I feel as though the term “elevated horror” has been thrown around quite a bit in the last decade or so, but obviously, anyone who knows anything about horror knows that it isn’t really a new phenomenon; “arthouse” style horror has existed probably as long as the genre itself has. In my opinion, in fact, horror is perhaps the best genre available for exploring uncomfortable philosophical truths and dark realities in a way that’s perhaps more impactful and insightful for the viewer; placing such devastating emotions into the context of a supposedly “unreal” horror—in other words, placing things at one remove—might make the actual emotions at play much easier to process and digest, and therefore much easier to get a handle on.
Arthouse horror isn’t for everyone, of course, but for those who like to explore the harsher extremes of these emotions, there are always challenging films available to fit the bill, and oh boy, is 1981’s Possession one of those movies. Banned in the UK for a time and placed on the video nasties list, the film was also heavily edited from two hours down to eighty-one minutes for its US release. Although Possession isn’t gory or violent in the way that some of the other unfairly maligned video nasties were—though don’t get me wrong, there’s still blood and viscera and violence aplenty—it’s still a highly uncomfortable movie to watch, just because of the primal, raw, and disturbing nature of the emotions on display.
The film is not entirely “realistic,” but neither would I call it surreal per se; it’s more exaggerated or hyper-real, and clearly very metaphorical and open to multiple interpretations. Upon its release, it was often compared to the works of Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg—and to Repulsion and The Brood most specifically—and it was also a very obvious influence on a number of more recent films, such as Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 Suspiria remake; Lars von Trier’s 2009 Antichrist; and perhaps Gaspar Noé’s 2018 Climax. In other words, if you’re at all interested in any of those movies and haven’t seen Possession, you really need to get on it, because it’s definitely a unique film experience like no other, and whether you love it or hate it, I don’t think you will ever forget it.
Possession was the only English-language movie made by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski, and the concept for it was spawned from his devastating 1976 divorce from actress Malgorzata Braunek. The film is essentially a bizarre, highly symbolic account of the breakdown of a marriage and the spiral into madness engendered by said breakdown, but there’s so much more going on in the story that it’s difficult to pin it down to just one thing.
Possession takes place in West Berlin, and the Berlin Wall looms large in the narrative (as it did in the 2018 Suspiria remake), representing division, dissent, and the constant close proximity of evil. Sam Neill plays Mark, some type of international spy who has just returned from a shady operation someplace after an undisclosed (but clearly lengthy) amount of time. Citing family reasons, he tells his superiors that he’s retiring from the job for good.
But upon reuniting with his wife Anna (played by Isabelle Adjani, in an absolutely fearless performance for the ages), he discovers that she is less than enthused about his return, needing more time apart from him, even though she’s presumably had lots of that just recently. Finally she tells him that she wants a divorce, though at first she denies that she has been seeing someone else. Mark also admits that he hasn’t been entirely faithful to her either. The couple have a son named Bob, and initially, Anna keeps Bob at the couple’s apartment while Mark moves into what appears to be a hotel, where he goes on a three-week bender of drinking and emotional turmoil that he seems to remember very little of.
Finally snapping out of it, Mark goes back to the apartment and finds that Anna has been out and about and neglecting their son, who is in the house alone and covered with jam (incidentally, this event in the film was based on a real-life incident that happened to the director during the course of the breakup of his marriage). Mark then finds out that Anna lied to him before, and that she had actually been seeing someone else for quite a long time: a suave motherfucker named Heinrich, who is all about using sex and drugs to expand the mind’s horizons, man. It’s implied that Heinrich has been able to satisfy Anna sexually in a way that Mark never could, and it’s further intimated that Heinrich (supposedly) accepts Anna the way she is, rather than trying to impose his own idealized version of her onto the real woman. And as if it’s not bad enough that Mark has been made into an unwitting cuckold by this man, he also gets his ass handed to him by said man after he goes to confront his wife’s lover.
The relationship between Mark and Anna is extremely toxic, to say the least. On the one hand, Mark seems to be afraid that Anna’s sanity is beginning to disintegrate, and that her madness will become a danger to their son; and to be fair, this does seem to be a legitimate concern. On the other hand, though, Mark doesn’t really appear to give that much of a crap about their son either, and mostly seems to want to control Anna and fit her into the mold of what he would like her to be. Anna, for her part, seems to be trying to escape the (to her) constricting roles of wife and mother, and the frustration she feels is fueling her heightening derangement. It’s also suggested that her ambivalence toward her family is causing her a great deal of guilt, which in turn is feeding into this constant back and forth between her and Mark; she flees to be with her lover, but keeps returning to see their son, and then becomes involved in violent screaming matches with Mark, which often end in physical violence and self-harm.
