Friday, March 18, 2016

Classic Movie Review: Possession (1981)

Possession (1981)
Directed by: Andrzej Zulawski   
Written by: Andrzej Zulawski and Frederic Tuten.
Starring: Isabelle Adjani (Anna / Helen), Sam Neill (Mark), Margit Carstensen (Margit Gluckmeister), Heinz Bennent (Heinrich), Johanna Hofer (Heinrich's mother), Carl Duering (Detective), Shaun Lawton (Zimmermann), Michael Hogben (Bob).

Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession has got to be one the best, what-the-fuck-was that? movies in history. This is a film that won the Best Actress Prize at Cannes in 1981 for its star Isabelle Adjani – giving one of the best unhinged performances you will ever see – and yet for years the film only existed in a badly truncated form and was one of the notorious “video nasties” in the UK – a group of banned films over there. Possession is a bizarre and disturbing film to be sure, and although you’re likely to find it in the horror movie section, I’m not entirely sure it belongs there. Certainly the first hour of the film really doesn’t – and even as it descends into complete chaos in its later stages, scary isn’t the word I would to describe the film. Then comes the ending which, to be honest, I have no idea how to unpack – but which utterly and completely disturbed me.

The film is about a couple – Anna and Mark (Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill) who are separating for reasons they either cannot quite understand, or at least say aloud. He has worked as some kind of spy – but he’s done now. But Anna still wants to leave – and won’t really explain why. The couple have a son – but are among the most neglectful parents imaginable. The first hour of the film really is about this marriage disintegrating – and how these two people both love and hate each other, and really do try and hurt the other one. We aren’t given much in the way of backstory for this couple – but it’s fairly to assume that neither has been faithful – although Anna has also left her lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennett, in perhaps the films strangest performance, which is saying something) – and it doesn’t take Mark long after Anna leaves, despite his attempts to get her back, before he’s sleeping with someone else as well. The first hour is almost like an Ingmar Bergman films – Scenes from a Marriage perhaps – in how it depicts these two people as their marriage falls apart.

But something is not quite right here – something beyond their marriage. Anna has moved to an apartment by herself – and it’s rather rundown. Mark has hired a Private Detective to follow her – and although he finds out where she lives, he then disappears. Later, his partner (in every sense of the word) also finds her – and also disappears. To say more, would be to give away some of the films surprises – although to be fair, I don’t think I could spoilt them even if I tried. Needless to say, this get crazy and disturbing – and performances that were already ratcheted up to 11 start going even crazier. Adjani’s freak-out (which is using a nice word to describe it) on an abandoned subway platform is so over-the-top that it should be laughable. Yet, she is so fiercely committed in that scene – and Zulwaski films most of it in one take, holding her in that moment, that it becomes truly disturbing, even before fluids start to flow. Adjani has always been a great actress – but she has never been better than she is in this movie – and few other actresses have been asked to do more in a movie. Throughout the movie she plays a wife, a mother, a sex object, a pawn, a maniac, and several other different things – and yet they all make sense in this context – all as one woman. Neill cannot quite match Adjani – but boy does he try. He glowers insanely throughout the back half of the movie, and has to carry it a little bit near the climax.

It will surprise no one that Zulawski was going through a divorce when he wrote and directed Possession. It feels like akin to David Cronenberg directing The Brood (1979) at the time of his divorce as well – another bizarre body horror film that can be taken as misogynistic if you wanted to see it that way, although I would argue both have more going on beneath the surface than it appears (man, I really need to watch The Brood again – soon). The film is disturbing and gross in many ways – I wouldn’t blame you if you hated the film, as it is bizarre and over-the-top, and clearly imperfect. It’s also a film though that gets your skin, and is genuinely disturbing and unnerving. This isn’t a film that I found scary watching – yet it’s a film that will haunt my dreams forever.

I think I have had a hard time with this review – getting across precisely what the experience of watching Possession is like – and I think because I’m not sure I’ve ever quite had an experience like it. They want you to think this is a horror film with its marketing – the posters, the DVD box art, etc. But it’s far more disturbing than that. That’s because like all great horror films, no matter how outlandish things get, the fear is rooted in reality. Perhaps the best thing I can say about Possession to get you to watch it is this – when it was over, I simultaneously wanted to watch it again, immediately, and also never see the movie again and purge it from my mind. If that sounds like a recommendation to you – and it’s meant to be – than Possession is for you.

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