Before the UW Cinematheque presentation of Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 film, “Possession,” on November 5, Hanna Kohn, Lewis Peterson, and Ian Adcock, and Grant Phipps talk about all the film’s lurking absurdisms and obvious horrors.
Header Photo: Ian Adcock, Grant Phipps, Hanna Kohn, and Lewis Peterson (left to right) hold in-house copies of Isabelle Adjani- and Andrzej Żuławski-related films, including “Possession,” before they sit down to record at Four Star Video Rental. Photo by Phipps.
Welcome back to a Tone Madison podcast. I’m Grant Phipps, Film Editor and contributor.
You’re about to hear a roundtable discussion on Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 film, Possession. It was safely recorded last month at Four Star Video Rental at 459 W Gilman St right here in Madison.
After our last podcast on something a bit more challenging and lesser-known like the modern experimental animations of Lewis Klahr that concluded the summer’s Rooftop Cinema at MMoCA [Madison Museum of Contemporary Art] on State Street, we thought it’d be a fitting change to tackle a film with a sort of built-in audience and reputation. And I don’t think there’s a film in either recent or distant memory more ripe for conversation than Possession, which is Żuławski’s most notorious psychological / domestic horror film. And it’s screening at the UW Cinematheque at 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, November 5, at 7 p.m. It’s also being presented in a new 4K digital restoration that was helmed by Metrograph Pictures, and that digital print has been transferred to 35mm for this particular screening. Admittance to the event is free, and there isn’t an attendance cap at that theater, but face masks are required.
While the film’s unsettling surrealistic horrors and strangely absurdist detours fit the bill for October horror viewing, we can consider this a holdover, sort of an extension of that sort of programming so many of us movie buffs and cinephiles have been pursuing for the last month or month and a half. Perhaps it can serve as an unabridged conclusion of sorts.
Returning for this chat about Possession are Four Star co-owner Lewis Peterson as well as Hanna Kohn, who both have connections to the original Four Star Video podcasts they began producing a handful of years ago in 2015 and 2016. Ian Adcock also joined us, lending his own knowledge of the film and Żuławski to our sprawling dialogues.
If you’re not already a Tone Madison sustainer, please consider signing up at one of our four tier levels. We’ve also just launched a major fall fundraising campaign, and we have a match fund that will double your support. Find more information about that at tonemadison.com/donate. It will really help us continue producing timely journalism and arts commentary that matters.
OK, here we go. [A full transcript follows.]
Grant Phipps: Hello, welcome back. You’re listening to the Four Star Video Rental podcast. I’m Grant Phipps, Film Editor at Tone Madison. Today we’re talking about the infamous Andrzej Żuławski film from 1981. It’s called Possession, and it’s screening at the UW Cinematheque on Friday, November 5, in a new 35mm print by Metrograph Pictures. It’s also, this year, 2021, is the 40th anniversary of it’s European premiere at Cannes, I believe. In 2012, actually, I saw the film at UW Cinematheque courtesy of Bleeding Light Film Group, which helped bring that film to some Midwestern audiences at the time and I was lucky to be able to catch it. And it’s great to be able to see it again. Or introduce it to audiences for the first time in this new restoration. I’m joined here by a few eager and intelligent voices. Maybe they would call themselves “Żuławski-heads.” I’ll let them speak for themselves.
Lewis Peterson: Hi, my name is Lewis Peterson. I’m the owner of Four Star Video Rental. I guess I don’t know what Żuławski fans call themselves, if they have, like a, I don’t know, equivalent of like “Barb” or something like that. But I’ve watched a lot of his movies. Some of them are kind of hard to find, but I’ve tried to make them available to other people. And we’ve got a whole stack of them at Four Star.
Ian Adcock: Hi, I’m Ian Adcock, I write for Tone. And yeah, Possession was actually the first movie I came to Four Star to rent many years ago, because I couldn’t find it anywhere else. And glad to see a new print coming that’s better quality than what’s been currently out there.
Hanna Kohn: I’m Hanna Kohn and I’m a Tone contributor, DJ, and local It Girl.
GP: [laughs] Yeah so, Lewis you initially proposed doing this podcast, and since you’re so familiar with Żuławski, I thought it’d be good to throw to you to get us started about a film that’s impossible to summarize. Initially, I had some skepticism in trying to discuss this, but I think that there’s so much material to go through that we could probably be sitting here for the duration of the film itself which is a bit over two hours long. So, what’s at the forefront of your mind in talking about Possession?
LP: I mean, I guess you kind of hit on that it’s a little bit of an indescribable movie. You can describe what happens in the movie, but it’s kind of unbelievable. But also, you know, the performances are really what sell the movie. Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill are the leads. Adjani especially gives maybe one of the most intense performances in a movie ever. She did win, I think it was at the Cannes Film Festival—she won the year that it screened  for two different performances—this and Merchant Ivory film, Quartet. Yeah, so, Possession was my introduction to Żuławski. It was apparently not really widely available in the US until about 2010 or so and then slowly—I think there was maybe even a new print struck at that time, and it was kinda slowly working its way around. Apparently, there was some kind of rights issues that prevented it from being screened easily that some film programmer in New York took it upon themselves to work out.
GP: Yeah, I think it was originally censored to like 83 minutes or something [81, in fact] before it was released in its full uncut format. It had to have been July of 2012 when I saw it here. ‘Cause I hadn’t heard of the film previously, and I just remember seeing a stark image of Adjani with the bloody mouth and Sam Neill as Mark, her kind of estranged husband but sort of not estranged— how would you describe him?—kind of looming behind her, and I’m like, “What the hell is this movie?” [Laughs]. I think most American audiences have a sort of fond idea of Sam Neill as Dr. Grant from the Jurassic Park movies. It’s probably his most famous role in the last, what, 30 years, maybe?
