The transgressive Cannes winner opens this week, but a viewer may get a more lasting jolt from the uncut version of Andrzej Żuławski’s “Possession.”
By Anthony LaneOctober 1, 2021
At the Cannes Film Festival this year, the winner of the Palme d’Or was “Titane,” directed by Julia Ducournau. It opens in New York on October 1st, and fans of Ducournau will be bracing themselves for the impact. Her previous work was “Raw” (2017), whose heroine began as a vegetarian and developed a hunger for human meat; many viewers were repelled by the movie, though the more disturbing question was whether or not it should be listed in the Guide Michelin.
I can now reveal that “Titane” makes “Raw” look like the mildest of amuse-gueules. The new film is beefy with belligerence, and blood, though plentifully distributed, is by no means the dominant liquid; this may be your first and only chance to watch a young woman lactate black oil. As if you were playing an R-rated version of “Clue,” you will also be presented with a choice of murder weapons, including a metal hair stick—good for punching through ear holes—and, somewhat less precise, the leg of a stool. (Insert in the mouth of your sprawling victim, and push down hard.) The difference is that, unlike the board game, “Titane” keeps nothing hidden, and makes no bones about the identity of the killer.
Her name is Alexia, and we see her first as a child (Adèle Guigue), aged seven. She is badly injured in a car accident, and a titanium plate is fixed to the side of her skull. She emerges from the hospital and, rather than flinching in horror from her parents’ automobile, draws near and embraces it, as though it were a source of comfort and strength to her. This image, the most potent in the film, is more alarming than any of the grosser sights to which we are subsequently treated.
It’s evident that this power of auto-suggestion endures, because, when we next meet Alexia, she is an adult (Agathe Rousselle), and she is still caressing cars. In fact, she does so for a living—marching into gatherings of hot rods, where she bumps and grinds against or atop the souped-up vehicles. Men cluster round and stare, though they are forbidden to get too close; in the words of one security guy, who is clearly well versed in theories of heteronormative scopophilia, “Touch with your eyes.” The real fun starts after the show, when Alexia, scrubbing off the male gaze in the shower, is disturbed by a loud banging. There at the door is a Cadillac, which wants her to come out and play. Which she does.
To have sex with an automobile, if this film is to be trusted, all you need is a clean driving license and a dirty mind. Alexia takes plum position inside the vehicle, bang in the middle, and holds on tight to a couple of scarlet seat belts, for better purchase. Not to be outdone, the Caddy bounces up and down of its own free will and lurches from side to side. I haven’t seen a car enjoying itself so much since “Herbie Goes Bananas” (1980).
The marrying of metal and flesh is an old favorite among filmmakers, and nobody who recalls Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991), calmly examining the sliding shafts inside his own forearm, where the ulna and radius should be, will be taken aback by the shenanigans in “Titane.” What’s novel about Alexia is that, after her tryst with the hot rod, she discovers that she’s pregnant. Naughty Herbie has gone way beyond bananas. You may regard this turn of events—a maculate conception, so to speak—as one of several provocations, tricked out with deliberate blasphemy, on the part of Ducournau. Or you may simply place bets as to whether our heroine will give birth to a two-door Mini or a Chevrolet Spark.
The narrative of “Titane” is a tangle of many strands. It’s not enough that Alexia should be a mater machinata. She must also be a serial killer. Gleefully, with or without good cause, she dispatches pretty much anyone, male or female, who threatens her, befriends her, or blocks her path. Only a movie as willfully weird as this one could treat multiple homicides as a subplot; and if, like me, you’re hoping for a police procedural, with eager gendarmes on Alexia’s oily trail, then that, I am afraid, merely demonstrates the poverty of our bourgeois expectations. Ducournau has other plans for us. Here goes.
Alexia, needing urgently to hide after her slaying spree, spies a poster. It shows a boy named Adrien, who disappeared as a child and has been missing ever since. Eureka! Alexia will become the adult Adrien, miraculously returned: problem solved! To this end, she cuts her hair, straps down her breasts and her already swelling belly, and, as a finishing touch, breaks her own nose against a sink—one of those scenes, reminiscent of a school playground, in which a combative director dares us to watch and, by implication, damns us for failing the challenge and looking away. In this instance, the challenge is a dud, because Alexia remains, unmistakably, a young woman. Whom is she trying to fool?
