My goal with this essay is to give a review of the film along with an in-depth critical reading centered upon the themes of marital division and sexual confusion. Since this paper is meant to be readable by both those who have never seen the film and those who have had the honor, I will keep the spoilers to a minimum.
What exactly is “Possession?” It’s an art-film/drama/horror hybrid from Polish exile director Andrzej Zulawski made in West Berlin in 1981. It stars Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani. Adjani was in a career slump due to a reputation as ‘difficult to work with,’ but “Possession” earned her a surprise Cesar (French Oscar) and the top acting prize at Cannes. By the decade’s end she’d have three more Cesars. Watching her committed performance, far outside the boundaries of where most actors dare to venture, it is not hard to see why this was a turning-point in her career.
A plot summary is necessary, yet I don’t want to give certain key elements away. While not necessarily a twist-type movie, there is nothing quite like the shock of seeing “Possession” without knowing the full story.
Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) are a married couple already on the brink of divorce as the film begins. Mark returns home after a mysterious trip abroad (we see him being paid with a suitcase of cash by a government organization) only to discover that in his absence, Anna has been conducting an affair. Anna’s friend Margie has been taking care of their son, Bob, but refuses to tell Mark the name or address of the interloper. After several marital fights Mark eventually discovers that an obnoxious ‘guru’ named Heinrich is the secret lover and the two have a confrontation. In a secondary subplot, Mark is also astonished to discover that Bob’s teacher, Helen (also played by Adjani), looks identical to his wife. Soon, Anna disappears again and this time even Heinrich doesn’t know where she’s gone. Mark hires a detective to find her and the terrible truth is gradually revealed.
What is missing from any cursory description is the spirit that makes both the drama and horror of this film so evocative. On the drama side, Mark and Anna’s split is represented on a mind-boggling number of layers. Most overtly is the white hot intensity of the acting, delivered almost entirely in screams and gestures that tear through the actors’ entire body. On a scale from 1 to 10 in acting pitch (not quality), with “Pickpocket” (1959) as a 1, “Goodfellas” (1990) as a 10 and “Lust for Life” (1956) as an 11, then “Possession” rates a 26.
Mark and Anna are shouting at each other by the opening five minutes. After the opening ten they are fighting in public. Within half an hour they are physically beating each other with unrestrained ferocity. The level of frustration, rage and insanity only continues to rise. Zulawski expertly selects props (blanket, electric knife, meat grinder) and actions to augment the performances and add to the anxiety during their sparring matches.
The tension and electricity of the performances is literally inhuman, and it becomes quickly obvious that we are not really watching ‘realistic’ acting, but something far more extreme. Yet despite the excesses on display the camera records the events with unflinching and unflattering coldness. The tone is deadpan serious. This had the added advantage of bolstering its cult appeal and allowing interpretations ranging from artistic enjoyment of the authenticity and audacity to amused marvel at the hyperbole. To quote Mad Dog, “Possession is seriously one of the only movies I like genuinely as much as I like it ironically.”
Before ending my discussion of the performances, I must mention the brilliantly, outrageous Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) who plays Adjani’s self-possessed second lover. The director designed him based on every quality he disliked, and Bennent comically recalls every egotistical male who believes he’s reach the pinnacle of sophistication and sex appeal through his own recipe of mysticism, training, drugs and fashion. He makes a sharp third point in the love triangle; his ability to stir hatred a perfect compliment to the couple who never run out of anger to vent.
Further, Bruno Nyttan’s cinematography balances the many apartment-bound scenes with a paradoxical combination of division and claustrophobia, often isolating the rival spouses with a shallow depth of field. A crisp close-up on one lead is thematically composed with the other in a deep-staged out-of-focus position. The characters seem to inhabit planes of their own, often further sub-framed apart by doors and other strong verticals (see also the mirror-lined café corner in the second screenshot).
With little space to move around and often little more than bare walls to use as background, Zulawski still endows each set with a unique ambience. The native hues and contrasting palettes of the family’s blue-tinted apartment and Anna’s private yellow apartment creates unsettling atmospheres and oppositions. The director uses his minimalist locales to good effect, but goes beyond the existential emptiness so easily and frequently employed by filmmakers critical of modernity’s sterility. His compositions sustain fear, estrangement, tension and madness with equal adroitness.
