Possession opens in West Berlin, the crosses implanted into the ground to commemorate the dead, and the dividing wall very much a part of the film’s surroundings. Polish director, Andrzej Żuławski, didn’t want to make a wholly political film per se, just scratch at the conflict with a statement. With it, the whistling, thudding, typical horror score from Andrzej Korzyński. Which is both a sign of things to come, but also a kind of red herring. This is not a horror movie as we knew them then, back in 1981. Or maybe even today.
Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neill) are reunited after his espionage work trip. The pulling at the seams of the family dysfunction wastes no time, and the couple’s quandary only hints at the sub-theme of Possession. There’s a kind of indefinable heartache from the moment we meet these characters. Mark is questioning the standard components of a relationship, and justifiably so. If somewhat neurotic. Anna is seemingly somewhere in limbo. Appearance suggest not a care in the world, the truth is far from it.
Their volatile relationship, to say the very least, will continue to inhabit the pending breakdown. On the back of a postcard Mark discovers, it reads an endearing message from a ‘Heinrich’. When Anna and Mark next meet, in a cafe, following the revelation of her affair, they sit adjacent, hardly facing each other. Almost choosing their seating based on their imminent divide. Or, at least, that is what she might be doing.
Understandably, it is Mark’s behavior that is the more erratic, as he sinks into the despair of the deception. Though, she certainly has some venom in her. As days and days go by, Mark is living in squalor, in misery, unkept. Struggling to even utter a word on the telephone, and then having some kind of fit. Even their little boy, Bob, has been severely neglected. This is hardly a film depicting a custody battle, though.
The sparse, white-laden apartment at the beginning of the film gives a kind of parallel to the potential loneliness, as well as the confines of the political climate. French cinematographer Bruno Nuytten’s Camera arcs around, slightly disorientating the audience. And that’s part of the plan. Characters relocating or disappearing contributes to the film’s enigmatic sense of purpose. Not only to confuse us, or fill us with anxiety, but also to drive these characters deeper into inner bedlam.
And the weird doesn’t really halt. When Mark meets the boy’s teacher, she bares a striking resemblance to Anna – and is played by Adjani also. Mark’s interactions with Anna’s best friend Marge, also appear a little disjointed. Mark’s encounter with Heinrich is also a surreal experience, he appears to be a jovial, sensitive soul, vocalizing reason and respect. When Mark spontaneously tries to smack Heinrich, he retorts with a kind of elegant self-defence. Mark is left fumbling around for his dignity.
With pretty much every moment Anna has with Mark, she is disgusted by him. Both vocally, and through her body language. She’s genuinely horrified when he attempts to even touch her. Anna is off the rails, screaming and trembling, like she is literally about to explode. When Mark is continually striking her, he can’t stop himself, but neither does she attempt to defend herself. Their violent squabble spills onto the streets. Again, the camera throws us into the mix. This relationship is exhausting.
“What have I done that you hate me so much?” cries Mark. It’s a valid question, albeit under manic circumstances. As he nags and nags, Anna continues to be repulsed by him, almost allergic. She seems to be at the end of her tether when she takes an electric knife to her throat. Anna is out of control in these outbursts – this goes way beyond mere over-reacting. The more he frantically asks for answers, the more we, the audience, get swallowed up in the mystery. When Mark has calmed the situation, he takes the eletric knife to his own arm. What the…
In a more composed state, Mark hires a private detective, as Anna is holding firm about her general whereabouts, clandestinely so. In a later scene, the incompetent P.I. follows Anna, but he’s hardly stealthy, and it almost becomes a ludicrous chase. As a result, we find Anna has a new, relatively unfurnished, undecorated, apartment.
An unfathomable creature is also found by the P.I. posing as a building auditor. The ensuing bouts of violence are instantaneous, you barely have time to digest them. The scenes of physical attack are haphazard and urgent, which make them all the more alarming. The startling score shows up once in a while, too, to tinker with your soul.
Mark watches an old show-reel of Anna teaching kids to dance, or dare I say, tormenting, traumatizing them. The anxiety-riddled face of Anna looks directly at us (or Heinrich, whom the film was for), ranting about reality and the inability to express herself. Later, she’s putting piles of clothes in the fridge. Rubbing her own hands and arms, as though her blood is bursting to get out.
That indescribable, ominous creature, meanwhile, is developing, reforming, and getting stronger. Anna flaunts that she made love to it all night. She’s not lying, later we experience it for ourselves. The tentacled thing has her spread-eagled on the bed. Gruesome, unflinching, and not to be unseen.
The camera glides along, almost like a being itself. When Mark discovers severed body parts in Anna’s fridge, the camera spins around him as he tries not to vomit. So frantic is the motion of the moment, we, too, feel like throwing up. The more astute might notice that Mark often appears to have a dress code that matches his surroundings.
In sheer desolation, Mark is compelled to cause a fire, kill without regret, using his aggression in the most awful ways. When returning home covered in blood, Anna cleans him, and now seems draw to him. They have sex right there on the floor. But not much has changed, as we thought it might, with their dynamics. Did I mention this was an extremely unhealthy relationship?
The film’s climax is fittingly frantic. There’s a brief shoot-out, cars crashing into other cars, a body falls out of a trunk. And, of course, there is blood-soaked reunion for Anna and Mark. The final scene of Possession has Bob, the son, crying out “Don’t answer it, don’t answer it!”, when there’s a knock at the door. And the boy throws himself face-first into the bath of water, as the sounds of imminent conflict ring out.
Possession is an astounding motion picture, a perfect entry into cinema’s ever-vast and diverse cult world. The film sets a mood, then spins you around it. Pushing and pulling, there’s little comfort to be had in Possession, but that’s a large part of its captivating extravagance. Scene after scene of unprecedented mayhem and deflation. And in Anna, there’s a character whose deterioration can be misconstrued to be some form of redemption.
While looking up with sorrow at the statue of Jesus, Anna begins to show real physical pain. So commanding and inhabited is Adjani’s performance, you can almost feel the hurt under your own skin. The lingering look, and the increasing flinches of bone-chilling discomfort, sets up something far more disturbing.
What begins with a minor crescendo of crazed laughter, the violent episode in the subway that follows is truly extraordinary. Pretty much in three gruesome, electrifying takes, Adjani throws Anna into complete convulsion. Wailing and screaming and panting heavily like a dog. All amplified by the stone interior of the subway. Sends shivers through you.
Anna rolls around on the floor, throw herself into walls, spilling liquid contents of her shopping bag across walls and herself. Twisting, gasping, jerking about, groaning, spinning, shrieking, falling to the ground, dropping to her knees. The relentless spasms roll on.
The incredible camerawork follows her every motion. Succumbing to the frenetic compulsion, sunk to her knees, Anna starts to omit and ooze blood, white fluid, even green, from seemingly every orifice. Dripping and pouring from her as she strains with all her might, and the deafening screams of utter exhaustion. Żuławski described it as an “evacuation of evil”.
There is no scene quite like it in the history of film. How do you even rehearse such a sequence? And although that scene is pivotal, you watch the great Adjani throughout Possession, and admire the strength and audacity of such an excertive, exceptional performance. One of the very greatest.