Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Possession": A window into whose soul?

Fourteen years after a poorly-transferred to DVD release, Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H is being released on limited edition Blu-ray disk, part of the Twilight Time series which appears to focus on classic foreign language and British films. Like the rest of the titles in this series, only 3,000 disks are being pressed. I pre-ordered it as soon as that option was available in anticipation of an April 14 release date. However, Screen Archives—which is distributing this title—tells me that there is unexpectedly strong interest in this release, and there will be a delay in filling orders for it—although it is already appearing on eBay at a considerable mark-up (having now received it, the high-definition transfer is quite clean except in some of the dark scenes, although I found the only "extra"--the audio commentary--to be annoying in the extreme).

No doubt interest in this film is based on the Oscar-nominated performance of Isabelle Adjani, whose title character harbors an obsessive love for a good-for-nothing, womanizing British officer, which eventually drives this daughter of Victor Hugo to a 50-year stay in a mental hospital. However,  Roger Ebert wrote that Truffaut found a certain “nobility” in “a single-mindedness so total that a kind of grandeur creeps into it.” The real Adele Hugo--who was "beautiful" if you consider long noses in combination with low foreheads as such--was indeed “touched” in the head; contrary to the film, it was she who initially rejected Lt. Pinson’s marriage proposal, nor was she young--at 32 practically an old maid.  

Far from rebuffing her entreaties, the real Pinson frequently corresponded with Adele in a futile effort to dissuade her, but eventually he gave up and ignored her (or tried to). According to one of her contemporaries, Canadian journalist and political figure James Wilberforce Longley, "she was chiefly engaged in dogging her lover by night and by day, but without success. ... She was eccentric to a remarkable degree. In going out of the house she was invariably closely veiled. Sometimes at night she used to disguise herself in male apparel, and walk through the streets wearing a tall hat and flourishing a delicate cane."

Eventually, according to author Leslie Smith Dow:

She had become virtually incapable of caring for herself and was so obviously unbalanced that the Mottons (a second couple Adele live with) wrote a frank letter to Francois-Victor (her brother) describing her symptoms. Adele, they said, was refusing almost all food out of share parsimony, would not allow a fire to be lit in her room, and bathed infrequently. She lived, they said, very nearly like an animal. Her magnificent hair, which had once hung to the floor, had become so matted, dirty, and vermin-infested that Robert Motton, Sr., had called not only a hairdresser, but a doctor as well. Nothing could be done, he reported to Francois-Victor, but to cut it. Even more disturbing was Adele's recently acquired habit of pacing almost continually back and forth in her room, often talking to herself in a loud voice. More than once the Mottons endured her shouting far into the night, and their hearts went out to the troubled young women whom they did not know how to help.

However,  anyone viewing this film might suggest that it was the object of her affection who was the crazy one; who wouldn’t want to be the object of obsessive love (or was it "stalking") from a beauty the likes of Adjani? Well, maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea, after all. But I’ll get to that later. 

Adjani speaks fairly fluent English, but you wouldn’t know since she has appeared in only a few English-language films. The only one that is really any good is the Ivory-Merchant UK production Quartet; otherwise, she has been a poor judge of her American projects, rejecting the lead role in The Other Side of Midnight (not a particularly good film either, but would have exposed her to a wider American audience), but appearing in a couple of forgettable productions (The Driver, Ishtar—yes, that Ishtar). I would count Roman Polanski's The Tenant as a good film--except that I found the English dubbing of Adjani's voice chuckle-inducing.

Adjani would be nominated for another Oscar for her performance in Camille Claudel, yet another story about obsession over a man leading to madness, roles in which she is particularly adept. However, outside another film of quizzical quality, an American-remake of the French film Diabolique, Adjani has had only sporadic appearances in film in her own country in recent years. One of these is Skirt Day in 2010, for which she gave another strong performance as a neurotic teacher who only gains the “attention” of her class of unruly immigrant students at gunpoint, with predictably tragic results—but for a “cause” I found disturbing and racist. Obviously this was a “labor of love” for Adjani, since she clearly wished to “scold” Muslim immigrants in France who supposedly refused to “assimilate” into French culture like she did (her father was Turkish-Algerian, but her mother German Catholic).

