French Frights: Possession

What happens when a filmmaker creates an international production in order to deal with a divorce?

Basile Lebret
8 min readFeb 11, 2022


The place is clean and lit using the warmth of tungsten. Only a selected few are participating in this diner. Dino de Laurentiis is there, Lino Ventura. Most participants came hopint to raise money to try and make a new movie, after all they just left the premiere of Guillermin’s King Kong. More importantly, Marie-Laure Reyre is there, her husband too. He’s the one who suddenly says:

“Would you know it? Marie-Laure will soon be in show business, too. She wants to make a movie.”

“And what movie would that be?” asks De Laurentiis, always eager to make a quick buck.

“An adaptation of Lewis and Irene, a french book, by Paul Morrand. I’d like Zulawski to direct it. What he did with his adaptation of La Nuit Américaine starring Romy Schneider is unfathomable. Sadly, we aren’t acquainted.”

Across from the table, Christian Ferry smiles. He is a shadowy eminence for the Paramount in France. “Zulawski, eh? Would you believe it? His ex-wife’s sitting right, in front of you.” In front of Marie-Laure sits Masha, a visual artist, in due time she’ll draw the poster for Possession.

This discussion would have never taken place if another dinner hadn’t been eaten a few years prior. The place is badly lit, smoke lingers there with a dutiful patience. At least fifty people are present in the bar. We’re in Poland.

The newly appointed Minister of Cinema has invited every crew member of On The Silver Globe production. Cigar in his mouth, he is asking around. This new movie Andrej Zulawski is making, it costs way too much, na? And Zulawski, he is too tough with the actors? Shouldn’t we say that he’s an insufferable prick who’s dangerous to work with?

The USSR authorities want to end Andrej Zulawski’s new movie, a sci-fi blockbuster in which a bunch of explorers recreate Christianism on the Moon. An adaptation of a book written by his great-uncle. But Zulawski knows how to deal with censorship. He has authorities approve of the script and then rewrites it every night so that he may be able to shoot what he wants.

On The Silver Globe will be Zulawski’s last movie in his homeland for ten years. It’ll lead to exile, to France. As he suffers from the lack of activity, his wife falls in love with another man. The situation is unbearable for him. Daniel Ferry offers him some work in New-York. Polish authorities are happy to let the filmmaker go. It is the second time they banish him.

Andrej Zulawski was born in Poland, yet studied in France, two times ; once in college, the other time for his audiovisual studies. His father was part of the authorities which probably explains why Andrej’s first movie, which they both co-wrote, didn’t have any problem with censorship.

Right now, he is getting drunk in a small New-York room. He had this vivid image of a lone woman walking in the empty streets of Varsovie. Of course, this woman is cheating on her husband. The filmmaker wants to write about the decay of love.

Despite what you’ll hear him say in interviews, this first New York draft was only twenty pages long. He’ll call a screenwriter, Daniele Thompson, to get some help. She’ll decline, directing him instead towards Frederic Tuten.

Zulawski is on his set, in East Berlin. Through the window, the Berlin Wall is staring at the film. USSR soldiers too, Bruno Nuytten tells his gaffer to blind them with lights. So that they cannot see the movie. It’s probably the only lights he has some power on despite being the Director of Photography. Andrej Zulawski was able to secure a visa for Andrej Jaroszewicz, who’s been his cameraman ever since his second film; ever since Zulawski saw something the camerman had shot in which he ran into a subway stair with an actor. Jaroszewicz trains himself to not move while carrying a camera by walking in heels and supporting books on the top of his head. He’s one of the most talented cameramen ever.

He was supposed to only shoot the movie, but Zulawski uses him as his real DOP. They both speak loudly in Polish to one another, so that no one is able to understand. They live in symbiosis. There exists a photograph of Zulawski holding tight his cameraman to secure him. As the film goes on, Zulawski asks his friend to change Nuytten’s lights. The mood on the set is gloomy at best. Maybe Nuytten’s presence was only needed because he’s married to Isabelle Adjani.

In a future interview, Zulawski will pretend that the movie was written in English because of his producer, Maire-Laure Reyre. She’s the one who came in when Zulawski had no money and the first producer disappeared. Still we know the first draft was written in English before she came on board.

Zulawski was never tender towards women, states his own brother in a book. This is probably why, after they hired Carlo Rambaldi, Zulawski’s still criticizing Reyre, saying that the monster defect was her fault.

Zulawski wanted a movie where a woman would fuck an octopus, this is how he presented the film to the head of Paramount Studio at the time and the reason he had to seek French investment instead. To build the octopus, Reyre and him went for Giger, for Alien had just came out. Sadly, Giger declined and instead turned them towards Lombaldi, the dude who had made the creature.

