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Aesthetic Confidences: On Andrzej Zulawski and Meeting Possession Screenwriter Frederic Tuten

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill in Possession

In April 1980, actor Sam Neill and screenwriter Frederic Tuten were sitting next to each other on a flight from Paris to New York. The two were about to embark on the making of a film and had been spending time with its director in France. Tuten was new to screenwriting but had already picked up on the hierarchy of above-the-line talent and was amazed the producers had sprung for him to sit in first class with the lead actor. He offhandedly asked Neill, “Isn’t this whole film world just about money?” Neill corrected him, “It’s not about money, it’s about feelings. The producer feels this might be the right director, the director feels this might be the right actor… There’s no empirical evidence for anything; it’s all emotional in some way. It’s run on emotions. Money is just the skis you glide on.”

The film they made is Possession (1981), and, in a way that has provoked extreme reactions of adoration or disgust since its release, it is a work of art running on pure emotion.

Directed by Polish expressionist filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski, the film succeeds beautifully in, to steal a phrase from Siegfried Kracauer, “[externalizing] the fermentation of inner life.” Possession is the physical manifestation of psychological stress, the cinematic representation of extreme states of emotion. It’s an absolute masterpiece of what it’s like to feel bad. 

The story follows the abrupt dissolution of Mark (Neill) and Anna’s (Isabelle Adjani) marriage. Mark returns to Anna and their 10-year-old son Bob from weeks away at a mysterious job to find that Anna wants to leave him. He tries to unravel her motivations and discovers she’s been having an affair with an absurdly lyrical hippie guru. But it still seems like there’s something else behind Anna’s behavior. As they both become increasingly unhinged, arguments get physical and grow to include self-mutilation. In one sequence, Mark tries to talk with Anna but, rather than answer his questions, she cuts herself with an electric carving knife. Once she’s bandaged up, Mark glumly cuts himself with the same knife, as though imitating the self-mutilation might bring him closer to understanding her in some way.

And then things get really strange. First, there’s the legendary subway scene in which Adjani masterfully writhes and caterwauls her way through an underground tunnel, bouncing off the walls and ending up in a puddle of pulverized groceries and her own ambiguous bodily fluids. Then, most shockingly, we learn Anna has been sneaking off to a derelict apartment to first give birth to, and then copulate with, a slippery, tentacled octopus monster. By the end of the film, after an extended stretch that might be either an action sequence or a parody of an action sequence, the beast will become Mark’s doppelganger.

It’s impossible to talk about the film’s embodiment of complex feelings without talking about how the individual aesthetic elements, which are each extreme enough that in isolation they could be seen as disastrous or comical, all work together to create a brilliantly realized work of art. As Tuten notes, the various creative collaborators of the film all had unshakeable “aesthetic confidence” in the director. They were willing to take major creative risks in their own crafts because they believed in Żuławski’s ability to finesse their contributions into the cohesive, unrestrained emotional assault that is Possession.

First, there’s the mesmerizing, brutally restricted color palette of the sets and costumes. Everything is blue. The carpet in Mark and Anna’s apartment is blue. The curtains in Mark and Anna’s apartment are blue. The dresses Anna wears are blue. At one point, Mark opens Anna’s closet and every single garment is a shade of blue. The only thing that isn’t blue is the dull gray Berlin Wall located conveniently outside the happy couple’s window.

Equally daring is the feverish cinematography. The camera is indefatigable from the moment it starts to swirl and swoop around Mark and his interrogators during an early debriefing scene, creating a palpable sense of anxiety and agitation. When the camera is static, it settles into disconcerting wide-angle shots that render common domestic spaces unfamiliar.

And then there are the performances. Adjani and Neill access and examine a vast spectrum of emotions, taking the variety of the human experience into consideration. The pivots between different feelings can be so cuttingly sharp as to feel disorienting at times, but they only further the impression of a descent into pure madness. The actors are constantly risking absurdity and death on a high wire of their own making, turning in performances that would easily be laughable in the hands of a lesser director. In one scene, Sam Neill’s face is so taut with frustration and confusion as to why Anna wants to leave him it seems like he’s going to be physically torn apart by the ultimate inability of any human being to truly know another. Żuławski punctuates the scene, an argument between Anna and Mark, with a car falling off a passing car carrier and crashing near the unhappy couple, complementing the intensity of feeling Adjani and Neill are exhibiting. Thanks to her aesthetic confidence in Żuławski, Adjani won the César award and the best actress award at Cannes.

Lying beneath the aesthetic elements that make the film a gut-wrenching expression of emotion in physical form is a potent political subtext. The Berlin Wall looms large in the visual landscape of the film from the opening shots of crosses marking the spots where attempted defectors have been shot and killed. At one point, while Mark is anxiously waiting to hear from Anna, he gazes distractedly out the apartment window to find an East Berlin soldier staring back at him with a pair of binoculars. The weight of the Eastern surveillance apparatus is apparent. 

