Possession May 26, 2016
2 Hrs., 3 Mins.
ossession (1981) is a tightrope walk of a movie. One step in the wrong direction and it’d be the most freakishly overwrought psychological thriller to exist within the art-house sphere. It’s a divorce movie without expected tenderness or melancholy. Instead it's a filmed nightmare in which all locked up emotional turmoil is amplified and where otherworldly terror supplements erotic angst. The film has been attributed to genres varying from horror to
drama to suspense, but it defies categorization for the most part. This is a movie that emphasizes an unhealthy relationship between its audience and its director — violent, bizarre images are hurled at us at the speed of light, and yet we get off on the cinematic masochism on display.
Such is not so much a result of our own sadism as it is an effect of Possession’s operatic mania. Co-written (with Frederic Tuten) and directed by Andrzej Żulawski, an unrelenting auteur, it’s a wonderfully insane take on the marital drama, far past the verge of lunacy throughout its unforgettable 123 minutes. It begins conventionally enough. In Possession, we’re dropped into the lives of Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neill), a married couple with a young son (Michael Hogben). Little is known about them besides the fact that Mark is a spy returning from a long-in-the-making espionage mission, Anna a housewife. Upon his arrival back home, Anna announces that she wants a divorce. Her reasoning is vague. But the lack of background knowledge hardly matters in the context of the film: it’s a study of separation and the mental devastation that oftentimes follows suit.
From there does Possession quickly escalate, remaining to be at high dramatic volume until it reaches its stunning conclusion. Like John Cassavetes’s ordinary-by-comparison Faces (1968), its impact does not have much to do with plot; it’s all in the acting, and the staging by its maker. And Possession is singular in its presentation, Żulawski and his actors in such overdrive mode that one false move could potentially kill them.
A claim as dramatic as that one raises concerns, I know. But consider the work done by the film’s exceptional artists. Adjani and Neill, both remarkable, do more than just live vicariously through the dialogue and emotional components of their characters. They reach beyond what’s expected of any individual in their profession, putting their bodies through tremendous strain, their own emotional stability at risk.
As Adjani’s character is written to convey increasingly erratic behavior — Anna’s reason for desiring dissolution is strange and genuinely unnerving — most scenes put the actress through hell. Coming to mind particularly is the sequence in which Anna has an inexplicable mental/physical breakdown in the underground throes of the area’s subway station. In those moments, Adjani is required to throw her body about like a wild psychiatric patient and scream her head off, all with virtuosity. In other time frames, outlandish monologues are pivotal. To deliver such a blisteringly difficult performance is a feat, but Adjani, one of the best of her class, throws herself into the role to great effect. (Though rumors abound that she attempted suicide following production due to the emotional overextension.) By comparison, Neill’s character is not required to be as ferociously manic as Adjani’s; he, rather, perpetrates and receives violent behavior as if he were a lightweight champion or a punching bag. Clearly, Mark is an embodiment of all faithful husbands within a divorce, conflicted with self-doubt and unfathomable rage toward his significant other. Internal madness, however, is never kept in hiding. Neill is excellent.
And the mastery of these actors is not something to be taken lightly: without them, I’d imagine Possession being a thoroughly misconceived mess. While it is a divorce movie, it is also much more than that, being a surrealistic horror show with touches of the fantastical that push it far past the limits of most in its genre. We’re left rattled, but maybe like a roller coaster, it’s a thrilling kind of rattling. Just make sure you can take it before you get on the ride. A