LP: Yeah, I would agree with that. That’s where I think I first saw him. He’s got some other ones. In The Mouth Of Madness (1994), that John Carpenter movie. He doesn’t get quite as unhinged in that one, but it’s in the same territory. But yeah, Adjani—I wasn’t really familiar with her at all before this either, but she’s someone that, I guess, apparently, in the industry at the time this film came out, had a reputation for being difficult, whatever that means. It’s kind of like a, I don’t know, film industry euphemism.
My personal experience [with] Żuławski is: I saw this movie, I think, actually, even before I ever moved to Madison. I didn’t see it in full. An old roommate of mine in Washington was watching [it]. I think I maybe just saw the subway scene or something over his shoulder. Then I started working at Four Star, and I was like, “Oh yeah, I wonder if Four Star has that movie” and ended up seeking it out and adding it to the collection. But then I was, I guess to kind of add to what Grant just said… well, like, “What is with this guy? Who could have made this movie?” So I tried to watch everything I could of his that was available. I would still say Possession is probably his best movie. I don’t really know if—well, you can’t really use the word accessible with him because it’s something that will [either] click or doesn’t almost immediately. The thing that kind of goes across his films is like this really manic method of performance and editing. There’s definitely kind of things he returns to. But I guess I also kind of wanted to give a quick biography of him, of what I know of him.
He’s Polish, and he actually comes from several generations of artists. His first script, The Third Part Of The Night (1971), was actually co-written with his father, who’s a poet, based on his father’s experiences in World War II. Later on in his career, it was kind of a disaster production, but the movie On The Silver Globe (1988) is based on a sci-fi novel written by his grandfather. And then also his son, I hope I’m pronouncing this right, Xawery Żuławski, is also a film director. I think he [Andrzej Żuławski] had four or five children. At least one of them carried on the family tradition. His second feature, The Devil (1972), is a kind of political allegory set in the Middle Ages. The Communist Polish government at the time didn’t really like it. I think it wasn’t really actually even shown until the ’80s. He went into a short exile, made a movie in France, That Most Important Thing: Love (1975). That did well on the festival circuit, [and] he was invited back to do On The Silver Globe, which was, at the time, the most expensive Polish movie ever made. At some point during the production, a culture minister decided that it wasn’t in line with what the government wanted to promote, so they shut down the production. Supposedly, they intended to destroy everything that was shot already. Somehow, some of it was saved and released much later. So that was like the late ’70s that was happening. On the Silver Globe was shot like I think ’77 [or] ’78. It kind of necessitated him leaving Poland, which then he lived in France and made this movie. He was also married to a Polish woman at the time. I really should have her name written down and at the ready, but I’m blanking on that.
GP: That’s okay. Well, this film was shot in Germany.
LP: It was, yeah. But I think he was in the process of getting divorced and also going into political exile. And I think that’s some of the big inspiration for this movie, and he deliberately chose to shoot in Berlin. ‘Cause pretty much the very first thing you see in this movie is the Berlin Wall.
HK: Małgorzata Braunek was his wife’s name.
LP: Okay. Yeah, and I think he said in at least one interview that he chose Berlin deliberately basically so he could show the Berlin Wall and the divide between Communist and Capitalist countries. After Possession, which I think was reasonably successful for how bizarre it is. Even outside of the United States, I know it was designated as a “video nasty” in the UK, which is not exactly a kiss of death, maybe a little bit of a badge of honor. But also made it much more difficult to see and heavily censored. But he pretty much lived in France for almost the whole rest of his life. Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s made four or five more features in France, went back to Poland, made a feature called Szamanka that was released in 1996, did one more French feature in 2000, took a 15-year break from directing. I guess he wrote some novels in that time. And then, his final film, Cosmos, also in French, was released in 2015. And he passed away in early 2016. So that’s kind of a rough overview of his life.
GP: Thanks for detailing his life and achievements. I want to bring Hanna and Ian into this, going back to Possession because that’s sort of the main topic. How would you sort of initially describe this film? I reviewed this film in 2012, and I latched onto these kind of phrases, I don’t know, people sort of like an elevator pitch for something. At that time, I was stuck on this phrase “the gradual ascending promise of pain.” [laughs] This time around, I was thinking more of this film as like “a tortured dance.” I was very much attuned to the cinematography, which is always panning around people, especially in the first act of the movie. Then you see more of the choreography come in later in the film.
HK: Um, further I’ll ask you, Ian. Sorry to put you on the spot. But if you were to try to preface this to somebody that you knew that you cared about and liked, and you knew that they were maybe not wanting to watch something that was gonna throw them but they were maybe open to the idea, how would you get them to watch this movie?
IA: I would probably phrase it pretty delicately. It’s definitely not a movie for everybody. It’s a pretty intense experience. It’s kind of always been marketed, especially in the video nasty era, as like a horror movie, and it sort of is, but it’s also just more about like—human decay. Żuławski described it as about evil seeping in from around you. I think re-watching it after hearing him talk about that. It’s like, yeah, everything is sort of like—all the evil of the world is sort of seeping into all these characters. Um, but yeah, it’s very stylized, very intense. It’s probably not my choice of first date movie.
HK: No, definitely not a first date movie. Although you would rule out a lot of potential people if you show them this on a first date.
IA: I think I do actually know someone whose parents went on one of their early dates to see this, so—
[HK and LP laugh]
GP: We need to have them on the podcast.
IA: Yeah, I think so. [laughs]
HK: I mean, yeah. For me, too, just thinking about introducing this to people, I think I’d be sensitive to the fact that, you know, are they a child of divorce or not? Because this movie has a lot of things in it. You know, battery, just domestic abuse. And it’s not—and it’s for a point, right? In a way.
GP: I mean there’s no buffer, even, in the film. It starts immediately at this heightened level.
HK: Right. You can’t—
GP: You’ve got these characters sort of meeting at the edge of a sidewalk outside their building complex or apartment complex.
