Short Cuts - Forgotten Gems: Possession (1981)

[2 August 2006]

By Matt Mazur

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Before you ask, this is not the wishy-washy adaptation of the time-spanning novel Possession starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In fact, it is thankfully as far away from a Gwyneth Paltrow movie as possible.  But, if you are intent on seeing a romance, this version could work in a slightly perverted way. Of course, your idea of romance must include alien seduction, bouts of incomprehensible screaming and a lot of brutal killing.

Directed with a slimy mix of David Cronenberg’s gut-spilling style and Brian De Palma obsession, Andrzej Zulawski’s version of Possession piles on an atmosphere of anxiety and gruesome horror and adds a decidedly European sensibility to the mix. It is a film that highlights the tragic underpinnings of obsession, exposes sexual panic and stands by its characters, unafraid to show their flaws. The film is not easy to explain. The narrative can get very confusing and sometimes downright nonsensical. Yet is also remains compelling and intriguing. Beginning with what seems like a commonplace break-up of a marriage, the films sets out to answer a simple question: why has the woman left?

The film begins as a mystery of sorts, with the two leads acting out what seems to be a domestic drama. Isabelle Adjani plays Helen/Anna. Turns out, there are several good reasons for to leave her marriage to Sam Neill: first and foremost, she has a more commanding lover. One is the woman we meet at the beginning of the story, the other her son’s schoolteacher. Anna is a huge wreck. She’s spending time in a strange place with someone equally strange, but keeps re-appearing at home, usually to throw some sort of hysterical fits or to grind her own hamburger. What she is doing and why she is so messed up is one of the film’s most interesting premises: her secret is guarded wholly.

Then the story really gets twisty. Is Adjani a murderess? Is she a scientist? It’s all very unclear but incredibly fun to watch. The denouement involves, without totally spoiling any surprises, clones, a wormy alien-like being, the couple’s young son, explicit murder, the cops and the dark and shadowy corners of Berlin.  The rest of the film is part obsession thriller, part horror film. The lead performers manage to draw in the viewer, despite given quite little to work with, Neill, who I have never really gravitated towards as a performer, has never been better: he seems born to play the shadowy creep. Both he and Adjani keep the air of mystery and madness palpable and ground all of the sick little theatrics that abound. The creature effects were done by Carlo Rambaldi, who also did the first Alien and they are indeed horrific. There is a lot of blood in this movie!

Adjani must have been a physical wreck shooting this film as it requires her to maintain a highly strung, hysterical demeanor almost throughout the film’s entirety (For her work in Possession Adjani won a Caesar and also Best Actress honors at the Cannes Film Festival). She has a metaphysical scene of miscarriage/possession in a Berlin U-Bahn station that is stunning. It is one of the most physically challenging scenes I have seen an actor perform. It is so carefully choreographed and staged, it’s almost like she’s a puppet. It’s freaky and weird and upsetting. Adjani has an affinity for exposing the sexuality and carnality in all of her creations. She makes sex a big part of her character’s motivations. Danger and violence also seem to be something that infuses the actresses’ work as well: all of her characters seem to face complicated mental and physical challenges. Another thing that impressed me was how great she was while speaking English, which usually can be a downfall for a foreign-born actress. Adjani gives everything to the character and it’s just fascinating to watch, no matter how confusing the film may or may not be for you.

-Matt Mazur

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/short-cuts-forgotten-films-possession/