It’s seldom a film lunges forward, grabs you roughly by the collar, throws you up against a wall screaming dementedly in your face for nearly two hours. What is Possession? And why will it leave you sprawled and dripping with foetid ooze on your now-desecrated sofa? What happens here to leave you exhausted, razed and slightly closer to the dark and howling abyss of insanity than you were before?
Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neill) bicker and push against each other in their Berlin apartment, as the marriage disintegrates. Symbols of separation are seen in the omnipresent Berlin Wall, frequently seen from their apartment window. Anna ends an affair with Heinrich and begins another. With angry silence from Anna and no leads to uncover her new mystery lover, Mark collapses in a prolonged and bitter, sweaty mess. On regaining his composure (though not necessarily his sanity) he sets out to find Anna’s illicit partner. Questioning the similarly unhinged Heinrich only leads to a beating, while a private detective hired to trail her disappears altogether.
Compounding the queasy puzzle, Anna returns periodically to the flat in various states of anger, anxiety, depression and mania. The blue dress she wears looks more stained and sweat-soaked each time, her hair matted with filth.
Before you think this mystery is the crux of the film, we learn the truth early on and the revelation savagely spins the film around from domestic drama to horror. Anna is in the thrall of a bloody, mucky, tentacled beast she makes love to and kills for. This monstrosity represents the breakdown of the relationship. It is what comes between Anna and Mark but it can’t be defined, is never seen in full, always skulking in shadow and staring malevolently.
Similar themes are explored in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, and as a study of failing relationships, madness and body-horror it is hard not to see a direct influence. Possession also recalls the work of H. P. Lovecraft, a writer who explored the intrusion of disturbing, tentacled monsters into everyday life and the consequences on the sanity of anyone witnessing them.
The performances in Possession are brave, edgy and quite theatrical, the whole cast going over the top with glee. The stand-out performance undoubtedly comes from Adjani in her subway miscarriage scene. Walking through the underground station, groceries in hand, Anna starts giggling and grimacing, her eyes bulging crazily. With escalating hysteria her laughs explode into full-blown screams as her body writhes and contorts. The groceries spray across the tiles and she disfigures her face while blood and milk flow from under her dress and across the floor.
An equally macabre scene sees Anna and Mark cutting their bodies with an electric meat carver. Such is the mental anguish of their emotional separation, even slicing their necks and arms provokes no reaction as the blood flows.
Towards the end, as pieces unravel, the story takes oblique twists and turns. The son’s school teacher appears as a doppelgänger of Anna, raising questions of identity. Heinrich’s mother turns out to know more about what is going on than it seems. This will require multiple viewings to be understood.
Possession has only recently been scooped up and slopped in a quivering mass onto DVD in the UK after its incorrect labelling as a video-nasty in the ’80s. Watch the film and you realise it eludes genre classification altogether. The horror aspects are brief and often comical, and the creature itself, while disgusting, is only glimpsed briefly. Possession‘s over-riding theme is the portrayal of the banally traumatic process of divorce. Zulawski drew heavily on his own experiences to reach deep into his soul and spew forth the bitter and rank contents into this film. It’s about the grinding down of a relationship between people descending into derangement which ultimately results in their own loss of identity. I have an unashamed and rather dirty love for Possession and I only hope you search whatever dank corners you need to find a copy for yourself.
We’d venture to suggest that if you enjoy this, you might also like Bug.