Transcribed from the audio commentary on the Alive AG DVD of Possession (2009)
I wrote the film not out of self-indulgence, but I thought—it’s like when you build a house, you have the ground floor—here, the reality of a marriage breaking up—and then you need a second floor, you need something to transpose the story, something that gives it meaning. It’s like in fairy tales where you have something ordinary and then you have a witch or a devil, something out of the ordinary. The first part of the film establishes an ordinary situation and then it goes one level above in order to give it a mythical dimension.
In the first part of the film, most of the scenes between the man and the woman, and even the dialogue, are directly from my life.
Every marriage is about bodies, isn’t it? If you touch the body of someone you love—the softness of it, the whiteness of it, the warmth of it—it tells you something about what’s going on, about where the person is, about whether she’s going to go or stay.
We shot the film in a 34-square-meter 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.
Sam Neill 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.
Cinema is an extremely powerful weapon to disturb, to touch, to make people think—it’s a primitive force.
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.
We are only alive because we desire, yet in our desiring we are obscure to ourselves.
Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery (London: Faber & Faber, 1999), p. 107
Love stories end badly, most of the time. Yet who has not, at least once in their life, believed in the couple, in their own love story?
Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession is a love story. It ends badly. Yet in its fiery glory it is, in my view, the greatest film ever made in homage to desire, that enigmatic force that can make lovers push all limits and—in this case—emerge victorious from the ensuing apocalypse. Dead, but victorious, for to the end they never stop exploring (Anna) and investigating (Mark) the enigma of their desire, seeking a path to it via both the other (wife, husband, lover) as well as via the Other (the ‘Octopus’). (A touch of Lacan for those versed in his science fiction, as Borges would put it.)
Berlin. 1980. The Wall. He comes back from a secret assignment. She has a lover. But no longer the one the husband has tracked down. No, this lover is an octopus-like creature, a veritable monstrosity. Insatiably craving its embrace, she submits to it and emerges exalted from each encounter.
It takes a while for the husband to realize this, and by the time he does he has already changed his disposition toward his wife: No longer trying to ‘normalize’ her (by forcing her to either leave or return to the family fold—an endeavour that had entailed the two of them tearing each other apart), he is now determined—out of love—to validate her desire. Is not this the highest form of fidelity in love?
Their bloody embrace at the top of a staircase, their deaths there, brings their journey to an end. But, as the artist and the mystic both know, death—when the outcome of a quest (the spiral staircase)—is but the gateway to a new life. And that new life, of course, is but a spark in the spectator’s bosom, ready to light a path to his or her own desire.
The artist and the mystic both pursue transcendence, the lifting of the veil that ‘normal’ people take for reality. Zulawski’s method in this quest is the obverse of the ascetic’s: He opts for the black side of the holy, the consuming fire, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And in doing so he achieves an awe-inspiring majesty, infusing his film with an energy and urgency that compels us to honour life, not the simulacrum that generally passes for living.
Wake up, dead souls! You watch Possession at the peril of bringing to light the enigma of your own desire. What ‘O’ will you invite into your bed?
Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci
Maman / Putain, Eustache
Realm of the Senses, Oshima
Cul de Sac, Polanski
The Passenger, Antonioni
Damnation, Bela Tarr
Element of Crime, Lars von Trier
American Soldier, Fassbinder