In this edition of The Forgotten, Andrew Buckle (The Film Emporium, Graffiti with Punctuation) explains why Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981) is one of his top 20 horror films of all time. Thanks for sharing this film with us Andrew.[Ed]
Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 domestic melodrama come psychological thriller come gruesome creature horror is one of the most chaotic and deranged films I have ever experienced. It is a ghastly film that is sure to leave an imprint on anyone who survives it. But, being pretty inaccessible, it isn’t a film you hear about too often.
It has all the characteristics of a monster film, but the biggest monster is the physical representation of guilt, shame and deep sexual desire that leads to and manifests from the breakdown of a marriage. The film tackles the failure of a couple as not only husband and wife, and also as parents.
This film doesn’t document a marriage slowly breaking down; it actually begins with a marriage ending. Marc (Sam Neill) has just returned from a mysterious, high-paying job to find that his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani, Best Actress winner at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival) is inexplicably distant. In his absence, the most recent of many, it seems they have finally lost their spark. Anxious, he looks for signs of infidelity and a reason for her strange, distracted behaviour, which she refuses to explain.
After learning that she has taken a lover, he decides to move out of the apartment and to try to keep their young son Bob as protected as possible. According to him honesty and loyalty no longer exists in their relationship. He attempts to make their separation a transaction – leaving Bob in the care of Anna and offer $800 a month for support. But, in the weeks following this decision he descends into madness and deep depression. After visiting Bobby and finding him alone and neglected he confronts Anna about her responsibilities. He admits that he can’t live without her and asks her to restore order to their family and leave the other man for the sake of Bobby.
But, there is something not quite right about this mystery man. She refuses to end the relationship over the phone; adamant it must be in person. Marc first believes it is an eccentric lothario named Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), whom Anna admits to having an affair with the year prior. When Marc confronts Heinrich, he learns it is, in fact, someone else. Marc hires a detective to follow Anna and find out what she is up to. It is from this development that the film makes a transition into something more sinister and perverted. What he, and later Heinrich and Mark, discovers at this apartment is best left unrevealed here.
Marc declares that his interest in finding his wife was out of pure blind ambition, but after a while he leaves those ambitions long behind. When his professional career catches up with him, and he decides to risk everything for Anna, the film descends into new realms of crazy, disturbing, slimy, bloody, destructive hell.
Set in Cold War Berlin, and Marc and Anna’s apartment overlooks the still intact Berlin Wall, Possession is full of exchanges between people who are experiencing completely different things and reacting to situations in opposing ways. Everything feels foreign, and often Marc and Anna seem to be unable to hear each other, talking as if the other isn’t in the room at all.
Adjani’s doppelganger appears in the form Helen (also Adjani), an angelic schoolteacher, who functions as Marc’s idealized version of his wife. What Anna’s idealized version of her husband is remains a mystery for much of the film – someone present, and a strong lover – but her possessed demeanor implies that she is completely under his spell. Even if Neill and Adjani’s characters were to become the idealized versions of each other, we get the sense that this union is forever doomed and sure to end destructively, with their son trapped amongst it all as the innocent victim.
While both declare that they care about their son, Marc stipulates that if Anna was committed to parenthood she would at least try to make their marriage work and not be content that intermittently making Bobby a sandwich and reading him stories makes her his mother. There is even a question of whether Helen, who takes on the mother role, exists. Bobby responds to her, but her bright green eyes suggest something supernatural. She is the perfect idealistic version of Anna; she is attentive, takes care of Bobby and willingly washes the piles of neglected dishes.
There is a very strange pace to this film, and many of the scenes feature lengthy, unbroken takes. The acting is extraordinary. Both Neill and Adjani have such physically and emotionally draining roles, and I’m not sure I have seen Neill better than here. The infamous subway sequence, where Anna has an erratic, violent fit leading to an oozy miscarriage, is a terrifying sequence. Any semblance of acting disappears and I have felt genuinely concerned for Adjani on both occasions I have watched this. She’s remarkable, and it is hard to believe that the same actress portrays both Anna and Helen here.
Neill’s and Bennent’s performances are highly mannered and exaggerated, and every nearly every sequence possesses brutal intensity and involves some sort of grating hysteria and stripped bare conveyance of pain and frustration. As wild as some of their behaviour is, there is always a credible emotional resonance to this situation. Humans in the midst of crisis often recede into unreachable levels of themselves. Not even self-harm can numb the pain they are each going through.
The look of the film is washed out with heavy use of grey, white and blue and there are some very odd editing techniques. There are cuts through dialogue, eliminating the unnecessary parts of the conversation, but acknowledging they exist. There are also odd flashbacks via video footage to when Anna was a dance instructor. Marc is watching this footage, as if he captured it. Anna is talking to him as she looks at the camera. For the audience, it feels directed at them.
I was floored by Possession. Films like this don’t come around very often. Billed as a horror film – and I ranked it at number #19 on my list of 50 Greatest Horror Films last year – it really is an allegorical study of the destructiveness of divorce. It is one of those messed up films for those with an open mind and ready for a challenge. While there are some tedious stretches – mostly because of the exhaustive nature of the film – the raw emotional energy on display ensures it is completely gripping and goes places you never expect.
By Andrew Buckle
Follow Andrew on Twitter @buckle22 and read more of his writing at The Film Emporium