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Around the World in 80 Films: Possession

Where do I even start with Possession (1981)? How do I describe this film to you? When I say that there isn’t another film like it, I truly mean this. After finishing the film, I was left in a state of somewhat stunned silence, I felt like my own body had become possessed in a way. I was numb from the experience, and I sat there trying to process what I had just watched. I found myself with more questions. Just why did these characters behave and react in the way they did? Was the film promoting the nuclear family or critiquing it?

Possession opens with Sam Neill’s Mark returning home to West Berlin from a work-trip. We are introduced to his wife Anna, played by Isabelle Adjani, as she walks in a fast brisky pace to meet him. She doesn’t embrace him, but rather stands there with her arms crossed. Mark puts down his suitcases, picks them back up and drops them back down again.

There’s tension and awkwardness between the two of them. His first words to his wife are, ”You can’t say you don’t know.” He offers to stay somewhere else, she seems on edge around him. It’s clear that their marriage is on the rocks. Anna wants a divorce, but the two of them have a son (Bob) and Mark is determined to make their marriage work.

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The next day, Anna doesn’t return home. Mark discovers that she has left him and there’s another man. He arranges to meet Anna at a local cafe to talk. When they meet they do not sit across from each other, and the seat is at a corner which creates a divide between them, this is an effective way of showing the barrier between them. Mark loses his temper and chases Anna throughout the cafe, throwing chairs as he tries to get to her.

Already we are beginning to see the destructive nature between these two characters. It is worth noting that the film is set in Berlin, a city divided by the USSR and the allied forces after the second world war. I find it somewhat ironic that a story about a divided couple takes place in a city that has been divided by a wall, like Anna and Mark, the West and the East seem unable to function together so they have built a wall in order to stay apart.

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Anna and Mark part ways. Mark learns from one of Anna’s friends that Anna had taken a temporary lover during his recent absence, despite her stressing that she isn’t breaking up with him over someone else. We see Mark descend into agony; unshaven, wearing a dirty suit that is falling apart at the seams, representing perhaps how Mark is falling apart at the seams too. We don’t know exactly how many days or weeks it has been but Mark is spending his time curled up in a fetal position mumbling incoherently into his phone, begging Anna to let him come back.

Eventually, Mark (clean-shaven once more, but still wearing that awful suit) visits his old home, only to find the place a mess, and Bob uncared for covered in jam and alone. Mark and Anna effectively switch places at this point, with Mark taking over the home and the care of their son, while Anna disappears.

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Anna starts behaving erratically after splitting up from Mark, and she descends into further and further levels of depravity. When she does return to the home from time to time, the two of them begin screaming at each other, and Anna cuts her throat with an electric knife. Mark reacts by cutting his own arm (”It doesn’t hurt” he states calmly).

During their rows, Mark often declares that the situation is disgusting, which Anna agrees to. They can clearly recognise that they can’t be together, but for whatever reason they find themselves being pulled together. Whenever Anna is around Mark, she struggles to contain her disgust, her body jerks and her facial expressions become more exaggerated.

It’s a brilliant performance by Adjani, as she depicts how this woman can’t be physically around her husband. Anna reaches a stage where her own body seems to reject her, this is shown in the infamous subway tunnel scene. Anna becomes animalistic in nature, unable to contain her own body as she slams into the walls and rolls around on the floor. She expels what she refers to as ‘sister faith’ from her body.

Anna finds herself unable to function on her own as she puts in ”she is her own evil” but she can’t function with Mark. She virtually breaks down in every sense, mentally and physically, her entire identity collapses.

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When Anna tries to return home, she struggles to carry out the simplest of domestic tasks like folding a sheet, she stares at her hands in disbelief as if they aren’t her own. Her state of mania is disturbing to watch, but captivating at the same time.

Anna seems unable to cope when it comes to being in a church; perhaps her reaction towards the concept of marriage and religion, which has been forced upon her. As much as Anna is lashing out against Mark’s dominance and authority, she is also rebelling against the rules set in place by society.

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There is a unhealthiness to Mark’s obsession with Anna. When she demands her freedom, he lashes out violently, slapping her and chasing her into the street. Mark seems to prefer it when Anna is in a vulnerable state and requires his help, shown by how he tends to her after she cuts her own throat. Perhaps Mark represents the fear that many men felt during this time (when women were rejecting traditional gender roles).

When Mark does eventually find love elsewhere with Helen (played also by Isabelle Adjani, but she has green eyes), she is the doppelganger of Anna. It is clear that Mark can never overcome his obsession with Anna. However, Mark isn’t the only one unable to move on from the past. The monstrosity Anna creates is eventually revealed to be a version of Mark (also with green eyes).

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Possession was written by Andrzej Żuławski, during his own divorce, as he tried to reach a conclusion about what it means to be in love, as well as what it means to fall out of love. When in love, people tend to want to possess one another. Anna creates her ideal man in an attempt, to control her husband like she was controlled by Mark throughout their marriage.

The film is essentially about the war between the sexes and the destructive nature of love. I read the ending as how two destructive people ultimately return to one and another even though it’s clear that they shouldn’t be together. Alone they can function and pass as acceptable human beings in society; but when they are together the world ends.

It is their offspring who suffers the most; the end shot is Bob drowning in the bath tub, submerging himself in an attempt to hide. This can be read as how it is the children who end up being the most effective in these dysfunctional households. The true horror isn’t from strange tentacle monsters, but how self-destructive people can be towards each other and it is the innocent who ultimately suffer from the fall-out.

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