5 out of 5 stars
Andrzej Zulawski’s ‘Possession’ is an impalpable film that tickles the raw nerves of our psyche, grapples the heartstrings of compassion and boggles the mind. I’ve seen this film twice and puerile as I am, something led me to believe I’d have grasped an educated understanding conducive to that of a ‘favorite’ film by now. Clearly this isn’t the case. ‘Possession’ is not an easy film to understand. It drips with underappreciated cult classicism and utilizes visual over verbal conveyance to an unheard extent. Walking into ‘Possession’ late—several minutes after the opening credits—is akin to sending your preschooler to fifth grade half way through the school year. The faintest shreds of dialogue and briefest glimpsed images create the foundation upon which the film is regarded and hopefully, understood. But that isn’t to say ‘Possession’ exists as some highbrow intellectual ideal. It isn’t a visual transcription of ‘Ulysses’ or ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’ ‘Possession’ is a gumbo of visually thematic elements presented in the format of a ‘National Enquirer’ article. It’s messy, but a beautiful and imprinting film in its disorder. The thing about this work is that it might seem difficult to grasp upon first view, but nonetheless leaves a watermark upon the memory, a brand upon the brain.
‘Possession’ is essentially about the dissolution of a marriage and the exorcising of inner demons, some of which choose to manifest themselves in the shape of physical hatred and loathing. Filmed in the gray bleakness of post war Berlin, this film exists on a dually metaphoric and literal level.
An example of this might be the title, ‘Possession.’ What exactly does the concept of possession mean in terms of this film? Surely the title has dissuaded many jaded viewers due to the negative and tiresome connotations that one makes to demon incarnate type movies. The theme of possession is riddled through this film however, whether it be a possession of one’s own sanity, love, an innocent child or the classically charged religious phenomenon. All of these perceptions are both true and at the same time false. For me, keeping in mind that ‘Possession’ is a film about a relationship, and the horrors of such, is the legend that I use to decode the intricacies of the piece.
Relationships are complicated, confusing and often don’t make sense beyond the realm of the heart. ‘Possession’ translates these symptoms into the finite domain of celluloid, uttered and never retracted. Mark (Same Neill) returns home from a secretive business trip, aware of the distance between he and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) that has since grown further during his absence. The first encounter between the couple shows Mark hesitant to embrace Anna, unsure as to the correct course of action in their present situation. Even the opening scene of the film, which features a rolling tour of post-war Berlin including images of the infamous ‘Berlin Wall’ is very bleak and dismal, overcast with the hint of rain looming above. These images set the mood of ‘Possession,’ which like any break up isn’t fun and banishes many into the wallowing pits of depression. In fact the entirety of ‘Possession’ is shown with the cold rain of depressed solitude overhead, which is brilliant considering the subject matter.
I am going to attempt to analyze the plot of ‘Possession’ through the rubric of pain, horror and desire seen through the eyes of a disintegrating marriage. Zulawski depicts marriage like an addiction, showing Mark’s three weeks following Anna’s departure in the style of one ‘kicking’ an addiction to heroin. Mark shakes, sweats, curls into a ball and portrays the image of overwhelming illness in the manner of one oozing the toxins of ‘habit’ from every pore. After ‘kicking his habit’ Mark appears, gaunt, unshaven and sweaty, to ask how long he has been stowed away. Mark’s reactions to Anna leaving him can be analyzed through the ‘five stages of grief’ except like this film and relationships in general, especially break ups, nothing follows a strict formula and is usually messy. Initially Mark displays his denial through his presence at his home where Anna, resides and clearly no longer wants him. Next, his violent outburst within the corner café, which is a remarkable scene depicts his state of uncontrollable anger.
Following this outburst Mark attempts to reckon with Anna, convinced that she has found another lover, he bargains with her to stay and give things another shot, to ‘think’ of her family. Upon finding that Anna did in fact have another lover, and for quite some time, Mark falls into the pits of despair where he literally withdrawals from their relationship. Finally, after meeting Anna’s doppleganger (Also Bob’s schoolteacher), Helen, Mark begins to show signs of acceptance and promise for moving on. These scenes follow the stages of grief rather faithfully and whether that was Zuwalski’s intention or not is unknown to me. But the fact remains that immersed within these sequences are scenes opposing this seemingly simple paradigm. Anna’s reactions to the break up remain unknown at this point. During the initial stages of the film, which follow Mark, we only see Anna when she appears at their house, moving around with the detached distraction of a somnambulant. How Anna spends the rest of her time is a mystery, although Mark believes her to be ‘shacked’ up with her lover.