GP: They start arguing. Like, there’s no lead in.
GP: You don’t get to know them beforehand.
HK: Yeah, and there’s the tension, and I guess an argument between a couple, a married couple and just how that tension is something that is, if you’re not wanting to see that, and maybe relive it or see it again in your life. I don’t know—I wouldn’t present this to someone as a quote, unquote “good movie.” It’s intense, it’s excellent, but it’s also horrifying. We were just talking about this, [and] I thought of a quote from Mark in the movie, Sam Neill’s character, who says, “When I’m away from you I think of you as an animal or a woman possessed.” It kind of sets up this sort of sense of like a gendered view of an evil woman kind of thing, and I think that plays into the movie a whole lot.
IA: Yeah, I wish I had written this down. There’s a great documentary that someone has on Vimeo right now with the director and producer and a lot of the other people. But Żuławski was talking about originally, ’cause it is very much a thinly masked—him getting out his grievances about his divorce and being in exile. He originally wrote Anna as being as awful as possible, but then he found that gradually she became a much more rounded-out character, and he stopped hating her as much as he went on. He found that the character was actually more interesting than he originally planned.
HK: It is autobiographical.
GP: Yeah, it’s sort of a plot similar to a psychodrama. It’s the definition of a psychodrama. I’m thinking of—a couple years ago JJ Murphy introduced a film called Dangerous Game (1993) that’s directed by Abel Ferrara. It’s kind of similar to this in that it’s the director exorcising his demons and taking things out on his divorce and his wife. This is a far more interesting movie than that. [laughs] But yeah—
HK: It also is kind of a cheating film. “What do you do when you find out your wife is cheating on you?” Well, of course you’re gonna go confront the guy, right? And it’s a feeling that is very intense, and I think it’s a cool thing to cover, but it’s also—the way that it’s covered in the movie is awfully silly.
IA: Yeah. Well Heinrich is actually the name of the guy his wife left him for.
HK: No way.
IA: But he’s—
HK: No. [laughs]
IA: But he said that Heinrich is the most intelligent character in the movie but also the stupidest.
HK: Oh yeah.
IA: I thought that was kind of interesting that he’s physically more powerful. He’s very smart; he’s very intelligent, but also he’s a complete idiot. And he’s fooling around with things that he’s in way over his head with. He lives with his mom.
IA: He’s doing a lot of weird drugs.
HK: A tortured artist.
GP: Yeah, I mean I don’t even know if I’d call him an artist. He’s like a blundering pansexual playboy. That’s how I described him in my notes. [laughs]
HK: Wow. He’s—
GP: He’s just like, he’s constantly falling over himself. I feel like the scene where he visits Mark, and he’s fawning into the walls.
HK: So funny.
GP: It is really funny. I don’t even know how to describe that scene. He’s not quite drunk; he’s not quite high; he’s not quite flirting with Mark.
GP: He’s not doing performance art either. It’s, just, like, funny. I don’t even know how to describe it. You just have to see it.
LP: He is kind of a comic relief character, but also I feel like he’s so in his body that he’s outside of his body, you know. His chakras are aligned. It’s almost like he’s doing kung fu. There’s that one part where he does the kick.
HK: Yeah, that’s so funny.
IA: I think he would fit in in Madison pretty well. [LP laughs]
HK: I think so, too. Well, I was just going to read the quote that I have from that scene that you were talking about, Grant. He says to Mark, “I wanted to discuss with you the latest review of our parts in this fundamentally vulgar structure, the triangle. In other words, where is she?” Like, this guy is just over-the-top all the time. And also I wanted to point out that he is a cool motorcycle guy as well.
IA: [Laughs] Yeah.
HK: He’s like that cool guy with a motorcycle.
IA: Cool, like, divorced dad with a motorcycle.
HK: YES. That lives with his mom.
HK: Mmhmm, mmhmm.
GP: So, yeah, in my notes here I just have discussing the comedy amidst the horror of this film and the separation between Mark and Anna. I don’t know—and it’s not so much that I think that Żuławski had to pad this film, because it was so intense with these, I don’t know— you [Lewis] said comic relief, but I don’t know if I’d quite go that far. There’s a scene where Mark wants to have Anna followed, and he hires this private investigator who attempts to follow her on the street, and it’s hilariously conspicuous. Like, he’s obviously not even trying to duck behind something. He’s just like following her down a wide street, and he’s the only person on it. Then, he pretends—well, she notices him following. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, and he pretends to be a window inspector. [laughs]
HK: That’s a pretty good line though.
GP: When he comes up to her apartment, and uh—
HK: [laughs] Yeah.
GP: And he suffers a fate that we will not get into. Or maybe we will.
HK: Lewis, do you have anything to say about the comic relief aspect of it.
LP: Heinrich, he’s kind of like a larger than life character. The private detective—I guess, also, maybe not comic relief but also expanding on the main story is the thing about Mark’s job as a spy that kinda just like—they introduce it in the beginning. They never fully explain it, and it kind of comes in at the very end, but it’s just something—I guess kind of relating back to the whole Berlin wall thing. There’s stuff kind of happening on the sidelines outside of the main story, which is very intense. It’s almost like you kind of need something else or it’s too intense to handle.
GP: The political periphery or something, because the film is so personal.
HK: Yeah, in that it also feels similar to the Suspiria remake (2018) as well.
GP: Oh yeah, I didn’t think of that. That’s true.
LP: I guess, also, another thing to note is that this is one the few Żuławski movies that doesn’t have an actor or a movie production as part of the plot. Not all of them, but it’s a frequent device that he uses.
HK: Well, and Anna being a dancer, too, is kind of like a theatrical thing. It’s tangential to that, perhaps. Even though I’m not familiar with his other movies, she’s still a performer, right?
LP: Yeah, that’s true.
