Everything Old is New Again, or How We Grew to Stop Hating and Love Possession

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With Andrzej Żuławski’s film enjoying renewed popularity in 2021, Daniel Bird sets the record straight on the history of the film’s way to screens big and small

On November 1, 2021 the critic/programmer Forrest Cardamenis tweeted the following:

No judgment here, but it’s really interesting to me that a lot of the older critics on here are just watching Possession for the first time, whereas my cohort and even the younger cohort basically all saw it long ago. Part of this is NYC but I think more of it is piracy.

Followed by:

I suspect the older critics (by which I mean people probably in their 40s or early 50s, I suppose) aren’t necessarily anti-piracy but probably don’t do it themselves. My point in all this is that the canon is going to shift a lot in the next 10-20 years and, in fact, already is.

Interesting indeed, not least for the issues it raises about how we consume films, the idea of a generational divide amongst critics, and the notion of a film canon. I have never regarded myself as a critic, but I have written about films, interviewed filmmakers, programmed films and have been involved in various capacities with film distribution and, on occasion, production. My own career effectively began with an article about Possession (1981), an interview with its director, Andrzej Żuławski, as well as a film programme with Possession at the centre. It makes sense, therefore, to look back at how the reception of Possession has changed over the years, not just in the US, but also the UK, France and Germany.

According to Forrest’s definition, I now fall into the “older” bracket. Ironically, I first encountered Possession aged sixteen. I also watched it on a pirate video. And yes, I pirated it myself. This did not, however, take place in NYC. Rather, such illicit activity occurred in that other mecca of culture: Stoke-on-Trent. Before saying “Brexit Capital of Britain”, when you next watch John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956), remember that the white rubber whale was made by the workers of the Dunlop factory in Etruria. When you next see The Elephant Man (1980), remember that Freddie Jones, the actor who played Bytes, used to work at the Creda factory in Longton. Piccadilly (1929), one of Anna-May Wong’s best films, was also written by Arnold Bennett, author of Anna and the Five Towns, aka Stoke-on-Trent. Even Borges’ grandmother, Fanny Haslem, came from Hanley. Lemmy was born in Burslem, and I’ll take Hawkwind over Gershwin.

Like Forrest, I too threatened to kick the canon. When not earning his keep in Hammer Horror films in the 1960s, Freddie Jones was part of the Royal Shakespeare Company, acting in Peter Brook’s production of Peter Weiss’ play, Marat/Sade. It was a time when French writer and theatre director Antonin Artaud was all the rage, when a Pole, Jan Kott, knew how to read Shakespeare better than us Brits, and another Pole, Jerzy Grotowski, showed us how not to recite, but scream sonnets. Artaud aside, the other influence on both Weiss and Brook was German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Art was not to be admired, but a vehicle for shock treatment and radicalisation. By the mid-1990s, such surrealism and politicisation were deemed both passe and quaint. The New Left was about to cede to New Labour, and, with a cheeky grin, a French sociologist assured us that the Gulf War was not taking place. It was a time when the Left stopped trying to change the world, because it no longer believed in one. Nothing was true, everything was permitted. Especially in cinema — thanks to Tarantino, cinema had eaten itself. If only there was a film that did not deconstruct but simply outraged. If only there was a film that would give certain conceited film critics of the time a stroke – not figuratively, but literally. Enter the Polish hot mess Possession – a film which, if it were a relationship, would be a love triangle between Brecht, Artaud and a troubled Polish woman, ending in a three way suicide pact. During the 1990s, it was impossible to read any academic text about horror films without stumbling on two words: “transgressive” and “abject”. But, along with Walerian Borowczyk’s Le cas etrange de Dr. Jekyll et Miss Osbourne (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, 1981), Stephen Sayadian’s Café Flesh (1982) and Elias Merhige’s Begotten (1989), the words might have been coined to describe sex and horror in Possession.

 “Turkey of the year, even though the main ingredient is ham.”

