Welcome back to another Let’s Scare Bryan to Death! This month, you’re getting a double shot of spooky analysis as I’m joined by not one, but two guests. Liam O’Donnell and Justin Lore are co-hosts of the Horror Business podcast (part of the Cinepunx network), where they take deep dives into movie pairings that range from classics to some that I’ve never even heard of before. After no small amount of discussion (see: arguing) about choosing some movie options for me, they settled on a list that included the 1981 Andrzej Żuławski film, Possession. Now, fair reader, you may be wondering, “Bryan, isn’t that the movie where a woman has sex with an octopus creature?” Yes, it’s that very same film!
If nothing else, morbid curiosity meant I needed to check this one out. Possession stars Sam Neill as Mark, a spy who returns home to Berlin after an assignment and finds that his wife, Anna (Isabelle Ajani), is leaving him. Mark suspects another man named Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), but when he confronts him, he finds out that “the other man” is the least of his worries. It turns out that Anna is enthralled in more ways than one by a sinister creature, and the only thing more destructive than her new relationship is Mark’s obsession with getting to the bottom of it.
Now, I have to admit, upon watching Possession, I had a hard time wrapping my head around it. I was able to follow the narrative, even as it got progressively weirder, but I couldn’t make heads, tails, nor tentacles of what Żuławski may have been trying to say with it. I wondered if O’Donnell and Lore had similar difficulties.
Liam O’Donnell: Yes, in the sense of, when it first starts, because there is a personal relationship at its center, you’re looking for some sort of grounding to understand who these people are, what it is they care about, and how they're connected. And as the movie goes on, it starts to unmoor you from reality until, for me, when the crazy stuff starts to happen, the reality of what I'm seeing starts to become irrelevant. It's not quite avant-garde, it's not The Holy Mountain where [someone] eats cake Jesuses... think about it like, “What is it making you feel,” which is extreme discomfort and a sense of anxiety and paranoia.
Justin Lore: I think this movie makes enough sense in the beginning you can grasp some semblance of plot. It's like a break-up movie: Sam Neill is this dude who's going through a divorce and it starts out making just enough sense that you can just go, ”Cool, I know what I'm getting myself into.” As the movie progresses, it gets weirder in geometric increments... and by the time we get to the Lovecraftian f***-cephalopod that's cuckolding Sam Neill, you're sort of like, “Of course.”
Viewing the story as being specifically about a break-up may seem obvious given that, well, it depicts a break-up. But for some reason, I was digging for themes outside of that focus, which is probably why I had such a hard time with it at first. It didn’t occur to me that all of the supernatural shenanigans we see are tied directly to the relationship itself until I happened upon a great review by Beatrice Loayza, who discussed the new film Midsommar as part of the break-up horror subgenre that includes Possession. Lore agreed that this movie works best when viewed through that lens.
Justin Lore: It is the most accurate portrayal of a break-up in any movie I've ever seen. It's either this or Mullholland Drive, and they're both f***ing nightmares to watch because it really captures that nightmare “un-logic” that is a break-up. Whether you're breaking up with somebody or whether you're being broken up with, [the movie] really encapsulates that feeling of, “Oh f***, I hope I'm actually dreaming right now. I hope I'm gonna wake up because this doesn't make enough sense for it to be real.” But at the same time, it makes this sort of cool sense. And I stand by the shot of Sam Neill at the beginning when he comes back from his four-week bender and he’s just sitting in his rocking chair staring into the middle distance... it is haunting, like, a top ten shot in any movie ever because that is how it feels to be broken up with. That is the face of someone who is just shocked.
O’Donnell adds that with Mark serving as a stand-in for Żuławski, who wrote the movie (with Frederic Tuten also credited as a co-writer) after having recently been through a pretty rough break-up himself, one can’t help but notice that Żuławski is using the film to work through some feelings of self-loathing.
Liam O’Donnell: It's a very self-eviscerating film... it feels like Sam Neill might be the bad guy. And I mean, [Anna] is cheating on him, not just with Heinrich, which is a nightmare in and of itself, but with an actual demon creature. And you're like, “Man, this Sam Neill, he's just out of control, he's insane.” ...In the end, [Mark] is replaced by this other, much more happy and much more wholesome doppelgänger. What could be better? It's almost like, “Yeah, this is how I'd rather be: destroyed than to feel this way anymore.”
Justin Lore: It sort of parallels the reaction a lot of people have when they are either cheated on or when the partner that broke with them moves on. It’s like when Sam Neill sees who she is now with, which is a doppelgänger of him, and it's like, “That guy’s basically me. What’s so much better about him when me he's exactly like me?”
But we also agree that the doppelgänger that Anna ends up with isn’t exactly like Mark (or as O’Donnell puts it, he’s Mark if Mark “didn’t suck”). And the doppelgänger contrasts well with Heinrich, who at first seems like the movie’s “big bad” because he’s essentially Mark’s polar opposite.
Liam O’Donnell: Heinrich is better than him in every way: “I’m older, but I’m stronger. I’m more interesting, I haven't lost my soul the way you have.” I mean, he's crazy in his own way, but it's a much more engaging crazy. And it feels like he is in every way the opposite.
