PAUSE: A Look Back at Andrzej Zulawski's 'Possession' (1981)
A bizarre display of the consequences of a chaotic war between spouses, 'Possession' is Zulawski's only English-speaking film and a truly hidden gem. Hailed now as something of an underground horror masterpiece, 'Possession' should not be allowed to return to the dusty shelves of the VHS store. Instead, this article takes a pause to focus on its masterful cinematography, shocking imagery and astonishing implications.
Mimicked just a few years ago by Massive Attack in their video for 'Voodoo in my Blood', which starred a brilliant but frantic Rosamund Pike undergoing a Satanic attack in a subway, 'Possession' is a film that exists without a great buzz. This is a shame, because it is as deserving of as much praise as any blockbuster horror we've grown to revere nowadays, and contains one of the greatest onscreen performances, I personally, have ever witnessed.
In spite of its title, 'Possession' is not a tale of spinning heads, projectile pea-green vomit or priests wielding crosses. But don't be disappointed. Instead, the word insinuates something equally as terrifying - the maniacal captivity of being consumed by a relationship in chaos, and the need, within that relationship, to exert control.
Centering around the crumbling marriage of estranged husband Mark (Sam Neill) and his mysterious wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani), the film, initially slow to start, becomes a festival of confusion as the two dissolve into a bout of jealousy-fueled madness that culminates in a bizarre orgy of body horror and fast-paced thrills.
What appears like an abnormal, extremely dysfunctional family dynamic on the surface soon becomes even more eye-popping in its implications. When Mark learns Anna has been having an affair for the past year, he undergoes blackouts of several weeks and episodes of mania. He struggles to come to terms with their estrangement, engaging in a screaming match with her in the kitchen (resulting in the two of them mutilating themselves in some way with a mechanical meat cleaver) and attempting to focus on looking after their son, Bob. In one revealing moment, Mark utters to Anna that, when she is away, he thinks of her as an animal, but upon seeing her that all melts away. Despite Mark's attempts to forget Anna, his obsession is too deeply entrenched. This becomes no clearer than when he encounters Bob's teacher, Helen (also played by Adjani), who appears as a lighter-haired, green-eyed doppelganger of Anna. Ultimately, he is projecting onto others who he wants the independent, estranged Anna to be. Mark is too damaged to remain her husband, but too obsessed to part from her entirely.
Meanwhile, a parallel is occurring in Anna, one which comprises the more supernatural portions of the film's dynamic. After breaking free from Mark's jealous, controlling hold, she acts in a mysterious manner, and Mark is key to find out what she is concealing from him, and others. If the meat cleaver incident was bizarre, the film's next act is several notches higher on the weird scale. Anna is soon revealed to be murdering men at her run-down apartment and using their body parts to fashion a grotesque metamorphosing male being to suit her needs of fulfillment.
Anna, too, is projecting. She voices that Mark in his present form disgusts her, and so is fashioning an idealised version of him whom she can control; a green-eyed doppelganger who appears in the film's climax. The two 'originals', so broken by their efforts to both be with and escape from one another, are no longer the people they were at the beginning of the narrative. The desire to 'possess' the other in the way in which they wish has consumed them.
The film is brimming over with symbolism, mostly due to the fact that director Zulawski was reportedly going through his divorce when penning the script, and it is easy to get lost in the haze of madness coating the movie like a thick fog. This 'fog' of insanity certainly immerses you in the midst of the characters' dilemmas. It plays like a feverish nightmare, swinging wildly from one dramatic, bizarre scene to the next. And yet, while it is at times confusing, it is also utterly captivating. I don't think I spoke a single word or moved throughout its entire duration except to take a few absent-minded sips from my can of Pepsi Max, desperately trying not to look away for a single moment. I was utterly absorbed, thanks to the masterful direction, the gloomy, melancholic cinematography of early-'80s Berlin and the astonishing theatrics of Adjani and Neill.
As far as plot, the film should be taken however one wishes - it is certainly mind-bending enough for this to be done. Many have indeed argued that the film is an imprint of Mark's inner thoughts and feelings towards his wife, and an internal, self-justifying explanation for her leaving him. Whatever the theory, upon finishing the film it soon becomes clear that the more supernatural elements are a metaphorical umbrella for the more personal breakdowns between the two spouses.
One will note during the film's opening sequence the credit of a special effect named 'The Creature'. Thanks to some fantastic special effects by infamous SFX artist Carlo Rambaldi, we watch 'The Creature' shift through various evolutionary stages, until we are greeted to one shadowy scene where Mark encounters it writhing on top of Anna, its tentacles wrapped around her bare legs. Daring for its time and wonderfully-executed even by today's standards, 'Possession' is littered with jaw-dropping imagery that confuse as well as enlighten.