This was how Time Out initially reviewed Possession, back in 1981. I read this in The Time Out Film Guide, which was in the library of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College, Fenton – the town that Bennett (and time) forgot. Permit me to whisk you back in time, to the Cannes Film Festival in May 1981, where Possession played in competition. I couldn’t attend that year – it clashed with my third birthday party. By and large, Possession was a critical failure. Isabelle Adjani did, however, win the prize for Best Actress (shared with her performance in James Ivory’s Quartet). When it was released in French cinemas, Possession was a commercial flop. Nevertheless, the film did have a following in France, most notably the writers who had just founded Starfix magazine – Christophe Gans, François Cognard and Nicolas Boukhrief. The film that did win the Palme d’Or, Człowiek z żelaza (Man of Iron, 1981), was directed by another Pole, Andrzej Wajda. Hastily made, Wajda’s film was both about and part of the formation of the Polish independent trade union, Solidarity. This followed the election of a Polish Pope, John Paul II, and the increasing role played by the Vatican in Solidarity’s efforts. The significance of Solidarity during the latter stages of the Cold War should not be underestimated. Nor should the fact that, from around 1979 until 1984 (following the election of both Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US), the Cold War was heating up.

I grew up during the 1980s not too far away from the site of what used to be a Polish resettlement camp. My dad taught alongside a Pole in Sandon, Barbara. I remember being frightened of the sound of Polish (I still am, but for different reasons). I also grew up near what used to be a GCHQ listening station, which monitored Soviet military radio transmissions from the Eastern Bloc. I was too young to remember the murder of the Bulgarian dissident writer Giorgi Markov by ricin pellet on Waterloo Bridge. I was, however, old enough to feel that nuclear oblivion was always just around the corner. Whether it was War Games (1983) or Threads (1984), impending apocalypse was the era’s backdrop. With its countless shots of the Berlin Wall, documentary style scenes of surveillance, the spies wearing pink socks and eye patches, and the climatic sound of bombs raining down, a Cold War ambience permeates Possession. When I first watched the film, it seemed dated. That, however, was part of its charm, like the sound of Bowie’s Low, the look of Fassbinder’s films and Christiane F. (1981). 

Before and after the pandemic lockdown, I visited Berlin with the camera operator on Possession, Andrzej Jaroszewicz. For the purpose of posterity, we visited each of the shooting locations to prompt memories. Here were two Poles, Żuławski and Jaroszewicz, who had crossed the Iron Curtain, and were making a film in the West, which, for the most part, looked back towards the East, their view obstructed by a Wall, their gaze returned by real life VOPO guards through binoculars. When the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz — whose last book, Kosmos, Żuławski adapted for his final film — returned from Buenos Aires to West Berlin thanks to a Ford Foundation grant, it was 1963, three years after the construction of the Berlin Wall. He was working on Kosmos. For Gombrowicz, Berlin was a “daemonic” city.

Back in France in 1981, Possession and Żuławski were well covered by Cahiers du Cinéma. Żuławski was interviewed at length by Pascal Bonitzer and Serge Toubiana, with the film reviewed by the former. Żuławski’s previous film, L’Important c’est d’aimer (The Most Important Thing is to Love, 1975), had made quite an impact in France, and from the outset of his career, the Polish filmmaker had been championed by Michel Ciment’s Positif. Nevertheless, Żuławski was at odds with the French intelligentsia. This is best summed up by Serge Daney’s response to Żuławski’s follow up to Possession, La Femme publique (1984). Excluded from competition, the scandalous La Femme publique was given a midnight screening (Cannes stoked controversy back then just as it does now). For Daney, Żuławski was nothing but “a professional dissident.” Well, practice is one thing, theory is another. It was one thing to preach Althusserian sociology in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, but quite another to have films banned and shut down in communist Poland because of Gierek-era realpolitik. For Daney, Żuławski no doubt seemed to be living a vulgarisation of the Conrad dream – a Polish reactionary, whose second language was French, making films in English, for the American marketplace.

