Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adèle H. | Possession | Adolphe

Film Actresses & Global Classics


In this series I offer my reflections on actresses and their most compelling performances in (mostly) classics of global cinema.


Isbelle Adjani, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

‘Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all’: Possession, more than any other film I know, incarnates this conception of beauty. To my mind, it is simply the most ravishing love story in the history of cinema, a sublime piece of filmmaking that leaves in the dust the illustrated literature that passes for cinema in the minds of the majority (as I said in the Introduction, Possession is a film for a minority, a ‘cult film’, but even more than the other two, it is a film for the ‘happy few’). In it, Zulawski restores to love its vital, transgressive force, its dimension of awe that overwhelms. And as it is a film about the breakup of a marriage, pain and desolation pervade it: blue is its dominant colour. Blue—paint a wall blue and it is no longer a wall: enter the realm of the surreal, the other side of the looking-glass. Yes, blue awakens a hunger for what surpasses nature: blue is the colour of truth. Which brings us to ethics. In Possession, as in all great works of art, the dynamics of ethics are central. Indeed, with unrelenting courage, the film makes an attempt on the gods. The spiral-staircase scene that closes it, the scene in which the heroine kills herself to join the hero in death, shows the attempt has succeeded (as much as any attempt on the gods can ever succeed—look at the Greeks, look at Shakespeare, look at Beckett’s post-tragic drama). Need I add that without Isabelle Adjani (and Sam Neill), the film could never have succeeded as it has?

Sam Neill as Mark | Possession, Andrzej Zulawski | Isabelle Adjani as Anna

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

What’s the story? Berlin. 1980. Mark (Sam Neill) returns from a secret assignment to find his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) in a state of anxious distraction. Turns out she is having an affair and is impatient to get back to her lover. Alone with their six-year-old son in their apartment, Mark tracks the lover down—his name is Heinrich—only to discover that Heinrich, who’d also been away, has not seen  Anna since his return. Mark takes a strong dislike to Heinrich; their arguments turn violent. He then makes it clear to Anna that he wants her back; she, manifestly in the grip of some obsession, can’t come back. As she comes and goes over the following weeks, their disputes attain a fever pitch. Anna is evasive; she won’t say who her lover is or where they are living. In an attempt to discover just what she is up to, Mark hires a detective agency and, in addition, starts cooperating with Heinrich. After a number of twists and turns, they locate Anna’s new apartment. Heinrich visits her first, and is shocked to find she is living with a monster, an octopus-like creature. Anna, in a trance-like state, wounds Heinrich with a knife; he calls Mark from a local bar to come and see what he’s seen. Mark discovers the monster, then meets Heinrich in the bar and murders him in the basement toilet. He then returns to Anna’s apartment and sets the kitchen aflame, thereby destroying the evidence in the refrigerator: Anna had killed the detectives who’d tracked her down. He is clearly on her side now, and is doing everything he can to save her. After more twists and turns, Mark, pursued by the spy network he had worked for, is shot at the top of a spiral staircase. Anne runs to him and, finding him dead, shoots herself. Mark’s doppelgänger (Anna too had a double, Helen) then tries to reach the sky through the roof: he falls to his death in the stairwell.

If Possession has a certain kinship with the horror film, for Zulawski (as he said in an interview) ‘the real horror is when you have a couple that break up and neither one knows why’. Indeed, this is the heart of the film, the driver of the drama: Anna wants both out and in of her relationship with Mark, while Mark, conventional at first in his response to her, ends up loving her more truly than ever before. Their joint death may be seen as a ‘black’ marriage, the inverse of the wedding-in-white and its promise of living ‘happily ever after’. In an earlier Zulawski film, The Devil, there is the line: ‘Deprivation is when you live by other people’s ideals’. This remark captures the kernel of Zulawski’s ethics, and in Mark and Anna’s marriage it plays out as the affirmation of individuality, the refusal of alienation. Indeed, if Possession is a fairy-tale, this is its moral: Happiness is hard to come by, the couple is complex, but if you ‘take the highway to the end of the night’, you just might reach ‘the bright midnight’ (Jim Morrison). And so Mark, in his growing love for Anna, in his effort to get closer to her, adopts her language (blood, fire, action); he goes down into her darkness in order to bring her into the light (like Orpheus for Eurydice). ‘Increase me in bewilderment of you’, says the Sufi mystic, and Mark too seems to have adopted this stance, for his faith in Anna becomes absolute. Increasingly attuned to her, they achieve a closeness they never could in their ‘white’ marriage. Indeed, in the kinetic expression of their emotions all the alternations of fortune that beset any couple resolve themselves. Finally, by choosing the time and manner of their deaths, they steal death’s authority; in an ultimate act of self-affirmation (as Catherine Millot wrote of Mishima) they destroy themselves in order to exist.

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

Isabelle Adjani, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

Now, you must be wondering, just what is that monster all about? There are, of course, no definitive answers. For Zulawski himself, the monster is ‘what I found in the attic’. As he explains in an interview with Film Comment (I’ve edited it slightly, to make it more readable):

I was living in Paris and I went to see Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. It’s a brilliant, extremely well-acted film, but I left the cinema feeling empty. I went out and I said, All right, the analysis is perfect. It’s cold, it’s brilliant, like always. But so what?’ I was walking the streets, I remember it was raining, and I said, Look, the beauty of the stories that we tell our children is that there is always something fantastic at the end, something like: ‘So they walk along the path and they go into the house… This is the ground floor, this is the kitchen—but what’s in the attic?’ And I was thinking, Okay, in my story, what kind of attic does it really have? If I go up the stairs out of the realistic realm and into the fantasy, the science fiction, what is the fairy tale? What is the bad element in the fairy tale? So I went into the attic and I found a monster.