The answer is Adrien’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a fire chief. He takes Alexia in, scorning the offer of a DNA test—yeah, right—and declaring stoutly that of course he knows his own son. He introduces the newcomer to his crew, comparing himself to God and Alexia—or “Adrien”—to Jesus. (There we go again.) If the firemen, by and large, accept this oddball, it may be because the atmosphere in which they dwell is decidedly odd: more than once, we see them dance in a trance, curving to and fro in a half-erotic haze. Rapturous stuff, though you wonder what would happen if they suddenly had to snap out of it and rescue a cat from a tree.
It could be argued, with some justice, that none of this makes any practical sense, and that the various themes of the movie—the hint of cyborg, the casual butchery, the gender-switching, and the parable of the prodigal child—are never stitched together in any credible or satisfying way. The response to that charge, I guess, would be that “Titane” is a fairy tale, and that the melding of the cruel and the near-magical is a long-standing tactic of the genre. Fans of Ducournau would add that the ferocity of her approach is liberating, fuelled by a transgressive energy. But what, exactly, is being transgressed? It’s not as if “Titane” is rich in regular lives, with their litany of social codes, so who can tell if those codes are being disrupted or disobeyed? Beneath the gruesome violence there’s a silly streak: rules are smashed like noses, just for kicks.
Some people, understandably, have linked “Titane” to David Cronenberg’s “Crash” (1996). I found myself reaching further back, to John Carpenter’s “Christine” (1983)—his fable about a haunted Plymouth Fury, adapted from Stephen King and echoed, consciously or otherwise, by Ducournau, when she delivers a head-on shot of the car that shines its headlights at Alexia and summons her to turbocharged coitus. Initially, “Christine” seems like a standard revenge-of-the-nerd flick, as a school dork feels encouraged, at the wheel of the Plymouth, to outsmart the bullies who used to plague him; yet it changes gear into something more seditious. The proud hero becomes actively unpleasant, especially to women, as if he’s been misogynized by his ownership of a classic car, and by the customized culture from which it springs. The final words of the movie, uttered by his former girlfriend, are “I hate rock and roll.” Now, that’s transgressive.
The best thing about “Titane,” and the one thing that does render it believable, is the presence of Lindon—a big star in France, though less so elsewhere. Throughout the film, he is exhausted and begrimed, as though fighting both age and fire has taken its acrid toll, and he gives himself frequent injections in the backside. (Steroids, presumably.) “Are you sick?” Alexia asks. “No, I’m old,” he replies. Given his fear that life has defeated him, it’s easy to see why he clings to his crazy delusions about Alexia: he needs somebody, anybody, to love. If only she seemed worthy of such devotion. Agathe Rousselle strives courageously to master the main role, but, to be honest, it’s just too overloaded and too absurd to handle, and nothing about the character really changes. From start to finish, Alexia stalks around looking determined, baffled, and very, very cross.
Not unlike “Annette,” which was also screened at Cannes, amid comparable hoopla, “Titane” strikes me as pure festival bait. How it will fare in the wider world, where audiences are less excitable, less primed for the thrill of controversy, and altogether more judicious, remains to be seen. It’s one of those films that try so hard to shock that they wind up being numbed by the sheer strain of the trying. Hence, perhaps, its bewildering lack of afterburn. If advance word were anything to go by, nobody who endured this outrageous movie would ever feel safe getting into a car again. Yet I left the theatre after the screening, drove home without incident, not even pulling over to have intimate relations with my own carburetor, and savored a dreamless sleep. Where’s the fun in that?
At the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, the winner of the award for Best Actress was Isabelle Adjani, for two films: James Ivory’s “Quartet” and Andrzej Żuławski’s “Possession.” The first is a Merchant Ivory production, and the second is anything but. Forty years on, “Possession”—which, on its first American release, was severely truncated, to almost two-thirds of its original running time—is back. Uncut and restored, in all its hysterical glory, the film opens at Metrograph, in New York, on October 1st. It will then proceed to spread, like a fungus, to other lucky venues throughout the land.