Żuławski was intimately familiar with Soviet repression as a Polish citizen and artist. His 1972 film The Devil was banned because of its blasphemous imagery. In 1977, he was two months away from completing his science fiction epic On the Silver Globe when the vice minister of cultural affairs shut down the shoot, suspecting that the film contained allegorical elements critical of Soviet totalitarianism.

Żuławski’s later comments about Possession probably did little to put the vice minister’s mind at ease:

“When I wrote the script, I thought that I really would love to make the film the closest possible to this part of the world in which the film was invented, which was the communist part of the world. And Berlin seemed really the right place, being surrounded by this wall and this communist empire all around. To have this entrenched psychology of people surrounded by evil and finally evil worms up into their universe…”

Possession premiered in 1981 at Cannes and lost the top prize to fellow Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron, a film conveying overt support for the Eastern European solidarity movement of the moment. A chopped up and radically shortened version was released in the United States, losing one-third of the running time and emphasizing the octopus fucking and violence. In Britain, it was blacklisted as part of the “video nasties” moral panic of the time and so grouped in with other exploitation and B horror movies. 

It’s impossible to stream the film, and, until a recent Blu-ray release, it was rare to see so much as a Region 1 DVD. Which is ultimately a good thing because Possession is best experienced in theaters. It’s a rare treat to be able to look at a stranger in a darkened theater during Adjani’s upsettingly intimate, jaw-dropping performance in the subway scene and silently communicate back and forth with your facial expressions, “Is this shit really happening? And don’t you love it?”

I was thrilled this year when Anthology Film Archives continued its ironic tradition of screening the movie on Valentine’s Day. As the lights came up afterward and the other assembled weirdos and I applauded loudly, an older man slowly made his way to the front of the theater with the aid of a bright green Lucite cane. Everything about his demeanor and appearance suggested he was one of the older people you sometimes encounter in New York who have been intimately involved in making the cultural objects you grew up coveting. 

This was Frederic Tuten. When Żuławski approached him to co-write in 1979, Tuten already had a successful body of work as an art/film critic and novelist. In 1971, he had published the Henri Michaux-like literary collage novel The Adventures of Mao on the Long March with original cover art from his good friend Roy Lichtenstein and a legendary blurb from Susan Sontag labeling the book “soda pop, a cold towel, a shady spot under a tree for culture-clogged foot soldiers on the American long march.”

Now 82, Tuten has perfected the charming, passionate cynicism of an old New York lefty. When he started speaking, I thought of Leo Gold from John Sayles’s short story “At The Anarchists’ Convention.” Frederic answered questions about Possession, but as a master storyteller, and someone with about 50 years of life experience on everyone else in the room, he turned the brief Q&A into a two-hour elegy for a lost New York and a remembrance of his life lived in the flow of the city’s art and literary scenes. 

He started by telling us we were “living through the death of a great city.” He thought again and corrected himself: “New York is already dead. You’re living in Dubai on the Hudson.” He went on to tell us how he went to college at CCNY for free and how we should expect to get a higher education without incurring crushing debt. How when he first moved to Alphabet City after growing up in the Bronx, New York was a place where an artist could afford to live without 10 roommates and a 45-minute commute to the city’s museums. 

Someone asked about shooting the film in West Berlin and, after telling an anecdote about crossing the border to Communist East Berlin during scouting, 10 enthralling minutes later he chronicled how he met his then-literary hero Ernest Hemingway in Cuba when he was 19. And how Hemingway hit on his girlfriend. 

And then Tuten started talking about Żuławski:

“Watching the film again tonight for the first time in years, I almost cried. I remember the day we shot the first scene. I remember being on a street in West Berlin, standing next to my friend Andrzej behind the camera, and watching Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani together in the scene. I miss Andrzej very much. For me, the film is Andrzej.”

Café Mogador on St. Mark’s Place has held the title of Tuten’s favorite restaurant for 35 years running. Eating at his table there automatically makes you a person of interest to his expansive circle of admirers. Restaurant staff and neighborhood friends kept interrupting our lunch to tell me how much they love him. Occasionally, they would come bearing gifts, such as ice cream. “It’s my bane,” he told me. “Not alcohol, not drugs, ice cream. Isn’t that pathetic?”

I could easily see myself being one of the neighborhood friends fawning over him tableside someday. The great thrill of being in Tuten’s company is feeling as though you’re drifting in the current of recent Western cultural history. I listened to him zip through a joke from his old friend Steve Martin on his way to a story about a Soviet production of Hamlet that adjusted the play to glorify communism before ending with a Kenneth Burke observation. One constant in all the interactions I observed was Tuten’s genuine warmth and desire to elevate everyone around him. As he introduced me to his friends, he always mentioned I was “a big filmmaker,” which is a characterization I think even my mother would dispute. 

