Possession (1981) is an unsettling domestic drama that draws on horror cinema to depict the breakdown of a relationship and the mental torture lovers inflict on each other. At the film’s opening, Anna (Isabelle Adjani) announces that she wants a divorce from Mark (Sam Neil), and her sudden departure precipitates a traumatic separation that engulfs them both in psychosis and paranoia. Director Andrzej Żuławski’s cinematic language is uniquely intense, and while he frequently made use of genre as starting points for his films, including science-fiction, thriller, and heist movies, the resulting brew was always unmistakable. His baroque style is often on the edge of hysteria (on occasion falling into histrionics and pretension), but his work emanates a raw intensity that is hard to match in cinema. His performers typically seem to have been whipped into a state of emotional agitation just before the cameras were sent careening around them. Possession is perhaps Żuławski’s most well-known and excessive film; it begins in a frenzy and from there climbs through layers of mounting panic and dread to reach a kind of cosmological terror where, for its protagonists, death is preferable to the alternatives.
With its occult symbolism, monsters, and shadowy government agents, Possession makes use of some of the ingredients of horror, but by and large refrains from using the genre’s most obvious techniques. While horror cinema often employs carefully constructed traps of exposition and narrative, Żuławski’s film inundates the viewer with the chaos of its characters’ turmoil, its formal construction and its performances pushing up towards a pitch of delirium. All of the film’s characters seem to have woken startled and bewildered to find themselves in Żuławski’s nightmare, unable to get a hand-hold on an environment that is spinning wildly around them. They are frequently reduced to expressing only their most primitive desires, acting on enervated instinct and subconscious direction, and seemingly unable to trust their own intentions or those of others. The film’s protagonists suffer in their confusion and inability to connect with others, and Żuławski presents the subjective perspectives of each as mutually irreconcilable, leaving them to thrash about in their own fog.
Which is not to say that Żuławski is keeping his hand off the scales; the film’s depiction of Anna as a kind of witch enthralled to a demonic power is clearly how Mark sees her, but it is a portrayal that nonetheless reveals the author’s own feelings on the matter. Żuławski made Possession after the break-up of his marriage to actress Małgorzata Braunek, and the bitter intensity of this experience clearly impacted on the film. The seething resentment that characterises Anna and Mark’s relationship, the tumult of its disintegration, and Mark’s bilious anger, are all expressed with a precision and clarity indicating deeply personal origins.
The relationship Anna and Mark have with their surrounding environment is similarly dysfunctional. The intensity of their breakdown is so engulfing that they barely register the world around them, even as they cause damage to their surroundings and the people in it. Their suffering isolates them to the extent that the various rooms, corridors, and public spaces they pass through become stages on which they can act out their conflict. Meeting at a café in an initial attempt to straighten things out, they seem unaware of or at least indifferent to where they are; as their inevitable argument explodes, Mark hurls chairs through the air, mere props that allow him to vent his rage and impotence. When they are noticed at all, the places that Mark and Anna occupy and the objects surrounding them serve only to absorb the couple’s outpourings of violence and distress, or to be used as impromptu weapons.
In a subsequent scene, as a furious argument spills out from their apartment onto the street, a truck swerves to avoid Anna before crashing, a startling and baffling intrusion from another world. Żuławski uses this sudden violence as a means to push the scene’s crescendo to further heights, while also discharging the couple’s psychic violence onto the landscape. For Anna and Mark, who are so absorbed in their own pain that the crash goes unnoticed, it seems that no matter what calamity may occur — including even, it’s hinted later, a nuclear attack — their all-consuming battle occludes all else. Later, when travelling to the apartment of her lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), Anna passes through deserted streets and train stations apparently oblivious to the world she is traversing, spiriting her way around as if on another plane, as though the city and its neighbourhoods were a dimly-imagined set she must run through while transitioning between the scenes of her life.