IA: I think a lot of things in this movie are very ambiguous. I don’t think there’s a lot of clear cut meaning to a lot of things. So it sometimes seems like there’s just side plots going on that may or may not actually have anything to do with what’s going on. There’s a lot of open ends. This movie you can analyze, but I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer. I don’t think he was very interested in having a movie with a clear-cut solution of like—what is this monster doing in this movie? We find out, but we don’t really find out why. I watched this a long time ago and then rewatched it, and I was like, I don’t know what’s going on at all for the last 20 minutes.
HK: [Laughs] Right.
IA: There’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s going somewhere, but it doesn’t really tell you what is going on. It’s more like an emotional—it’s creating emotions in the audience rather than telling a cohesive story.
GP: Well, that’s the element of the film that probably gets it labeled as “horror,” right? Because you have this manifestation that you can point to and say, “that’s a creature” or “that’s something.”
IA: Yeah. But much of the horror—it’s also like these people’s relationships are probably more horrifying than this monster.
GP: Yes, absolutely.
IA: The scene in the kitchen is definitely the most difficult one for me to watch.
HK: Oh, the cutting scene?
IA: Yeah. I’ve always been really freaked out by electric knives and, uh, yeah.
HK: Totally. Absolutely. That’s a really freaky scene. Thinking about it even right now—when I was watching it, I was like “Ahhhhh!” You know, it really gave me pause because… same, in a way. Ughhhh. [laughs] Yeeaaah. It’s good that it’s scary in that way. I think also it feels emotionally manipulative watching the film, being taken on this crazy journey.
GP: This scene feels like it just gets out of hand almost spontaneously. There’s obviously an oppressive air. Sam Neill’s character is berating her and just kind of asking her to describe why she’s cheating on him. Is that basically what he’s pressuring her to reveal that she can’t articulate?
GP: It’s not something that anybody could probably articulate, what’s he’s asking for.
HK: Right. I think the interesting part for me about that scene was watching him dress her wounds. She, you know, sliced her neck open, and he seamlessly walks her into the bathroom. I think she’s talking throughout the whole thing, and he’s dressing her wound. And then he just goes into the kitchen and just silently starts cutting his arm, and cuts those three marks, right?
GP: Yeah, through his shirt, even.
HK: And he just goes for it.
IA: Very calmly. And then she’s just like walking around in the background not paying attention.
HK: Not paying any attention. Right. And then the part that gets me is there’s a shot of him dressing his wounds solo. Which I felt like had a heavy weight of poetry in the situation—just the feeling of separation. That he’s still caring for her wounds, and she is not caring for his.
GP: I was thinking more of like sadomasochism or something.
HK: Oh, that she hurt—
GP: Or that he’s trying to feel something that she’s feeling.
HK: Yeah, it was more about the aftercare part for me [laughs], because I was like, “Yeah, you just sliced your neck open. That’s pretty serious.” A couple little cuts on the arm is whatever. But that he had to tend to his own wounds.
HK: Yeah, it’s really hardcore! I think another thing that I wanted to touch on in terms of the fantastic of the movie, and the not-able-to-follow, was the whole body doubling thing and how, you know, Bob’s teacher being—
IA: Yeah, looking like a lot like Isabelle Adjani.
IA: I had to check at first. I was like wait, she’s not. Okay, but she’s, you know, wearing her hair [in] a very similar way, and Sam Neill freaks out, but yeah, it’s this weird unexplained thing. But it’s sort of like there’s these doubles in this film. I was watching it last night, and noticing the characters—every other scene their acting and emotional level is like totally different. One character will be super calm in one scene and the next scene—they’ll just kind of alternate between what’s going on. So yeah, it’s very disorienting, but then when you add these doubles in throughout the film, it just adds to the complexity of this ambiguous theme that’s not fully fleshed out.
GP: Well, does the teacher have a name? I was trying to find the name of the—
LP: Helen. Is the name.
GP: Helen. She’s like an angelic character. She’s wearing all white, and she just has like this—
HK: She’s kind of not angelic in some ways, to me at least. When she’s talking to Mark after taking care, right before they have sex, and she’s talking to him about how he sees the world.
GP: Why am I not remembering this scene? [laughs]
HK: Do you guys know what I’m talking about?
LP: Right after she gives the kid the bath?
HK: Yes. Yes. She’s talking to him about the world, the way that you see things, and basically talking to him as if she was from a different place.
IA: Oh, yeah.
HK: And it could maybe be angelic. It almost seemed like “monster” to me when I was watching it.
IA: I kind of inferred that she came from the other side of the Berlin Wall. And that she had escaped and she was like, “I’ve been exposed to horrors of living there,” which was a kind of Żuławski theme in this movie. But then there’s also the woman at the end of the movie at the top of the staircase. Apparently, there was another couple that was totally cut out of the movie that’s Anna’s first husband, and that’s his wife. He was kind of at one point like, “You know what, I’m just going to these cut these people completely out of this movie,” and—
HK: [Laughs] All right.
IA: Just this one woman shows up at the end. It was kind of like, okay, that explains why this person shows up, and they don’t really say what she’s doing at the top of the staircase or why.
HK: Was it her?
HK: Wasn’t she in Anna’s ballet class? That’s what I—
IA: She might be.
HK: I think that she’s one of the people in—I didn’t go back and verify it, and I wanted to talk to you guys about it because I think—
IA: She’s like very young.
GP: The younger girl who she’s making hold a pose—
GP: And it’s physically painful?
HK: Yeah, doesn’t she reappear at the end of the film at the top of the stairs? Isn’t that the same person?
GP: I was so disoriented, and I had forgotten how quickly things escalate in the last like 10 minutes of this movie. It’s, like, if you thought that things were spiraling out of control in the first hour and fifty minutes, you’re in for something else entirely in the last 10 minutes, Which, like, it almost seems haphazardly structured where you have like explosions, and shootout with the police and, you know, the son of Anna and Bob sort of committing—does he commit suicide in the tub?
