Andrzej Żuławski and the powerlessness of language

The recent death of Polish director Andrzej Żuławski might at first appear a lesser addition to 2016’s already dramatic body count of influential artists: Lemmy, Bowie, Rivette, Eco, and Harper Lee, to name but a high-profile few. But in the film world, Żuławski’s passing seemed to come from out of nowhere.

Although not exactly young – he was 75 when he died – of all the influential European directors, Żuławski’s death was one I had not braced for. Jean-Luc Godard is 85, Agnès Varda is 87, and Polish compatriot Andrzej Wajda – with whom Żuławski worked as an assistant director on films including The Ashes (1965) and Samson (1961) – is 89. As optimistic as I am that these three directors are as immortal as their filmographies, I confess it is with a sense of bewilderment that it is Żuławski I find myself eulogising first.

Yet for others, Żuławski’s death may be the first introduction to the director’s fascinating work and even more intriguing life. With his preliminary introduction to cinema as a student in France, after two TV shorts in the late 1960s and years working with Wajda, Żuławski made his first feature film, Trzecia Częśc Nocy (The Third Part of the Night, 1971). Followed by the controversial Diabeł (The Devil, 1972), it was this film that brought Żuławski notoriety when it was banned by Poland’s Communist government, prompting Żuławski’s move to France. Although still Żuławskian in its thematic focus and formal qualities, L’important C’est D’aimer (That Most Important Thing: Love, 1975) is also marked by the notable the inclusion of internationally recognisable stars such as Romy Schneider, Klaus Kinski and Fabio Testi.

The success of this film saw Żuławski return to Poland after this period of self-exile, working on Na Srebrnym Globie (On the Silver Globe) between 1975–8, until production was halted by the Polish government (what remained of the film was released finally in 1988). In 1981, Żuławski’s intuitive transnationalism would manifest in the Berlin-set West German/French co-production Possession. At 25, French actor Isabelle Adjani had already established an impressive filmography – Truffaut’s The Story of Adèle H. (1975), Polanski’s The Tenant (1976) and Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampire (1979) for starters – but for her New Zealander co-star Sam Neill, it was an early foray into international film after the success of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979).

Tracking Adjani and Neill’s characters through the collapse of their marriage – an inescapable division between them reflected by the omnipresent Berlin Wall – what begins as domestic turmoil spirals hysterically into adultery, murder, and möbius strip-like monstrosity simultaneously both literal and symbolic. Doppelgangers manifest with fractal-like precision as the film unravels, and its refusal to fit into generic categories like ‘horror’ or ‘drama’ were reflected officially: Possession won Adjani a major award at the Cannes Film Festival, while at the same time being included on the notorious British ‘Video Nasties’ list of banned films.

The heart of Possession is arguably an infamous, word-free sequence in a corridor at a Berlin U-Bahn station, where Adjani screams, spasms, vomits, bleeds and oozes. For what is ostensibly meant to be some kind of vague, supernatural miscarriage, the scene offers so much more: it is a sustained war cry against the dominance of language itself in the face of deep suffering. In this scene in particular, this aggressive rejection of language is precisely what renders the film so powerful.

Adjani’s performance recalls Elaine Scarry’s observation in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985) that ‘whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.’ Adjani’s remarkable achievement – one as impressive now as it was thirty five years ago – is that for a brief moment, her body evoked an insight into the experience of suffering that words have so rarely achieved.

That Possession’s strength is its extraordinary ability to articulate the failure of verbal communication means trying to describe it through language is akin to attempting to catch fog in a tea strainer. The impact of Possession hinges on its ability to capture the powerlessness of communication that Adjani’s Anna battles directly with throughout the film: she ultimately finds a way through it, but it is importantly through her own body, not her words, that she does so. Adjani’s performance is arguably the greatest of her long career, swerving from manic babbling to pure uninhibited guttural primal screaming. Little she says or does in the film makes sense – even to Anna herself – and her husband Mark’s desperation to understand what is going on only provokes her further.

There is, from a critical perspective, a temptation to gender this phenomenon, so closely is Adjani’s character linked to motherhood and female sexuality: Canadian film critic Justine A Smith powerfully noted in 2014 that ‘a man who has never seen Żuławski’s Possession does not truly understand what it is to be a woman.’ Yet Possession has left just as indelible a mark upon its many male admirers, and the pain that drives the film is very much Zulawski’s own, who made it in response to the collapse of his marriage with actor Malgorzata Braunek. But Possession’s legacy transcends the context of its production: as writer, producer and director Ales Kot stated on Żuławski’s passing, ‘Possession was a shape of knowledge I never knew I was missing, but once it came back, I recognized it as my own.’

Between them, Żuławski and Adjani – for one glorious, hideous, unforgettable moment – suspended, through film, the dominance of language. Żuławski would make another nine features before his death (the latest, Cosmos, only now released in the United States), the closest Possession coming to an informal sequel being his 1996 film Szamanka (Shaman), one of the director’s lesser known (and until recently, harder to get) movies. The title of this film alone is revealing: while these later movies are admittedly uneven, each demonstrates Żuławski’s unrelenting dedication to channelling some kind of lived, primal truth through the medium of film itself. While undoubtedly one of contemporary European cinema’s real visionaries, for Żuławski, it is ultimately a means to an end: as he said in an interview from 2000, ‘for me, it’s essential in life to learn how to live rather than how to make movies.’

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

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