Possession (1981)
By: Stuart Giesel on April 6, 2013 | Comments
Second Sight Films | Region 2, PAL | 1.66:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | 119 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Possession (1981) Cover Art
Credits
Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer
Screenplay: Andrzej Zulawski
Country: France, Germany
External Links
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If 1981's Possession is anything to go by, then Polish director Andrzej Zulawski doesn't make movies, he makes experiences, and Possession is as fucked-up an experience as you're likely to have gazing at a screen without wading through the dark depths of the internet. Think of it as a domestic drama in the guise of an art-house film made by David Cronenberg if he was in a more pretentious and ghoulish mood.

The plot is deceptively simple - essentially, Possession is about the disintegration of a marriage. Of course, saying that is like saying I Spit On Your Grave is about female independence. Mark (Sam Neill) - a spy stationed in Berlin - and dance instructor Anna (Isabelle Adjani) are having marital problems. Actually, that undersells it. They don't exactly bicker like normal couples - they scream, stomp and smash, and at times hit each other, seemingly always one step away from a restraining order, even in their quieter moments. In the middle of all this turmoil is their unfortunate son Bob.

Mark suspects Anna is cheating on him, and he is right, but not in the way he thinks. He finds a postcard to Anna from someone named Heinrich, and sets out to catch the lovers in the act. This leads him down a dark and disturbing path. Let it be said here and now that part of Possession's 'enjoyment' is in not knowing what's coming next. If you want to go in fresh, best to stop reading and just watch the film, even though I'll try not to give much away. It's hard, however, to avoid certain infamous shots if you're looking on the internet for information about the film, shots which may dull some of the impact of what comes later in the film.

First and foremost, it has to be said that the acting - whilst undeniably effective at creating a tense and unhinged atmosphere - is dialled up to 11 right from the outset. Neill and Adjani adopt a very over-the-top, almost theatrical style which will no doubt prove a dealbreaker for some viewers. Neill feels occasionally out of his depth but for the most part he's solid in an extremely aggressive and emotive role. Adjani is superb even though the requirement is for her emotionally damaged character to spend great chunks of the film thrashing around, smashing herself into walls, shrieking and grunting and causing self-harm. She has a number of stand-out moments - one in which she gives a monologue to camera like the ultimate Oscars promo, and the other in the film's most memorable and notorious scene which takes place in a subway tunnel. Heinz Bennent, who plays Anna's lover Heinrich, oscillates from smarmy to unhinged and back again like a ping-pong ball - unfortunately most of his scenes come off as silly rather than serious. The problem is that everything is so heightened that no one feels like a real person. People move and talk and act like no one you would have seen in the real world unless you happen to work at an insane asylum.

Still, Possession has an undeniable ace in its sleeve with creature effects by the legendary (and sadly departed) Carlo Rambaldi, probably best known for designing Spielberg's E.T. His creations here are sinister and grotesque, yet at the same time somehow pitiful. Wonderful stuff.

Zulawski's camera is as unsettled as the characters, usually always on the move, rotating around Anna and Mark, coming in for sweaty close-ups, feverishly following them as they stagger or crash or smack each other into the next scene. And the West German locations sell the depressing squalor - they're all grey streets and grim-faced brick apartment blocks. And just to set the scene right from the beginning, the very first shot of Possession happens to be of the Berlin Wall.

Being ludicrously marked in the UK as a "video nasty" and briefly banned back in the 80's has meant that Possession has taken on an aura of infamy which it doesn't deserve. This has more quality and emotional depth than most of the films on the BBFC's Video Nasties list. But, to be sure, there are some scenes that are a little eyebrow-raising, even by today's standards - without wanting to give too much away, let's just say things get a little foul and gloopy. One might even mistake this as an early Cronenberg film, such is its queasy blend of sex and gore. The set-piece in a subway station tunnel which wouldn't be out of place in something like Street Trash, which was probably the reason it drew the ire of the BBFC.

Beyond the showstopping bits, the whole movie projects an aura of odd, even in the more "mundane" scenes: Anna sits down on an otherwise empty train right next to a dishevelled man who proceeds to take a banana from her shopping bag. The most unsubtle private eye in the world trails Anna like a kid spastically lunging after a wayward soccer ball. Upon hearing of Anna's infidelities, Mark goes into a weird state which sees him act catatonic, then like an infant, then...then like I-don't-know-what. In one scene, Heinrich acts like a stoned philosopher bouncing from wall to wall like he's fried his brains and morphed into a video game character. And Adjani actually plays two roles in the film; Anna, and her doppleganger schoolteacher, who is coincidentally Bob's teacher. The reason does become apparent later on...sort of. I think.

In truth I really don't know what a lot of Possession means. I'm sure if you dig deep enough into the religious iconography and/or have a degree in philosophy it probably plays out brilliantly and you'll be sitting and rubbing your pointy goatee and nodding in a sagelike way. For this pleb, a lot of it feels like David Lynch weirdness for the sake of weirdness. I don't disapprove; perhaps it will take a few more viewings to unknot Possession's twisty secrets. Or perhaps it's less deep than it seems. In the features, director Zulawski explains that the movie formed from his broken marriage, and mentions that there was also a Heinrich involved in the separation. I assume that his marriage formed the bare-bones of the story and not the lunacy that comes later, otherwise -- well, let's just leave it at that, shall we.

If you like your horror films a little weird with heavy doses of the unexplainable then you'll warm to Possession like I did. People looking for a straight-up slasher or monster feature will undoubtedly be put off by the film's eccentricities, the off-the-wall performances or the artistic wankiness. It's bold, creepy and unique, a genuine oddity.

The Disc
Picture quality is a bit of a disappointment - it's functional but nothing to get worked up about. The anamorphic picture lacks detail and feels flat, and black levels are washed out. The audio - stereo and English only - is perfunctory, although dialogue (and the ear-piercing screams) remains strong.

As far as features go, there are two healthy-sized interviews on the disc. The Other Side of the Wall - The Making of Possession features interviews with writer/director Zulawski and the film's co-writer, cinematographer and producer. It provides good insight into the conditions of making the low budget film, the implications of filming near the Berlin Wall, the creation of the film's icky effects, and the film's reception at Cannes. The Interview with Andrzej Zulawski (subtitled) sees the man talk about his experiences in writing and filming Possession, working with Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani (who had a reputation at the time for being difficult to work with) and the film's legacy. A small Photo Gallery of behind-the-scenes shots rounds out the features.

Note that even though the BBFC's site claims Possession was passed fully uncut for this release, dvdcompare.net claim that the film - on this and other incarnations of the DVD - is missing a frame in the notorious subway station scene. I couldn't get a confirmation of this from anywhere else; perhaps the frame was excised from all existing copies of Possession after its Cannes screening - for now, let's assume that this is the full, uncut version.Certainly, the cut we have on Second Sight Films' DVD is the full two-hour version of Possession and not the brutalised 90-something minutes version which is meant to be almost incomprehensible.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Despite the body horror done by and to its protagonists, Possession isn't the gut-churning experience that its inclusion on the BBFC's "Video Nasties" list suggests - it's more grotesque than gory, more disquieting than outright disturbing. Some will see it as pretentious bullshit, others will be turned off by the heightened acting, but this is an imaginative, atmospheric one-of-a-kind that should be seen if you can handle the weirdness.

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