Polish director Andrzej ?u?awski — who died today in Warsaw at the age of 75 — directed a total of 13 feature films over his lifetime, winning acclaim and some popular success in his native Europe but never really penetrating the American consciousness. And yet among art house audiences and many critics Zulawski was an important filmmaker, helming such bizarre, controversial films as 1972's The Devil (1972) — which was banned by Communist authorities in his native country and didn't see release there until 1988 — and The Public Woman, which nabbed him a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1985 César Awards (a.k.a. the French Oscars).
Despite Zulawski's many accomplishments, his best-known film by far is the surreal 1981 cult horror film Possession, which features as its centerpiece a legendary subway meltdown by Isabelle Adjani that has since gone down as one of the most primal, wrenching moments of performance insanity in cinema history and which succeeded in bringing Zulawski to greater prominence than ever before or since. Cautious viewers be warned — this is brutal, upsetting stuff:
It should come as no surprise that Adjani took home Best Actress at both the 1981 Cannes Film Festival and the Cesar Awards for her performance, which throughout Possession ranks as one of the most raw, strange and uncompromising portraits of insanity in cinema history. The film itself, which co-stars Sam Neill as Adjani's husband, is a visionary, one-of-a-kind mixture of divorce drama and horror film, in its first half centering on the histrionic breakdown of a young couple before introducing a bizarre tentacled monster designed by Oscar-winning special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi (Alien, E.T.) into the mix. Believe me, it's even weirder than that sounds.
“[Zulawski] doesn”t shy away from observing [actors] in order to detect their weak points to know when and where he can make them break,” Adjani told an interviewer at Cannes. “And since it”s a movie that”s based on many breaking points…he manipulated us a lot, however it was good for us, he would never have been able to do what he made us do if he hadn”t been so strong and terrible with us.”
Morally dubious as Zulawski's methods sound (Adjani reportedly said it took her several years to recover from the experience of making the film), on screen, at least, his brutal methods paid off. As a purely physical feat, Adjani's performance in the subway scene is remarkable (how did she not give herself whiplash, for example?), and the hand-held camera work and absence of music only heightens the effect of her madness. The rest of the film is well worth seeing as a study in psychological disintegration and allegorical surrealism, but it's that three-minute freakout in the tunnel that will remain, at least for viewers unfamiliar with the rest of Zulawski's work, the director's defining moment.