To try and compare Possession to other films would be an act in futility. On the one hand it stands alone, utterly unique in its ideas and execution. On the other it has influenced no end of filmmakers with its dark, psychological dissection of a relationship beyond repair. There are elements of body horror akin to David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), an endless sexual sub-text present in the works of Dario Argento, who also calls Possession one of the greatest films ever made, and a terrifying nightmare sensibility that David Lynch thrives on with work like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. If you are a fan of any one of these master craftsmen then Possession will infest your mind completely.
When Mark (Sam Neil) returns to Berlin from a business trip he hopes to put his marriage to Anna (Isabelle Adjani) back on track. He soon discovers she has in fact been seeing another man Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). Anna decides to leave the home, and their young son Bob (Michael Hogben), as Mark descends into deep depression. Finally deciding to confront Heinrich, Mark discovers Anna may well have more than one lover as he begins to fall for Bob’s teacher Helen. As the relationships take darker and more hostile turns so Mark and Anna’s relationship is thrown into psychotic states of madness.
So misunderstood is Possession that there was a time it made the ‘Video Nasty’ list. Considered by certain critics to be overly violent and gruesome it was banned in the UK until 1999. To label it as such a monstrosity is to miss the point. If anything Possession is a psychological drama, the key being that the psychology is your own and how you choose to read the film’s implications.
For writer director Andrzej Zulawski, the film was an exercise in expressing his state of mind in 1981. Recently divorced and black listed in Poland, under the Communist regime, he found himself “miserable, gloomy and resentful”. Best known for his avant-garde nature in films like Diabel, Possession was a form of therapy for his inner demons. The title itself presents a number of ambiguous meanings that Zulawski never tries to answer. Instead he plants ideas and questions in the audience’s mind. Does it refer to Anna’s obsessive addressing of her dark lover, or perhaps the way in which Anna is seen by Mark and Heinrich as their belonging to feud over. There is no definite answer and yet, like much of Lynch’s work, it feels natural. Like a nightmare that leaves gapping holes in the narrative, as if they are too distressing to possibly address.
So as Mark conjures the ideal wife in the form of Helen, also played by lead actress Adjani in a dual role, Anna manifests a partner so controlling and dark that she will stop at nothing to protect it. Zulawski’s camera is rarely still, it glides around the sparsely decorated locations, occasionally catching glimpses of the Berlin Wall. To try and address the meaning of it all would be to undermine each individual reaction to the film. Suffice to say Zulawski injects such presence and passion into the film that you genuinely feel the need to pinch yourself lest it be a nightmare.
Supporting Zulawski’s images are two brilliant central performances. Sam Neil, in the same year as playing The Omen in The Final Conflict, is intentionally over the top. Every ounce of energy explodes from his performance creating the idea of a man very much on the edge, or perhaps over it, of insanity. Towards the end he is able to let fly with his more sinister persona of films like Event Horizon and Daybreakers but until then there is an anguish that lurks behind every word he utters. Opposite him Isabella Adjani, best known for her role in Luc Besson’s Subway, is a revelation. Behind her striking looks lies a mesmerising range of emotions. In a single moment she is able to project malice and venom mixed with a healthy dose of trauma which later turns to lust. It is no wonder that she would win best actress at that year’s Cannes Film Festival based simply on the seductive anger she brings to the role of Anna. This is before going into her performance as Helen, which manages to find a level of innocence that contradicts Anna’s aggressive presence.
As Bob, the young boy in the film, screams towards the end “don’t open it”, so too should audiences be wary of lifting the lid on this Pandora’s Box of a film. If you want answers you must open your mind to form its own conclusions, as Possession will spark an inner turmoil with little explanation. Far from being a criticism of the film, it is what sets it apart and makes it so unique in cinema. Compelling does not even cover it, allow yourself to be infatuated by Possession.