IA: Well, you know he’s been practicing holding his breath.
GP: Oh, okay.
IA: So I’ve assumed—he’s sort of like maybe the one character that kind of knows the most about what’s going on throughout the film.
GP: The apocalypse, yeah.
IA: But has no way of expressing it. So yeah, I think he’s holding his breath from something. ‘Cause he knows—’cause even before the doorbell rings, he knows something awful is going to happen. Because like the whole movie he’s been getting timed off how long he can hold his breath.
IA: But yeah, definitely the last ten, fifteen minutes reminded me a lot of kind of like other French films of that era that are really wildly, like—the tone seems so artificial and weird.
GP: Well there’s even like, I don’t know, a Godard Breathless (1960) sort of New Wave anarchy to it. Does that make sense?
HK: Yes, it does make sense. Because it’s like Breathless is like a guy going around and just doing what he wants. And that’s kind of like Mark is just a guy going around doing what he wants. And he’s tortured, and he’s having a hard life, and everybody wants to get him. But he did do some things to deserve the fate that he, you know—
HK: There’s a logic to it but it plays—I can see the similarities it’s— [deep breath]
GP: I don’t know if I specifically wrote that down, but I remember thinking that in the last several minutes. [laughs]
IA: It’s definitely got like a very—I mean, I think a lot of people at this point, it was like they were like decades into the Cold War. It was kind of like living your whole life like the threat of nuclear apocalypse at any time. So, the feeling at the end of the film is, like, really apocalyptic, but sort of like that inevitable dread.
HK: A bloody kiss. [laughs]
LP: Also, just ’cause I’m looking at the images, there’s—I don’t know if anyone mentioned the double’s contact lenses.
IA: Mmm, yeah.
LP: That’s maybe how you differentiate them. And apparently, actually during the production there was supposed—Żuławski said this in an interview, that supposedly Isabelle Adjani didn’t want to wear the contact lenses, because somebody had told her that they’d look bad. He kind of coerced her into doing it in like, I don’t know, maybe kind of not-so-above board ways.
HK: That leads into another conversation about his kind of style as a director. If you maybe want to touch on that a little bit, Lewis. In terms of what kind of action he presses out of people.
LP: Yeah, I mean—
GP: We can’t really know for certain, but—
LP: Yeah, I mean, there’s times in interviews where, like, he talks about it really nonchalantly. Like, Hanna, you shared a clip where he’s, you know, kind of said like, “Oh, yeah, Isabelle Adjani saw the movie, and she tried to slit her wrists in this dramatic way that she was like faking it.” You know, definitely in other productions, like, I guess specifically Szamanka, his Polish movie from the 90’s, he basically cast this completely unknown woman, and she was like twenty years old.Half the scenes in the movie are, like, sex scenes. And she basically is like, showing a lot and giving this really intense performance. I guess, after it wrapped, she was kind of saying how she was abused on the set. He had a counter of like, “Oh, she doesn’t understand how movie productions work. She tried to leave, and insurance wouldn’t allow that.” And kind of all these like, weird excuses. But also, like, you know the kind of wild woman character is starting, I guess, maybe in That Most Important Thing: Love and pretty much constant throughout his movies. Like, that’s like a character that he has as one of the main characters in every single movie. And, you know, it’s kind of always like this struggle between the wild, almost too-powerful woman and men trying to control them. And it seems like something that he is working through personally by making movies.
HK: So, he could use some therapy.
GP: [laughs] Yes, right. I mean, the film is called Possession. It’s about the attempted possession of Anna’s mind and body, but it also goes into, you know, the divine and demonic possession. And perhaps they’re one and the same. I think there’s some pretty interesting quotes in this film, just jumping on what you said. There’s a quote that says from—I can’t remember who says it. “No one has the right to impose their will on anyone.” Which, I wonder if this is like if Żuławski wrote that, and he’s trying to keep himself in check. [laughs] With that sort of dialogue.
HK: Oh, too little, too late.
HK: I mean, yeah it’s acknowledging—I mean, I think as much as you can acknowledge that you’re evil yourself. I think he definitely acknowledges the evil within people, but the way that he chooses to bring it about into the world is questionable.
GP: I was just going to say, questionable at the very least.
HK: Yeah, it’s very questionable. Because I think, just because I have it pulled up, and I also think it’s worth touching on is the subway scene. Which is a one-take, two-take deal. There were only two takes that they took of it, and most of it is the first take. But, this is the kind of very pressurized part of the movie where the acting is—basically he’s asking the most out of Adjani in the whole movie, I feel like, for this scene. Because it’s solo, you know, totally just having her get into this kind of zone which is, to watch it, is—it’s the most famous scene, I feel like, in the movie for a reason. Because it’s very dark, very good. I don’t know, does anyone else have any notes about it?
GP: It’s just purely spasmodic terror.
IA: Yeah. There’s a few scenes in this movie where she’s expressing so many emotions in a tiny time-frame. And then in that scene, it’s just like exploding.
HK: Right. And it’s also relatable and kind of cool because, haven’t we all been there? But I think it’s also thinking about the kind of responsibility of the relationship between director and actor and especially having that be a male director and a female lead actor. It’s not always a troubling or bad scenario, but in this case, you know, it seems like probably he wasn’t doing a lot of great checking in with her about how she was feeling about things. Because he was trying to push her, and I think as much as it’s his creative, directive force, Adjani is deserving some credit for this scene just based on the fact that it comes from a really, really deep place that only really she could cultivate within her acting in the scene, in my opinion.
GP: Well, I think her performance in this is unassailable. It’s just an incredible performance. It’s on the level of like Liv Ullmann in a Bergman film or something. If that’s an apt comparison.
HK: Sure, yeah I mean it’s—[deep breath]
GP: I mean it’s more intense than Liv would ever go. Because Bergman films kind of stop and end at, you know, drama.