I originally sat down with Tuten under the guise of talking about Possession (and to try to set up a scenario in which he might introduce me to his friend Steve Martin), but we mostly ended up discussing the emotions and personal memories that get wrapped up in filmmaking. The more we talked about how the opening scene of the film was like a madeleine for him, bringing that period of his life rushing back, the more I thought of my own experience. 

As someone who’s been lucky enough to work in film in one capacity or another for most of his adult life, I’ve shared Tuten’s experience of sitting in the dark and being overwhelmed by a flood of memories from a four-month period of time I spent in a new city making a movie. Partially this is because film is a world of emotions, and emotion is an especially potent physiological factor in creating powerful long-term memories. But it’s also because it’s almost impossible not to get lost in the world of the movie while you’re creating it. There’s the actual narrative universe you’re making for the film and then there’s the life part: the people you see every day, the temporary new home, the nicknames and in-jokes and references you build up with all your new collaborators. Everything else—everything that doesn’t fit into that world—is less urgent, filtered out.

The act of living is so intertwined with the act of filmmaking, it can become difficult to separate the two in hindsight. The film becomes an encapsulation of a period in your life, both as an artist and as an individual, to the point that movies act as definitive markers on the hazy trail of memory. If you ask me about my personal history, I won’t remember what I was thinking when I was 28 or where I was living in May 2012, but I remember exactly what life was like in Chicago during Drinking Buddies (hint: it was fun, and I fell in love).

When you watch a finished film months or years after working on it, you watch it with the additional overlay of your emotional experience from production, unlocking that memory
capsule created during the film. The living room glimpsed for just a moment makes me think of all the strangers’ houses I walked into while endlessly scouting for the perfect 1970s layout. The underground bunker makes me think of all the talented construction crew it took to build it and all the late nights spent in an oppressively hot warehouse next to the production office watching the set come to life. The postapocalyptic landscape makes me think of the hours spent driving along a desolate desert road to get to the location from an equally isolated roadside motel, swapping stories with whichever crew members happened to be in my car that day.

To watch a film you’ve worked on is to exist in the past and the present, experiencing the dormant feelings that gripped you during that period of your life. It can be beautiful, and it can be heartbreaking. As Tuten put it, “…in the film world, all relationships are very precarious, fragile, built on dreams.”

For the rest of the afternoon, we shared ice cream and memories of his life spent crafting Possession in New York, Paris and West Berlin 40 years ago with a director who would become a lifelong friend. As we walked out, he told me he needed to mail a letter but wouldn’t have time to stop by the post office. I volunteered to mail it myself, imagining the historic cultural dialogue I would be furthering by safeguarding Tuten’s correspondence. “It’s for my taxes,” he told me. 

I carried the tax form around a few hours longer than I needed to, savoring my connection to Tuten by holding on to something tangible. But taxes were due, and the memories would have to be enough.

Frederic Tuten Speaks Freely

(Excerpts from a lunch conversation with Frederic at Café Mogador on March 14, 2019)

On Meeting Andrzej Żuławski For The First Time

I got a call from French director/writer Danièle Thompson. She’s very, very famous now, she makes marvelous films.

She phoned me and said there’s a Polish director who wants to make a film in English. She said he had approached her, and she liked the script, but it wasn’t her thing and perhaps I’d be interested. I said, “OK, I’m curious. Send it over.” It was an outline, about 12 pages. Typewritten, of course. I loved it.

A week or so later the producer called me with Andrzej on the phone. I told them what I thought, why I liked it. He asked when Andrzej came to New York to meet me in person, where should he go. I said go to the Gramercy Park Hotel, which was then a very funky place on Gramercy. Now it’s a chi-chi place filled with, if I may say, Euro-American trash. Just trash. Forgive me for saying, but you know what I’m saying. Just trendoid crap. Like most of the city now, Manhattan anyway. 

Anyway, he came there, and it was a terrible rainy day, pouring. So, I had a rain hat, I had a raincoat, I had galoshes. Who wears galoshes? Real galoshes. And a big umbrella. I got soaked. I couldn’t get a cab. In my neighborhood then, Alphabet City, there were no cabs. 

I got to the hotel, and I’m completely soaked in my rain outfit. I go up to Andrzej’s room, the door opens up, and I see Andrzej. We look at each other for the first time ever, and he says, “You’re my kind of man.” And he was laughing. I took off my galoshes, and I said, “Why is that?” There I was, this nerd with the galoshes and the wet hair. 

He said, “I thought they were going to send me some slick Hollywood script writer.” He made fun of me.

