Saturday, April 26, 2014

Off Script: Possession (1981)

Format: Internet video on laptop.

Is there a way to explain Possession? I think there is, and even a way that’s sort of satisfying, but this is in many ways a film that is more enjoyable if it’s left completely unexplained. It doesn’t start as a horror film, but it gets there pretty quickly, and even before it has anything in it that’s horror movie-ish, there’s a decent amount of blood and violence. Any attempt to analyze this film that takes the film at face value will collapse in on itself. I can’t help but think that writer/director Andrzej Zulawski wasn’t attempting to make a scary film, but one that was exorcising his own demons.

The first chunk of the film is not a horror movie at all, as mentioned above. Instead, it’s a domestic drama. Mark (Sam Neill) returns home to his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and son Bob (Michael Hogben) in Berlin after a secretive business trip. Upon his arrival, he discovers that Anna has not only been unfaithful to him for the last year with a local named Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) but that she wants an end to the marriage.

Mark goes mildly insane with depression and anger, and after a few days returns home to discover his son, who is clearly not old enough to take care of himself, has been abandoned by Anna. More strange is that Heinrich, who openly admits the affair with Anna, has also lost contact with her and doesn’t know where she is, implying that she has gained a new lover who is taking up her time. Mark hires a private investigator to see what is going on with Anna, and he finds out all right—Anna’s new obsession is a hideous monster. This is not something directly out of central monster casting, though, but more akin to something out of the C’thulhu mythos. And this is also where Anna starts killing people to…I don’t know. Help the creature finish creating itself? Feed it? Because she’s gone bat-guano-sandwich-eatin’ crazy?

Around the middle of the film, Anna goes full batshit and delivers a rambling monologue directly at the camera, part of this being delivered while she is torturing a young girl in a ballet class. She then spends some time putting clothing in the refrigerator, storing food in the bedroom, screaming, and undergoing strange physical contortions. Through all of this, it’s one of the most insane and compelling performances I’ve come across recently. She genuinely looks insane, as if she is in incredible pain, and completely manic. The freakout in the subway station is the most infamous scene in the film. It’s a moment that would be comic if it weren’t so terrifying, and the only reason it’s terrifying is because Adjani sells the performance.

I don’t have a way to really explain everything that happens in Possession. There are two distinct possibilities, and both of them are entirely possible. The first is that everyone in the film, or at least the main characters, are completely insane. This is evidenced by the multiple homicides and the body parts that eventually show up in Anna’s refrigerator. It’s evidenced by the way the other characters react to the presence of our main characters at all times. How else to explain Bob’s teacher Helen (also played by Adjani) who is Anna’s doppelganger? How else to explain what happens with the creature? Or the ultimate fate of Heinrich? How else to deal with the scene in Anna takes an electric knife to her own throat? Or Mark’s reaction, which is cutting his arm with the same knife?

If I had to pick a real explanation, though, I think none of this is real. Possession is a metaphor for the destruction of a relationship. Both Helen and the creature are evidence of what Mark and Anna want and can’t have from each other. Nothing that we see is really happening in reality, but is all happening on the symbolic level. That might make some moments easier to at least understand, but not specifically to take. Zulawski is going for the full body horror here, and he gets it more often than not. But this interpretation makes sense when the fact that Zulawski was going through his own divorce at the time of filming is taken into consideration. It’s uncontrolled insanity and loss of self and control, and all of that tracks with an idea of a difficult separation.


In real terms, both Helen and the creature, which eventually comes to look like Sam Neill, are idealized versions of Anna and Mark respectively. Mark has essentially made Helen as an idealized Anna—she looks exactly like Anna but is kind, compassionate, and good with Bob. Anna turns the creature into Mark, and it is everything she wants Mark to be. That both Anna and Mark are killed and the two idealized versions come together means something, and nothing good, if Bob’s reaction is any guide.


The end result is a film that looks like the rough draft for Naked Lunch in a lot of ways. I didn’t think much of Naked Lunch, but I loved its ambition. Possession has that same sort of ambition, something that requires that everyone involved commit to it fully, and no one commits more fully than Isabelle Adjani.

I don’t know if I like Possession, but I have a great deal of respect for what it tries to do. I think it’s completely successful in what it’s trying to do; I just don’t know how much I’d want to see it again. It’s so extreme in what it expects from its audience that I don’t know how to deal with it.

Why to watch Possession: It’s holy shit fucked up.
Why not to watch: Same reason—it’s FUBAR.


  1. Yeah... so having just finished this, I'm totally in agreement with you. The first half is a bit slow, but it's still engaging because the performances are so off-the-rails you can't help but stare, fascinated. And then it just gets even weirder. To me, the movie was like melding together The Shining, Eraserhead, and Body Snatchers. Toss in some stuff you'd only see in weird Japanese movies and give it to somebody who REALLY loves David Lynch. You'll get this movie. Although I might not have understood everything (I also think you can just read the film as a straight alien invasion/body snatchers type film, especially with the ending), but I think I... kind of loved it.

    1. It's sort of a trainwreck of joy, isn't it?

      I have no idea what it actually means. Or if it's supposed to mean anything beyond Isabelle Adjani bugging her eyes out and not blinking.

  2. I love this warped mindfuck of a film. So insane and bizarre. Hell, I give you credit for even attempting to try and explain it. Interesting thought that none of what's in the film is real. I need to watch it again with that notion in mind.

    1. It's the only way I could make sense of any of it, although I like Nick's interpretation of it being a straight alien invasion film. It's an extremely screwed up alien invasion film in that case, but I can see that interpretation working.