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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

‘Possession’ (1981): Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition

Directed by: Andrzej Żuławski || Produced by: Marie-Laure Reyre

Screenplay by: Frederic Tuten, Andrzej Żuławski || Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering

Music by: Andrzej Korzyński || Cinematography: Bruno Nuytten || Edited by: Marie-Sophi Dubus, Suzanne Lang-Willar || Country: France, West Germany || Language: English

Running Time: 124 minutes

Decades of cinephilia have convinced me that filmmakers are less prone to artistic tunnel vision when they channel gut intuition into their work rather than articulated political analysis of their heritage, sexual orientation, or national identity. Those philosophies can blur into each other and every filmmaker has different strengths and weaknesses, of course, but filmmaking seems better inclined to portray feeling and symbolism rather than exposition (for the opposite strengths, see the medium of literature).

A good example of this dynamic is Possession, the most well known and sole English-language feature by the late Polish writer-director Andrzej Żuławski. Most recognizable for its creepy, unsettling lead performance by a then young (~34 year-old) Sam Neill and a nervous breakdown in a subway performed by female lead Isabelle Adjani, Possession is about divorce on multiple levels. The emotional connotations of broken relationships concern the then recent divorce of Żuławski from his wife, Polish film and stage actress Małgorzata Braunek, which serves as the core inspiration for the tumultuous destruction of Neill and Adjani’s diegetic marriage. On a more subtextual level that bleeds into the sociopolitical context of the film’s production, this quasi-horror psychological drama-hybrid is set in West Berlin during the later stages of the Cold War (1945-1989), with multiple shooting locations near the iconic Berlin Wall. Viewers will note echoes of this physical set-design in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) remake, another example of appropriate usage of political commentary that strengthens instead of distracts from its film’s core thematic message.

Near the beginning of the film, Sam Neill and Isabella Adjani make a poor attempt to formally split from one another in a public setting.

Digging deeper into Possession’s narrative, we follow Neill’s protagonist as he returns from an espionage mission abroad (he’s a spy of unknown — presumably United Kingdom — nationality, based in West Berlin) to his wife (Adjani) and young son (Michael Hogben), the former of whom demands a divorce. Adjani reveals she’s been unfaithful to Neill for some time, but their situation deteriorates further when she abandons their son and disappears for weeks at time while exhibiting increasingly erratic destructive behavior. As Neill’s jealous rage grows from bad to worse, he soon uncovers bizarre, possibly supernatural explanations for Adjani’s inexplicable changes in personality, hence the title.

It should come as no surprise that multiple interpretations of the aforementioned premise differ with respect to the ambiguity of the fantastical, borderline Lovecraftian horror flourishes that cover this relationship drama like frosting on a cake. As much as I liked parts of Żuławski’s picture, though, I remain torn over different aspects of its execution. I love the dreary, cold set-design and location-photography in West Berlin that reflects the inner turmoil of our main characters; Neill and Adjani’s chemistry is nothing if not memorable given their tortured, relatable portrayal of a toxic romance (see below, however); the practical FX of the gore, tentacled creature props, and blood squibs recall the works of David Cronenberg and John Carpenter (always a compliment); and last but not least, the thematic implications of a major revelation at the story’s end summarizes the movie’s themes in a succinct, creepy way.

On the other hand, I’m not in love with Adjani’s multiple psychotic breakdowns (I have a general distaste for the over-the-top histrionics associated with portrayals of demonic possession on film), nor does every sequence within Adjani’s secretive apartment lair advance the story, and most everything around the previously mentioned final revelation in the film’s last half hour annoys me. I prefer subtle, understated screen performances with a few exceptions here and there (e.g. scene-chewing villainous performances in action, science-fiction, or thriller films, theatrical personalities in South Asian musical melodramas), and Adjani embodies that nuance for the most part. However, the iconic subway seizure/miscarriage/freakout sequence distracts from the film’s primary message, as do the second and third times various minor characters march to Adjani’s cavernous honeytrap to rediscover information the audience already knows. Things get out of hand by the end of the film, where Neill races across Berlin to talk with this person, kill that person, crash a car into these minor characters, and as a result, I lose track of what’s going on and for what reasons.

Top: Adjani copulates with some kind of Lovecraftian monstrosity in my favorite scene of the movie. Bottom: In one of my least favorite scenes of Possession, Adjani vomits, destroys her groceries and miscarries a metaphorical representation of “faith,” or something.

All in all, I’m not sure whether cinematographer Bruno Nuytten’s exaggerated handheld camerawork is enough to make me recommend Possession in spite of all my problems with it. I understand why horror fans and followers of European art cinema gravitate towards it, but I’m not sure what it has to offer beyond those groups. I like its core emotional deconstruction of toxic relationships, accentuated by effective genre overtones (see also Midsommar [2019]), but the ending goes off the deep end and I remain unimpressed by loud, exaggerated acting rationalized by supernatural forces. In the end, Possession is another example of a filmic project I respected for its emotional auteur craftsmanship more than I liked for its balanced directorial execution.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: As horrific for its depiction of a broken marriage as it is for its scenes of grisly murder, Possession showcases the power of filmmaking when directors channel their personal lives into their craft instead of their academic observations on cultural phenomena. Crazy, almost nauseating tracking shots combine with off-the-wall performances by Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani to produce an anxious, guilt ridden nightmare of Lovecraftian proportions.

However… Possession’s human face falls apart when its actors are told to go bigger instead of subtler, while its conclusion tries for too much within too short of a timeframe. We only needed to see the inside of Adjani’s tentacled apartment once, not four times.

—> ON THE FENCE; horror aficionados will have their hands full, while followers of Andrzej Żuławski’s dynamic career will enjoy more of his characteristic madness. Many others will be left scratching their heads, though.

? Adam Goldberg: Quite the situation, eh? Fucked up beyond all recognition… right? Jeremy Davies: FUBAR!

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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