On Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession

By Richard Jonathan

In Sprague’s list of his ten favourite films that he gives Marietta as she leaves him, Possession is number 1.

Sam Neill as Mark, Isabelle Adjani as Anna

As Les Rita Mitsouko observed, les histoires d’amour finissent mal, en général: 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 the passion that makes lovers push all limits and—in this case—emerge victorious from the ensuing apocalypse. Dead, but victorious, for to the end their desire remains intact.

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 real monstrosity. Insatiably craving its embrace, the wife 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 to stand by her—out of love.

Their bloody embrace at the top of a staircase, their deaths there, bring their journey to an end. But, as the artist and the mystic both know, death is but the gateway to a new life. And that new life, of course, is but a germ in the darkness of the spectator’s bosom, waiting to bloom—or be left to die.

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 rediscovering the octopus you’ve evicted from your head (and your bed).