The VTC VHS of Possession, with the cover image printed on the back

In Cannes, a deal was struck for the UK distribution of Possession with New Realm, a distributor of British sex comedies such as I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight (1976) and Can I Come Too? (1976). They also handled what were euphemistically described as continental films, like Emmanuelle (1974), and distributed Borowczyk’s Contes immoraux (Immoral Tales, 1974) and La Bête (The Beast, 1975). Possession played at the London Film Festival. In 1982, after a less than stellar theatrical release, the film was sublicensed by New Realm to VTC (The Video Tape Centre) for home video distribution. Either by design or error, VTC printed the sleeve back to front, with the blurb on the cover and the image on the reverse. The image was, of course, a grainy production still of Adjani in bed with the monster. It was this release that got caught up in the video nasties affair. VTC was tried by the Department of Public Prosecutions, but Possession was acquitted – it was clear that this was a serious, albeit tasteless film. Following the Video Recordings Act, Possession was re-released with an ‘18’ certificate. However, by the mid-1980s it had fallen out of distribution. It wasn’t until 1999 that it reappeared on video in the UK. According to the writer and documentary filmmaker David Thompson, who, back in the early 1980s, was a programmer at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, he wanted to programme Possession as a midnight movie. However, New Realm were not interested in the idea of building an audience. For them, Possession already had an audience – the tits and blood one. But the film also rubbed the genre press up the wrong way. Possession, it seemed, was neither fish nor fowl – too vulgar for the arthouse, too pretentious for the grindhouse.

According to the producer, Marie-Laure Reyre, Dino di Laurentiis wanted to release Possession in the US. Dino had big plans for Żuławski. The filmmaker was Dino’s first choice to adapt Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. However, while Żuławski spent time in New York and Los Angeles and wrote an original script for di Laurentiis called The Archer, he returned to France to pursue his directing career with La Femme publique, which he shot in 1983. That same year, Possession finally appeared in US cinemas through Limelight International. However, the film was completely re-edited. Instead of 130 minutes, it was 80 minutes. What is more, scenes were in the wrong order. Worse still, off camera dialogue had been rerecorded, and optical effects added. Curiously, this version included scenes not included in Żuławski’s director’s cut. It was this version that US critics saw in 1983. It seems unfair to comment on reviews by critics who were quite simply watching the wrong film, and the Limelight reedit of Possession is, in its own perverse way, fascinating. It is not uncommon to read descriptions of poor, Soviet artists who had their films butchered, mutilated and reconstituted to conform with the communist ideology (thinking of you, Sergei Parajanov). It is therefore ironic that, in the US, the magnum opus of a filmmaker sarcastically described by Daney as a “dissident”, have their work butchered, mutilated and reconstituted to conform with capitalist thinking. The North American poster, trailer and re-edit of Possession betray an understanding of an audience that demands a certain product, and the role of a distributor to supply it. 

The original US poster for Possession

Nearly 15 years later, although Possession was no longer recognised as a video nasty, the only means of seeing it was through underground channels. With all the culture that Stoke-on-Trent offered, it was tempting to forget that a world even existed on either side of the A50. However in 1996, I ventured south to London, where I met Steven Thrower at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. Steve is a musician, who contributed drums to Coil and Diamanda Galas albums, and who had just founded the duo Cyclobe with Ossian Brown. Back in Wakefield, Steve had also been in a band called, of all things, Possession. Steve edited Eyeball – it was like the Monthly Film Bulletin but for perverts. While the words were filthy, the design was immaculate – unsurprising, given that one half of Coil, Peter Christopherson, aka Sleazy, was associated with frequent Pink Floyd collaborator Storm Thorgerson and design group Hipgnosis. Stradling art and exploitation, Possession was the perfect Eyeball film. We interviewed Żuławski in Paris during the Spring of 1997, our interview appearing a year later in the final issue of Eyeball, alongside two essays on Possession by Steve and myself – his exhaustive, mine exhausting. To promote Eyeball #5, together with Dominique Hoff (then head of cinema at the Ciné Lumière, part of the Institut français in London), in October 1998 I organised A Weekend with Andrzej Żuławski. Żuławski came from Paris to introduce five of his films on 35mm: Szamanka (1996), Trzecia część nocy (The Third Part of the Night, 1971), Possession, L’Important c’est d’aimer and Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, 1989). In 1999, I was contacted by Anchor Bay Entertainment, who wanted to know who could licence Possession on DVD in the US, and Gavin Smith, who wanted to screen Żuławski’s director’s cut of Possession on 35mm at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. Anchor Bay licensed Possession and Gavin screened the director’s cut.

A decade later and the passion for Possession had not yet ceased — if anything, it appeared to have grown. In 2009, I was approached by Bildstörung, a German distributor based in Cologne. To my surprise, Possession had never been released in Germany. However, Bildstörung had just licensed it for a release to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

But in many ways, 2012 was the turning point in the reception of Possession in North America. A few years earlier, back in 2007, I had been contacted by Mazi Mafee, who had acquired La Femme publique for DVD distribution in the US through his company, Mondo Vision. He also wanted to re-release Possession in the US. Mazi licensed Possession and sublicensed the theatrical rights to Brian Block, whose Bleeding Light Film Group toured a newly struck 35mm copy throughout North America from 2012. 

