Overview: A husband and wife face their own monsters within through a horrifying divorce. Gaumont; 1981; Rated R; 124 minutes.
I’ll Be the Way That She Wants: In 1981 Andrzej Żuławski released what would become the most prominent and enduring piece of work in his lifetime. Much like Cronenberg’s The Brood, Possession was born out of the agony of a messy divorce. Żuławski was reeling over the split from his first wife, Malgorzata Braunek, who starred in two of his previous films (The Devil, The Third Part of the Night) and his struggle with anger is obvious. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani star as Mark and Anna, a couple whose marriage is hanging by a hair. Theirs is a story of infidelity, hate, rage, and love. While Mark is away on an undisclosed work assignment, Anna asks for a divorce. Upon his return to save the marriage it becomes obvious these problems are not new, but it’s here the relationship begins to officially split.
Because You Say I for Me: Possession’s expanse is wider than this common personal experience. It’s fitting that it was filmed in West Berlin while the Berlin wall still stood, for this is a movie of pairs. Just as there are two sides to the wall, there are two sides inside of Anna. Mark sees two of her, one a pleasantly soft green-eyed doppelganger in their son’s teacher. Even Anna’s lover Heinrich is the opposite of Mark who prefers to rationalize when Heinrich wants to understand, to team up and figure Anna out. Heinrich leans toward the divine, reaching god through fucking or dope. Mark pleads and bargains or hits her across the face. In essence, both men exercise their control over Anna in their own way. Though Mark suspects her unfaithfulness, It is not Heinrich that Anna has devoted herself to. It is not love for him that has possessed her, though she knows love. In her need to break free, Anna creates a doppelganger of Mark that leads to death for nearly all who lay eyes on it.
Sister Faith and Sister Chance: The most famous scenes in the film are those of histrionic emotional expression. Adjani’s performance is renowned for its effect, because for all its grandiosity and excess, it is genuine. When the body is allowed to express all depths of emotion and thought the result is often hard to watch. It’s erratic and ugly; the honesty of it is disturbing. But it is also profoundly moving and freeing, in its own way. From her first moment on screen, the depths that Adjani is pulling from are her own, not an implied or choreographed pain. This is a level that none of Żuławski’s other films have been able to reach, though not for lack of trying. It would be easy to dismiss this melodramatic piece of work as intentionally ludicrous. If anything, both empathy and awe are required to watch this film because deep down some women have part of what Anna has: an unspeakable, indescribable desperation. Anna wants freedom, her desire is to be released, almost wanting to escape herself. She is possessed by pure raw desire but at the same time filled with self-loathing and shame. She is in a bloody war with herself and the men around her. For some, the depth of that hysterical potential will light a lamp of recognition, of sameness. What Anna displays is what happens when people are given a weight that is not carried properly. We are left to marvel at what her struggle must be; what shame lies in her truth. She kills to keep her secrets. She is unstoppable.
I Think of You as a Monster: Sam Neill aims to give back measure for measure as Mark struggles with his love and hate for Anna. His pain is that of an addict: sweating and shaking, he writhes in torment as time passes through him like a sieve. He is a man whose masculinity is challenged and so his anger comes out fierce and abusive. We watch him repeatedly move through the grieving cycle without ever achieving release. The grave for his marriage is already prepared when he says, “I’m at war against women. They have no foresight, there is nothing about them that’s stable, there is nothing to trust. They’re dangerous.” The transparency of Żuławski working through his own devastation and issues with his wife through Mark is frightening at times but also remarkable.
I am the Maker of my Own Evil: Both Possession’s spoken and unspoken horror elements are hefty. The heavy and dark mood is apparent immediately and never lifts throughout the entire two hours. Any moment Neill and Adjani share on screen is charged and bloodcurdling. Their fights are not the only source of tension. While arguing in the kitchen, Anna crudely makes hamburger or cuts raw meat, the grinder and electric knife competing with their shouts. At times they physically hurt themselves and each other, two bleeding mouths crying out. All around them the camera is in constant motion, swinging, twirling, pushing and pulling, looping you into the swirl of emotions with dizzying effect. Legendary effects designer Carlo Rambaldi (Alien, Deep Red, E.T.) worked on the manifestation of Anna’s desire, a crude phallic phenomenon that makes love to her as it develops and grows. As always, Żuławski’s writing is powerful. Each line is a thick and heady gust of pitch-black poetry. He favours philosophical thought, religious themes, confusing and vague dialogue that hides and hints at things left unsaid for fear. Perhaps in this case it is impossible to really say what needs to be said with words. Like all his films, there are moments of grotesque humour tucked inside the terror. These moments are a welcome quick-release valve for the pressure that the rest of the film builds up, but the same things may not be funny every time.
Overall: While many herald Possession as the most brutal divorce movie, its conception is far greater than a work of anger from a shattered marriage. The themes inside run so deep that this movie must be watched with a careful eye and listening ears repeatedly, preferably in the theatre. Possession boasts visceral performances with an ending that leaves you dreadfully numb or wildly released and murmuring, “Don’t open, don’t open, don’t open…”
Featured Image: Gaumont