The Good Eye: Killer Outfits – Anna's Blue Dress
Isabelle Adjani is a devil in a you-know-what
Last year the New Yorker's book critic James Wood asked, in all seriousness, whether a great novelist could or should have a family. All of Wood's examples were male.
"How, really, could the drama of paternity have competed with the drama of creativity?" he asked of men like William Styron, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow. "For a man, creating a child – though certainly not raising one – is almost accidental, whereas writing a book takes years of thought and effort."
Well! That explains it. There's certainly nothing accidental for a woman about creating a child – unless you happen to live in Texas, where sex education has been gutted, access to birth control curtailed, and abortion effectively outlawed.
Presumably Wood doesn't think much about such backward places, though. Nor does he view raising a child as a significant factor in the "drama of paternity." As always, pregnancy and birth stand in for the whole of family life, and the biological fact that a woman must be present for both is presumed to coincide precisely with her human potential and, by extension, her creative promise.
I don't imagine, though I could be wrong, that Wood has ever seen the 1981 horror film Possession. I recently saw it for the first time at an Austin Film Society screening. When I recovered – it takes a lot out of you – I started thinking that perhaps it is about a woman who is also an artist.
I know what you're thinking: not that Possession. Not the Andrzej Zulawski film where Isabelle Adjani goes crazy in the subway and then screws an octopus while whispering "almost ... almost."
Hear me out.
If you haven't seen it, Adjani plays Anna, a woman who begins cheating on her husband Mark (played by Sam Neill) while he's out of the country on a mysterious assignment. When he returns, she tells him she wants to leave him but won't say why, pleading for time and space – omitting not just the fact that she's been having an affair, but the far more disturbing fact that she recently gave birth to a gooey, pulsating creature, which she is nurturing to tentacled adulthood while making love to it in a squalid West Berlin flat.
Adjani won an acting award at Cannes for the role. In every frame, she looks like a woman – not a character, not an actress, but a woman – coming unglued. Sam Neill plays Mark, her jealous, abusive husband, with unhinged malice and despair, but you can practically see Adjani's personality disintegrating on camera. In her most memorable scene, she has a four-minute seizure in a subway tunnel, screeching, howling, jerking like a marionette, slamming a bag of groceries into the wall and writhing in the spilled milk and subway muck, so convincingly that when she starts oozing blood and pus from every orifice, it feels logical. By the time Mark walks in on her in the passionate embrace of a squid-thing, mechanically whispering "almost ... almost," the previous scenes have already inoculated you from the horror.
In a film where everything is so hysterically overdetermined – doppelgängers, the Berlin Wall, and an electric knife all come into the mix as well – it's impossible to fix on one meaning for Anna's tentacled beast. Anna herself produces garbled explanations, only swearing repeatedly throughout, a little self-consciously, "It's not finished." Most critics read it as a physical manifestation of her guilt and sexual shame, perhaps her madness.
And here's where I turn to fashion for help. Throughout the film, Isabelle Adjani's character Anna wears no fewer than four versions of the same blue dress. It's monastic in its simplicity: high-collared, long-sleeved, full-skirted, with a row of Victorian buttons running up the back like a bumpy blue spine. Adjani wears each dress until it is a dirty, sweaty mess; then she pops into the apartment, changes into the next blue dress, and leaves.
It would be easy to imagine Anna in carnal red or poisonous green, some color more frequently associated with the sexuality that is supposedly gnawing her from within – particularly since her doppelgänger, the demure preschool teacher Helen, wears only white. But Anna wears blue, always blue. Her coat is royal blue, her trim high-heeled ankle boots navy, her sunglasses azure-rimmed. Blue is the color of melancholy, and if it's also the color of madness, it's not erotic, but imaginative. Alice wears a blue dress to Wonderland; Dorothy wears a blue dress to Oz. Blue is about being trapped in a role that doesn't fit, with no escape but a door to another dimension.
Because what Anna wants is to escape. When she lies about her infidelity, she believes she's telling the truth: She's not, after all, leaving Mark for Heinrich, a preening New Age pseudo-intellectual, but for a thing of her own making, something that needs finishing, something with the potential to satisfy her without the involvement of a man, or indeed any other human being. And this, for Mark as well as Zulawski, who filmed Possession in the midst of his own messy divorce from actress Malgorzata Braunek, is infinitely worse, even monstrous.
"When I'm away from you, I think of you as an animal or a woman possessed," says Mark. When she is away from Mark, she is possessed, for the first time, by herself, and that frightens her.
There's another version of Possession that's in my mind. Anna gets up in the morning and puts on a dress. It's blue, or it's pink, or any color she likes that day. Maybe some jeans for a change. She kisses her husband and child goodbye, and walks to her little flat, where she puts a tea kettle on the burner. There are no dead bodies in the refrigerator. She sits down at a typewriter. She writes.
When she comes home for the day, her husband asks, "Are you finished with that book yet?"
"Almost," she says. "Almost."
For horror-inspired fashions, check out the Good Eye's Pinterest page, www.pinterest.com/amyegentry.