HK: And I think the part that really gets me too about this scene—
GP: Start and end at drama, sorry.
HK: Yeah, no. You’re good. I think the part that really gets me is the grocery bag, too. And, just it being so—as a prop, is excellent, because it’s like it’s so regular, and yet it becomes very irregular.
HK: And it’s kind of something that—when I say it’s relatable, I mean the fact that you’re just carrying some groceries, and you’re having a freakout moment. And you’re like wrapped up in just being, and you’re like, “Wouldn’t it be great to just totally freak out right now?”
IA: And the way that the milk is just like pouring everywhere is just like, you know, that’s incredible. And just like, it’s a prop, and she’s using it with this turned all-the-way-up performance.
HK: Yeah. [laughs]
GP: We’re watching it, and attempting to describe it, but there’s really no substitute for just experiencing. And I recommend experiencing it within the context of the film. I think just watching it independent of that takes away something.
HK: Yeah, and it’s very out there in terms of being able to Google “Possession movie subway scene”” But don’t do it if you’re planning on watching the movie is what we’re saying. [laughs] If you haven’t already seen it.
IA: It’ll be better if you just go.
GP: Hopefully people are listening to this after seeing the movie as well.
HK: Sure. What about Bob, though? [laughs]
LP: Oh, yeah.
HK: Because I feel like—
GP: The movie from ’91?
GP: Or whatever year it was? [laughs]
HK: No. [laughs]
LP: That kid grew up to be Bill Murray.
IA: I was going to say, this is actually the prequel.
HK: I think, for me, all of his scenes like in the bathtub and being kind of you know—that scene with him, and all the jam that he’s eating is like—Żuławski said that was specifically pulled from real life. He came home and saw his son. Or what was it? Does anybody else know this story?
HK: I don’t know who the kid that he saw would have been. But, anyway, it’s based on a true scene that he witnessed, so seeing that in the movie I was like, “Okay, so cool. That’s pretty horrifying.” Because Bob was just left for days? We don’t really know how long.
IA: Yeah, because he’s gone for weeks.
HK: Yep, yep. And so, I think the bath stuff is just really wrapped up with his character. And I think it also touches on this kind of feeling of childhood innocence and, like, happy times of bath time. Like, that’s fun. That’s cool. But like, bath-time can’t be forever. [laughs]
GP: I mean, he seems out of place in the movie to me for a number of reasons. I mean, because everything else is so heightened, and he’s just sort of you know, a kid unaware of the true dimensions of what’s happening. And also, the actor they cast for that part had a very thick English accent, which I thought clashed—it stuck out to me, whereas—how would you describe Sam Neil’s accent? I think he grew up in New Zealand.
GP: But he doesn’t have a Kiwi accent. But it’s not as pronounced as the Bob actor to me.
IA: Yeah. I feel like Bob is like, you know, kids are very resilient. So I feel like he’s acting like a normal kid, but also he seems very, like, quietly—maybe even unconsciously—aware of what’s going on. Like, there’s a scene where Sam Neil comes home and he’s hanging out in the kitchen having fun and then he’s like, “I’m going to go outside.”
IA: And just like zoops right out. And his character seems very—I don’t know—he’s having nightmares throughout the whole movie, which kind of, at the end, wrap around. Like, oh yeah, there’s probably a good reason he’s having these nightmares, because he seems kind of maybe subconsciously more in-touch with what’s going on than the other characters. Uh, yeah—
GP: I withdraw my comments, then.
IA: [Laughs] That’s how I feel.
GP: You’re right. Yeah, now I’m recalling the scene with Helen, and she’s describing you know, the nightmares he’s having. That scene I do remember prominently, but for some reason everything else just gets swallowed. His character just gets swallowed in everything else.
IA: Yeah, there’s not a lot of focus on him. He’s kind of abandoned by his parents—
HK: And the movie.
IA: Most of the film, yeah.
LP: But also, you know how many kids that are, presumably under ten, go by Bob?
[HK, GP, and IA laugh]
LP: That’s kind of like a forty-year-old man’s name.
LP: At that age, you’re probably Bobby. It’s like he’s already being forced to mature beyond his years.
HK: Totally good point. And I think I should also bring up the whole Margie character as well because we haven’t discussed her yet. [New Zealand accent] Margie. But that’s when the New Zealand accent comes out, when he says, “Margie.”
IA: Yeah. [laughs]
HK: But just her character being—the scene where—
GP: Well, she’s hobbled.
HK: Well, she’s hobbling around. Because he’s basically like, “I hate you so much.” And she’s like, “I love to hate you.” I don’t know, it’s just—
IA: And she’s unbuttoning his clothes and talking about how much she hates him. It’s a really odd—kind of going on with all of the characters’ behavior and emotions fluctuating wildly. That’s a dynamic that’s really strange in the film.
GP: She’s the eccentric babysitter sort of neighbor character.
HK: Best friend of Anna, right?
GP: Yeah, who—she’s much older than Anna.
HK: And are they really even friends? Come on. That’s like your “friend,” I feel like.
IA: Well, Mark says like she’s his only—she’s her only friend in the film. So—
HK: Right, but can you see them hanging out? That’s what I just want to ask about the— [laughs]
GP: No, it’s not established well in the first 15 minutes of the movie.
IA: I mean it definitely seems like Anna has been withdrawing from everything for a while.
HK: Right, right.
IA: Like she’s quit her job. In teaching dance. So, yeah, there’s definitely a lot going on that we don’t see in the film.