In his audio commentary on the German edition of the DVD, Zulawski said that ‘the script called for the gooey fluid Adjani gave birth to to be taken home and put in her bathtub, and from there it would take shape into something that evolves into her husband’. In the final scene, Mark’s doppelgänger was to have the same green eyes that Helen, Anna’s double, has. Technical problems and time constraints, however, made this impossible. Zulawski never forgave the cinematographer for not getting Mark’s green eyes right, but regarding the monster, he did ‘go with the flow’ of special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi’s version of the creature.

Isbelle Adjani, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

Here are my speculations on the matter. The monster is Anna’s pharmakon, and she herself secretes it. Pharmakon, you may recall, is at once remedy, poison and scapegoat, and for Anna the monster does indeed play all these roles. In his role as remedy, then, what in Anna is the monster an attempt to cure? All we can say is: ‘some malaise of marriage’. (Those of you married more than seven years will have no trouble leaving it at that; for the rest of you, check back when you’ve reached that milestone.) In his role as poison, the monster is the devouring demand, the vampirizing demand—perhaps of sex as a form of self-soothing—to quieten the ‘malaise’. And as scapegoat? Perhaps for that something inside her that is killing her, something akin to the violence that consumes Ellénore in Adolphe. Anna, rather than attack herself by falling ill as Ellénore does, attacks the monster in sexual combat. As I said, I’m speculating.

Another hypothesis might be that the monster, for Anna, represents the essence of sex, a fantasy of absolute fulfillment that no human could ever match. He might be the only ‘man’ Anna could permanently reduce to the body alone. I say this in light of the following remarks from Jan Kott (a theorist of the theater and a compatriot of Zulawski), from ‘A Short Treatise on Eroticism’ in The Memory of the Body, 1992, pp. 74-75):

The paradox and sadness of eroticism consists in the fact that its absolute fulfillment is not possible. Testing is possible only during the act itself. To possess means just that. But the moment the act is over, the partner and his/her body become separate again. The body is a stranger again, it exists for itself and not for me. The partner, real and created, the partner of the consummated act and the partner of imagination, becomes ambiguous again. He/she has to be tested again. And testing is possible only through a new act, through another appeal to the body. For the body is an essence and there is no other essence apart from the body. But the reduction to essence is possible only for a fleeting moment. The partner escapes again and cannot be permanently reduced to the body alone. This is probably the reason for the failure of every passion, and possibly also for the failure of the phenomenon we call love.

Again, I’m only speculating. (Send a comment via the comment box below if you’d like to offer your own ideas.)

Anna making love with the ‘octopus’, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

Isbelle Adjani, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

How to render convulsive beauty, how to transform desolation into triumph? Adjani’s answer is: via what comes naturally to me, via what others call the ‘theatre of cruelty’. And that is certainly why Zulawski chose her: her ‘marque d’actrice’ is the way her body/voice combines primitivism with refinement, the violence of passion with the finesse of lucidity. Zulawski, in his audio commentary on the German edition of the DVD, says ‘the actor becomes vulnerable, loveable, because they don’t know the source of what they do’. In the Film Comment interview, he says of actors: ‘You do it well, you do it right, you pay a heavy price’. And indeed Adjani, after seeing Possession for the first time (she didn’t look at the rushes) told Zulawski: ‘Your camera had no right to look there where it had insinuated itself’ (see article in L’Express).

Be that as it may, her performance in Possession—shamanic, visceral, voodoo—is a landmark of world cinema, and one can only be thankful to her for the way she delivers herself to the camera. The way she simultaneously plays predator and prey, hunter and hunted, is terrifying and exalting. The way she incarnates the feminine, at once virile and vulnerable, is bewitching. Watching her, one’s interest never goes slack; like a virtuoso musician executing discord and resolution, she is supreme in veering from seduction to attack. She makes us see that the otherness we fear is in fact something inside ourselves; in wrestling with her ghosts, she haunts us. I, for one, find that exhilarating.

How about you? Leave a comment via the comment box.

Isbelle Adjani, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski


From the audio commentary on the German edition of the DVD. See also ‘POSSESSION’ in the WORLD OF MARA MARIETTA.

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

Andrzej Zulawski: ‘We shot the film an a 34m2 apartment. This claustrophobic element–we live in apartments, yet we have to walk, we have to move–this caged movement of people is one of the keys to Possession. This is exactly the state of mind the couple are in, locked and moving about in this cage, all the time.’

Andrzej Zulawski: ‘Sam Neil is the glue holding the film together. Isabelle Adjani comes and goes and appears and disappears and makes a big bang every time she appears, but Sam had to be there all the time and hold the pieces together, by being there all the time.’

Sam Neill, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

Andrzej Zulawski: ‘Cinema is an extremely powerful weapon to disturb, to touch, to make people think–it’s a primitive force.’

Andrzej Zulawski: ‘‘The story of Possession is the story of my life. It’s the only film I’ve made that is autobiographical. It says something—and this is the reason I wrote it—about my personal problems as a man with a woman I dearly loved. It’s a film about a breaking up, about the end of a relationship, a marriage. I’m a strong believer in the couple, in marriage, in children.’

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, Possession, Andrzej Zulawski

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2019 | All rights reserved