Saturday 23 December 2017

On a Thousand Walls #10: Possession (1981)

This post is also The Question in Bodies #6.
Possession – a film that was banned for some years in the UK, butchered in the US and only finally released in its intended form in 2013 – feels for me like a low-key simulation of trauma.

It has that irrational, raw feeling, is all about the confusion, the moment where you freeze up and nothing makes sense, and you can’t form a thought, and you react in ways that afterwards leave you deeply ashamed and humiliated and messed up for days or weeks afterwards. You see it happen, the way that characters try desperately to find some reason in the ways they’re behaving, in the time they give each other, only for the fight-or-flight reaction to kick in and drive them to do wildly inappropriate things.

It's trauma. It feels like you’re watching a trauma happen in real time.

Mark (Sam Neill) is, we gather, some sort of spy, although we don’t get to find out what agency he works for, whether political or corporate – it could be either. But he’s been away a while now from his home in Berlin, from his young son and his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani). While Mark was away, we gather, Anna told him she was leaving. Mark tries to get out of her some sort of reason. She can’t say why. It’s like she has some block, an inability to express what’s going on with her, and Mark, jealous and under a lot of stress anyway, isn’t equipped to deal with it. For the whole first half hour of the film, the first act, Mark and Anna begin a succession of increasingly violent fights; in the lulls, each makes desperate attempts to make sense. But sense stubbornly refuses to come.

Mark has no clue what’s going on with Anna, but neither does Anna. A row in a café ends up with Mark flinging furniture around and only being subdued by the staff of the establishment piling on him. Kitchen implements become tools for self-mutilation or the threat of it. Eventually their physical and psychological violence spills into the street; it infects the city itself, and the first act closes with screaming, and violence, and a literal car crash happening around them.

Berlin at the turn of the 80s is the heart of this; the landscape, sliced in two by the Berlin Wall – the very first thing we see in the film – informs the division between the two leads. Apparently director Andrzej Żuławski had been through the breakdown of his marriage (ending in his taking custody of his own young son) before making Possession. I can’t speak to what sort of experience that was, but everything about this first part of the film is soaked in pungent rage and sorrow. And trauma. It’s full of trauma.
Like a car crash. With an actual car crash.
In the second act the film becomes even more fractured, even more unhinged. We discover that Anna cheated on Mark with the pseudy and patronising Heinrich (a bizarre turn from Heinz Bennent): “Our situation is like a mountain lake we are trying to swim in, starting from opposite shores” says Heinrich, and that’s possibly the most relevant take he has. It’s wrong, but then everything Heinrich says and thinks is clearly bullshit, even if he is twice the man Mark is (and able to give Mark a beating).

Heinrich isn’t the one she’s having the real affair with. Anna, we discover, goes to a dark, mouldering flat every day, and there she has sex with a weird, tentacled creature, slick with slime and blood, and she commits murder, repeatedly, to protect it.

Anna has been possessed, but she’s not possessed by anything from any conventional religion and It’s more a general, secular sort of evil that has taken her, and it has almost split her into two, with her doppelganger Helen, the pre-school teacher (also Adjani), existing as a sort of counterpoint to her, a place to hold all the part she’s missing.

The appearance of Helen, uncanny as it is, is the first sign that the narrative is beginning to explode.
What I miscarried there.
As Anna's monstrous lover tightens its grasp, it violates the rules of the universe, and even the rules of story. Time fragments; cine film of Anna bleeds into the main body of the film itself, and we become unclear as to whether things are happening now or before. The infamous, breathtaking, unforgettable scene where Anna goes into the Berlin subway and enters ecstatic, agonised convulsions before collapsing on the ground, with multi-coloured mucous flowing out of practically every orifice of her body (even her ears), as she gives birth to something awful, that’s a flashback, and more, it explains everything, inasmuch as anything is explained. If the thought of her having tentacle sex wasn’t icky enough, it seems, as she haltingly, indirectly pronounces straight to the camera, the thing she’s having sex with is the inhuman thing that she gave birth to in the subway.
Anna: What I miscarried there was Sister Faith, and what is left is Sister Chance. So I had to take care of my faith. To protect it.
In the end, all sense collapses, and Anna's lover/offspring is the harbinger of the ultimate narrative collapse of the Cold War, the only apocalypse anyone living in 1981 could envisage.