Żuławski, working with cinematographer Bruno Nyttan, uses his intense visual style to emphasise his characters’ isolation and their inability to connect with others or with the landscape. His camera movements, disorientingly mobile and employing awkward and extreme angles, create visual discord, while shallow depth of field isolates characters from each other and disconnects them from their surroundings. Figures in the background of shots are frequently blurred beyond recognition, each character unable to puncture the fog that surrounds them, and visual subdivisions mean that although they share space within the frame, people remain cut off from one another.
However, if the film’s characters are indifferent to where they are, Żuławski certainly wasn’t. Possession is set in a divided Berlin, still gripped by the tension of the Cold War. Much of the film takes place in the shadow of the Wall, a not-so-subtle symbol of the state of Anna and Mark’s relationship, as well as the treacherous duality Mark sees in his wife. The recurring images of doubles and doppelgängers throughout the film build on the division of the film’s setting, a city cut in two and seemingly permanently split. Berlin is filmed as desolate, bereft of nostalgia or decadent glamour, and in reflecting the emotional landscape of its characters, the city becomes the foundation for the film’s themes. The squalid depiction of Berlin, its inhabitants darting about with thinly veiled desperation, allowed Żuławski to criticise the communist system he had struggled under in Poland, which he had been forced to leave before the film’s production.
The horror of Possession ends with an awakening to another, deeper nightmare. The destructive forces the couple have unleashed extend to the spiritual and the existential: characters are reborn as organisms that betray what was integral to their original identities. Crucially these changes have been brought about through manipulation and abuse rather than self-determination. These reshaped forms are eerie facsimiles, monsters created in the image of a person. While a new relationship emerges from the ruins, it is a hollow copy of a former affair, one which inspires revulsion — two characters are so horrified by the rebirth that one attempts murder, the other suicide. Relationships are unavoidable it seems, but survivable only through submission, lies, and self-destruction.
The operatic delirium of Possession is in stark contrast to the menacing, understated realism of another film which uses genre as a stepping stone to something more profound, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (Kyua, 1997). Kōji Yakusho plays stoical detective Takabe on the trail of a mysterious drifter who is hypnotising people and compelling them to commit brutal murders. Cure itself is an entrancing experience, and Kurosawa uses a grimly effective toolbox of cinematic techniques to cast his spell. The film takes as its starting point the serial killer and detective dramas popular in the late 1990s, stitching on some pieces of the slasher and horror genres. In many ways, the serial killer of the ’90s was an American phenomenon, born of the obsession with celebrity, transgression, and fearful moralising so much in the air at the turn of the millennium. In contrast, Kurosawa’s film makes no attempt to glorify its antiheroes, and the characters in Cure are unmistakably everyday: Yakusho’s detective suffers through unglamorous domestic turmoil with his mentally ill wife (Anna Nakagawa), while central antagonist Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) is notable for how completely unremarkable he is, and how indifferent to the results of his own provocations. Similarly ditching the era’s ironic fascination with pop culture, Cure takes the serial killer template and re-fashions it for post-economic bubble Japan. The primacy of individualism and the glory of celebrity are replaced with a dour indictment of the crushing forces of social collectivism and anonymity. Unlike the garish gran guignol of David Fincher’s Seven (1995) or Oliver Stone’s bombastic Natural Born Killers (1994), Cure plays out with a steely calm, flowing with the unhurried, relentless determination of a landslide.
