Possession (1981)
Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Writers: Andrzej Zulawski and Frederic Tuten
Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, and Margit Carstensen.

The Plot: Mark (Sam Neil) is a loving husband and father who is recently returning from his work abroad. Apparently, though it isn’t full explained, Mark is an agent of some sort and regularly goes on espionage missions. When he returns home, his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) demands a divorce. She won’t explain to him why she is seeking this divorce, but Mark suspects that perhaps she has found another man. Mark turns over both his apartment as well as custody of their young son, Bob, over to Anna, and he begins to let his failed relationship control his life. When he decides to visit the apartment on a spur-of-the-moment whim, Mark finds Bob living by himself in a very disheveled manner. As Mark investigates, he discovers that Anna does indeed have another man. A man named Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). With this bit of information, Mark becomes less and less grounded in reality. As he obsesses over his wife, he comes to find out that she has numerous other secrets hidden. Dark secrets.

The Review
Possession, from director Andrzel Zurawlski, is a film that has been on the Varied Celluloid radar for years, but until now it has never been covered on the site. Personally, I have known of the film for nearly a decade, but was never given the opportunity to actually sit down and give it a watch. The most I had ever seen of it was from a music video for a song called Worlock from the band Skinny Puppy. Although this video, which you can watch right here, featured only a few short clips, the shots on display were immediately emblazoned in my mind. While the story contained within Possession turned out to be far different than what I would have imagined, the visuals have always been the main allure. This was, afterall, the impetus for my searching the film out. When finally sitting down to watch it, there becomes no question that this is one of the most purely-visual horror titles that I have ever seen. That is, if one can even refer to it as a horror at all. Honestly, couldn’t one say that Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is horror movie, since it deals with select supernatural elements within the science fiction realm? For my money, Possession is a surrealist horror title, and it pushes the boundaries of all cinematic expectations in such a degree that it throws off most viewers and actively dares them to try and classify it. I’ll take that dare, and I’ll say that Possession certainly turns out to be one of the strangest psychological horror movies that I have ever seen.

I have to stress the visuals found in Possession, because they are a huge factor in the success of the movie. After watching, I realize that it is a combination of the performances as well as the interesting visual delivery, but it was the wild camerawork that originally drew me in. Featuring a brilliant use of camera depth, intense staging, and incredibly textured set design, Possession establishes itself early-on as a unique film experience. One of the first things I noticed about the movie was that the camera almost never stops moving. As soon as a scene begins, the camera seems to remain in motion. Tracking shots are consistently used throughout the majority of the film in very ridiculous ways. Zurawlski manages to craft an atmosphere of pure tension within his movie, even in scenes where the background is beautiful and serene. Everything seems to be peaceful and majestic, but we know that this is all a ruse because the camerawork remains manic. During the introductory scenes, the audience is never allowed to sit back in their chair and relax. The movement of the camera and the heightened level of the performances keeps everything off-balance, and immediately after the very first scene, the audience knows that they are in store for something very different.

The acting is on a different level of peculiar than even I am accustomed to, which is an odd thing to say about a film that is generally regarded for its outstanding performances. The two leads were nominated for several awards within various film competitions, so who am I to call them “peculiar?” I am not saying that these are bad performances from a technical perspective, only that they are exceptionally strange. For a film this bizarre, I suppose having off-kilter performances should be expected, but the pitch is so ridiculously high from the very start of the movie that it nearly seems delirious. When I use the word “bizarre,” it is only due to the fact that this film has nearly no true comparison in terms of what its performers try to achieve. The overacting nature of these characters may be excused due to their highly unstable mental state, one that obviously stems from an oncoming relationship-implosion, but from the very first few scenes onward these characters are either in a fervent state of mental ecstasy or they are in a fully destructive rage-filled bout of paranoia. Ultimately, it seems that Possession has little to do with real human characters, but instead these are figures for the director to make a point about the nature of human relations and interactions. Will I stand and say that I understand every nuance of the film? Not at all. A book could certainly be written about this single film, and it likely already has been. However, even without understanding every piece of subtext, I still respect the film for its daring peculiarity.

Perhaps the extreme exaggeration of the film represents the manic state that our emotions go through when facing such a troubling emotional shock. In many circles, the film has been called the “ultimate movie about divorce.” I would assume that this might be a very apt description. Indeed, having so much invested in another human being, one can feel as if the world is coming to an end when the situation deteriorates. However, Possession instead puts forth a situation where the world may literally be coming to a close. Although this film certainly delves into the supernatural, particularly during the second half, it is by and large a film about divorce and the termination of a relationship. From the very start, Sam Neil is a man who profusely drips with sweat and is desperate to cling to a relationship that has essentially already come to a close. His wife is slightly less-sympathetic, as she has began to deal in matters that hardly seem appropriate for a mother who has been living on her own. Indeed, the film was written by Zurawlski while he was dealing with his own divorce. Although he does essentially make the wife into a villain, in many respects she has her reasons for doing the things that she does. Zurawlski certainly seems to be the type of filmmaker who thinks about all sides of a situation, and his film reflects that.

The Conclusion
Possession is a difficult film to throw out a blanket recommendation for it. Horror fans who are open to the surreal will likely enjoy the film on some level, but there will certainly be viewers who find the movie to be rather silly. Indeed, the paranoid atmosphere of the film could very well backfire for many viewers who find the entire ordeal to be ridiculous. For my own personal rating, I found that the movie worked to tremendous effect. I give it a four out of five, but make note that this might be a film that appeals to a select audience.

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