Andrzej Zulawski's cult horror hybrid Possession released on DVD
In 1981 Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession earned a place on both the Palme D’Or shortlist and the BBFC’s video nasties list. Ahead of its DVD release, Matt Palmer explains why
It certainly ranks as one of the most surreal moments in my life. I’m sitting in a Polish restaurant, having dinner (before a scheduled Q&A at the Filmhouse) with one of my all time favourite film directors, who is standing behind me, giving me a vigorous shoulder massage. He’s sensed a certain tension in my mood and has undertaken the massage as a means of further investigation. Andrzej Zulawski isn’t messing about either – it feels as if his hands are inside my skin, or more precisely, that he’s rooting through the contents of my soul with his fingers. The whole episode gives me an unexpectedly intimate sense of how the actors he directs must feel.
Indeed, Zulawski’s work with actors is the stuff of legend. He’s been known to hypnotise actors for days before shooting begins. Isabelle Adjani took the top acting prize at Cannes for her role in his 1981 horror hybrid Possession but after watching it, shocked by what Zulawski had drawn from within her, concluded that it was ‘emotional pornography’. What is certain is that Adjani’s performance in Possession is one of the boldest and most astonishing in cinema history – at once hysterical, shockingly raw and heartbreakingly honest.
‘Hysterical’ has become the word most often associated Zulawski, whose style is characterised by ferociously primal performances, hyperkinetic camera movement, relentless intellectual curiosity and bruising emotional violence. The near insane pitch and breakneck pace of his work brings to mind the term ‘amphetamine cinema’ with all its connotations of excess and addictiveness.
Possession would prove to be his enduring masterpiece. It begins as an unbearably tense marriage break-up story before swerving off into utterly surreal territory, but maintains a distinctly ritualistic, quasi-religious intensity throughout. The reaction to a first viewing is, almost universally, a stunned sense of awe. Possession is one of those movies that you feel shouldn’t really exist, a truly bizarre melding of art and trash cinema, a film that was simultaneously placed on the BBFC’s ‘video nasties’ list and nominated for the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Like Gaspar Noé’s recent techno-fest oddity Enter The Void, Possession seems to emanate from another dimension entirely.
Like Noé, Zulawski is obsessed by the technical aspects of big budget Hollywood filmmaking (he confesses to being a massive James Cameron fan and to loving Titanic). He’s also deeply involved in the spiritual and intellectual traditions of East European art cinema, yet Zulawski shapes these diverse influences into a coherent vision through his determination to make smart, spiritual movies with mass appeal – adrenaline and intelligence; entertainment and enlightenment; existential human drama you can chew popcorn to.
Like all of Zulawski’s best work, Possession has blunt force and visceral power unequalled by any other film director. Ultimately nothing prepares you for a movie which needs to be ‘experienced’ rather than read about. So go buy the new UK DVD. I guarantee you’ll never forget what you see.
Possession is released on DVD on Mon 25 Oct.