Given that the film was not only directed, but also written by Żuławski, it’s to be expected that the audience would be asked to view this story through Mark’s point of view. But I was interested to hear what O’Donnell and Lore thought about Anna’s part in all of this. (NOTE: It’s not lost on me that we are three men discussing the portrayal of a woman as written by a man, so I hope we’re not too far off the mark).
Justin Lore: Breaking up with someone is almost as bad, if not as bad, as being broken up with. It really sucks to hurt the father of your child, the partner you've been with for who knows how long... I don't think she's Evil with a capital E in the sense that she's taking any pleasure in this. [In scenes where] she flips out on him, it's only because he keeps pushing and pushing and pushing and yeah, she's stepping out on him, but is that evil?
Liam O’Donnell: I think that Żuławski is pretty skeptical about human communication. In a couple of his movies I've seen, it's a lot of people saying things to each other that almost seem like non sequiturs to what other people are saying. In this movie, I think it's sharper because people are attempting to communicate and it's not going well for all three of our main characters. They’re constantly saying things, but it's just not going anywhere... Because we are so embedded with Sam Neill's character, if we can say anything super definitive about her, you would almost defeat what the movie’s trying to do, which is you are in Sam Neill’s head even as you're kind of hating him.
I think it's worth noting, too, in the original cut of that subway scene [a rather infamous scene in which Adjani’s character seems to have a psychotic break while emitting a white, bloody discharge] there's a moment where in the midst of the goo, an eye opens up and it was determined that that was too upsetting. But [Żuławski] described that scene as the birth... and people say, “Oh it looks like she's having a psychotic episode.” Yes, that too. “It looks like she's having an orgasm.” Yes, that as well... the point here is that it's productive. What she's doing is resulting in something. Something is changing inside of her. It's not just release.
Lore notes that there’s an element of something being cast out, and in the framework of a monogamous relationship, one relationship can’t start without the old one being destroyed.
Justin Lore: And you really have to get rid of everything. I've had friends who have started dating partners shortly after they go out of longterm relationships, and it's like... you don't want to be anywhere near that while they are sorting out what happened because when those [emotional] bombs hit, there's going to be shrapnel. So you just have to wait until the dust settles and all the bits are swept up, and then after that you start something new. But yeah, I'm inclined to agree that in order to start something new in a relationship, you have to just eject all the old baggage.
Żuławski clearly brought a lot of baggage to this film, which, as O’Donnell points out, leads to an unpleasant filming experience for Isabelle Adjani, as Żuławski proved to be really difficult to work with.
Liam O’Donnell: I've been thinking a lot more about the fact that Isabelle Adjani had a terrible time making this movie [in this interview with Adjani, you can see her diplomatically allude to her experience]... Lots of actors talk about being tortured by various directors in order to get a good performance and sometimes they later on say, “I'm glad that happened,” and other times they say, “I wish that director would be dead.” [Adjani] doesn't quite say, “I wish death,” but she definitely never was like, “Yeah it's fine, it's fine that [my experience making that film] happened.”
In addition to personal baggage, Żuławski may have also been bringing some professional turmoil into the shoot. Of course, we know films aren’t made in a vacuum, and in this case O’Donnell discusses some of the political discord that could have led to Żuławski’s state of mind when making the movie. A Polish director, Żuławski decided to film Possession in France after his 1975 effort, The Devil, was banned in his home country.
Liam O’Donnell: Clearly, [Żuławski] has a chip on his shoulder after his last movie was censored and he is getting out of that context and he is now in a different place [moving from Poland to France]. But I think he has some anger about that. I think it’s very telling that he goes, “I’m gonna make a movie in the West. Here’s the Berlin Wall!”
Before we’re even given the central conceit, which is the anxiety of his life falling apart, the movie already gives us anxiety. The scene with him where he's being briefed in that room, that’s weird! The way the camera moves around in room, everything about it is like... you should already feel uncomfortable because [Żuławski] doesn't let you know where you are. He doesn't give you any information about it. He just lets you know it's intimidating, it's kind of scary, and Sam Neill’s stroll home takes him past all kinds of weird men with guns and walls and s***. And this could be set in “Gay Paris,” but it's not. So why isn't it? And I think, for me at least, as if you were an underlying thing in this movie is yes, what they’re going through on a personal level is crazy, but it's not clear to me that any aspect [of Mark’s life] is sane. His context, like how real was his relationship even before this? The movie seems to suggest he's some sort of agent, maybe a secret agent. His life is built on lies anyway, [and when] he comes home, his personal life turns out [to] not [be] what he thought it was. Big surprise!
So there’s definitely some underlying resentment for Żuławski toward his experience making films under the democratic socialist left, and that resentment manifests in tension between the characters. But at the end of the day, the central conflict is the break-up, and Lore concludes by emphasizing just how right Żuławski gets the emotional mindset when a relationship crumbles.
Justin Lore: It’s just one of those movies where if you know it, you know it, and if you don’t, then you should. I wish more people would see it. For how surreal and nightmarish it is, it's also frighteningly realistic when it comes to how that actually feels in life. It's one of my go-to movies when I've been through a break-up as an adult. It's like, “Time to watch Possession, time to watch Mulholland Drive, time to watch Love Actually [cue O’Donnell singing “One of those things is not like the other”]. It's just this amazing piece of art. There's nothing else like it.