Possession (1981)

France

3.5*
Director:
Andrzej Żuławski
Screenwriters:
Frederic Tuten
Andrzej Żuławski
Director of Photography:
Bruno Nuytten

Running time: 124 minutes

Not even Linda Blair, starring as little Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, screamed as much as Isabelle Adjani in Polish director Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 horror film, Possession. Adjani must have set some kind of record. In almost every scene, she is behaving hysterically, yelling, crying, spinning, vomiting blood or hurting herself so that blood gushes from wounds or even her orifices. It is a truly disgusting sight, and often I couldn’t help myself but simply had to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the staging. But while Possession has its tentacles in many other pies and while the product is a bit of an incoherent mess, the actual experience of watching the film is by no means unpleasant.

Set in West Berlin, very close to the Wall, the film opens on the return of Mark, played by a dashing young Sam Neill, most likely a spy, who hasn’t seen his wife Anna and their young son Bob in quite while. But all is not as Mark remembers it. Anna seems caught unprepared for Mark’s return and very soon he realizes she has been unfaithful to him.

However, this is not a simple story of cuckolding. No, instead of making the beast with two backs, she has been humping one with two backs and many tentacles. Yes, this tale about infidelity turns into a gruesome horror when we finally lay eyes on the beast, but not before the film’s first half has solidly pushed the production in that direction by having Adjani run around her apartment, storm into the street screaming while she slobbers streams of blood, and finally give birth to a mixture of blood and milk in the subway tunnel next to the Platz der Luftbrücke U-Bahn station in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, where she writhes orgasmically in liquid puddles on the ground.

Adjani completely surrenders to the role, giving it her all by screaming in bouts that last many minutes at a time, her eyes big as saucers, and seemingly breaks out in cold sweat every time we see her. The performance is as chilling as Neill’s is laughable. He seems to deliver line readings robotically, his actions detached from his words and his movements wholly awkward. He knows this is a joke and he doesn’t much take the role seriously. That is a pity, because a more serious approach might have given weight to the psychological trauma one would expect his character to suffer, given his wife’s insane behaviour (at one point, she comes home and starts putting her son’s clothes in the fridge).

Before the arrival of the Thing, when Anna makes the decision to separate from Mark, there is a remarkable scene in Café Einstein when they are seated next to each other on different sides of a pillar covered by mirrors, yet we cannot see their reflections. Żuławski doesn’t emphasise the effect, but once we realise it, the effect is striking as it anticipates the supernatural direction this film is about to take.

The film mixes many different genres, from the most intimate to the most bombastic, and in all cases the camera is used effectively, often hand-held, surging down a narrow corridor or framing the character by a door frame, to make us uncomfortable. 

“Maybe all couples go through this,” says Adjani, referring to their domestic troubles and her feelings of unhappiness. That may be right, but they quickly take a turn for the rather unusual, as her desire for something different means the creation of something truly abominable.

There are many other bits and pieces to the story, including the teacher of the couple’s son, who looks exactly like Anna, and a secret agent with pink socks, who is discussed during a strange business meeting in which the camera very ominously circles all parties involved, and whose identity is revealed towards the end of the film without any consequence.

The film belongs to the blood, the tentacles and to Adjani, whose tenacity in depicting fits of hysteria is something to behold. Her presence in every scene is magnetic, as her silence in the presence of the Thing is as uncomfortable as her outbursts in any other scene. Żuławski’s film is a big mystery, as there are many aspects to the story that are never really examined, yet his staging of many of the scenes is beautifully done. In one particularly tense scene, Neill is on the phone, his wife has disappeared and we do not know how mobile the Thing is. He switches the light of the room he is in on and off, while he is framed by an open door. We expect the worst — for something to appear behind him at any moment — and Żuławski lets the scene play out as long as possible before letting it reach its end: It’s not what we expect, and serves to emphasise that we have been taken hostage by the fear he’s created already.

Possession is bizarre and most of the characters lose their mind at one point or another… if they have ever been normal at all. But Adjani is fearless and ties the film together with her big eyes, her constant screaming and her lust for something bestial. The film is a potent work of horror.

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