HK: Which I love, by the way. I think it’s really cool, because, I think yeah. Obviously, we’re like, en media res. And we’re coming into this—there’s a lot of stuff that we have to catch up with and kind of imagining their lives. And just based on, you know, Anna’s dress and her kind of—like the way that she carries herself, I think we learn kind of far in that she was a dancer. But she kind of has that air to her as somebody that has been around the world and has seen things. You know? She’s kind of holding herself up high, wearing all these long blue gowns and has her hair pulled back. And we’re just like, “Who is she really?” To imagine her life normally is kind of fantastic, also. What kind of life she’d be leading.
LP: Yeah, and maybe like Mark doesn’t even really know. She’s just there.
LP: And that’s the source of the problem. But, also I mean, I feel like with Margie, you know, I just keep thinking of the [exaggerated voice] “It’s so reassuring!”
LP: That like really weird line read. But also, you know, the fact that it’s Margit Carstensen and she’s in like a ton of [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder movies. And the lead in a lot of them. So it’s like well—it’s, you know, her character name is like the actress’ name. So they didn’t really like—you know, I guess maybe—
GP: Develop it.
LP: Yeah, maybe.
HK: Maybe she is the actor.
LP: Yeah. Yeah, it could be she’s, you know, she’s in Berlin.
GP: Well maybe that’s it. We didn’t really even talk about the style of the dialogue. I mean the acting and the lines are very—I don’t know. Well, I mentioned psychodrama but it’s also kind of like classic melodrama. And it feels like the film was written for the stage to be performed by two people and then rewritten or re-developed for the screen? It’s especially true in the first act, again, when their argument just doesn’t seem like very natural dialogue. It seems like Żuławski is trying to hit something by constructing it in a specific way.
HK: Well, wouldn’t it be kind of strange if you tried to remember an argument that you had with somebody and wrote it down word-for-word?
IA: A lot of it is really stilted—
IA: And I think especially—Well, the thing that comes to mind the most is Anna. There’s the video of her reciting the thing about the sisters—
GP: Of faith and chance.
IA: Faith and chance. And it seems so artificial, and it seems like she can barely even get through this thing, and she keeps starting over. It’s just such a weirdly artificial construct even within this movie. It just seems so strangely forced. Like purposefully forced. That it’s really—yeah. That was a very—disconcerting part.
GP: That precedes the tunnel sequence, doesn’t it? Pretty sure.
LP: I think so, yeah.
GP: That’s like right before that. Without spoiling anymore of that. I’m pretty sure it precedes the famous scene that we’ve discussed.
HK: Oh, yeah, another thing I wanted to bring up is the religious symbolism, because it does start with a cross. It starts with a bang. And then we kind of come back to it at certain points. But I think with different things that people say throughout the film in terms of like referring to God and you know, evil, and um—
IA: “God’s a disease.”
HK: Yeah. It’s—Heinrich says that, right?
IA: I think Anna says it, too.
GP: Mark says it in response to Heinrich.
HK: So, did they all say it? [laughs]
IA: But then, also, like those crosses are memorializing people that were shot at The Wall, like, trying to escape. So that adds another layer to the symbolism, too. Because it’s not even like a gravesite. It’s a site of, you know, a murder.
HK: Mmm, yeah. [deep breath]
IA: But very conscious that he put that right at the beginning of the film, I think, too. And kind of towards the end as well. You know, we kind of go back to The Wall towards the end of the film.
HK: Yeah. Something else that I wanted to touch on is the monster. Just being, I know, you had mentioned in the notes, Grant, that it shares a—its creator shares another monster that’s well known.
GP: Yeah, uh. I just [laughs], the Lovecraftian—what would you describe it as?
GP: Lovecraftian fuckmonster.
LP: Yeah, that’s not my description, though. That’s this guy, Eric Allen Hatch, who runs a video store in Baltimore. He posts about this movie a lot, and does a lot of memes and he— “Lovecraftian fuckmonster” is like his phrase that’s kind of like “Oh, he’s talking about Possession again.”
HK: I can’t get it out of my head, thinking about it.
GP: It’s just like this hentai—hentai, tentacled creature was made by the E.T. (1982) special effects supervisor, Carlo Rambaldi.
HK: So he’s a freak, certified.
GP: Well— [laughs]
IA: I mean, what’s more disturbing: E.T. or—
GP: It was the 80s.
IA: Or the Possession? Yeah.
GP: It’s like a funny trivia question. I mean, that’s not anything too significant.
IA: Yeah, you wouldn’t suspect.
GP: Right, yeah.
HK: I think it’s an excellent monster. I think some monsters in movies are like, okay—I think you see too much of a lot of monsters.
HK: Sorry, that’s—maybe I should explain more. It’s like, a lot of times in a film, someone’s like, I feel like they’re like, “Damn, we really did a good job with this monster.” We gotta show it off! It’s a really scary monster but then, this monster, if we can—the Lovecraftian fuck monster—let’s call it. It’s shown, and like it’s dark and oozing and slimy, and it’s shown usually in the act of coitus. Which is like, kind of just adds a layer of like disturbingness to it. And it’s almost like when you’re looking at it, you don’t want to be looking at it. So it makes it seem even more, like, concealed behind this layer of dark sexual fantasy and just horror, because you want to look closer, but you almost don’t. And I think that’s what makes it really brilliant as a monster. So, A+.
IA: I think they’re really good at spacing out—especially because it’s, like, evolving. But yeah, it shows very little at the beginning, and then there’s a big chunk of time where you don’t see it again, which is kind of like a classic: how you put a monster in a movie. Of like, you don’t show it all at once. And you don’t like, have it there the whole time. It kind of like, pops up for a second, and then the audience is like, “I don’t know what I saw.” You know?
