Adult Child of Divorce: 40 Years of Andrzej Żuławski's Possession
Notwithstanding a battalion of toy soldiers closing in on his breakfast, the boy appears to be safe. He’s at home with the woman who looks like his mother. Then the man who looks like his father comes to the door.
“Don’t open!” the boy says, then shouts, repeating himself many times until finally running away, up the curling staircase, and flinging himself facedown into a full bathtub. He’d been in the tub at the beginning, too, frolicking and making siren sounds. Now the sirens are real. Or maybe not, but in any case, they happen without him.
We know more than the boy does, but what do we even know? The parents he had when this began have been annihilated, violently undone by domestic strife so intense it created a literal monster, or simply affirmed one, leaving several people dead and homes variously wrecked. The gist of Andrzej Żuławski’s famously unhinged 1981 film Possession is that it’s about a bad divorce. But how it’s about it is what matters, and in that there’s something like the opposite of breaking up: a bringing together, of what we mean by “arthouse” and by “grindhouse,” to stress test the boundaries of habitable movie space.
Already “The Wall Must Go” was graffiti in 1980 Berlin, where this is set; Żuławski’s opening-moments glimpse of that eventual slogan seems inadvertent and maybe inevitable from shooting in the famously divided city, but by now it’s hard not to read as signaling his own urge to tear down barriers, like the one we might have thought there was between consummation and destruction. This was the bleary atomic-nihilism phase of the Cold War, with anticipation no longer bearable but de-escalation not an option — a context specified indirectly here except of course in the central performances by Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, which safely could be described as going nuclear.
The pandemic has been a bit like Żuławski’s view of that time, with even the most sunlit days seeming indistinguishably gray, and even the airiest of modern domiciles suddenly so stifling. We’ve been walled in and hollowed out, our intimacies flayed and monstrosities exposed. We’ve come to a boil of frothing confusion about the differences and similarities between ourselves and each other, between horror and farce.
Transparently inspired by Żuławski’s own divorce from Małgorzata Braunek, the star of his first two films, Possession has the aura of self-administered primal scream therapy, or, at its unseemliest, a sort of fanciful revenge porn. We can argue over the constructiveness of enraged heterosexual male jealousy as a movie theme, but alas it always seems both timely and revealing. What’s most unsettling here is the feeling, unshakable even after 40 very turbulent years, that to exalt domestic violence as absurd quasi-political melodrama, to acknowledge its obscene banality, is to say something permanently true.
Just before Possession’s bloody climax, in what feels like a hasty attempt at spy-thriller patter, one of the film’s several antagonists says, “Nobody’s a boy anymore. Must we prove it?” At the end, when the sirens come, along with what sounds like a bombing raid, the man who looks like his father is at the door, and the woman who looks like his mother does not open it, just as the boy has demanded. But by now he’s not a boy anymore either.