31 Days of Hell: Possession

For one of our final entries in the 31 Days of Hell series, Andrew reviews the 1981 film, Possession. 

"Ummm..honey, you've got something
on your face."

Not every horror film is necessarily meant to simply be a thriller designed to entertain audiences.  More often than not, the real aims of the writer-directors behind them are therapeutic.  David Cronenberg’s The Brood, for instance, was fueled by his rage over his bitter divorce of his first wife.  Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is said by its creator to have been healing for his debilitating slump into depression.  But perhaps the most infamous, controversial and confounding case of directorial catharsis has to be Polish auteur Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 surreal shock drama, Possession.  Starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, the film concerns the marital disintegration of Mark, and international spy, and his wife Anna.  

Shot on location in Berlin, Germany, the film opens on an anxious, hysterical note filled with symbolic vistas of the still erect Berlin Wall dominating the title credits sequence.  After requesting a divorce from Mark, Anna’s hysterics become increasingly bizarre, including but not limited to self-mutilation.  Suspecting Anna of infidelity, Mark hires a private investigator to spy on Anna’s whereabouts.  What the investigator finds out about Anna’s double life and who she in fact is seeing is the kind of perversely bizarre inhuman manifestation that may have actually precluded Japan’s Hentai tentacle-sex subgenre.

Often referred to by Sam Neill as his favorite work to date as an actor, Andrzej Żuławski’s cathartic expulsion of deeply seated anger at his ex-wife almost immediately incited an uproar of scandal when it first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.  Much like Von Trier’s Antichrist, it is a tale of man and woman engaged in mortal combat, with unfettered grief and rage spat at the camera as the couple’s rocky marriage becomes increasingly violent.  A majority of Żuławski’s effect is achieved through his camerawork, which is alive and all over the place with frenzied movement.  Take for instance, a scene where Mark returns home to find his son alone while Anna is off gallivanting.  Enraged by Anna’s selfish and lackadaisical behavior, he rocks back and forth furiously in his rocking chair as the camera follows his every movement, his eyes wide with fevered hysteria.  When Anna returns, both the rocking and camera swaying seem to increase speed and vehemence. 

"I never knew you were in to
this kinda weird stuff. But,
I'll just roll with it."
Żuławski’s film doesn’t so much aim to thrill or chill as it intends to realistically portray the painful feelings of heartbreak and anguish emanating from a relationship in breakdown.  Soon things get really bizarre when doppelgangers begin appearing, Anna shows signs of possible demonic possession, and of course, the inexplicable arrival of the creature.  Predating both Antichrist and Silent Hill by almost 20 years, some critics have taken visual effects artist Carlo Rambaldi’s strange creature either literally or symbolic of Anna’s insatiable sexual appetite.  In the film’s most infamous scene, which may have been part in parcel to Adjani’s win of the Best Actress Award at Cannes, is a surreal subway miscarriage of screams, snarls, gyration and vaginal excretion of blood and mess.  Due to scenes like this (and there are many), Possession was promptly banned in the UK as a ‘video nasty’(recently lifted however) and in the US, the film was rescinded from Żuławski and radically recut to resemble a standard horror thriller replete with a new musical score.

While all of this sounds ripe for a juicy exploitation film, this is not an easy viewing by any means nor should it be.  It is an anxious, sober, stressful experience designed to push audiences so far out of their comfort zones that you just want to shrivel up after viewing it.  Not since Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage has a European director created a meditation on marital woes this confrontational and harrowing.  Never one to take the easy route, Andrzej Żuławski is an underrated, underappreciated maestro.  From his explicit photography drama The Important Thing is to Love to his ill-fated Polish production On the Silver Globe, which was shut down by Polish ministry of culture after perceiving anti-totalitarianism existing between the lines, Żuławski seems destined to turn the filmgoing public on their heads and then some.  Sadly, Żuławski and his first English language opus Possession remain largely unknown in the United States.  Although not all of Possession is concrete, with multiple red herrings thrown in to derail the proceedings and unresolved enigmas right up to the closing shots, there aren’t that many films out there which capture the experience of marital disintegration in all of its blood, torment and gnashing of teeth.

-Andrew Kotwicki