The 35mm print of Possession was accompanied by retrospectives on both East and West coasts, organised by BAM and Cinefamily respectively. It was around this time that Anthology Film Archives in New York started counter programming Possession on Valentine’s Day. It was also the year in which Kier-La Janisse published House of Psychotic Women. More than any other text, House of Psychotic Women has shaped the way Possession has been received by critics during the last decade. Not only was Possession of central significance to Janisse’s book, but Barbara Baranowska’s original French poster art featured on the cover of the first edition. There is a hermetic aspect to Żuławski, his films and certainly his writings. Janisse cut through this, and innovatively squared the spectacle of films like Possession with memoir, opening a difficult film to personal interpretation. Possession finally appeared on Blu-ray in the US in 2014. A lot of love was put into the Mondo Vision release, but it was (and is) difficult to find a copy. In the UK, however, first a DVD and later a Blu-ray of Possession was released in 2011 and 2013 by Second Sight Films.

Almost ten years later, the French distributor Le Chat qui fume released a 4K remastered version of Possession. It was accompanied by Une histoire orale d’Andrzej Zulawski, edited by François Cau and Mathieu Rostac, which featured many of Żuławski’s French collaborators, and nicely complemented two recent Polish language publications, Aleksandra Szarłat’s biography, Żuławski Szaman, and the re-issue of Piotr Kletowski and Piotr Marecki’s book of interviews, Żuławski Wywiad rzeka, originally published in 2008. Forty years after its initial release, Possession finally found its audience in France. In New York, Metrograph chose to reopen with an exclusive run of Possession. The rights had been acquired by Jacob Perlman, who had been involved in the BAM retrospective, along with Florence Almozini, back in 2012. In 2021, Possession finally received the North American release it deserved back in 1981.

Despite the long and rocky road that led to it, this belated recognition only seems natural once one begins to consider the unexpected but undeniable American DNA in what is still thought of as a purely “foreign,” European oddity. “I never got the monster I wanted”, Żuławski once said to me. The director had his own ideas of what shape the creature should take, or rather, the stages through which it takes shape. Initially, he commissioned a Polish painter based in Paris, Jan Lebenstein, to depict the monster at different evolutionary stages. Żuławski’s concept was that the creature was supposed to absorb its victims, details of which would be apparent to the viewer. Then, having seen Alien (1979) on a trip to the US, he contacted H.R. Giger, who in turn directed him to Carlo Rambaldi, who had built the Alien head, as well as the creatures at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). There is another, stranger, parallel between Possession and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like Close Encounters, Possession is also about the implosion of a family. Here, the husband, not the wife, goes mad. He finds another mother, who shares his madness. Like Possession, Close Encounters is a celebration of bad parenting that depicts mental illness as the ultimate trip. A fruitful comparison can also be made between Possession and the Spielberg film that preceded Close Encounters, Jaws (1975). What’s interesting about Peter Benchley’s book is what Spielberg omits from his film. In Benchley’s book, Chief Brody’s wife has an affair with Hooper, the marine biologist. Before you say “vagina dentata”, it is Hooper not Quint, the character played by Robert Shaw, who gets eaten by the shark. Also, in the book the mayor is in cahoots with the mafia. Whether it be infidelity or corruption, the shark becomes an abstraction of evil. But in Spielberg’s film, it is just a shark. I have no doubts that if Żuławski directed Jaws, it would be about a policeman dealing with his wife’s infidelity, as corruption makes him question his belief in the law… while he hunts a shark. In 1997, when I first interviewed Zulawski with Steve Thrower, he referred to Bergman’s Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage, 1973) as curiously unfinished. Clearly, what it was missing was a monster. Possession is often talked about in the same breath as Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979). I also think it is worth considering as a corollary of New Hollywood.  

However, to the best of my knowledge, Żuławski made only a handful of public appearances in North America, most if not all in Montreal. The last was in 2013, as part of Fantasia Festival. It was this last appearance where Żuławski found a new wave of advocates, like Justine Smith and Nick Pinkerton; Janisse also mounted an exhibition of Baranowska’s posters. Thanks to a Warsaw based producer and the Polish Film Institute, I was invited with a diffuse but necessary brief to keep Żuławski on track. He was to be given a lifetime achievement award. Initially, he was reluctant to accept. Żuławski had become, he said, the ghost of the festival circuit, always present at his own funeral, while the eulogies were being read out aloud. What he really wanted to do was to make another film. I reasoned that a public appearance might help with the financing. 