The change in the film, and the first real appearance of mystery or horror occurs when Mark discovers that Anna’s lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) hasn’t seen Anna in quite some time either. Mark questions Anna without much avail, finding her spewing a miasma of fumbling lies. Heinrich plays a very important role in this film, both as Anna’s lover and Mark’s complete opposite. While Mark represents the ideal of a ‘husband’ Heinrich represents the diaphanous conception of a ‘lover’ and everything that Mark isn’t. Brawny, philosophical and ‘artsy’ Heinrich is a new age, free thinking expressionist whose ideals rest upon sexual freedom and mind-expanding drug use. Interestingly, as the film develops, both Mark and Heinrich search for Anna, and through this can be seen as equal components in this equation of deceit. Clearly Anna has chosen someone (Or something) other than these two men who continually pine after her. To Anna, Mark represents ‘family’ and stability, but Heinrich offers a carefree relationship of fresh concepts and orgasmic pinnacles.
The remainder of ‘Possession’ deals with Anna’s secrets and the development of her ‘monster.’ In this film, the creature is more than a bloody pile of viscera with tentacles. It is a physical manifestation of Anna’s hatred and desires, as well as her version of the ideal lover. Anna is reveling in the post break-up mood of putting oneself first which leads her to practice typical stereotypes like getting a new place and following passing whims and fancies. Yet after Mark hires a private detective to follow his wife, we discover that Anna’s newfound idea of freedom is far from the ‘norm.’ The stream of murders that Anna commits acts in two ways. First, to protect her creature Anna must cover her tracks and ensure that nobody will stop her from carrying out her will, which happens to be nursing and copulating with a morphing octo-monster. Secondly, Anna’s murder spree can be viewed as her ‘using’ random men in her search for independence, following the separation with Mark. While I am inclined to believe that the premier explanation is the one that best fits into the narrative of the film, one must keep in mind that ‘Possession’ is a piece that acts on multiple levels, therefore the latter excuse could possess a trace of viability.
Perhaps the most powerful scene in the film occurs in the subway and has been deemed, ‘Anna’s miscarriage.’ I will discuss Adjani’s acting later, but in keeping with the plot of ‘Possession’ this scene is shown as a flashback, meant to display to viewers an earlier date when Anna, still possessing her unhappiness with the relationship attempted to create a new life for herself. However, whether the time was inopportune or her body not yet ready to replicate a ‘perfect’ lover, Anna miscarried a foaming ooze of white and blood. I believe that this sequence was meant to show a point when her unhappiness with Heinrich began to parallel her frustration with Mark, and prompted her mind, which continually yearned for something, to execute an attempted birth. This birth is metaphorical as well, being a release of repressed emotions as well as a seed of hope and deviant desire. Zulawski, who in reference to this film can be minimally equated with the character of Mark, sees this debased desire as gross, which the film triumphantly portrays.
As for the conclusion of the film, Zuwalski ties up all of the loose ends in the best way possible, by exterminating virtually the entire cast. Mark plots to murder Heinrich and executes the plan flawlessly, even covering his tracks from the police. I believe that this murder was perpetrated purely on a level of hatred. While Mark finally felt dominance over Heinrich, he chose to display that supercilious attitude by taking his life, if for nothing else than because he slept with his wife.
What follows is Anna’s monster finally reaching a ‘completed’ form and the strange scenes of Mark covering the tracks of he and Anna from the police. It’s always odd to me when films of this supernatural nature resort to purely tangible narrative tactics. Seventy Five percent of ‘Possession’ deals with the internal realm of horror and the supernatural, why then should the last few minutes include sequences of police pressure. It is because we must be reminded that the events witnessed on screen are more than metaphorical, they are literal expressions of horror and murder. The last scenes are difficult to describe accurately within the context of the film, but remain powerful in the stark yet multi-faceted expressionism that ‘Possession’ unloads onto its viewers.
Now the final scene of the film, which shows Anna’s creature finally completed is one of the most confusing twists of all. If I thought I had a handle on the film’s subtleties before seeing that Anna’s monster was a perfect replica of Mark, then I was wrong. What this conclusion means is, like most aspects of this film, it is founded on double meanings. As a manifestation of her hatred and angst, a replica of Mark would seem fitting. Yet as a self-made perfect lover, an image of Mark is anything but expected. This led me to believe that perhaps Zuwalski is stating that Anna, in her drastic indecision was wrong in her desires and perhaps a little naive.
