Written & Directed by Andrzej Żuławski
The most terrifying experiences we have daily are through our nightmares. The worst is when the nightmare feels so real you forget you are asleep, becoming lost in a world of symbols rather than logic. Your anxieties manifest as material beings tormenting you, familiar landscapes become claustrophobic mazes, and the faces of those you love can serve as masks for dark thoughts and fears. Writer-director Andrzej Żuławski places his horror film Possession in this realm from the first frame. Now the question of whose nightmare we are living inside of is definitely up in the air.
Mark (Sam Neill) is a spy for West Germany who returns home to his nation’s half of Berlin. His wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), is distant and distraught, revealing that she wants a divorce but won’t explain why. Mark has a breakdown and retreats to a hotel where he descends into a drinking binge. Once he comes out of his stupor, Mark returns to the apartment to find their son Bob filthy and alone. When Anna returns, she is cagey about where she has been and why she left Bob alone. As Mark investigates, he learns Anna has a love, Heinrich, who she has been meeting with when Mark is out of town for work. But it quickly becomes apparent that she isn’t going to see Heinrich. Anna has a dark secret, hidden away in a decaying apartment building across town, something that should not be in our world that has taken over her life.
Possession is most certainly a horror movie, but which genre has been up for debate since it was released in an edited form nearly forty years ago. There are definite body horror elements, causing critics to evoke David Cronenberg’s The Brood, another film about women and motherhood. The confusion about how to classify Possession lies in how Żuławski shifts the type of narrative while never changing his tone. The picture begins with intense violent relationship drama, becomes a philosophical & psychological breakdown, then veers into grotesque body horror before finally acting as a metanarrative that breaks down all forms of reality we were previously presented with. In those final moments, it truly feels like you are watching a nightmare that has been filmed.
So much kudos for making the film reach those transcendent levels of horror goes to Isabelle Adjani, who doesn’t hold anything back in her performance. Adjani can conjure up pure emotion during scenes of her breakdown to the point that a viewer might be genuinely worried about the actress. There were rumors that she attempted suicide in the wake of making Possession, but I think those are likely silly exaggerations that belie how damn good her acting is. The most famous scene from the picture is a flashback where Anna talks about the miscarriage she had while Mark was away and it plays out like a woman psychologically disintegrating before our eyes. The term “scream queen” gets tossed around a lot in horror, but Adjani cements herself as the one deserving of that throne with a wordless visceral performance.
A viewer could not be blamed if they walked away completely confused by what they just saw. This is a story-driven by emotion, not logic, and mainstream cinema has trained us to think in terms of plots and character arcs. For the most part, that works with movies, but you have to throw all of that out the window with a picture like this. Żuławski wrote this script during his own divorce proceedings, and so it makes the film a confession of his torment during that time, trying to determine what his former relationship had even been. What we see is Mark’s complete breakdown projected onto his personal life. Anna is a victim of him and his desire to own & control her. This a reflection of what love feels like in its most intense moments, incredibly dangerous & volatile, as well as intensely possessive. You want all of that person’s time and inner self, but we can inevitably not give all of ourselves to any person lest we destroy ourselves.