Cure’s forbidding sense of dread owes much to its drab locations, a series of unspectacular spaces cut loose from any geographical continuity. In keeping with its central theme, the film’s action takes place for the most part in anonymous offices, hospitals, university campuses, and apartment blocks. When we do find ourselves in more unsettling environments it’s never quite clear how we got there, or indeed what function these strange, seemingly abandoned places serve. Cure leads us through spaces quotidian and nightmarish, and yet all of them seem somehow liminal, intermediary locations wrapped in a dreamlike haze. Kurosawa and cinematographer Noriaki Kikumura make the use of space their primary tool for sowing a deep-rooted and persistently growing terror that blooms over the course of the film. Static shots and long takes are used to lull the audience so that the slightest change to a space or the smallest gesture — a door sliding open, a light turning on, a quick look in another direction — produce shocks icier than any jump scare. Instead of frantic handheld camerawork and pyrotechnics, careful variations of editing rhythms (by editor Kan Suzuki) create a sense of unexpectedly losing control. Several of the film’s most unsettling moments feature quickly edited sequences that suddenly interrupt the ongoing action, depicting disparate locations and subtly revealing narrative clues, while simultaneously disorienting the viewer. This combination of editing and juxtaposed space is used to deliver some of the film’s deepest shocks, as well as to demonstrate the fracturing of Takabe’s mind, making plain the gravity of the threat he faces. Similarly, Kurosawa’s direction is sometimes deceptively laid back, creating a numbed, unrushed pacing that allows terror to slowly accumulate before creeping into view. Yet, between the shocks, Cure is notable for the profound sense of detachment that seeps through the film, evident in its locations, but also in the alienated distance between everybody we see on screen, including between colleagues and spouses.
This alienation is part of Cure’s exploration of a conflict that’s been tackled endlessly in Japanese cinema, the tension between the individual and collective society, and the permeability of the border between the two. Mamiya, the film’s antagonist, drifts around encountering people at random. He somehow exudes an aura of being injured and lost, and people feel compelled to offer assistance. In taking advantage of social customs, Mamiya’s method of attack is supremely passive. “Who are you?”, he asks his victims, to which they can only respond by giving their function in society, their job role. This is another social convention, one specific to Japan, where an individual’s identity is defined by their function within the group. This extends to linguistic grammar: introducing himself, Takabe says he is “The Metropolitan Police’s Takabe”, a standard construction in Japanese, first stating who he works for, followed by a possessive, followed by his name. The result is a second-tiering of the individual self, yielding priority to the community, and Mamiya confounds those he meets by bluntly asking them to resolve this fundamental tension. Characters are initially nonplussed by his questions, but they quickly become frustrated and angry when he persists and easily drags deep personal conflicts to the surface. Kurosawa has said he finds it more realistic that the characters in Cure do not have a single, definable identity, but in any case it’s clear that they are uncertain of what identity to defend when who they are is challenged. Having been so easily disarmed and plunged helplessly into a crisis of self, Mamiya’s victims are easily rendered susceptible to hypnosis and, it is implied, to directions to act out the destructive impulses which they have been repressing until now. The wavering flame of a zippo, a stream of water from a knocked-over glass, the burning end of a cigarette — Mamiya’s spellbinding is so understated, so elemental, his victims never see it happening. With a few words and whatever object he finds at hand, Mamiya effortlessly unravels the bonds of Japanese society by focusing on its point of greatest stress.
Cure examines the costs of a social arrangement where the individual must sacrifice themselves for the group. In a society enthralled to conformity and cohesion, deviance can be considered a threat. For those who have sacrificed or compromised in order to invest in society, someone who breaks the rules or refuses to play their role represents a destabilising influence that can undermine and invalidate the contributions others have made. Mamiya is a perfect outsider, with neither his own identity nor an acceptable function within society, and for detective Takabe it’s clear who is responsible for the string of murders. And yet it wasn’t Mamiya who committed the crimes, but the people he hypnotised, and his denial of responsibility is an affront to the entire structure that Takabe represents and has invested in. Kurosawa directly questions the wages of personal responsibility and the relinquishing of autonomy. If individuals have to subsume themselves within the group and repress their identity in service of wider society, can society fulfil its half of the contract and shoulder responsibility for the actions of the individual? In a culture where the collective reaps the benefits, should only the individual accept the blame? These were questions with broader resonance for Japanese society in the late 1990s; the sarin gas attacks by the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyō, which terrorised Tokyo two years before Cure was released, were at the time still fresh in the collective memory.