This explanation is perhaps riddled with flaws, but suits the statement that I’m making and furthers my deduction that this is all very messy subject matter, imperfect and often contradicting. Another reason to support my belief is the fact that Anna seemed so content to die in her husband’s arms. Perhaps this was all just a final realization that she had chosen to reestablish her marriage. To me it makes sense. But inevitably both Mark and Anna died. The break up took the lives of both people involved through stupidity and childish behavior. To their son Bob, this can be seen as the end of the world, which Zuwalski shows through a sudden air raid. At this point Bob, who realizes somehow that his world has just imploded, jumps in the bathtub and presumably takes his own life. The air raid symbolizes the end of the world, which is what most break ups feel like to those involved.
As for the notion of ‘God’ within Anna and the mention of the sisters ‘Faith’ and ‘Chance,’ I rationalize them as abstractions meant to portray how Anna feels trapped in life, but boundless within herself. I took it to mean that Anna’s frustration caused her to believe that she possessed the ability to create a destiny for herself, one that eventually spurred her demise. Anna didn’t have ‘God’ within her but ‘played’ ‘God’ in a state of paranoia and eventually paid the price for such selfish thinking. The sisters ‘Faith’ and ‘Chance’ could mean the opposing views within her, but could also be a metaphor for Mark and Heinrich. Either way, these sisters are little more than metaphoric abstractions, used to rationalize the events occurring within Anna’s diseased brain.
With the analyzation of the plot out of the way I can begin to describe the spot-on acting in this film. Isabelle Adjani gave a fullfledged performance as Anna, the tortured, distracted and possessed wife. Adjani has a perfect face for film and Zuwalski was unflinching in his cinematography of her, giving a plethora of different angles and shots that all somehow seem to compliment a different feature of her aura. Few actors have the screen presence that Adjani commands in ‘Possession’ and she plays a femme fatale to extremes that society has never witnessed before. Not only did Adjani play Anna but she showed her versatility by playing Helen too, Bob’s school teacher, a lady who may look similar but acts differently.
The dual role performance in filmmaking is usually saved for the elite. I’m thinking of Jeremy Irons’ performance in ‘Dead Ringers’ most notably. Sam Neill, whom everyone knows as ‘The Jurassic Park Guy’ gave a riveting performance as Mark, the confused and impassioned husband afraid of losing his marriage and willing to change things at all costs. The range of emotion that Neill portrayed in Mark as he moved through the various stages of grief was entirely believable and surely touched each of us who has gone through a similar situation. I’ve always liked Sam Neill, who in this film was the epitome of scrawny and even graces us with a full frontal glimpse. Each character’s state of lunacy was disturbing because it seemed so natural and dangerous.
Aspects of this film mimic those of several others. Most notably viewers liken ‘Possession’ to David Cronenberg’s ‘The Brood.’ Initially I was inclined to agree with them but after seeing this film for a second time any similarities between the two films lies solely within the concept of physical manifestations of repressed urges. But ‘Possession’ is about so much more than that. Yes ‘The Brood’ also depicts a failing marriage, but the context and specifics are all so different that I would hardly call these films similar. Alright, I might suggest ‘The Brood’ to one who has enjoyed ‘Possession,’ but it’s safe to assume that anyone who is going to see this film is already quite familiar with Cronenberg’s body of work.
The way I speak about this film pertaining to relationships and marriage worries me that I am giving you a ‘Kramer Vs. Kramer’ vibe about the whole project. This misconception couldn’t be further from actuality. The creature in possession reminds me of that from John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing.’ It grows, changes, evolves to eventually become a replica of a person. But it isn’t so much the actions of the creature that liken the two films, but the presence of similar great special effects. Carlo Rambaldi, known for ‘Alien,’ ‘Dune,’ And ‘E.T.’ among numerous others produced a slimy and misunderstood creature in ‘Possession,’ that caused viewers to cringe at the thought of fornication. While many fans opt for CGI style effects, I find that a more classical and tangible style of special effects always proves the victor. The creature from ‘Possession’ is a squid like replica of humanity’s deepest, darkest urges for satiation. From a film so mind-bending I would expect nothing less.
Andrzej Zuwalski’s ‘Possession’ is a unique film that stands apart from its peers. An example of a piece that is so different and so unexpected that few films delve into its regions, ‘Possession’ remains a classic in its genre. Whether this film is a horror, or drama to you, it’s sure to be remembered, and not easily forgotten. I would recommend this film to anyone who enjoys the other films on this blog that I’ve analyzed, and for fans of obscure, out of print cinema in general. ‘Possession’ is a real treat, and an immediate boggle to all who give it a chance.