The actors are also on the move and not just with the expressive gesticulations mentioned earlier. The staging and blocking shows remarkable finesse, such as one memorable scene in which Anna arrives home to find Mark rocking back and forth in a chair. As they begin to fight, the wide-angle lens exacerbates Mark’s swinging sensation towards and away from the camera. The focus puller struggles to keep up. Again, the audience feels the uncomfortable proximity to the private bickering.
Near the end of “Possession” there is a scene where the two leads have sex on the kitchen floor, exchange whispered ravings and then plan a desperate course. The ‘reveal’ occurs after Anna has briefly blocked the door to pick up her purse. Rather than a killer, we see their child, Bob. We still have the shock/distress effect but the reason is more psychologically nuanced. The irresponsibility of the characters’ behavior dawns upon the audience anew. We realize that Bob’s trauma at the hands of these parents (who conduct themselves far outside the limits of social norms or mental sanity) is probably worse than witnessing the primal scene.
One can read Heinrich as a man more in love with himself than the women who serve as conquests; food for his ego. His fluid, bizarre staging (at one point spinning down a staircase with his hand above his head) and sexualized self-love combine briefly with the set design of his own apartment in the scene where Mark fights Heinrich: In the screenshot below, Heinrich is about to kick Mark in the head. Note the strange graphic match with the photo on Heinrich’s wall, neatly referencing his narcissism and obsession with his body.
Like the theme of split relationships, the issue of sexual confusion is not just manifested in the content of the “Possession,” but the form as well. Throughout the first half of the film an atmosphere of tension (sexual and otherwise) pervades the slower moments. At these times, intensity still glows in the eyes of the actors, but no violent physical events provide an outlet for the energy. Deprived of any solid idea on where the film is heading, there is a certain fear that almost any violation of acceptable norms and behaviors might occur on a moments notice. One visual motif that plays upon such tension is an uncomfortable wide-angle arrangement with a character (visible in the background) gripping a naked torso in the foreground.
We see this shot three times:
1) When Mark finds his son covered in fifth and takes off his shirt to clean him.
2) During a rare moment of marital calm as Mark puts his naked wife to bed (but does not have sex).
3) Before Mark and Anna have sex on the kitchen floor.
The composition seems both sexual and possessive (possibly even violent) although the context is very different. The repetition of such an unusual camera shot in situations that are difficult to read and harder to predict induces anxiety and ambiguity in the audience as they try to assess the meaning and motivation in the gaze and grip of the characters. In each case there is a loaded anticipation/fear as we await what will happen next. Further complicating our understanding of these moments is the loss of gender specificity from the cropped rear view of the foreground figures.
The audio work also instigates a systematic ambiguity; here between sexual pleasure and pain, a dichotomy that epitomizes the couple’s attraction/repulsion issues. Pleasure and pain is linked through the frequent auditory motif of moaning. In one of the first instances we discover Anna is a ballet instructor and witness her strictly teaching a group of young girls. Anna ruthlessly grips one girl’s outstretched thigh and holds it in place for an uncomfortable period as the child emits choked cries. The combination of the physical contact between the two women, the extreme close-up and the rising moans makes the shot feel strangely pornographic.
The music is composed by Andrzej Korzynski and goes a long way towards establishing the proper mood of tension and alienation. Certain pieces return to accent key moments or punctuate the dialogue, though usually with a subtlety not found in the rest of the film. The music never bridges the hard cuts (which might have served to ‘heal the cut’ so to speak), but rather kicks in simultaneously with the new shot to throw us that much more off balance. The combination of music and sound in the disturbing, uncertain finale elicits an intellectual query (we aren’t quite sure what is going on) as much as an emotional response.
Finally, I want to put a shout-out to the special effects designed by Carlo Rambaldi. According the DVD commentary he worked with almost no time or money, but his stunning results are impossible ignore. Interestingly, Rambaldi has a direct connection to my precious Italian horror. He did special effects for less than 25 films, but managed to work on personal favorite giallos by the three great Italian horror masters: Mario Bava on “Twitch of the Death Nerve” (1971), Lucio Fulci on “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971) and Dario Argento on “Deep Red” (1975). Rambaldi also did the effects for “ET: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), providing one of two direct links to Stephen Spielberg (the other being Sam Neill via “Jurassic Park” (1993)).
Walrus Rating: 10