Possession (1981)

I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to make proper art, you shouldn’t half-ass it. Sure, things will probably get screwy if an artist relentlessly pursues their vision for a project but I think all the best art is at least a little weird. You can easily tell if a film is half-assed or is the result of muddled or conflicting goals from the filmmakers, and I find it harder and harder to watch movies that are the result of handing a camera and a bunch of money to one person and letting them see their project through to the end however they see fit. Whether the film ends up good or bad, they’re almost never bland or forgettable.

mv5bmzi2yjaxzjutymvlny00zdm2lthlntutothjzgmxognlnmy1xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_Possession is a Franco-German drama/ horror film written and directed by Andrzej Żuławski starring the beautiful Isabelle Adjani and the incomparably hammy Sam Neill as Anna and Mark, a married couple going through the most extreme breakup ever committed to film.

Mark has returned home to Cold War era Berlin, West Germany from a business trip to find his wife Anna wanting a divorce. Her behavior has become somewhat erratic and hysterical recently, and Mark finds out that she has been cheating on him with a man named Heinrich (played by Heinz Bennent, a German more Udo Kier-y than Udo Kier). In shock and stricken with grief, Mark dives deep into a rabbit hole trying to investigate Anna’s alternate life to figure out why she would betray him so, and if they could ever reconcile their love. The further he digs into Anna’s affairs, the more sinister and disturbing things he finds out about her, leading to the discovery that perhaps something evil is driving Anna to have these new, depraved desires.

If that synopsis sounded stilted and awkward it’s because I was trying to keep it a vague as possible. Possession is a film that delivers maximum emotional and mental damage to it’s viewers if they’re going into it totally cold. I’m going to get into spoilers eventually (and I’ll warn you, naturally), but understand that if you’re interested in watching Possession, just do it. Don’t wait and read up on it too much to see if it’ll tickle your fancy, just dive into it head first and let it leave its mark on you, whether you liked it or not. On to the review.

I’ve rarely heard  or read about Possession throughout my moviegoing life. Occasionally it would get a mention on a podcast or get a passing sentence on a blog post or interview and if I hadn’t actively gone to seek it out, it would have never just fallen neatly into my lap for viewing. And that I think, is a bit of a shame. I would never recommend Possession to anybody who wasn’t at least a little bit familiar with weird or artsy cinema, or to anyone who didn’t have an open mind about what a movie could look and sound like. Possession is an assault on the senses, a bombardment of audio and video that slams into its audience from its first minute directly up to its last. The film’s subject matter of divorce and dissociated lovers is equally emotionally draining, and with a run time of over two hours Possession shapes up to be quite the harrowing cinematic experience. Like any great avant-garde film, Possession is open to many different interpretations. I loved how the events in the film could be taken literally, turning the film into more of a Lovecraftian tale of cosmic horror or could be taken metaphorically, making it a human drama shown from inside the psyches of two emotionally broken characters. As a big fan of Lovecraft and the mark he’s left on sci-fi and horror fiction, I personally lean towards the former interpretation, and I have to say that Possession might be the best Lovecraftian film not based on one of his stories to ever exist. This movie is better than John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness and Event Horizon (both starring Sam Neill as well, go figure) at providing a more serious and less campy vessel for the Lovecraftian themes of isolation, madness, and the cold unrelenting state of the unfathomable, infinite cosmos. Things are definitely more grounded in Possession than in In the Mouth of Madness or Event Horizon, which is something I haven’t really seen when it comes to Lovecraft inspired work.

Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani give ridiculous, over the top performances throughout the whole movie. Every emotion they throw out is magnified tenfold and shot out of their facial expressions and body language like a fucking cannon. In any other movie (and to be fair even at the very beginning of this one) , I would dismiss it as hammy, scenery-chewing B-movie acting, but here it doesn’t feel as such. I’m a big fan of Sam Neill, especially in his horror roles, and maybe I was just used to his overacting so his performance in Possession didn’t bother me. I have to give praise and respect to Adjani for her performance throughout Possession as well. As much as I love Sam Neill, Adjani was a force to be reckoned with in this film. She’s breathtakingly beautiful, but she isn’t afraid to be disgusting and repulsive on camera for the sake of the film. She has an innocence about her, but through her breakdowns and shouting matches with Neill she pulls off being terrified and terrifying, sometimes in the same scene or shot. Adjani gives some of the creepiest facial expressions I’ve seen a woman make, and her performance of a complete mental, emotional and physical breakdown in the infamous subway scene is on a whole other level. You could argue that by today’s standards Adjani’s performance is goofy and comical, but in the context of the film, it’s truly something terrifying. Kudos to her for not being above something like that.

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Żuławski’s visual style and cinematography paired with the extreme performances of the two leads makes the whole ordeal more cohesive and makes both the crazy acting and frantic camera work together in a way that is totally and completely engrossing. The whole movie has a hazy dreamlike quality to it that most Kubrick or Lynch films have, which totally sucks you in and holds you for the full running time of the movie. I usually take down notes when I watch a movie I plan on writing about, but this time I couldn’t because I spent most of the film with my hands either over my mouth or rubbing my temples.

I need to write about the camera work and blocking in Possession, because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The camera and the actors are almost always constantly moving, either in the same or in opposite directions to create a constantly shifting foreground and background in each shot. I think that Żuławski had planned out a lot of the individual shots meticulously, and it shows, but the flow from shot to shot is sometimes choppy and jarring, especially if the film transitions from one extreme shot to another, completely different one. That being said, I can totally overlook the sometimes stilted editing because more often than not you’re looking at something you’ve never seen before. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for the technical side of movies, and Possession was ripe with shots that left me sitting at the edge of my seat wondering “how the fuck did they even film that back in 1981?” For example, there is a scene in a ballet studio where Anna is teaching a group of young girls different poses. The girls are lined up against a railing attached to a brick wall, and yet throughout one long take in the scene, we get a three hundred and sixty degree view of them. The camera moves through the wallWhat? How? Arrrrrghhhh my brain! Early in the film, we get a scene where Mark and Anna are sitting in a café, both in front of a mirror and we never see their reflections no matter where the camera moves. Even without the weird vampiric abilities of Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani in that scene, we get an eye-popping shot. As the camera arcs back and forth between Mark and Anna, we get the movement of the characters across the frame, as well as part of the background moving behind them. There’s no way camera work like this would ever happen in a movie today, and while that makes Possession feel even more special, it makes me a little sad.

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When the camera isn’t going nuts with the mindbending angles and quick movements, it camouflages itself into the scenes. By that I mean that we’re given an almost voyeuristic shot of what is unfolding, like we’re really standing there with Anna and Mark. At times it’s reminiscent of the dinner scene in 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, like we’re just another character in the room with the actors. In Possession I found a lot of these shots were from below, giving me the impression they were meant to represent the viewpoint of Bob, Anna and Mark’s child. We see Anna and Mark screaming– wailing and shrieking at each other. At times it’s almost unintelligible, and I think that’s on purpose. Bob has no idea what his parents are fighting about, but they’re angry and it’s upsetting to him. It’s upsetting to us, too. Even when you can’t understand a word exchanged between them, you understand exactly how Mark and Anna feel towards whatever situation they’re facing at the time.

Alright, we’re going to move on to spoilers from here on out. I highly urge you to track down a copy of Possession before you read ahead, because the film deserves to be ingested without spoilers. I love this film. I need to watch it again to help process more of it, but right now it proudly sits at the top of my list of favorite horror movies, and the longer it tumbles around in my head, the higher it ranks on my list of favorite movies ever. Alright, spoilers, ho!

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Word has it that Żuławski was going through a messy divorce while he was writing Possession, so I’ll let you make up your mind as to how much of his own life he wrote into this movie. Right off the bat, we experience Anna and Mark’s separation starting, while obviously the movie lives in a world of hyperbole, it begs asking if certain scenes actually happened or if certain character traits really existed with Żuławski and his wife at the time. It’s an interesting take on what happens after your life partner is suddenly stripped away from you, where usually we see people in self imposed isolation, here we see Mark undergoing what looks like withdrawal from a hard drug like heroin or methamphetamine. He’s a sweaty, screaming, writhing mess, constantly trying to get his next fix in the form of trying to get in touch with Anna.