The movie concerns a married couple, Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Adjani), who have a young son named Bob (Michael Hogben). The marriage is coming to bits, and there’s something centrifugal in its collapse. When the couple argue in the street, for instance, a truck swerves to avoid them and sheds its load. What is more, the form in which the story is told seems to crack in front of us, and some of the chronology is in shards: once Mark discovers that he has been cuckolded, we leap ahead to find him as an unshaven wreck. Such time slips are shared by Nicolas Roeg’s “Bad Timing” (1980)—another tale of marital schism and carnal fixation, which came out a few months before “Possession.” Where Roeg maintains his cool, however, assembling the components of his mystery with a watchmaker’s care, Żuławski unleashes hell.
“Possession” is set entirely in Berlin. (And “Bad Timing” unfolds in Vienna, which was itself once a divided zone, in the days of “The Third Man.”) A fair amount of the action abuts the Berlin Wall; sometimes, the characters are watched not just by us but also by East German border guards, gazing through binoculars in our direction. Żuławski—whose own marriage had failed before he made the film, and who had been living in exile, away from his native Poland, after falling afoul of the Communist authorities—doesn’t belabor the affinity between the split city and the sundered central relationship, yet we get a strong sense that no abode is fixed. Viewed at a distance, “Possession” has become a historical document of sorts, with its vision of near-vacant streets, scabby facades, and capacious apartments with plenty of room to rot. The surfaces of the place where Anna takes refuge, overlooking the Wall, peel away like infected skin.
Not that the state of her décor is the most pressing issue. Also in residence is a thing—a tentacular beast, which at first is dimly discernible, wine-red, glistening in a dark corner. Little by little, we glimpse more of it, though its genesis is never explained and its symbolic import, if any, is left for us to fathom. It really is a green-eyed monster, which lends credence to the idea that “Possession” is, above all, a study of sexual jealousy. (Anna even has a doppelgänger, also played by Adjani: a white-clad schoolteacher with gentle manners and, yes, green eyes. Did Mark imagine her?) In one climactic development, the thing is seen coupling with Anna, under the gaze of Mark, whose expression will be wearily familiar to men whose wives have left them for a giant squid. The maker of the beast, by the way, was Carlo Rambaldi, the maestro of creaturely special effects, whose work on “Possession” marks a bridge between his Oscar for “Alien” (1979) and his contribution to “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), in which ecstatic writhings were somewhat less in demand.
“Possession” may dance on the brink of the laughable, yet it never quite topples over. Why should this be? Partly because of the camera, which often moves as though it has other things on its mind, hurrying into the heat of the drama and then away again. That air of distraction, as much as anything, feeds our suspicion that the movie is touched with madness. Then there are the stars. It’s extraordinary to watch Sam Neill—the sanest of actors, on whom we can usually rely for his wry and smiling acumen—striving to keep body and soul from shearing apart, under siege from the intensity of the proceedings. Isabelle Adjani, by contrast, is no stranger to the wilder shores of emotion onscreen; even if you’ve seen her swept astray by love, however, in “The Story of Adele H.” (1975), nothing quite prepares you for the subway-corridor sequence in “Possession,” in which she rocks and sways like a prophetess, falls and rises, and erupts not only with howls but with bodily fluids. Here, more than anywhere, you catch the full force of the movie’s title, although the temptation to call it “Fifty Ways to Leave your Lava” must have been overwhelming.
So there you have it. From the start of October, New Yorkers of an anti-nervous disposition (probably the same folk who order the fieriest curry at an Indian restaurant, just to prove their mettle) will have a chance to consume a double helping of maniacal cinema, by going to see “Titane” and “Possession” on the same day. For my money, the latter is the gutsier of the two, not because someone is bludgeoned with the lid of a lavatory cistern rather than being stabbed with a bare bodkin but because Żuławski is, as it were, the more accomplished explorer. The psychogeography of his film—his probing of the spaces that open up between people, and around them—is unnerving to a degree that “Titane,” crunched-down and claustrophobic, cannot begin to match. The ending of “Possession,” humming with sounds of a battle far larger than any domestic dispute, still astounds, and forty years have not softened the spectacle of Adjani, at once scary and ethereal, with a face as pale as paper, walking into an apartment, going directly to the electric carving knife and the meat grinder, and getting down to business. Talk about raw.
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