While the scene with Anna and 'The Creature' engaging in intercourse may at first boggle the mind, it soon becomes clear that it represents two things: Mark's attempts to make Anna seem abhorrent and repugnant to him in an attempt to move on, and Anna's bid to be fulfilled and satisfied with a Frankenstein-like creation of her own making, which she alone wishes to possess. Herein lies 'Possession''s genius; it makes what is already a rather frightening war of the minds even more terrifying through the addition of almost Lovecraftian imagery. It's a genius stroke. And while one could easily read the film as a nightmare involving actual murders, slimy tentacled lovers and creepy green-eyed dopplegangers, what one can read below surface level indicates a futile struggle for possession of one lover over another.
Further to the bizarre metaphorical consistency of the film, the alien-like dopplegangers of green-eyed Mark and 'Helen' particularly at the movie's end are so radiant and blank they appear like porcelain dolls or mechanical replicas. Their presence in this film ramps up the fear-factor with their unnerving stares, but they also serve to indicate a deeper meaning. They represent in chilling fashion the ways both Mark and Anna have grown so distant they are both fighting to push each other into molds that simply do not fit.
In the film's most famous scene, the metaphoric power of Zulawski strikes resoundingly once again. In a batch of dialogue between Anna and Mark, it cuts to a flashback in which Anna recalls walking aimlessly through a subway tunnel. It is gloomy and damp, and a cackling Anna devolves into fits of writhing, bucking and flailing, as if she is truly possessed by an unseen force. She slams against the brick walls of the tunnel and screams, grunts and makes guttural noises, wide eyes rolling in her head. After some time, she drops to the floor and begins oozing gunge from every orifice in one of the most haunting images of the film. She describes how, on that day, she miscarried one of two 'sisters' plaguing her as of late: Sister Faith. Now, she admits has given over to Sister Chance. The powerful and dedicated performance by Adjani is enough to convince anyone that something demonic could be occurring here, but instead it depicts Anna's loss of faith in love and her surrender to the faint hope that things will work out. I admit I watched the scene open-mouthed at how utterly unnerving it was, with Adjani's feverish performance lighting the entire continuous seemingly never-ending shots alight.
The camera shots in the film are disorienting, even sickening, and add to the feeling of insanity for both player and viewer alike. From panoramic and still in its following of Adjani in her wildest subway moment, to circling and swooping around Neill in Mark's most panic-filled moments, Zulawski masterfully anchors the film with dips and waves that keep you utterly transfixed. All the while, Adjani's unreal performance keeps what could be an otherwise garish over-the-top fright fest afloat.
It is impossible not to talk about 'Possession' as a whole without mentioning Adjani extensively. She serves as, along with Zulawski's direction, the film's strongest asset. While Neill delivers a feverish and wonderfully hammed-up performance, the film is ultimately Adjani's. She gives herself to it entirely. Indeed, her performance is nothing short of incredible. I had only seen Adjani once before prior to viewing 'Possession' in her unsuspecting role as the demure Lucy in Werner Herzog's rendition of 'Nosferatu' in 1979, so the explosive performance delivered in 'Possession' truly caught me off guard. And I have to say, it probably stands as one of my favourite performances in any film, ever. Frightening, powerful and mesmerising, Adjani is wonderfully unhinged. Had this film not been such an underground movie and confined mostly to European screens upon release, I would have been sure Adjani had won an Academy Award for it. She certainly should have.
Overall, 'Possession' is a film that is both beautiful and repulsive. It is bleak for the most part and is certainly not for everyone. Occasionally, its ambiguity can be headache-inducing, but the pain is more than worth it for the absorption of some stunning cinematography and performance that is not without substance. Something of a slow-burn, it should not be written off before it has a chance to get going. Rather than sitting there trying to carefully and methodically unpick what is happening between Mark and Anna, I would advise to just go along with what Zulawski is presenting to you through this film. In this way, the weirdness of the film will reveal its true meaning to you in the way in which you wish to interpret it, without having to worry too much about keeping up with the meandering plot. This will also make the film far more enjoyable and captivating. Give yourself over to it, like the title implies, allow it to consume you.
As bold, weird and disturbing as it is, 'Possession' is a very thoughtful commentary on personal insights of lovers asunder. Banned for UK home release until 2000 for its 'video nasty' status, 'Possession' remains an underrated gem of gargantuan proportions, and should be revered as a true icon at least within the horror/thriller genre, if not cinema in its entirety. It is hard to describe effectively in written format, and even more difficult to convey the sheer haunting brilliance of the film. I can only advise you watch it for yourself. Love it for its wildness, or hate it for its ambiguity, it is a film that will undoubtedly leave you reeling.