And we started talking and we got along so well immediately. There are people you have an affinity with so soon. It doesn’t mean it’s going to last forever, especially in the film business. Friendships are very intense and then you separate, and it’s heartbreaking in a way. Especially when you’re doing a film together: You think you’re going to be friends forever and then everyone vanishes. Everyone breaks away; it’s a bit of a trauma.

On Writing The Script

For some of it, we were in St.-Tropez in the house of a very interesting, wonderful woman—a psychoanalyst, a famous rich family. We stayed there for six weeks, writing. We were taken care of, it was like a compound. We worked every day and had a wonderful routine. Get up in the morning, have breakfast, laze around, write until late afternoon, then lunch, then take a nap, then write again. It was a beautiful, pleasurable time. 

Only to find out afterward, the producer was broke, and he couldn’t pay his bills, and he couldn’t pay our original hotel bill or anything else. He had to flee; he left the country. I still don’t know what happened to him. He told me that Interpol was after him. The last time I saw him he asked to borrow 500 francs from me. That’s when I knew it was over. He was a good guy, he was just a little in over his head. He had a grandiose dream of being a big producer, and how he found the initial money to do it I’ll never know. 

On Visiting East Berlin During Preproduction

Andrzej had been living in the East, he knew what it was. But you saw it so nakedly in East Berlin. Huge boulevards empty. I’ll never forget this. Rosa Luxemburg was one of my heroes, and in Rosa Luxemburg Plaza everything was kind of unfinished. I don’t think things had even been rebuilt after the war. 

And a line of people around the block, standing patiently. I asked Andrzej, “What do you think it’s about?” And he said, “Usually, it’s bread.” People were waiting forever. It was a little building with an opening on the ground floor. Not a store, just an opening with a counter. And someone sitting there, dispensing one scoop of ice cream at a time. And that was the whole of it. They were all waiting in line for one scoop of ice cream. The great humanist, socialist experiment. For one scoop of ice cream. It was very depressing. 

We came back in the car, and of course they had mirrors under the car to see whether anyone was hiding underneath. They put needles in the seats to see whether anyone was hiding in the cushions. When you went in, you had to buy their money; you couldn’t use your money. Their stupid, worthless money.

On The First Screening

The camera work was hysterical. I guess it fit the mood of the film. It was a kind of hysteria. The film is about a kind of emotional and psychological hysteria. Existential hysteria. And the camera seemed to be doing that. Rushing, moving relentlessly, never stopping. In tune with the high pitch of the movie. It starts off shockingly high pitch and gets even higher as it goes on, and there’s no relief. I was really upset with the camera work, and Andrzej caught me off guard right after the screening and said, “What do you think? What do you think?” 

And I said, “Well, Andrzej, the camera looks like it has diarrhea and is constantly running around in search of a bathroom.”

He didn’t say anything. I said, “But the film is great. I love it.” And for two weeks he wouldn’t come to the phone and answer my calls.

On Saying Goodbye to Andrzej

I remember when we finished the movie and he had to go back to Poland, and of course you know in the film world, all relationships are very precarious, fragile, built on dreams. When we left, I remember he was wearing a military jacket—he dressed very beautifully, very quietly—and we were in the hallway of the hotel as I was leaving. And we hugged each other very, very warmly. Not wanting to let each other go. I think we both felt that we might not see each other again. 

To go back again, I miss Andrzej very much. I miss many of my friends very much. I’m at a point where I realize that many of my most important relationships have ended. And it’s hard to replace them. You can make new friends, but it can’t be the same thing. You won’t have the same experiences together, the same struggles together, the same heartaches together. 

Listen, you’ll find in life, I’m sure you know already, how many intense relationships there are of any significance. That doesn’t mean that they’re always good; that doesn’t mean that they’re always beneficial. That’s how I felt about Andrzej, and that’s why the film is so powerful for me.

On Therapy and Aesthetic Confidence

I remember I was in analysis for six years. It was the worst six years of my life; it was worthless. Except I had to take job after job to pay for the damn thing. And then I was in therapy for a while, and I remember one therapist said to me, “People don’t change you, you have to change yourself.” That sounds very good, but it’s not true. You can change yourself, but people do change you. 

Andrzej is that. It wasn’t like I became a radical or a reactionary. No, it was the feeling of a person in your life with whom you have aesthetic confidence and a shared feeling of what the mission is. By that I mean, if you see Andrzej’s films, you know what I’m talking about. He didn’t make films to make a film. He believed in it. He believed in the mission of art. It sounds fancy, and he never would have used those words, but to make a film was to leave something of importance in this rather dreary, sad world. I believe it, he believed it, I believe it too today.

If you use the aesthetic confidence quote, please attribute it to me.

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