Synopsis: Mark returns to Berlin from a long business assignment to find that his wife Anna is leaving him for what he supposes is another man. It turns out that she leaves both her husband and her lover, Heinrich, for a supernatural encounter with a strange creature in an empty apartment.
Stars: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton
Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: So far in my run of this blog I’ve learned there are some movies you watch and some you endure. Now and then, there are those rare instances where a film falls into the thorny middle and an imbalance in the force is created. That’s when you get fascinating examples of shattering intensity in filmmaking, displaying mesmerizing work that is impossible to forget and more often than not just as difficult to consider going through a second time. Off the top of my head, Darren Aronofksy’s Requiem for a Dream would be the most “mainstream” example and anything by Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé (like 2018’s Climax) would fit that bill.
1981’s Possession didn’t just get added to that list of One Time Watches for me, it jumped to the top in bold lettering and was underlined for good measure. An infamous film ostensibly classified in the horror genre but so much more than that niche implies, I had heard about this for such a long time but found it difficult to track down in its full uncut version. Most Americans hadn’t seen what the original Cannes audiences saw when it nearly won the Palme d’Or because when it finally did see the light of a U.S. theatrical distribution, the studio slashed it to pieces in the hopes it could sell it more as a creature feature than the deeply disturbing examination of the human psyche it is. Now out in a gorgeous (GORGEOUS!) 4k remaster version, my first (and absolutely only) exposure to the film was one for the record books, thoroughly living up to its reputation on every positive and gross-out note.
For a while, a viewer may think that Possession is just a hyper-charged relationship drama because that’s what the first hour of it feels like. Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) plays Mark, a spy out of West Berlin who finishes his mission and returns home expecting to be welcomed warmly by his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and young son Bob (Michael Hogben). Instead, he finds Anna to be cold and distracted, eventually discovering she’s been having an affair with a flamboyant playboy (Heinz Bennent) who might be older than Mark but is physically far superior. Unable to cope with the betrayal, Mark goes on a bender which leaves him laid out flat and when he’s finally sobering up out of the darkness it’s Anna that has drifted into strang(er) behavior. Distancing herself from both men who grow increasingly possessive of the woman they love with an almost frightening passion; she disappears for days and returns addled and incoherent. Mark hires a private investigator to follow her and when the detective tracks her down (following her so close he’s practically carrying a bag of her groceries) to a ramshackle apartment in an unremarkable building, he discovers what she’s been hiding…and what she’s been feeding it.
I thought I knew what I was getting myself into with Possession but even the most detailed of plot descriptions (and mine barely skims the surface) won’t prepare you for the dizzying ride writer/director Andrzej Zulawski takes us on. A popular art-house filmmaker of his time, this was the Polish director’s only film made in English and is widely known to have been the product of writing that came during his divorce from his actress wife. There’s so much of that to dissect here that scholars could (and have) written dissertations on the kind of demons Zulawski was attempting to exorcise through his main couple.
The extremity of the violence in the last half and the overall physicality between Neill and Adjani is terrifying to watch, it’s so raw and real that you feel like you shouldn’t be watching yet you can’t bring yourself to look away. Both actors were still working out their personas on camera with Neill having the furthest yet to go, that’s why it’s no worldly wonder Adjani received such acclaim for what she’s doing here…and she’s doing a lot. Winning the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival (and she should have been nominated for an Oscar, really), the actress gives and gives and gives at all times – how did she make it through the movie without losing her mind? The showstopper is her flashback sequence where she has a sort of fissure that informs what’s been happening to her character. Leading up to this moment is an unfathomably long dance of movement where the actress throws herself, shrieking and howling around this empty subway hall. It’s jaw-dropping and if you aren’t out of breath after watching it you must be in better control of your diaphragm that I am.
The question that bubbles up around 75 minutes into the 120-minute film is this…is all of this entertaining/enlightening/educating? Movies are, after all, supposed to provoke some kind of variation of those “e” words and I found that as much as I was impressed by what the actors were giving and bringing to Possession, at a certain point I was ready to punch my participation card and go home. Adding in another character that looks like Adjani’s but isn’t (or is she?) and a randomly returning sexpot neighbor just muddied the waters, though I did enjoy Neill’s brief visit with the elderly mother of his wife’s lover. Once the goings-on in the mystery apartment are revealed, the movie gets real gross real fast and by the time we get to a finale that lands nicely but then burrows in deeper to fester uncomfortably I was sort of spent.
True film fans almost owe it to themselves to check out Possession at least once in their lives. I wouldn’t have appreciated the film or anything it was attempting if I had watched it ten or maybe even five years ago. Watching it after having been exposed to more genre films that push the boundaries of their classifications, I see how Zulawski merely used the horror as a metaphor for his own current state of mind and channeled that into a script about a woman that feeds a creature a type of love she won’t give to the husband that only wants to please her. That’s real life horror to some people.