POSSESSION would be one of the rawest, most vicious, most harrowing films ever made about love and marriage and the awful dissolution of both, even if there weren’t an oozing Lovecraft-style tentacle demon sitting squarely and evilly in the middle of it. Polish director and co-writer Andrzej Żuławski reportedly made the film in reaction to a painful divorce, and it shows. This movie had to have been made by someone who knows what it’s like to be in love, and then out of it. (The internet tells me that Żuławski has since been with and NOT with Sophie Marceau, so his highs and lows may be higher and lower than most.)
Dashing genre legend Sam Neill plays Mark, the husband going through hell on earth, and the fierce and striking Isabelle Adjani plays Anna, the wife whose mysterious personality-flip drives him to madness. Mark returns from a trip and is immediately welcomed by Anna with a divorce request. He feels totally bushwhacked. They have a young son, who it seems Anna has totally abandoned, both emotionally and literally. Anna has taken up with a new lover (Heinz Bennent) — who isn’t that new, actually, as he’s almost twice her age. But despite the brutal slugfest that ensues between Mark and Heinrich, the new guy isn’t half the problem, really. Something confusingly supernatural seems to be at work — Mark meets his son’s teacher, Helen, who is a dead ringer for Anna (Isabelle Adjani plays a dual role), while Anna is acting more and more unhinged, animalistic, and self-destructive, and oh yeah, that incredibly vile monster mentioned up top is starting to make house visits. If all of this is sounding crazy, you need to see the movie because it plays seven-hundred times crazier than it sounds. You’ve never seen anything like it.
POSSESSION has an odd, frenzied, almost jumbled energy right from the outset, for many reasons, one of which being that this is an international production. The film’s director is from Poland, its leading man from New Zealand, its leading lady from France, and its setting and filming location is in Germany. This makes it interesting and vibrant, while lending it a personality clash that probably serves the narrative well. The cinematography by Bruno Nuytten (who, maybe not for nothing, had a relationship with Isabelle Adjani) is fascinating — though it has the look of most British film at the time, and the film for long stretches wouldn’t look out of place on PBS, it picks up a whirling momentum that adds greatly to the disorienting effect of the events onscreen. The unusual score by Andrzej Korzynski has a similar effect. There’s nothing safe or reassuring about POSSESSION once it gets going, least of which its perfomances.
Sam Neill is a phenomenal actor whose ability to project sly intelligence has seen him cast equally as heroes and villains. He was once screen-tested for the role of James Bond and I see no reason why that wouldn’t have worked, except that it may have kept him away from many of the other interesting roles he’s played. In POSSESSION he’s playing something closer to an everyman, though if you read “hero” when you look at him early in the film it certainly helps, as does later on his capacity to suggest darkness.
But it’s Isabelle Adjani who rips the film away and threatens to disembowel the very machinery that is projecting it. When critics call a performance “fearless”, they really have no barometer with which to judge that virtue if they haven’t seen Isabelle Adjani in POSSESSION. This is without a doubt one of the bravest, least self-conscious, most go-for-broke frightening performances ever committed to film, regardless of gender. Gender does matter, though. This role captures all the allure, the awe, and the fear that feminine sexuality instills in men. Mark cannot comprehend the changes that Anna is going through, and it scares the hell out of him.
The dedicated physicality that Isabelle Adjani brings to bear is far more formidable than any monster could ever be, even though this film has a creepier monster than most — brought to life by Carlo Rambaldi, the effects genius who designed E.T.! Rambaldi also had a hand in the creation of the title character in ALIEN, another film that generates horror by evoking sexual imagery — though that one is far more subtle than this one.
POSSESSION is incomparably bold, personal filmmaking. Some of those who have seen it have balked at classifying it in the horror genre, since it is so unusual and resistant to classification, and because it is possible (I think wrongly) to read the supernatural elements as metaphorical. But again, even if there were no tentacle-beast pulling the strings, this film would still have nearly as visceral an impact, due to its incredible lead performances and the concerted efforts of its crew. POSSESSION is bruising and unforgettable and most of all shocking, long before anyone walks into that room and sees the unholy thing writhing on the ground. The only reason that more people don’t know about this movie is because most people probably couldn’t handle it.
POSSESSION is tonight’s midnight screening at Cinefamily in Los Angeles, as part of their month-long Video Nasties celebration. LA, you are so lucky.
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