While Mark is clearly emotionally and mentally dependent on Anna (possibly due to the vague but obviously stressful nature of his work), he sees Anna has his property. Game designer, author, and all around good guy Matt Colville once said that he titular Possession refers both to the actual spiritual possession of Anna by the creature and Mark’s impression that he possesses or owns Anna.

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After their split, we’re introduced to another character that Isabelle Adjani plays, credited as Helen (although I never remember learning her name). Helen obviously looks exactly like Anna except for her piercing green eyes and she immediately takes a liking to Mark. She ends up visiting him often to help take care of Mark’s son and even helps clean up the apartment after the mess Anna made. Helen is the ideal version of his wife in Mark’s mind, the woman he wishes he married instead of Anna. Later in the film when we’re introduced to the creature (which looks fucking amazing in all of its forms), we find out that it is Anna’s lover which is disgusting and gross and icky and all sorts of wrong, but as the film goes on and Anna distances herself from Mark, Heinrich, and everyone else in her life, the creature slowly shapes itself into Mark’s doppelganger – Anna’s ideal version of her husband. At the very end of the film when both Mark and Anna are dead and only Helen and the creature remain, we witness Bob objecting vehemently to them meeting up before committing suicide by drowning himself in the bath. While I think that child suicide is a little extreme and ham-fisted, it definitely speaks volumes to one of the messages of the movie. Sometimes, people just don’t work together in a relationship, and can hurt themselves and the ones they love by forcing one. By the end of the film we have both idealized versions of Anna and Mark, but the result is still grim.

I want to briefly mention the design and the use of the creature. Holy moly, was this thing terrifying. You see it in four stages (technically five, but the fifth is just Sam Neill wearing green contacts) during it’s growth, and sure it’s a physical manifestation of Anna’s guilt towards her betrayal of Mark and yadda yadda yadda, but it looked so good I have to write about that. The design of the creature is pretty simple at the beginning and it isn’t seen out in the open or in bright light at all throughout the film. It’s always either cloaked by darkness and shadow, or is placed against a background that it sort of blends in to. I would put the effectiveness of this creature up there with the Xenomorph from Alien and the Thing from the John Carpenter film of the same name. Until it reaches its final form it’s never seen moving around, always laying limp against a wall or on a bed. It never had legs and was always propped up in a way that made it seem like even though it can’t move, it didn’t need to. I don’t know why or how, but whenever it was visible it just dominated the screen. The scene with it on the bed is especially surreal when the creature’s tentacles seem to writhe in and out of the folds of the sheets, and the ends of the blood-drenched sheets that drape off the bed spill out onto the floor like a macabre painting.

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So, yeah. Umm. Possession. This is one hell of a film. I don’t really know why it isn’t lauded as a horror classic (let alone a film classic), but it definitely should be. Again, this isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a weird, draining, challenging film for anyone not used to experimental or avant-garde cinema. The fact that it’s open to interpretation as to whether or not it’s a story of cosmic horror or a surreal psychological drama is enough to throw off some people. But, I urge you to check out Possession however you can because like I said, whether you like it or not, you likely won’t forget it any time soon.

As someone who is somewhat well versed in horror films, it took me a long time to find Żuławski’s masterpiece. I feel like this film is already a film obscure enough that most people will go their whole life not seeing it and given enough time, it’ll fade into complete obscurity. We’ve already lost Ken Russel’s The Devils (which I have yet to see, but I am trying my hardest to track down), and I hope to God we don’t lose Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. Go see it. Go tell your friends about it, just keep this classic alive. This is the type of movie that you show a 19 year old film student to tell her that movies can go so much further in every direction than your Fight Clubs or Pulp Fictions. Possession is pure cinematic energy captured in a messy, beautiful, and painful two hour package, and it’s unlike anything you’ll ever see.

-David

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