Starring Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton, Michael Hogben, Maximilian Rüthlein
Well, where does one start with Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession? Pretentious and confused metaphorical drama masquerading as horror; exploitative gross-out nonsense; or miraculous and unequalled arthouse/genre movie crossover? Well Possession is all these things – and a great deal more. Few single films have effectively straddled so many contrasting areas of cinema, one reason for the polarizing effect it has on audiences. After all, how many movies can claim to be an underground cult horror banned under the 1984 ‘Video Nasties’ Act as well as being a prize winner at both the Cannes Film Festival and the César Awards. Only Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), surely influenced by Żuławski’s film, comes to mind as appeasing (and equally offending) horror aficionados and arthouse respectability, but even that didn’t win at Cannes. Clearly Possession is something pointedly dangerous and extraordinary.
The plot and themes of Possession could be endlessly interpreted and allegorized regardless of whether there may or may not be any actual intended meaning (and believe me there’s plenty of baffling ambiguity involving pink socks and dopplegangers) but Żuławski has naturally (and playfully) kept tight-lipped about it all. But the basic concept is clear enough when described in a single sentence: After the collapse of a marriage, the man looks after the child whilst the woman gives birth to a hideous tentacled creature. There, that’s all you really need to know. And from that the obvious implication is that dissolution of the family unit can spawn a monster. Since the film makes great play of its bleak and unforgiving West Germany setting, we could just as easily say that federal state control can spawn a monster. Also, an individual’s own selfishness and obsessive desires can spawn a monster. Maybe even religion can spawn a monster. Anything and everything could spawn a monster in this film.
Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill are Anna and Mark, the disintegrating couple in question. Sam Neill, who has since proven himself to be a consummate actor, here pitches his performance somewhere between wooden and maladjusted. But nowhere near as unhinged as Isabelle Adjani, whose performance must rank as one of the most committed depictions of raving hysteria in all of cinema, and by committed I could just as easily be referring to an asylum. Adjani won the Best Actress award at Cannes and the Césars for a role which requires her to self-abuse with a knife, have an apparent epileptic seizure in a subway and spew odious white fluid from every part of her body. For sheer committment to the part she deserved every award she got. But Adjani and Neill both deliver their characters at just the right level of warped lunacy appropriate for the film, because in the end Possession is all about being compulsively trapped in the experience of watching it for the entire 2 hours. Regardless of its muddled thinking, as a purely cinematic experience Possession is the greatest ordeal imaginable. It’s a masterclass in sustained frenzy, as excessive as it is exacting.
Considering the film’s overlapping cult horror/arthouse credentials it’s not surprising that, depending which camp you’re in, Possession has been criticized as compromising and not fully exploiting either field. But for my money, this is horror filmmaking in its purest sense. Scenes of startling horrific content punctuate an overall tone of unremitting fever pitch. When they strike, the horror elements are unquestionably brilliant, the best the genre has to offer. The taut atmosphere and surrealist slant recalls Polanki’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) – further examples of mental angst in rundown bed sits – or Skolimowski’s Deep End (1971) and The Shout (1978) (there’s clearly something special about Polish-directed English language psychological horror!). The disgusting tentacled creature itself is a wonderful achievement, designed by Carlo Rambaldi a year before winning plaudits as the creator of E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial. A gruesomely tactile creation, dripping with repulsive detail – only David Cronenberg has achieved the same level of graphic monstrosity. It’s no surprise that, for a film which gradually escalates the level of horror throughout, Possession concludes with levels of stylish and extravagant violence to make any Giallo proud.
Possession is an exhausting, perplexing and revolting experience. Every self-respecting horror fan simply has to put themselves through it. A Masterpiece.
The recent BAFTA fellowship awarded to Terry Gilliam reminded me of just how wonderfully imaginative a body of work he has directed, none more so than his loose trilogy from the 1980’s, collectively named the Trilogy Of Imagination, comprising Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985) and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988). The films, representing childhood, the middle years and old age respectively, show Gilliam at his most lavishly ambitious, yet also charts the most tumultuous filmmaking chapter in Gilliam’s famously problematic career. Do your senses a favour and dip your mind into these three fantastical masterworks.
Time Bandits is a joyous concoction of childhood fantasies – the terrifying and the beautiful, the hilarious and the heart-breaking. Backed by George Harrison’s Handmade Films and armed with an exceptional cast of acting and comedy talent, (John Cleese, Michael Palin, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Ian Holm, David Warner, Sean Connery, Katherine Helmond, Shelley Duvall, Peter Vaughan, Jim Broadbent) Time Bandits is the definitive kids movie for adults.
The short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance was a supporting feature to 1983’s Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life and featured a crusty old British assurance firm taken over by The Very Big Corporation Of America. When the white-collar workers rebel against their employers they become pirates, sailing the company building out of the city and off towards the end of the world. Although a brief folly by Gilliam’s standards, the themes of escapism and the unleashing of ones imagination clearly pre-empted his next feature film.
Brazil is widely considered Gilliam’s greatest work (and one of my all-time favourites) and it’s little wonder. A crazy, ambitious, visually stunning take on dystopian sci-fi, appropriately made in 1984 considering the Orwellian overtones, the film had an eventful production. From an original screenplay by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, Tom Stoppard was brought in to give the script some clarity although in fairness he probably added to its complexities. Gilliam had to fight Universal tooth and nail for the final scene he wanted and he won, (a luxury denied to Ridley Scott on Blade Runner’s initial release) but it may have bolstered his reputation as a difficult director (from the studios point of view, not the critics or the audiences). Few films are crammed with as many ideas and, like Orwell’s novel, Brazil will only grow in stature and importance as each new generation discovers it.
The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, again co-written by Gilliam and McKeown, meditates on the fantasies and illusions of old age. Told by the world’s greatest liar, Baron Munchausen, the adventures blur the lines between truth and reality. Life strangely imitated art during the making of the film, with Gilliam spun a yarn by producers who convinced him to film in Italy for 40% of the original cost, which proved to be disastrous. Eric Idle described it as the worst experience of his life and Sean Connery dropped out of playing the King Of The Moon before filming, to be replaced by an uncredited Robin Williams (whose representatives were worried his appearance in the film might damage his reputation!) One production issue after another meant the film wound up costing three times as much as originally planned. Twenty years later, none of this really matters and we are left with an incredible visual feast of a movie. Perhaps Munchausen’s status as a financial flop has prevented it from becoming the fantasy film classic it deserves to be.
Gilliam’s next feature, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, due for release in June, is his first collaboration with Charles McKeown since the 1980’s, only this time round there’s no sign of studio warfare. However, no Gilliam production is without its problems and the death of Heath Ledger in early 2008 robbed the film of its leading man.
Recommended reading: The Battle Of Brazil by Jack Matthews; Dark Knights And Holy Fools: Art And Films Of Terry Gilliam by Bob McCabe.