An Attempt at a Film Review: Possession (1981)

The obvious comparison most will draw from watching Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) is to Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). The difference between the two for me was that I did not feel compelled to write anything about Antichrist as much as I, to use an awkward word here, enjoyed it. Possession is labeled a horror film and it is more terrifying than any genre horror flick. True to the genre, it has a monster, but it is a footnote to the terror of its exploration of madness. Sleep doesn’t come easy after Possession, because it feels like I’ve just woken up from a two-hour dream of reassuring and strangely comforting insanity.

The plot revolves around a crumbling marriage (and other vague elements which are mostly left unexplained), but all in all it appears to be about schizophrenia. The madness is Anna’s, played by the lovely Isabelle Adjani, and partly her husband’s, played by the equally lovely Sam Neill. The fragmented narrative delivers the impact of their insanity to the viewer and creates a disturbing projection of mental illness for us to embrace. The aim is to erase, for a moment, the fine line between everyday rationality and the threat of incomprehensibility.

The enjoyment to be had from the sublime mental disturbance that should perturb the viewer comes from the contrast between one’s immersion into the film and the sane and easygoing world of reason one has to return to, where bills have to be paid and small talk prevails. While I was coming out of it, my mind wandered to a brief conversation with an acquaintance in the office corridor. What did I say to him? Did I make sense? Or did he perhaps catch a candid remark and saw that I was so far gone as to not care about making sense anymore? Did I Charlie Sheen him? For a moment I was sure I was to be committed on the basis of that brief exchange.

Watching Adjani thrash about in the famous subway scene was not nearly as disturbing as seeing her abusing one of her pupils in ballet class, or listening to her monologue about fate and chance. The small slips that betray madness are always more interesting and shocking to watch — it’s a cliche, but things sold by the gram are always more exciting than things sold by the pound. Schizophrenic language has some qualities of poetry, although it is rarely as disciplined of course, and it is easier for these slips to be transferred to the viewer in art because similar linguistic exploration is licenced by the artistic medium. One seldom voiced rule of poetry says that it is on the same plane as madness, but nevertheless distanced from the register of actual lunacy.

Michaux was mentioned in Possession by Anna’s kooky lover Heinrich. In Michaux’s book on mescaline, the author at one point discards language and begins to draw nonsensical pictures. Language breaks down and is replaced by images. His simulated madness realizes language is mute at its core. Schizophrenic language — which should be distinguished from the language of the schizophrenic — doesn’t say anything and yet says too much by underscoring the impotence of language through free association and repetition, and this was very clearly conveyed by Adjani’s relentless performance. It’s a scary thought, if there really are such things as thoughts.

For the longest time, it has been fashionable to talk of language as being mere surface. Truth and meaning have been reduced to ciphers in communication and content (thoughts, ideas, call them what you will) has been deemed a mirage of the linguistic webs we weave to fool ourselves into thinking that there is something behind the veil of words we dress ourselves in. For the first time I find myself appalled by the thought; whether it is because I find myself using the word thought in an unqualified sense of the word or because I know I do so out of despair, I don’t know.

Perhaps the terror comes from precisely this catch-22: the only way to find faith in truth, or find faith in general, is to act in despair and deny the obvious, but a faith in denial is no faith at all and what in fact remains is a recognition of the hopelessness of faith. Something has been gained from this hopelessness, faith itself, but it is sullied by the very means of its birth. There is a word for this in religion: sin. Why accepting faith as an option in this situation is the solution religion offers is still a mystery to me.

If this is what Possession tries to hint at, it means to say the human mind is an aberration, a freakish accident of nature that never should have happened. The fall from grace, forbidden knowledge, consciousness, they all point to a rationalization of rationality by reason to justify its own sordid existence. It’s a rather bleak conclusion to draw from a fine film, but I hope it makes sense. God, I really do.

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