Zulawski will always refer to the effects with which Lombardi arrived in Berlin as “pink condoms’’. He says once the special effects supervisor realized he wouldn’t get three weeks to shoot the monster scenes he became hectic and stopped sleeping until he could figure everything out. Reyre say they had three days to shoot the effect when they should have taken at least a week.

What’s more important is, this lack of visual from the creature, in the end, helped develop the sense of mystery the whole movie holds. Even Zulawski admits it.

Reyre had to find some money where she could, through co-producing, the city of Berlin allowed her a budget of three millions Deutschmark. It’s believed the movie was made for around one million euros. When they’ll watch it, the Senate of Berlin will angrily ask for their money back.

Still, she secured the area which Zulawski wanted so much to shoot in. So close to the Wall. She was the one who got Lombardi on board.

In pretty much every interview, you’ll hear Zulawski saying Isabelle Adjani didn’t want to be in Possession, because she could not play a mother, even though she was a mother. Reyre has another story. She believes when she gave Adjani’s agent a copy of the script, he never gave it to the actress.

It’s only when the producer and the filmmaker met Bruno Nuytten far later that Nuytten exclaimed: “But, for your lead, here, you should ask Isabelle!” “We already asked her.” “Lemme get this script, I’ll give it to her.”

Reyre says three days after this conversation, she received a telegram by Isabelle Adjani that simply read: “Yes.”

Did Zulawski and Reyre not know that Nuytten and Adjani were an item? That they were married and had a child? Was it all a plot? Who knows.

Sam Waterston is the one who paid rent for Zulawski when the first producer disappeared, leaving a trail of debts behind him. Reyre is the one who showed Zulawski My Brilliant Career. Mainly because since they thought Adjanni wasn’t interested, July Davis could be a good choice.

They went for Sam Neil instead. On the set Zulawski is impressed by the technicality, the physicality of this actor who’s able to reproduce his every movement, his every expression with synchronicity in between each takes. A real bonus when you know Zulawski only shoots one or two takes.

Zulawski has devised this way of shooting with his cameraman where they mostly shoot with wide-angle and very long takes. This is how the filmmaker makes sure the producer will never be able to cut the movie without him, because there is no other way to cut the movie. This way of doing things, he claimed he learned from John Ford. Still, it’s his female editors that’ll have to edit all this shit together when Zulawski bursts into rage because he cannot see how to paste two shots next to another.

Andrej’s unhappy. The US distributor has butchered his cut of the movie Cutting fifty minutes off of it, erasing the score made by his childhood friend, turning this intimate piece into a basic horror movie.

Zulawski despises France, in every interview you can hear him criticize the “bourgeoisie” he met there. Although it’s the territory in which he directed most of his flicks even after the fall of the USSR.

He does not want Possession to be a horror film. “Ingmar Bergman directed the Hour of the Wolf and no one calls him a horror director,” he says.

On the cover of the VHS in the US, a critic wrote Possession is somewhere between an arthouse movie and a horror gem. Zulawski angrily yells “The sole horror in Possession is two people leaving one another and not knowing why.”

Soon, at the premiere in Cannes, people will be screaming that Isabelle Adjani is a bitch, the other half of the audience would only fake sympathy, says Zulawski. The actress herself will think what she shot is “some pornography of the soul.” But right now, the crew is setting up in the Berlin metropolitan system.

In the script, the scene appears to be simple. Anna comes in and gives birth to a monster. This is one of Zulaswki’s trick, not mentionning in the script what the actors will have to do. The scene is shot towards the end of the movie.

The filmmaker has already threatened Adjani that he would kill her because she didn’t want to wear lenses. He once asked his cameramn to tell Sam Neil to really smack Adjanni in one of the scenes “because she was fucking everything up.” Bruno Nuytten feels estranged from his wife, from his crew. Sam Neill wonders why Zulawski will not talk to him, but he isn’t there.

This scene concerns only Adjani. While the description is simple, Zulawski never said to the young actress what he desired, what he wants from here. He wants her to climax, to make love to the air, he wants her in some hysteric state.

Zulawski knows if they succeed he’ll only have one take. It’s like working with kids. If you want them to be perfect, they’ll only be good on the first try. He wants Adjani to forget about herself, her image, he wants her as lost as if she was the center of some arcane voodoo ceremony.

The first take is the one that’ll work. The team will try another one because the cameraman thinks he might have gotten the foot of a crew member.

This sequence people will talk about for years. It’ll grant adjanni a César. Of it, Zulaswki only says: “Maybe this was worth hitting her head on the fucking wall.”



Basile Lebret

I write about the history of artmaking, I don’t do reviews.