Unfortunately, the film made this “point” far too late to cover-up the fact that it was a compendium of all the racist and cultural stereotypes of the French towards these people in the space of 90 minutes, as well failing to address the discrimination that Muslims and Africans face in France today, especially from rabid “France for the French” nationalists. And besides, like Caucasian Hispanics in this country, no one would have guessed that Adjani wasn’t “French” unless they were actually told so, and then again they probably wouldn’t believe it anyhow. How can anyone with that famously porcelain skin and blue eyes not be “white”? I'm just guessing, but her character's brother's name suggests Muslim Chechen origin--a Caucasian people with generally light skin; I suppose that is supposed to make it more "believable," but it certainly is cold comfort to those who do not.

Adjani seems to have sought out roles about women who have been “damaged” by their relationships with men, although it must be said that these relationships tended to intensify already existing mental illness. Director Jean-Jacques Beineix had a falling out with the original producer of Betty Blue because it was insisted that he use a “star” as Betty, and Adjani wanted the role. But she had just played a similar character as an unpredictable asocial personality slowly succumbing to insanity in One Deadly Summer, and Beineix wanted an “unknown.” In retrospect, while it would have been interesting to see Adjani as Betty, Beatrice Dalle was perfect for the role, and I doubt that Adjani would have consented to the level of “exposure” that Dalle was asked to do, at least what appeared in the director’s cut (recently released on all-region Blu-ray).
One wonders why Adjani likes playing "victims" of questionable facility. Earlier I alluded to a certain possibility of personality lapses (God knows I have plenty of my own, but this isn’t about me), that was there for all to see on one particular film that it is hard to say didn’t come “naturally” for the actress—and not only that, was perhaps the most brutally honest portrayal of a dysfunctional marriage ever committed to film. Such a film was never made before (despite claims otherwise) and certainly wouldn’t be made today, for it would be labeled “misogynist” and certainly politically-incorrect. Some people cannot look truth face-to-face.

Film buffs know that the work I am referring to is Possession, by Polish director Andrzej Żuławski and starring Adjani and Sam Neill, then not well-known to U.S. audiences. This is another of the rare English language efforts by Adjani, and this strange mixture of domestic destruction and horror received mostly poor reviews and failed to find an audience when it was first released over thirty years ago. Vincent Canby of the New York Times actually took the time to review the 80-minute cut version shown in the U.S., describing it as “one long anxiety attack”:

This is about all I can make of ''Possession,'' which has been described as ''an intellectual horror film.'' That means it's a movie that contains a certain amount of unseemly gore and makes no sense whatsoever…One critic reported that the Cannes audience was ''traumatized'' by it. New York audiences may be reduced to helpless laughter…Part of the problem may be that the film has been drastically cut to its present 80-minute running time. Even so, it's possible to see that ''Possession'' would look fairly preposterous at any length. As Anna, Miss Adjani is required to play a succession of increasingly foolish mad scenes…''Possession'' is a veritable carnival of nose bleeds. Because the three leading characters - Anna, her husband, Mark (Sam Neill), and her lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) - all knock each other violently around, they play most of their scenes in one state of bloodiness or another…I'm not sure Miss Adjani deserved her Cannes award for acting, but she deserved it for something, maybe juggling. 

Since then the uncut film has somehow achieved “cult” status, even positive reviews in retrospect. In a recent review in Film Journal International, it is seen as having previously unrecognized social value:

The first half of Possession is peculiar and the second half is bizarre, but it all makes emotional sense; you don't have to know Andrzej Zulawski wrote it while going through what must have been the mother of all breakups to recognize the emotional rawness and irrational behavior, even after the narrative runs amok. Because here's the thing: People do go crazy when relationships go bad. Murder, mutilation and literal monster spawning are the nightmarish faces of character assassination, financial destruction and the psychologically damaging use of children as weapons—not too subtle, but potent.

The recent release of Possession on Blu-ray provided me the motivation to watch the uncut version of this film from first to last for the first time. It was an eye-opener, to say the least.  If this film merely centered on the life of the two leads, it would have been powerful expose on the reality of the two-way street that is domestic violence; in an interview with Film Comment, Zulawski admitted that “Possession was born of a totally private experience. After making That Most Important Thing in France, I went back to Poland to get my family (which at the time was my wife and my kid) and bring them to France. I had two or three interesting proposals to make really big European films. But when I returned to Poland I saw exactly what the guy in Possession sees when he opens the door to his flat, which is an abandoned child in an empty flat and a woman who is doing something somewhere else. It’s so basically private. Now I can go back to it many years later, but even the dialogue in certain kitchen scenes and certain private scenes is like I just wrote it down after some harrowing day.”