Each year, Fantasia holds a co-production market for genre films. Żuławski was scheduled to appear at the very end, to pitch his project Matière noire which, as the title suggests, is a film noir in which the MacGuffin is the concept of dark matter in physics. It had been written in 2010, but the basic plot had gestated for a decade. Buddy Giovinazzio, director of Combat Shock (1986), got up to pitch a zombie movie set during Octoberfest. “People say: ‘why make another zombie movie?’ To which I say: ‘why have another beer?’” The crowd laughed. Żuławski crept out, while his Polish producer turned white. Żuławski returned before the end,  but went on to politely decline the invitation to pitch Matière noire. “I agree with Antonioni”, he said, “if you can say what your film is about in a few minutes, you shouldn’t bother making it.” “Besides”, he continued, “the word ‘pitch’ sounds vulgar to a Polish ear.” I can only think he was referring to cipa (Polish for ‘c*nt’). When it came to preparing the project for the market, I was given the task of writing synopses and loglines – Żuławski refused to do so. “How do you think Kubrick would have pitched Barry Lyndon to Warner Brothers? A four-hour movie about a guy who loses a leg?” 

Matière noire fell apart twice, first around 2011, and then in 2013. Around the first time it fell apart, I asked Żuławski if there was anything in the project that he was certain about. “Yes”, he said. “Marine.” During those frequent visits to Paris, Żuławski had met Marine Vacth, then a full time model, during a casting session. Vacth subsequently made her film debut in Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie (2013). She returned again for Ozon’s L’Amant double (2017). While promoting L’Amant double in Poland, Ozon said that, in preparation for her role, he suggested Vacth watch Possession. It is difficult to underestimate the influence of Possession on a generation of French filmmakers who came to prominence during the 1990s. Nicolas Boukhrief of Starfix for one, but also Martyrs’ Pascal Laugier. More recently, Gaspar Noé doffs his hat to Possession in Climax. The influence of Possession is not, however, limited to France. An earlier champion was Dario Argento, who, in an interview with Gans for Starfix, cited Possession as the inspiration of the look of Tenebrae (1982). Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Argento’s Suspiria relocated the action from Freiberg to West Berlin, right next to the Wall. In 2016, the year of Żuławski’s death, Amat Escalante’s La región salvaje (The Untamed) both riffed on tentacle sex and featured a dedication to Żuławski. Prano Bailey-Bond recently chose to introduce a screening of Possession at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, in relation to the release of her film Censor (2021). That’s not to mention countless music videos, perhaps the most notable of which is Massive Attack’s Voodoo in My Blood (2016), featuring Rosamund Pike… “I believe the most interesting films are not made in genres, but between them.” This last point goes some way towards making sense of Possession, at the juncture of Bergmanesque psychological drama and Cronenbergian body horror. But it is also a way of mapping out the territory which has recently assumed the somewhat unfortunate label of “elevated genre”. Nevertheless, in the annals of that now most popular category of genre films, Possession is the urtext. Żuławski’s film, it would seem, is now part of the canon.

I am not sure how Żuławski would feel about this, and I have mixed feelings myself. In his penultimate film, La fidélité (2000), a character quotes “include me out,” one of the legendary malapropisms attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, the Polish Jewish producer who made it in Hollywood via Birmingham. I also think of the Groucho Marx joke, “I Don’t Want to Belong to Any Club That Will Accept Me as a Member.” Żuławski was neither accepted (nor wished to be accepted) by either the Polish or French film establishments. Equally, Possession didn’t belong in either Cannes or the DPP list of obscene film titles. Yet, whether we like it or not, Possession is now a touchstone for a generation of filmmakers working in genre. I worry that, either by writing, programming or having a hand in either distribution or restoration, I have somehow declawed or neutered the films and filmmakers my sixteen-year-old-self loved, like Possession. However, as Forrest noted, canons shift. Critics, producers and distributors should take note of films neglected and filmmakers dejected today, because you never quite know how they will be regarded tomorrow.