The collapse of Mark and Anna's marriage and Anna’s possession, and Mark’s obsession with possessing her, and Heinrich’s endless denials that he possesses her even when he’s just as clingy as Mark is, all this is only the effective leadup to the end of everything. A marriage breakdown isn’t the end of the world, but for me, having seen at least one happen close by in real time, it feels like it for the recipients; and where else would the end of the world happen in 1981, but Berlin? The space is divided, and as the film progresses, you see Anna and Mark divided by the visual composition, in a state of cold war; when it erupts into violence, the only result is the normalising of the weird, of Lovecraftian incest, and eventually this leads to Armageddon.

No one in this film talks like a real person. Heinrich is the most obvious example, who even when he’s a panicked wreck after he’s seen Anna’s monster (and has taken a stab wound for the presumption) talks in psychobabble. But Anna and Mark, too, talk in — well, they talk like people in a script written by someone whose first language isn’t English. But the strange, stilted nature of the dialogue only adds to the film’s screaming trauma.

None of the main characters in Possession are really sympathetic. Heinrich is a smug, pseudy asshole. Anna’s mate Margit (Margit Carstensen), who you never actually see interacting with Anna, is mean-spirited and spiteful. And Mark and Anna are both awful people. But Anna isn’t in control of her actions. We see an excruciating scene, a cine reel, a film within a film, where you see her tormenting a girl in her ballet school without any real reason. She justifies it directly to camera; it comes from her own lack of agency and stunted desire to protect another from falling prey to the same.

She’s a woman possessed. Nothing she gets to do is her own choice. Possessed by a husband or a lover, or possessed by a demon. And all she wants is to say “I”. To have a will of her own. In the choice between a jealous brute, a patronising jerk and an incestuous cosmic horror, she chooses the horror, because at least that’s not pretending. Until the end, when it is.
Anna: That’s why I’m with you. You say “I” for me.
Helen, Anna’s other self, is only a cypher, an ideal of what Anna should be if Mark had his way. Bob, Mark and Anna’s young son, is on the way to a terrible trauma.

And we're back to trauma.
You say "I" for me.
You get the distinct impression that Neill and Adjani were in a state of collapse at times that was more than just acting, that the red eyes and pasty skin of shock are in some way a real reaction to what they’re being made to do, and certainly Adjani would over the years tell more than one interviewer that she wouldn’t do a film like that again.
It was quite an amazing film to do, but I got bruised, inside out.
– Isabelle Adjani, Playlist, December 2016
Adjani’s intense performance is mesmerising; it’s one of the rawest things I’ve seen on film. The tight, wide-eyed dysregulation of her expression haunts me. I can imagine it when I close my eyes.

The howling dysfunction of that first half hour is so draining that the gore and cosmic horror that follows is almost comforting. There is nothing like it. And yes, I said cosmic horror; it’s the film that I think gets across what Lovecraft was reaching for, with all the miserable, bleak misanthropy.

It’s a hard film to watch. And it’s a really hard film to like (and a lot of people I know hate it, and I don’t blame them). I don’t like it as such, yet I find myself asking: why have I watched it so many times over the last year? I have a weird, not entirely healthy relationship with it. I think it’s because there’s something compelling about it, really quite cathartic. It feels like a trauma reaction, yes, it feels like a declaration of war against hope, like a scream of pent up fury directed against the grinding engines of history. It has a time and a place, and that place and time give it a specific flavour, a feel of dread, of immense sadness, and it couldn’t happen anywhere else, but at the same time its specificity of place, of the city clutching at you, dragging you into a spitting oblivion, is universal. It is the darkest night of the city. It is the desire to blow it all up, tear it all down, twisted into narrative.

It is a vital urban wyrd. I’ve had a bad couple of years, all told, and the intense negative force of Possession has been therapeutic for me, like bloodletting, like smashing something.

I think I’m going to have to watch it again.

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