such as a loudly ringing telephone or a body in constant motion. It’s phenomenal.

The story is absolutely preposterous too... especially in some of the details of the fictional window dressing.

Mark, played by Sam Neil, quits his job to come home and spend time with his wife Anna, played by Isabelle Adjani, after a long assignment. They have grown apart and he soon figures out she is sleeping with someone else... kinda. Not only that though but, when he does track down the other guy, who’s name is Heinrich, it turns out she’s two timing both of them. It sounds like a soap opera plot for sure but it’s immensely more silly than that and, when a bad detective follows Mark’s wife to a place she is staying with her other lover, it turns out her other lover is some kind of Cthulhuian tentacle monster. Whether this is a supernatural manifestation as implied by the title, to an extent, or possibly an alien creature, is not made clear and it’s totally superfluous anyway... as are most of the details of the plot. Anna murders the detective and also his gay lover (who happens to also be his boss) when the time comes because she has been totally taken over by “the thing”.

Now this all sounds strange but... this doesn’t even scratch the surface in terms of plain weirdness folks.

All through the movie, pretty much all the characters are acting like they are on speed or some similarly hyperactivity inducing drug. The performances by everyone seems to be one about containing anger and then just letting rip. Everyone is always invading everyone else's space, their arms and hands moving all over the place and with a camera crew that seems to be intent on strolling all around the actors and never letting you concentrate for more than half a second. It’s a mess... but it seems to be a controlled mess and it is kind of brilliant, once you get used to it.

For instance, when Mark goes to see Heinrich and gets tough with him, the older guy, who is into peace and tranquility, beats him up with some kind of passively aggressive martial arts style moves. I can’t even find the word to tell you how bizarre this scene is... you just have to see it. Personally, I thought a trained secret agent would have been able to cope with a fight scene better than a civilian... but obviously not in this film.

Oh, sorry. Did I say secret agent?

No, that wasn’t a slip of the tongue (or, more accurately, the finger) because I maybe forgot to mention that one of the little details in the absurd plotting that make this movie such a treasure chest of surrealistic gestures is that Sam Neil’s day job at the start of the film is... um... a secret agent! No, seriously, I am not making this up. Anyone else would maybe have given the character a less interesting job for a what amounts to a background detail like that for something that is presumably trying to sneak up on you under the guise of a disintegrating marriage drama but, no, not here.

The only possible reason I can think of that the writer gave this character this job is because later, in a scene where Mark has to kill a man to buy silence for his wife, once he is covering up for her on the discovery that her love life revolves around a sexually dazzling tentacle monster, he does so in as sneaky and resourceful a manner as possible. Using situations that present themselves by using found objects and turning himself into a lethal killing machine, using a toilet cubicle and an old shoe to bring a brutal death when required. This is, of course, though... a man who got beaten up by the gentle guy earlier in the film... but still.

Anyway... back to the acting and camera work because it’s incredibly interesting, if distracting.

There’s a really amazing shot early on in the film, where Mark and Anna are having a conversation with each other on two separate tables on either side of a corner... almost, but not quite, back to back. Each wall forming the corner is a large mirror and the camera keeps panning round and backwards and forward and, quite amazingly, the crew never once captures themselves in shot. What? This is the days before CG could handle things like that, remember?

And, like I said, everybody is constantly moving. When Mark sits down in the office of a private detective, he's constantly rotating the chair back and forth in a strange and intensely irritating fashion as he has his one of many “rage suppressed” conversations. When he’s in a rocking chair at his flat, it's violently rocked up and down at speed and at unnatural angles as he carries out a conversation there. It certainly didn't go unnoticed by me that most of the furniture in this movie has some kind of moving part to it.

In another scene, Heinrich is drunk when he visits Mark’s apartment. Not because the character needs to be drunk, is my guess, but because Zulawski wants the character to have an excuse to be constantly moving and stumbling and ricocheting off the walls of the corridor outside Mark's apartment... fantastic!

I know this film got to me on some level because there is a scene where Mark and Anna are arguing, as they always are, and Anna has an electrical knife. I was just sitting there watching and thinking... no, you really don’t leave an electric knife in the hands of people who are constantly freaking out like this. And, sure enough, within five minutes, Anna has sliced open her neck with it and Mark drags her to the medical cabinet to get her sorted out. And then, just as you’d expect, maybe, after patching up Anna, Mark starts using the knife on himself to cut huge gashes in his arm. Of course, he does.

This is obviously no healthy environment for Mark and Anna to bring up their young son.

Oh wait. Did I mention they are living with their young son?

He’s not at home most of the time because he goes to school and when Mark takes him to school... now he’s given up all his secret agent malarkey... he meets his son’s friendly teacher. She is called Helen and Mark is intrigued by how much she looks like his wife. Well, that might be because she’s the dead spit, I would guess, and is played by the same actress... Isabelle Adjani in a dual role. And, of course, since she looks like his wife and it looks like Mark is getting a divorce... he starts having sex with her too. As you do.

Maybe that’s his best bet actually because, in a long scene which has become kind of notorious to horror film afficionados, Isabelle Adjani’s other character is having some kind of a fit in a subway station. Smashing her bags against the walls, showering herself with assorted dairy products and having some kind of weird form of milk and blood menstruation too. This is definitely not healthy mum material, I can tell you. If you can handle this scene then you’ll probably be okay with the rest of the movie... it does get kinda intense and, well, nonsensical in a lot of places, though, it has to be said.

Now, when this movie was first released in the US it had over 40 minutes cut out of it against the director’s will. It had strange psychedelic effects thrown in, weird rescoring choices and a crazy, chopped up running order which was intended to give the movie something approaching some kind of linear coherence. It really didn’t need any of that and I’m so glad I didn’t see that version. The fact that Adjani plays two characters is actually making more sense by the end of the film, in a nod to a famous science fiction film of the 50s, 70s, 90s and 2000s... and if you know the one I mean, which keeps getting remade, then that may give you some kind of clue to the bigger picture in this movie... at least to the way I am putting together the story of the film as it played out for me, that is. I don’t want to give away too much here but, seriously, the concept of spoilers is a strange one when applied to this film, methinks.

If this review seems less than coherent in places it’s because the nature of the imagery, the intensity of the acting, the constant motion of the camera and the semi-coherence of the story is all very hard to bring together into a cohesive review. I’ve done my best on this and I hope you can forgive me if I seem to be jumping around from one point to another in the body of this article. All I can say in my defence, if you do feel that way, is that at least I can say I’ve been appropriate, in some way, to the material in the film itself and the way in which it is presented.

So here we go then... the bottom line.

Did I enjoy watching this movie? Yes, loved it. I will watch it again and... also... take great delight in inflicting it on other people.

Would I recommend it to others? No idea.

There’s a clichéd piece of hackneyed film reviewing which seems to get regularly trotted out by a number of critics on an annual basis when it comes to pieces of art that are in some way polarising. It goes like this...

“This film has no middle ground. You’re going to either love it or hate it.”

Well, I really hate this phrase but I think, in all my decades of movie watching, that maybe this kind of usually lazy reaction could actually be applied to this one film. It’s certainly special, in some ways... and you’ve never seen anything quite like it, in terms of the style or, possibly, competence, of the acting, I’m sure. If you like the idea of the stuff I’ve said about it here then maybe you’d want to give Possession a try... but be sure you are seeing the director’s cut if you do. I can’t imagine how terrible the original version would have seemed to me now.

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