It is certainly true that even an exorcist couldn't make any sense of this film with 1/3 of its guts cut out, as in its initial U.S. release. However, in the uncut version the elements that I found so bizarre that I initially dismissed as “dumb” before are still there. Anna seems too much on the emotional edge to have an affair with some pretentious, effete phony mouthing clichés like Heinrich, and I never once believed (as Mark was obligated by the script to) that he was the one “possessing” Anna’s soul. And of course I was right, and we eventually learn the “truth” at about the 48 minute mark, when a detective that Mark has hired to spy on her finds that she is hiding what appears to be a B-movie alien creature that initially looks like a bloody squid or octopus, and is murdered by Anna to keep her “lover” safe—something that she does quite often from that point. 

Mark eventually finds out too, but not before he has to go through that “mother” of all emotional and logical wringers to do so. Anna lies and lies and lies (mainly because she has to), and the more Mark attempts to extract the truth from her, the more hysterical and emotionally (and at times, physically) abusive toward him she becomes; nothing she says make any sense until the creature is actually revealed, and we still won’t know for another 30 minutes how and why Anna is “possessed” by this creature. By then, Mark—who is still obsessed with patching-up his relationship with his wife—is in Zulawski’s words willing to play by her “crazy rules,” including helping her cover-up her various murders until she is finished “raising” the creature to its full development, whatever that is, and returning to what Mark believes will be a “normal” life with their son, Bob, who has been mostly neglected by Anna while in the midst of her “affair.”

Of course, all this has to be seen to be believed, and as in most of his films, Zulawski seems to prefer overactive histrionics from his actors; but as in many of her most memorable roles, Adjani seems especially adept at playing characters on the edge of madness, and there are several scenes in Possession that Adjani “performs” far too convincingly for it not to come from some dark place within herself. She obviously has had some “practice” at this, as one suspects from her real-life turbulent relationships with men (who were without doubt initially captivated by her dark beauty). 

The opinionated Zulawski tells us in Possession’s audio commentary that while Adjani has a reputation for being “difficult” to work with—which he claims ruined any chance of success in America, despite her good English—she was on her best behavior on his set. Nevertheless, he also claims to have observed that she displayed “cruelty” in her relations to her then “husband”—presumably meaning Bruno Nuytten (named as the cinematographer in the credits) who was actually her “domestic partner” at the time and not married to her (Adjani has never married, but has sons first with Nuytten and then with Daniel Day-Lewis, giving birth in the latter case a few months after the last time they broke-up).  If Adjani was personally anything even near to what she portrayed so disturbingly “real” in Possession, it is no wonder that none of her relationships (including with Warren Beatty) lasted very long.

Adjani perhaps self-servingly has said that she felt that the way she was photographed in the film (often in distinctly unattractive close-ups) amounted to "emotional pornography,” and it took “years” for her to “recover” from the “toll” of the filming. One suspects that what she really meant was that she hoped it would take that long for the film to pass not from her memory, but from the audience’s, perhaps from a feeling that the film revealed more about her than she wished to be revealed publically. One has to sympathize with the distracted Mark in his quest to “understand” this crazed woman with “complicated” emotions and behavior that are impossible to understand or to take; both Zulawski and Adjani admit that she was given little “direction” on how to play her part, but in a kitchen scene where Adjani literally turns red with undisguised hate, and especially in the infamous subway scene where she was merely directed to “fuck the air” after which her character gives birth to the creature which represents her “faith”—don’t ask—something tells us that we’ve seen this before, and not in the movies. Adjani clearly knows how to “play” this “part”—from experience. 

I suppose you would say that I’m giving something away by revealing that the “creature” ends up being Mark’s doppelganger—after we are served-up the “money shot” of Adjani actually looking like she is copulating for real with the creature. This being is likely meant to be paired up with Anna’s doppelganger, presumably also spawned by supernatural means (but by whom?), who we initially encounter as Bob’s seemingly “normal” teacher, Helen (also played by Adjani), who helps care for him in Anna’s absence. However, that is just a detail, seemingly tacked-on to cause more confusion. The creature itself seems to be part of a living “nightmare” the dangerously insecure Anna is having; what is really “traumatizing” about the film is that we may be seeing in close-up and in disturbingly real terms a window into someone’s soul—or anyone’s. In those terms, this film can be said to be politically-incorrect for our time, since it reveals what our society wishes not to be revealed to advance a “victim” agenda.  

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