Classics, Hidden treasures, horror, Movies, Reviews

Hidden treasures – Possession

Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film Possession is a daunting movie of which to attempt a synopsis, let alone a review, defying the conventions of mainstream western film making and acting while also aligning itself with the horror genre to produce a film that is as unique and disturbing as David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Despite winning major awards for its lead actress Isabelle Adjani (César Award for Best Actress, Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award), Possession was banned in the UK on its video release as part of the Director of Public Prosecutions idiotic campaign against video nasties. In America, the film was drastically recut and re-scored with stupid optical effects added in a doomed attempt to make it appear more like a conventional demonic possession film. The films recent blu ray release (from Second Sight in the UK) offers an opportunity to sample one of the most singular of European genre films. Simply put, if you have never seen Possession then you have never seen a movie like it before. If you have seen Possession you know you have never seen anything like it since. The action takes place in West German Berlin, Mark (Sam Neil, following his turn as the antichrist in The Final Conflict) is some sort of spy returning to his young family after time away on a vague secret assignment. It is immediately apparent that he and his wife Anna (Adjani) are in a state of mutual alienation. You can tell this because when he suggests a trip to the zoo to reconnect with their young son Bob, Anna’s face contorts into a mask of abjection worthy of Edvard Munch. Things further deteriorate when he finds evidence of an extra-marital affair and the couple has a massive fight in public which involves Mark throwing tables and chairs around a café like a demented wrestling fan. possession1 After moving into a hotel Mark suffers a complete nervous breakdown that leads to a period of near catatonia. When recovered he rethinks his initial decision to walk out on his family and attempts a reconciliation. However, when he comes home he finds Bob alone, and assumes Anna is with her lover Heinrch (Bennent). When Mark tracks down Heinrich (who lives with his mother), his love rival first comes on to him (an astonishing scene of homoerotic panic ensues) then karate chops him to the ground and throws him out. Heinrich also reveals that he has not seen Anna since Marks return, so, who has she been seeing during the couple’s split? Or more accurately… what? Eventually Mark hires a private detective agency to follow Anna, but the detective disappears during an incredibly inept attempt to stalk her unobserved. If this sounds misogynistic, it really doesn’t play that way. At its essence, this is a story of domestic and personal apocalypse. As such it has some common ground with another horror film from an Polish expatriate director, Repulsion (1965). However, Roman Polanski’s classic was entirely introverted, and Zulawski’s film has a wider political background. With its frequent symbols of duality and division, there is clearly political meaning to be gleaned from the picture. The wall that divided that Berlin, separating families, friends and loved ones between 1961 and 1990 is an oppressive presence throughout. As Mark gazes out of his flat, he is constantly observed by East German border guards. That the uniformed guards observing him through binoculars were most likely actual East German Army wondering what the hell was going on across the Wall from them is neither here nor there. Later in the film, Mark begins a relationship with Bob’s kindergarten teacher Helen, she is played by, er, Isabelle Adjani in a wig and green contact lenses. Up to the point where the viewer discovers where Anna has been going and what she is hiding, the film could be viewed as a drama with mild paranoid thriller elements. In fact for a good hour you might wonder why this is classed as a horror film at all, and why there is a huge credit to Italian visual FX master Carlo Rambaldi for ‘special effects: the creature’ at the top of the film. All I will say is that I have no idea if Zulawski is actually influenced by Japanese erotic manga, but slime and tentacles have rarely been used to this effect in the annals of European Art cinema. I’ve hinted at it, but the acting styles on display in Possession go to places only subsequently approached by Nicholas Cage at his most demented. Sam Neil, then relatively unknown, gives a performance that has come in for considerable criticism. He delivers line readings that are either strangely disconnected or hysterically overwrought, often slamming gears between the two registers several times in a given scene. However, this must be seen in the context of the whole cast. As Mark’s love rival Heinrich, Heinz Bennent is incredibly bizarre, speaking English with an accent so thick it often renders his lines unintelligible, constantly stripping off during confrontational scenes, and fondling Neil in an overtly sexual fashion. One scene in which Heinrich faces off against Mark on the landing outside his front door is delivered so hysterically, with the actor bouncing off walls waving his hands in the air, that he reminded me of Ian Holm in Alien after [SPOILER] he had his head knocked off! These two performances would be the pinnacle of extremity in any other movie, but in Possession they are merely the opening acts for the main attraction. When critics call an actress’ performance ‘brave’ what they actually mean is usually either naked or sans makeup. What it should mean is Isabelle Adjani in Possession. This is a performance of such scenery chewing intensity that it rivals Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood (in fact as her ex Day Lewis may have taken notes from the actress). Nic Cage likes to call his acting style Nouveau Shamanic (something he has derived from, and credits to, the book The Way of The Actor by Brian Bates). This description perfectly fits Adjani’s amazing, convulsive performance here. The actress goes from mogadonned calm to shrieking hysteria in the space of a single take, she reacts excessively to simple stimulus, she contorts and twists her whole body and appears to have attained an altered state of consciousness. It is a performance that is closer to Japanese Kabuki theatre than any Western classical or method form. The exaggerated and stylised acting is matched by Zulawski’s direction. This is best exemplified by a brilliant early scene in which Mark is interviewed in a vast empty office space by representatives of The Mysterious They. The weird, context-less questions, ‘did he wear pink socks’ and flat delivery are filmed by a fluid constantly moving camera that swirls around the actors. It’s deliberately ostentatious stuff, clearly intended to emphasis the artifice of the film in a Brechtian fashion (I’m determined to match the film’s glorious pretensions with this review, and I am not even coming close). Despite being little seen and undervalued in its release, Possession clearly had an influence on subsequent filmmakers. Lars Von Trier simply has to have watched it, as echoes can be obviously seen in The Kingdom and (the vastly inferior) Antichrist. One writer/director who definitely saw and loved it is Clive Barker. Several of his short stories (most notably Jacqueline Ess Her Will and Testament from his Books of Blood collection) bear the slimey traces of Possession, but its greatest stamp can be viewed on Hellraiser. Numerous scenes in Barker’s film appear directly derived from Zulawski’s. It is also possible Possession may have fed into Brian Yuzna’s terrific cult movie Society. The brilliant Park Chan-wook has cited the film as a key influence on his film Thirst (2009); it makes perfect sense that a film set in a divided Berlin would strike a particular chord with a Korean filmmaker. Possession is a film that jumps off the deep end from its opening scene, sinks to the bottom of the pool, and then stays there for two hours. The final thirty minutes are as genuinely deranged as anything I have ever seen on film, but are also profoundly haunting. I honestly can’t say I really have any idea what Zulawski is actually on about, his purpose is too obscure to be divined from a single viewing, but it lingers in the mind setting off firecrackers for days afterwards. This review originally appeared on


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