Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 film Possession has a notorious reputation and history. It is a French/West German co-production, shot in Berlin, performed in English, and follows the collapse of a marriage between a spy (Sam Neill) and his wife (Isabelle Adjani). It is already a quite disturbing watch from the outset, but then pushes the envelope even further by segueing into a particularly odd horror movie. There are few things that drive horror as effectively as fear of the unknown, and ultimately Possession becomes a film not only dominated by the unknown but actively unknowable. It is really up to the viewer whether to accept its story as metaphorical or real; either way it is one of the more challenging films to discover, and one of several clear fore-runners to France’s ‘new French extremity’ movement. In the UK the film was banned, considered one of the ‘video nasties’ that the Thatcher government was so keen to crack down on. In the USA it was only released after a brutal edit cut its 124-minute running time to 84. Thankfully Żuławski’s original edit is now both restored and widely available – in Australia via an excellent Umbrella Entertainment bluray – and can be experienced as originally intended. Despite reaching its 40th anniversary, it has lost none of its power or penchant for provocation.
Mark (Neill) returns home to West Berlin after completing his final espionage mission. He anticipates a warm welcome from his wife Anna (Adjani) and young son Bob (Michael Hogben); instead Anna demands a divorce. At a loss as to why, and despite her denials that she is in love with someone else, Mark becomes obsessed with finding a reason for her strange behaviour. The more he uncovers, the more destructive their relationship becomes.
This is a challenging film, in the best possible fashion. Possession is essentially a depiction of cinema’s worst-ever marital breakdown: from Mark’s first heartbroken drinking binge to the film’s final harrowing scenes, it exists in a near-constant stage of rage, panic, and psychological mania. This seemingly unending hysteria has an exhausting effect. It slips under the skin as the film unfolds, each development or revelation further pushing its insidious effect. Pretty much at the precise point where most viewers might dismiss the film for over-the-top performances and silly hyperbole, the really disturbing elements slide into play.
In all honesty the less one knows the storyline of Possession, the more effective the film becomes. That makes it a difficult film review, but also an easy one to recommend. There are so many elements being juggled here, and multiple interpretations of nearly every scene. Events could be real, or they could be metaphorical. One of the beautiful things about Żuławski’s film is that either reading feels perfectly valid.
Adjani’s performance in particular in spectacularly unhinged, and at times genuinely frightening. Much has been written in the aftermath of how difficult she found the shoot, and how it took her several years to recover. There are even claims – not by Adjani – that she briefly became suicidal. That honestly seems believable given her performance. It is a deeply challenging exploration of a very disturbed and fragile character.
Possession is a bold, challenging, and unique work, but it is not an easy watch. It is masterfully done; it is up to the viewer whether or not it is an experience they want to have.