May 17, 2013

Possession (1981)

Directed by Andrzej Zulawski. Starring Isabelle Adjani ("Anna", "Helen"), Sam Neill ("Mark"), Margit Carstensen ("Margit Gluckmeister"), and Heinz Bennet ("Heinrich"). Rated R.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Anchor Bay)
Running time: 02:03:33
Country: France, West Germany

When we're introduced to the two leads of POSSESSION, Anna and Mark, it's very apparent that their marriage is in trouble. In fact, the film wastes no time in letting us no that it's beyond the point of any repair whatsoever. Mark - a spy who works for the government - returns home to Berlin from a mission to discover that Anna has suddenly decided she wants to file for divorce. The way that Mark initially responds is a bit strange. Anna is absolutely hysterical (a trait that she maintains throughout the film more often than not), whereas Mark's reaction to the situation (and to her) is almost robotic, in that he seems very emotionless, blunt, and seemingly unsympathetic but surprised by her choice nonetheless. From this point, we as viewers, whether we want to or not, are thrown into a situation where we not only bear witness to the disintegration of their relationship but fall down a spiral of emotions (and violence) with them as well.

When it comes to film as art as opposed to a product designed to make money, I don't think there should be any limit to how personal an artist should get with his or her work. To be fair, though, there's a certain line that's inevitably crossed when a filmmaker gets a bit too personal, and it's a line that results in the film inherently become a too inaccessible. That being said, POSSESSION comes across as a very personal film for director Andrzej Zulawski. He's even gone on record as saying so himself, but anyone would still be able to tell just based on the merits of the movie alone. POSSESSION isn't a plot-driven film per se, but rather a character study and the document of an invisible force pulling two people in a relationship apart into territories of insanity and emotional instability. For those who've seen Lars Von Trier's ANTICHRIST, you could say that POSSESSION is like its older sibling. Both films share a lot of the same traits and themes, and both are arguably just as unpleasant as the other.

To those of you reading this who haven't seen POSSESSION, if you go into it expecting a cohesive narrative, you'll more than likely be confused by what you're watching. The film doesn't go out of its way to spell everything out for you to understand. As pretentious as it sounds, you have to look a lot deeper than what's on the surface of this film, and it's up to you to gather the pieces of the puzzle and assemble them yourself rather than having the director and actors and script do it for you. I mean, I'm not saying that this is one of the most complicated movies you'll ever see, but there's still a lot going on in this movie that perhaps will only resonate with people with a profound understanding of relationships and human psychology.

Speaking of psychology, one of the interesting things about the film (for me anyway) is the back and forth between Anna and Mark. One more than a couple of occasions, their roles are essentially reversed as the verbal attacker and the one who finds themselves in a defensive position. At one point, Anna becomes to one who's emotionally cold while Mark assumes the role of the hysterical one, only for the them to switch up again for seemingly no reason. It's almost like a power-struggle between the two, with both sides using whatever psychological and emotional warfare they can muster. The crumbling of their relationship is truly a spectacle to behold, as are the amazing performances by both Adjani and Neill. Adjani in particular is an absolute wreck in this film. Prior to seeing this, she never struck me as someone so capable of such an intense, physically-draining performance as the one she gives here. If there's only one thing you'll take away from this movie, chances are it'll be how awe-inspiring Adjani's performance is.

So, when Mark and Anna aren't fighting, POSSESSION is chock-full of unusual, intriguing, and downright bizarre moments. Mark hires a Private Investigator to follow Anna, which leads to some startling discoveries on the Investigator's part to say the least. Anna retreats to a dilapidated building and creates a companion for herself that defies biology. Mark meets a doppelganger of Anna who's the polar opposite of her in terms of personality (or so it seems). Mark confronts "the other guy". I'm sure anyone who's been cheated on by someone they've invested a lot of emotion in, at one point, has suffered a fair amount of anxiety when it comes to thoughts of "the other guy" or "the other girl". Thoughts of confronting this person and, in some cases, the visual reveal of this other person is one of the most difficult things to deal with when someone you love separates themselves from you, and this is one of the many aspects of a failed relationship that POSSESSION addresses in its own way. While "the other guy" in this film is essentially portrayed with the intent of being made a mockery of by Zulawski, the whole point, it seems, is that the idea of this other person causes one to panic and question their own flaws as a human being and as a lover.

POSSESSION isn't the most well-paced film (I can't speak for everyone, but I certainly felt all two-hours of its running time), but it's an amazingly-acted and well-constructed film. If you don't get any fulfillment out of this movie in terms of its overall watchability, I'll be shocked if you aren't at least impressed with it from a technical standpoint. The muted color scheme seems very calculated and goes hand-in-hand with the dreary Berlin setting. The camera is constantly moving in a way that doesn't distract, or come across as flamboyant for the sake of it, so much as it compliments the high level of hysteria amongst the characters. While great, the style of acting is a bit strange though. The performances from pretty much everyone are like a cross between melodrama and watching someone having an intense Acid trip. Because of the minimal amount of characters, the relationship of the leads, the dialogue, and the way the actors are shot, POSSESSION seems like an adaptation of a stage play.

There's so much more to talk about when it comes to this film. I could literally dissect it from start to finish and throw my opinions and interpretations in your direction until my fingers bleed, but I'll spare you. I personally wouldn't call POSSESSION a masterpiece, but - with all due respect to SPIDER BABY - it's one of the maddest films I've ever seen. If intense psychological horror movies about doomed relationships are of interest to you, this is a film that you absolutely need to see.

Score: 8


  1. Great review. Made me want to watch it again. Adjani is so unhinged.

  2. Thanks a lot, Cody! If you have the DVD, check it out with the commentary. Zulawski's an interesting guy, if a tad full of himself. He has a funny story about how he threatened to kill Adjani because her eyes were puffy from wearing those green contacts.