Mark, seemingly aware that the couple’s relationship is poisonous but obsessed with possessing his wife, hires a private investigator to follow her around. Meanwhile, he’s also started to become intrigued by his son’s schoolteacher Helen, who looks pretty much exactly like Anna (other than having lighter-colored hair and green eyes). It’s not clear in the context of the movie whether Helen does just happen to closely resemble Anna, or whether Mark is so wrapped up in the image of Anna that he essentially perceives every other woman who interests him as another version of her. Either way, it’s decidedly unhealthy and a bit unnatural.
The private investigator who follows Anna discovers that she has a terrible secret, and it’s here where the film takes a turn into batshit, quasi-Lovecraftian body-horror territory. Anna, you see, has ostensibly birthed a sort of tentacled monster that she has sex with and feels the need to protect at all costs. This monster—according to some interpretations of the movie, either a physical manifestation of her guilt at neglecting her son or of the general evil present within her, or even a representation of God or the Antichrist—slowly transforms as the movie goes on, and Anna resorts to violent and very gruesome murder whenever someone uncovers its existence.
She ultimately reveals to Mark that while he was away, she suffered what she termed a “miscarriage,” where we’re led to believe the seeds of this monster originated. This miscarriage scene—easily the most famous in the movie—is a tour-de-force of primal, daring, and intensely physical acting, as Isabelle Adjani goes completely balls to the wall insane for one long, five-minute take, shrieking and writhing and expelling blood and white fluid (semen? mother’s milk?) from every available orifice. Watching her, you absolutely believe that this is a woman who is legitimately losing her mind on screen, and indeed, Isabelle Adjani herself admitted that it took her many years to get over the emotional toll this film took on her. But holy hell, is her performance terrifying, and you really have to give her mad respect for going there in a way that very, very few actors do.
Anyway, once Mark is confronted with the reality of the monster and the horrific acts Anna has perpetrated in its defense, he actually decides to basically throw in his lot with her, killing Heinrich himself and aiding Anna in covering up her crimes. Along the way, his relationship with Helen, Anna’s doppelgänger, also flowers, and we’re led to assume that Helen is at her core Mark’s perfect vision of Anna: she looks almost exactly like her, but is maternal and nurturing and somewhat submissive, not difficult and shrill and bellicose like Anna is.
And as the film reaches its climax, the theme of doubles or doppelgängers comes into sharper focus, because it turns out that when the creature that Anna has been cultivating reaches its final form, it’s a dead ringer for Mark, only with different-colored eyes and a less controlling demeanor. Much like Helen, then, is what Mark wishes Anna was, the monster is Anna’s idealized version of Mark. The tragedy of the whole story is that this couple could never seem to accept each other for the way they actually were, flaws and all, but insisted on projecting their own needs and desires onto the other, with devastating results. At the end, when the Mark-monster goes back to the apartment and knocks at the door, Helen goes to answer it, even though a terrified Bob warns her not to. She seemingly can’t resist it, though, and as she goes to let the monster inside, we hear what sounds like a battle outside the apartment, while Bob runs upstairs and appears to drown himself in the bathtub to escape the devastation of this pernicious relationship.
As I alluded to earlier, Possession is as divisive a film as you’re ever likely to encounter. It’s in your face, it’s combative, it’s exhausting, and it features so, so, SO much screaming. All of the emotions are overwrought and hyperbolic, and that’s done on purpose, as the interior perceptions of the characters are manifested externally as extravagant body movements and animalistic howling. All the actors are incredible, with Isabelle Adjani in particular giving an astonishing turn that will leave viewers completely breathless. The cinematography is also amazing, reinforcing the film’s themes with its intrusive, chaotic movements and the positioning of the actors at odds within each frame. The movie is outlandish and stylized and strange, less a movie than an experience. If you have any interest in filmmaking as an art form and in particular enjoy challenging, unpleasant cinema like this, Possession is a must-see.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.