Review: Possession (1981)

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Possession (1981)

Directed by: Andrzej Luławski | 124 minutes | drama, horror | Actors: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton, Shaun Lawton, Maximilian Rüthlein, Thomas Frey, Leslie Malton, Gerd Neubert

Sometimes you come across a film that doesn’t give up its secrets easily. A film that will haunt you in your head and that will have you roaming the internet for days to learn more about its creation. Andrzej Żuławski’s terrifying horror masterpiece ‘Possession’ is one such film. Don’t expect familiar plot twists or cheap scare tactics. This is a horror film that relies mainly on its cast, atmosphere and visual imagination.

‘Possession’ is set during the Cold War. Mark (Sam Neill) is a spy from West Berlin whose life is turned upside down when his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) decides to leave him for another man. Mark is distraught and doesn’t understand what he’s done wrong. He makes frantic efforts to get Anna back, but her decision is made: she wants to say goodbye to her old life with Mark and their son and move in with her new lover as soon as possible. In his quest to find the man who took his wife from him, Mark’s hatred and jealousy grow to unprecedented levels. Meanwhile, Anna’s increasingly strange behavior, and Mark hires a private detective. This leads to a shocking discovery.

‘Possession’ was for many years on the list of the ‘Video Nasties’, a list of films considered inappropriate and corrupting in Britain in the 1980s. The reasons behind the ban of these films were often very questionable. Violent and sexually explicit scenes seemed to be the main culprits, but in some cases such elements were barely present. And that’s also the case with ‘Possession’, because while the film is certainly shocking, its brutality is dwarfed by other titles on the acclaimed list. ‘Possession’ is therefore frightening in its own way.

At the start, you expect ‘Possession’ to develop into a chaotic family drama about a disintegrated family. We are presented with an explosive fight scene between Mark and Anna, which suggests that Żuławski is steering his film in the direction of a rambunctious divorce drama. But then ‘Possession’ quickly takes a different direction. When Mark plunges into Anna’s secret life, something doesn’t feel right. During his detective work, the impression is created that something horrific is about to happen. We are then confronted with an almost tangible feeling of unease and disaster. Something is going on with Anna, but no one knows exactly what’s going on inside her. As Mark tries to delve into his former other half, he falls prey to confusion just like the viewer. Each answer raises countless new questions.

Żuławski gradually constructs an insecure and paranoid atmosphere, as seemingly everyday events coalesce into a surreal nightmare, making the imaginary more believable than the usual. West Berlin is the ideal location for this. The Berlin Wall towers above everything and everyone at all times. In the shadows it casts, we perceive the most desolate parts. Żuławski, who went through a divorce shortly before the shooting, seems to mainly want to isolate his characters from each other. Dark metro halls, narrow corridors, grubby cafes: ‘Possession’ has an extraordinarily grim atmosphere. The characters wallow obstinately in this sad environment.

Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani both play masterfully. Their interplay is expressive and compelling and carries the film to a large extent. Neill, still relatively unknown in 1981, is wonderfully insufferable as Mark. He is extremely cruel in his efforts to learn about Anna. For example, when Mark is confronted with her adultery, he immediately threatens to cut off contact with their son. The welfare of his very own child leaves him completely cold. Mark is only interested in Anna. It’s not hard to figure out why she left him for someone else.

But was the blame for their derailed marriage really solely with Mark? It can’t be that simple. Anna is also to some extent blamed, as she avoids just about any form of communication. It is said that she used to be happy, but her prosperity seems to have somehow given way to a monstrous state of mind. Anna, the despair incarnate, is one who is in constant conflict with herself. Her insecurity takes on horrific forms over the course of the film. Adjani once said of her role in ‘Possession’ that it took her years to recover from the shooting. The film drove her to despair and even an alleged suicide attempt. It makes her character all the more tragic.

‘Possession’ is nowadays known as one of the most important horror films of the 80s. The fact that the film has achieved a real cult status and has separated itself from the other (and often forgotten) titles in the ‘Video Nasties’ section, can above all, are attributed to Żuławski’s considerable creative power. This is by no means an easy viewing experience. But therein lies the power of ‘Possession’. The film invites you to think about the things that usually might be too unpleasant or heavy. This is a trait many of the best horror movies have in common. ‘Possession’ is at the top of that list.

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