LP: I don’t know, I did kind of feel—well this is maybe not totally related but—I feel like the movie Malignant (2021), the James Wan movie that just came out, some of the monster design in that was reminiscent of certain aspects of the monster in this. Also, maybe kind of employed a similar strategy in not revealing the monster ’til late in the film. That movie is, I don’t know, much more deliberately trashy than this one. But maybe seems like a deliberate reference on the part of James Wan. So…
HK: I think another thing that is interesting is Mark kind of maybe also wants to see the monster the whole time. Like he would love to see it. And then once he finally sees it, he’s not really like—he’s kind of shocked, you know? Doesn’t really know what he’s been wanting this whole time. He’s not ready for it, right? ‘Cause it’s like, agh. Basically the whole time, I feel like he’s like, “show me, show me, show me, show me what’s keeping you dark and away from me.” And then he finally sees it and is like, “Oh my god.” [laughs] “Not ready.”
GP: Yeah, it reminds me a bit, I mentioned E.T., but there’s something about it that reminds me of The Thing (1982). The Carpenter version of The Thing.
GP: I’m trying to think of the character in The Thing who gets like his body wrapped up. Sort of a similar image and, I guess, creature aesthetic. [laughs]
GP: Well, there’s also like the creature in this is um… is amorphous the right word? Whereas that’s also similar in The Thing. Can kind of take on you know not—well maybe shape-shifting is—
IA: I feel like it’s evolving. It’s growing. ‘Cause it’s, you know—I read into it’s her, uh, miscarriage.
IA: Is like its original creation. So it’s like, it’s growing kind of in a disgusting outside-of-the-womb way. And growing at a very fast rate.
HK: As good monsters do.
LP: Well, and I feel like I want to say something to build on what you were just saying, Hanna, that is like a huge spoiler.
HK: Do it.
LP: Which is, you know, that the thing about Mark confronting the monster is like ultimately the monster becomes him.
LP: It’s like a double of him. Um, so hopefully you paused when I said “spoiler” if you didn’t want to hear that.
[HK and GP laugh]
GP: I think we’ve discussed—
HK: We’re too deep! [laughs]
GP: I think we’ve discussed more than spoilers, like literal spoilers. More psychological spoilers.
HK: Um, yeah. Is there—do you guys have any reason to watch it? I know we talked about at the beginning—maybe not referencing this to maybe just anybody, but just as a concise way of—
GP: I mean, as someone who was fascinated in his early twenties by Bergman, I feel like this film is sort of a heightened evolution of that format. I mean, I also—I don’t like Lars von Trier anymore. I haven’t watched any of his films [in many years]. But I feel like he basically ripped this film off with Antichrist (2009), in a large way. And he also ripped off Antonioni and Tarkovsky, like blatantly, by dedicating the Antichrist film to him [Tarkovsky]. But that’s a whole other story. But um, I think if you’re looking for a unique and intense experience in a film, I think that, as I seek out you know, music that’s, you know, heavy as much as I do with music, that’s, you know, ambient or pop-oriented. It’s necessary to do the same with cinema. Watch like a minimalist piece of slow cinema or just something like—I don’t know—The Exploding Girl (2009), for instance. Like a film like that. [laughs] Then, you want to watch something like Possession, but perhaps not consecutively. You wanna—but to experience what the film has to offer. I’ll stop talking now. [laughs]
LP: Yeah I mean, I guess that would kind of, again, echo what you were just saying that it’s, you know, definitely one of the most intense viewing experiences that is widely available. You know, in some ways, I guess maybe often copied, never equaled.
GP: Is the Antichrist comparison accurate?
LP: I would say so, yeah.
GP: Yeah, I think— [laughs] That was the first thing that I was reminded of when I saw this, not having any idea of what it was.
LP: Yeah, I think the first time I saw this, I had never seen Antichrist. But it’s definitely like, you know, similar territory. Antichrist is a little bit more of like a closed world but similar intensity. And you know, similar—
LP: Physicality. If you can call it that. Or bodies being destroyed.
IA: I mean, this movie hasn’t really been easy to see in a really long time, and, you know, a lot of the versions out there aren’t especially good. So, I’d say you know, if you can go see it in a restored print in the theater, is the ideal way to see this movie. I’ve maybe seen this movie too many times now, since we were talking about it—
HK: Cautionary tale… [laughs]
IA: I would definitely go see, you know, wanna see that scene on a big screen with the sound really loud. I feel like [it] would be a really powerful experience.
HK: Yeah, see this movie if you wanna go there, you know? [laughs] I think there is a lot of merit to seeing this movie big and on the big screen, sound loud. Definitely sounds cool. But, yeah, I think, see this movie as a date movie and really go there. And that is the best way that you could possibly do this, is to ask someone to go see this with you at Cinematheque on November 5 and really find out. So—
LP: You’ll either never see each other again or you might be legally married by the end of it. [laughs]
GP: See this movie for all the horrors that are lurking and obvious in equal measure.
IA: Yeah, work some trauma out in advance.
GP: Alright, thanks for joining us on this latest edition of The Four Star Video Podcast. I’m Grant Phipps.
LP: I’m Lewis Peterson.
IA: I’m Ian Adcock.
HK: And I’m Hanna Kohn. Bye!
Thank you for listening to this Tone Madison podcast on the subject of UW Cinematheque’s November 5 screening of Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 film, Possession. This 7 pm screening at 4070 Vilas Hall is free and open to the public, but face masks are required.
If you appreciated this thorough conversation about the film, please share it with a friend and consider signing up as a Tone Madison sustainer or by making a one-time tax deductible donation. This week we’ve launched a major fall fundraising campaign, and we have a match fund that will double your support. Find more information about that at tonemadison.com/donate. It’s very much appreciated.
This segment was once again produced by me, Grant Phipps, along with Hanna Kohn, Lewis Peterson, and Ian Adcock. Audio editing was, again, graciously done by Sarah Jennings Evans. For this Żuławski Possession edition of a Tone Madison podcast, this is Grant Phipps signing off. Thanks again for listening.
There’s more where this came from.
If you enjoyed this story, sign up for the Tone Madison email newsletter. It’s the best way to keep up with our work, and it hits your inbox every Thursday morning, complete with our special Microtones column and more.