Possession: a movie review

If you’ve heard only one thing about writer-director Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 cult film Possession, it is almost certainly one of these two: either A) it features a rather untidy scene of Isabelle Adjani flipping out in a subway underpass, or B) it is completely banana-cakes insane. Both of these are understatements.

Possession is often labeled a cult horror film, and it qualifies on both fronts, but it’s also something weirder, something odder, something more self-aggrandizing than just cult or horror… something that might best be summed up as existential nutjobbery, or maybe domestic drama as eschatological disaster.

In the first few scenes, Mark (Sam Neill) returns from a long business trip to his home in cold-war-era Berlin and to his family. But his wife Anna (Adjani at her most luminous) isn’t sure she wants him to stay… and isn’t sure she wants him to leave… and that’s the most certainty we’ll see from either of them for the next two hours.

We know, as Anna might not, that Mark is some sort of shady governmental agent, that he wants to quit, that he’s being shadowed and that their home is under surveillance. Mark’s work means that a pall of nuclear-holocaust anxiety hangs over the first act of the film, but our writer-director downplays it until, rather suddenly and with a jarring comic note, he cashes in on it in the last act.

Though Mark and Anna insist repeatedly on the necessity of maintaining normalcy for their only-occasionally-appearing young son, Bob, both parents disintegrate almost immediately. Indeed, it happens at such a frantic pace as to be almost entirely uncinematic in its nature; it’s hard to develop empathy for characters who start out screaming and never stop, or to be anxious about their state of mind when they both go insane in the film’s first act.

The story itself is pretty coherent, surprisingly enough, if completely mad; Zulawski himself cheerfully recounts his elevator pitch for Possession: “it’s about a woman who [redacted] with an octopus.” And, uh, it is, if by “octopus,” he meant some tentacled… thing… that is either a mind-controlling monster, a gestating doppelganger, or a lump of abstract guilt and fury made carnal. Or all three.

But even this uneasy coherence develops despite the best efforts of Neill and Adjani as Mark and Anna. I can’t blame either actor; they are swinging for the fences in these roles, reeling around in an unremitting wallow of screaming marital discord, spitting blood and keening with agony and smashing cartons of yogurt again walls and trashing their homes and WHAT THE HECK. They’re clearly doing everything in their power — and I do mean everything — to present a harrowing portrait of a marriage in turmoil.

No, it’s the director who should be taken to task: he simply eschews moderation, ignoring the narrative and aesthetic forms that allow us to engage thoughtfully with a work: how quiet allows tension to develop, how calm lows allow us to see fervid highs and vice versa, how repetition robs even the most shocking displays of their power. Possession consists almost exclusively of climactic scenes, highly pitched scenes, vivid disorienting scenes that would be staggering if they were set against a backdrop of daily life, or if they capped a slowly climbing rise in activity.

Instead, these scenes spit out like the rambling of a madman, no punctuation or pause or respite. The whole movie passes like a fever dream, howling its fury and anxiety… up until the last few minutes, which are quieter. Here, the film’s most haunting moments unspool in relative calm, with no blood or beatings or tentacle-thingies, with none of the hysterically overwrought agony of the previous two hours, just the simple pleading of a child and an unforgettable sound in the background. It’s almost worth seeing for those few minutes. Almost.

Allow me to leave you with one last word: BANANACAKES.

[This review is cross-posted to The VideoReport.]

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