We’ve all seen some crazy stuff at the movies: razors to the eyeballs, butter and Brando, Linda Blair flying up to the ceiling, the careers of Peter Lorre and Klaus Kinski. But nothing quite tops the kinked-up horrors of Andrzej Zulawski, the understudied Paris-based Pole who also worked in English. You can’t quite believe what you’re seeing, not because what you’re seeing isn’t believable (although there’s that), but because you don’t believe you’ve really seen anything like it before — not this unrelentingly, at this runtime (two-plus hours).
Take 1981’s “Possession,” whose director’s cut the Harvard Film Archive is showing on Saturday and again Nov. 24 and 25. The movie is just about two people — Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, both young and dewy — getting a divorce. She’s found someone new. He’s upset. He spends the entire movie trying to get her change her mind. She spends most of the movie doing nothing terribly consistent — well, not nothing. Adjani was at the height of her impassive exotic-eroticism. Zulawski wanted the exotic and the erotic, just none of the impassive. It’s like watching a pond turn into a tsunami. Neill is just as devoted to the lunacy, slicing his arm with an electric knife, pacing until he all but burns tracks into the carpet.
The couple breaks up. The man breaks down. The filmmaking breaks out. The soundtrack emits some great new-wave-disco-synth. Beyond that, there’s no “about.” Zulawski doesn’t really do that. So you needn’t ask what her slitheringly omnisexual, karate-chopping German lover (Heinz Bennent) is doing here. You needn’t wonder about the friend in the leg cast who hobbles over to Neill and proceeds to come on to him. Why ask why about the dead dog, the weirdo in the pink socks, Adjani’s serene doppelganger, Adjani herself, or the man-size, sloth-like beast that manages to find its way atop her? When a director gives you this much lewdness, vulgarity, acting, and secretion, this much of Neill and Adjani giving everything they’ve got, you simply say thank you.
Zulawski, who will be 72 next week, has made a dozen movies, written novels, and studied under the Polish master Andrzej Wajda. BAMcinématek, in Brooklyn, N.Y., mounted the US retrospective last March, and “Possession” is the only film to receive a US theatrical release, which is baffling given the Velveeta that currently passes for scary. That might be a testament to Zulawski’s seriousness. It’s impossible not to find his work rich with outré amusements, to openly laugh at some of it in awe. But he wasn’t kidding. If 1972’s “The Devil,” 1996’s “Shaman,” or 1988’s epic “On the Silver Globe” are ever playing at theater near you, the plague of locusts and flocks of dead birds will tell you so. But “Possession” more than suffices as a gateway drug.
Zulawski hailed from an Eastern European avant-garde tradition, so there are no rules for anything. The camera is as histrionic as the actors, the editing lawless. Zulawski’s aesthetic is somewhere between the great Italian horror hacks (Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento) and the high-priest art-wackos like Nicolas Roeg and David Lynch. It is also somewhere beyond it. The genius of Zulawski is that he’s dispensed with all the buildup and explanation and logic. How many horror-movie explanations make any sense? He just made an entire movie out of the scary parts, the way a different genius concocted only the muffin top and some pop music producers give you 10 minutes of beats and chorus. “Possession” climaxes for two whole hours. It’s as if, with “The Shining,” Stanley Kubrick found 25 variations on “here’s Johnny” and “red rum.”
“Possession” contains conversations about freedom, dictatorship, the death of personal ambition, God, blasphemy, and how it’s not fun to be dumped because the sex is better elsewhere. There’s just all the wailing and moaning and retching, the screaming and rolling around public floors, the kneeling bloody with your head in an overflowed toilet, the falling over, Adjani’s now infamous subway freak-out: I don’t know how you do acting like this, acting that could put you in the hospital.
Zulawski based the movie on the end of one of his marriages (he’s been married to Sophie Marceau for years), and it came out during an era in which the movies were preoccupied with divorce, possession, and sometimes the latter as a consequence of the former. So it was a movie of its times. But you leave it having the same envious feeling you do after almost every Zulawski production: We need better times.