Historical Halloween: Possession (★★★½)

A brief synopsis before we begin: This review is part of my 14 Days of Video Nasties, a series exploring films banned in the UK during the 1980s for various reasons ranging from excessive gore to dark story material.  If you want a better overview, see my original entry.

I received one reader recommendation before embarking on this question: Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. I’d heard of it in various horror film guides but had no idea what to expect. Possession certainly earns its placement on the “video nasties” list in terms of some very disturbing imagery, but banning it does the film a disservice. This isn’t simply a horror movie, but a twisting descent into the hell of divorce, obsession, dominance, and desire anchored by a captivating performance by Isabelle Adjani. This is probably the lone art house movie I’ll find in this series and it’ll be hard for any other film to touch the heights of Possession.

Mark and Anna (Sam Neill and Adjani) are a couple who’ve grown apart due to his top-secret work that’s taken him away for long periods and her seemingly waning desire and possible nervous breakdown. When Anna takes up with a new “lover,” Mark is unable to let her go. However, the more obsessed he becomes with learning about what Anna is doing, the more damage their secrets do to destroy them.

Despite Adjani winning Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival that year as well as a Cesar, the movie met with controversy both here and abroad. It received heavy editing for its US release with various versions ranging from 81 to 97 minutes. Overseas versions run from 118 minutes to the Japanese “uncut” version of 123 minutes. After being banned in 1981 Possession eventually secured UK distribution in 1999 with the 118-minute version being released in 2002.

I’m going to be as evasive with spoilers as I can because part of Possession’s pull is the labyrinth that’s woven. We start almost in medias res, with the Mark and Anna uninterested in what the other is feeling, yet completely unsure of what they actually want for themselves. Anna and Mark are both hysterical in their own ways; Anna in a more literal fashion while Mark’s hysteria stems from fears he’s inadequate for his wife – especially once he learns she’s taken up with another man – to an eventual obsession with possessing her for himself. Zulawski said he wrote this during his own nasty divorce and anyone who’s seen a marriage crumble doesn’t need gross creatures to realize the horror on display. Mark and Anna are two people who try hard not to care about each other, yet can’t find the wherewithal to make a clean break. They also have their son, Bob (Michael Hogben) to worry about; Mark says at one point he worries about doing irreparable damage to their child.

The first hour plays out marrying horror with domestic drama. Much like The Shining, the supernatural events only distract from the true fear of a marriage that’s dead and rotting. As both characters devolve into their own personal madness, the supernatural and insanity permeates the screen and comes out towards the audience. We meet Anna’s lover, Heinrich (a hyper masculine Heinz Bennent), but he claims he hasn’t seen Anna for weeks. Anna’s mystery is where the horror punches through and from there it’s impossible to tear your eyes away, even when the grue becomes too much. For a 123-minute movie there is no time to catch your breath as scenes of utter ferocity bombard your senses. The mystery lies in what it all means? Where does reality end and fantasy begin? It’s been awhile since this has happened, but I immediately wanted to rewatch this to glean more understanding of the plot.

The cast is simply dynamite, particularly Adjani whose face and fragility remind me of Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette. Trust me, that’s the extent of the similarity Possession holds to The Song of Bernadette. Adjani is given the meatier – I hate to use that word within the context of the film – role with a performance that’s both visceral and vulnerable. Adjani has an incredibly expression face, reminiscent of Deborah Kerr or Moira Shearer of the Powell/Pressburger films. Her big eyes are like pools you want to get lost in, yet she has the ability to conjure up a look of sheer lunacy that’s chilling in its purity. Her best regarded scene involves her going into a violent paroxysm for unknown reasons. By the time the scene concludes it’s hard balancing Adjani’s beauty with the mess she’s sitting in and I’ll leave it at that. Sam Neill’s transformation is subtler which tends to leave him in Adjani’s shadow. His madness comes off as internal as he struggles to want and not want Anna. His eventual breakdown leaves the audience conflicted as, up until then, he is the moral center of the film, or as much of a moral center as there can be here.

Possession is a shocking marriage meltdown committed to celluloid, both incredibly dark, frightening and sad. Marriage has never looked as bleak, or as fucked-up as it does in Possession.