Takabe is nonetheless seduced by the freedom from responsibility that Mamiya offers. Takabe’s wife is another outsider by Japanese standards, someone who suffers from a mental illness. In supporting and loving his wife, and bearing the confusion and anguish her condition brings, Takabe patiently fulfils his role as a husband. At the same time, his experience with his wife allows him to somehow understand Mamiya. It is this mix of empathy and weariness that leaves Takabe open to Mamiya’s manipulations, and where Kurosawa identifies the film’s greatest threat. While horror cinema frequently personifies society’s ills in a single identifiable, incarnate form, the malign in Cure turns out to be something almost completely incorporeal. An inward-looking, homogenous society, fearful of the outside and rigorously policing its norms, is uniquely susceptible to a single, focused attack, such as a virus. The film’s murderous rampage spreads virally from one person to the next as corrupted patterns of thought that continue to propagate, an error that spreads unimpeded through society, ultimately bringing down a structure built with nothing more than intangible modes of behaviour. The destructive force in Cure is not a conscious act of violence giving expression to anxiety, but rather an unspoken impulse, a suggestion, a doubt that can’t quite be identified. In the same way that social structure is maintained by collective effort, Kurosawa’s film suggests that the breakdown of that structure will come from failing to support the individual.
Andrzej Żuławski’s filmography is an imposing body of work, perhaps not for the quantity of films as much as for the confrontational intensity of each one. For those who prefer to dip their toes before diving in head first, his final film, Cosmos (2015), is an excellent entry point. Lighter than most of his work but no less committed, it is a romantic and surprisingly funny tale of mania that hints at the obsessions and raw perversions of his other works. In contrast, romance has rarely felt more doomed and existential than it does in one of his finest films, The Important Thing is Love (L’Important C’est d’Aimer, 1975), a rich and sombre love story that features a central performance from Romy Schneider so engrossing even Klaus Kinski at his hammiest can’t upstage her. Many of Żuławski’s films are focused on women with deep conflicts, and he repeatedly drew ferocious performances out of his actresses, depicting multi-faceted personalities splintering under enormous psychic pressure. His collaborations with his then-partner Sophie Marceau yielded the beguiling Fidelity (La fidélité, 2000) and My Nights are More Beautiful than Your Days (Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, 1989). Most interesting however is his unfinished sci-fi parable, On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie, 1988), which depicts a society that forms after a group of astronauts crash-land on an alien planet. Due to its political and religious themes, the film was pulled by the Polish ministry of culture before production had been completed, and Żuławski took the bold move to finish the film using inserts shot on the street with a voice-over explaining the missing scenes. The result is a unique artefact, which combines inventive production design and cinematography with urgent socio-political commentary.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa followed Cure with a film that is perhaps even more unsettling, 2001’s Pulse (Kairo). Employing many of the same tools used on Cure — everyday locations, unhurried pacing, sombre atmosphere, and a pervasive sense of dread — Pulse looks at the social isolation caused by technology, a theme that may be taken for granted now but was only appearing on the horizon at the turn of the millennium. The story unfolds like a nightmare hazily recalled just after waking, and follows a small group of students who try to come to terms with what turns out to be the beginning of the end, as an epidemic of suicides quickly spreads outwards from their immediate circle. Kurosawa spent the early part of his career in the V-Cinema and Pink Film underground of the Japanese film industry, and his early features Kandagawa Pervert Wars (Kandagawa Inran Sensō, 1983) and The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl (Do-Re-Mi-Fa Musume no Chi wa Sawagu, 1985) have an anarchic charm far removed from the chilly formalism of his later work. An interesting midway point are two excellent thrillers released the year after Cure, The Serpent’s Path (Hebi no michi, 1998) and Eyes of the Spider (Kumo no hitomi, 1998), each a variation on similar stories of revenge. After a mainstream detour with the saccharine family drama Tokyo Sonata (Tōkyō Sonata, 2008), Kurosawa went back to darker terrain with Creepy (Kurīpī: Itsuwari no Rinjin, 2016), a brooding detective mystery, and Before We Vanish (Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha, 2017), a pre-apocalyptic alien invasion thriller-comedy, both of which have moments that almost rise to the high level set by Cure and Pulse.