Fantasia 2012: Possession (1981) and the Cinema of Hysteria

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Possession (1981)

Written and Directed by Andrzej Zulawski

France/West Germany, 127 minutes

Zulawski’s work can be described as being a part of the cinema of hysteria. His characters exist on the edge of sanity, often in an alternative universe that resembles our own but is fuelled by different rules of conduct. Unreal is a way of describing his atmosphere, but his process suggests an emotional truth that is frighteningly on point. At the centre of many of his narratives are women and some of the most beautiful actresses in the world have graced his screen, their body and faces contorted monstrously by the demands of his excess.

In his book on Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze describes a particular brand of painting as hysterical; he described it is a “galloping schizophrenia”. The human body is at the centre of this discussion, and he speaks of the body without organs. This is the idea that we are trapped by our conception of the body, that there is a specific organization to our internal being that confines and defines us. The flexibility of painting allowed artists to break from naturalism; however, Deleuze argued that as a medium it was irreparably tied to the human form. Is cinema similarly trapped? It is the frustration of this anomaly, the desire to break away but the inability to that is at the heart of the hysteria of art.

This process of self-destruction is at the heart of Possession, which is on one hand, the simple story of a dissolving marriage, but suggests more complex feelings, desires and yearnings of the flesh. The film is not tied to our reality, and features supernatural elements that annihilate the human conception of the self. Much like the work of H.P. Lovecraft, in which creatures like the Cthulhu, it puts into question humanity’s role as a higher being, denying humanity its role as most important life-form. Possession suggests the monstrosity and fragility of the human form and in turn, the insignificance of human interactions. It is as if this realization of hopelessness and powerlessness disrupts entirely the flow of emotions, heightening them to such extremes that they are no longer recognizable as being human. A character, now in touch with a higher consciousness, is no longer in possession of her flesh. She has lost control and the physical mannerisms that suggest such incredible powers of destruction and creation reveal that both concepts involve the loss of living flesh; this is exemplified through the horrific “birth” sequence in the subway. Adjani’s performance reaches a crescendo as she seems to literally bounce off the walls, screaming and yelping, as white liquid pour from her orifices. It is never established as to whether or not this birth is successful, or she is miscarrying: the ambiguity is key as it alludes the strong relationship between creation and destruction.

The film suggests an alternative myth to our conception of God, and therefore could easily be too distant or cryptic to relate to. It displaces the human role in creation, and seems to ironically mock the idea that we are created in God’s image in the film’s cryptic final sequence. Though clearly the work of a cinematic outsider, the film maintains a familiar enough horror form, adopting in particular aesthetic techniques like extreme close-ups, dutch angles and frantic camera work as a means of externalizing an unrested soul.

Possession is not a film for the weak of heart, and even for the most seasoned horror or gore hound, it hits an uncomfortable note of emotional reality. For all its hysterics and excess, the film is startlingly personal and hits close to home. It is unsurprising that the film was a means for Zulawski to address his own divorce. The film paints a particularly difficult and obsessed relationship as it comes to a horrifying and bloody end. Compared to film’s as wide ranging as Repulsion, The Brood, Antichrist and Scenes from a Marriage, none of these comparisons quite do Zulawski justice… their eclecticism merely suggesting the impossibility to categorize the film, as it stands apart as a unique, almost spiritual vision of human relationships.

Also, be sure to check out my video Five Reasons to Check out Zulawski’s Possession

–       Justine Smith

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