Director Andrzej Żuławski‘s 1981 masterpiece “Possession“, was butchered upon its original American release and banished to the mists of video-nasty circulation, but this hallucinogenic, hysterical tale of a marriage ruined by otherworldly influences under the shadow of communism has rightfully earned it’s place as a masterpiece with a new generation of Horror cinephiles. Much more than a “Horror Movie”, “Possession” uses disturbing imagery to express the dark side of the human condition…just manifested as a murderous tentacle monster and his serial killing lover running amok in East Berlin.
“Possession” opens with the end of a marriage: Anna (an iconic Isabelle Adjani, in an award winning performance) tells her husband Mark (the legendary Sam Neill), a spy who’s always off on assignment, she needs to leave even though she says she doesn’t understand why. In reality, Mark is being cuckolded by Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), a new age nonsense-spouting slime ball whose reaction to being confronted by Mark is to embrace him as a friend, before beating him to a pulp. He’s like a leathery, German Hannibal Lector on poppers, one of many absurd, overwrought and unforgettable performances in “Possession“. Anna becomes ever more unhinged as Mark pursues her, sneaking off to another unseen lover and professing her newly-found independence in a variety of violent ways, involving some mutual domestic abuse, child abandonment and occasional self-mutilation. Not exactly subtle, Żuławski punctuates one of the couple’s shouting matches by throwing an unrelated and graphic car crash into the shot, just for added emphasis that things are really starting to become unglued.
“Possession” then takes a turn into the otherworldly as it enters its surreal, violent second act. Mark discovers Anna’s twin, or other identity, Helen, working at his Son’s school, shaking his grip on reality. We learn the true nature of Anna’s extra-marital trysts: she regularly visits a run down apartment in East Berlin, inhabited by a blood starved monster, with whom she engages in some hideous, lovecraftian coupling (The shape of water, this is not). Creature designer Carlo Rambaldi, made most famous for designing E.T. not one year later, delivers a legendary monster, both fantastic and disgustingly real. As her madness hits a feverish peak, Anna recounts to Mark a violent miscarriage she suffered in the subway while he was gone. She claims it resulted in a nervous breakdown; during the miscarriage, she oozed blood and fluids from her orifices, remembered in the film’s most memorable moment, and became “Inhabited” by a spirit. He has her tailed by private detectives, whom she then kills and feeds to the creature.
Without giving away too much of “Possession“‘s final act, the insane acceleration towards its ending is a masterpiece of singular vision from director Żuławski. As the first hour’s relatively straight family drama recedes into the distance, the looming, literal, end of the world comes hurtling at us with much more murder, mystery and surreal realizations of a crumbling reality, and every performance, every shot, drive us right to the edge along with it.
Shot on location in Berlin, the movie makes use of wide-angle deep-focus photography, a cold, concrete palette used throughout, with the communist eastern part of the city always in the background as a reminder of a enslaved reality that the film’s Polish director knew all too well. The spectre of war is also prevalent throughout, reminding us of the inevitability of death, be the cause natural or supernatural, or the death being of the body or of a relationship. “Possession” is pervaded by a genuine sense of casual dread and existential sadness. It’s not ‘Satan’ that takes over Adjani’s body – it’s an eternal, cosmic evil itself that we can’t ever escape.