This article will certainly contain spoilers. You have been warned.
There is so much to say about Possession (1981). It was written and directed by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski. First of all, this film is difficult (but not impossible) to find. It’s worth the effort though. It’s currently showing at Metrograph theaters, and may be available on their streaming platform. I have not seen it on a big screen but I think that would be the ideal way to see it, if you aren’t susceptible to panic attacks.
Possession doesn’t fit cleanly into any specific genre. It’s equal parts drama, thriller and horror…maybe with a sprinkle of sci-fi. If you haven’t seen this movie, it starts out with a husband and wife who are dealing with infidelity and separation. But it devolves into something nightmarish, feverish and horrifying.
Right off the bat, we have to discuss Isabelle Adjani’s performance. It’s intense and exhausting and a performance that will stick with me for a while. Adjani has many memorable scenes, but one that comes to mind is when her character, Anna, enters a subway. Her continuous panting and heavy breathing (reminiscent of Midsommer), slowly erupt into screaming, laughter and blood and…so much more. The physical toll that this roll must have taken on Adjani is immense. There is no reprieve for the actors.
Everything about Possession is exaggerated, which makes some of the scenes hard to watch. But at its core, the allegory is quite clear. The monster which we are introduced to about halfway through the film represents the resentment and growing agony of divoce. Zulawski turns this common experience into grotesque body horror and upsetting desire. Though, I am sure you could watch this film over and over again and find new meanings and layers.
The film also stars Sam Neill in the role of the husband. Adjani plays her own doppelganger, as does Neill. The doppelganger element creates a circular, never ending pattern. A fairly unfavorable take on romantic relationships. Essentially, as one attraction wanes, another waxes. Side note: Zulawski did go through a divorce before he made Possession. Not very surprising.
It’s a film that’s meant to invoke a very specific emotional reaction from the audience. In a lot of ways it reminded me of how I felt watching Aronofsky’s Mother!. Both Mother! and Possession are films that I like and respect, but do not necessarily enjoy watching. But these films aren’t meant to be entertaining, they’re meant to take you on a very specific, guided emotional journey.
Beyond the plot and acting, the filmmaking is stunning. The cinematography is dizzying, in a good way. Often the camera moves freely around the actors, bringing additional elements to the drama that’s unfolding, One of the final scenes is filmed in dramatic vignette. Other shots are stark and clinical, until they are blood soaked. The filmmakers use sound here in a unique way. The actors breathing or moans or over the top noises add another layer to the soundtrack and rhythm of Possession.
In one of the final moments of the film, the husband and wife’s bloody pre-death kiss, was one of the hardest to watch for me. Not to mention the way Anna bends her arms backwards to try to end them both. A tragically horrifying yet somehow fitting end.
From a filmmaking perspective, Possession (1981) should be on everyone’s must-watch list. But it will soon also be on your what-the-fuck-did-I-just-watch list. Possession is like being in a bad dream. From the start, the way the actors move is slightly off. They always seem to be wearing the same outfits day to day, or very similar colors. The way the plot unfolds is familiar but surprising. It lures us in under the false-pretense of a drama and whacks us over the head with body horror and tentacle fueled sex scenes. Only to leave us with a cynical feeling about love and modern relationships.
Possession was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1981. Though it didn’t win, Isabelle Adjani won best actress that year at Cannes for her role. Andrzej Zulawski has said that he makes films about “what is torturing” him. I think Possession is an excellent example of a highly successful exploration of one’s person torture. So be warned, what you’re feeling at the time you watch this film will undoubtedly impact how you perceive it.
Possession begs us to ask the question, who really is the bad guy?