Now being re-released theatrically with a pristine 4k restoration in celebration of its 40th anniversary by Metrograph Pictures, the cult following of Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 psychological horror film Possession should reach an even wider audience amongst younger cinephiles and film buffs in thanks to word-of-mouth and film raves on Letterboxd. Upon having a successful screening at Fantastic Fest, as well at the the Detroit Film Fest in my film community in Detroit , MI that is sponsored by Cinema Lamont, it is relieving that Possession will find an even wider audience 40 years upon its release.
Possession is an anxiety-inducing and intense film essay in psychological horror, sexual panic, and marriage relationships that echoes the work of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, but only far more of a nightmare. In this artful and fully realized work of art, Zulawaski’s horror film is inundated with rich abstractions, surrealism, complex characterizations, and evocative subtext and themes. Shot on location in West Berlin in 1980, the use of the Berlin Wall ties in the themes of a nation divided against itself ends up being a reflection for the themes of division and duplicity found by the films main characters, married couple Mark (Sam Neil) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani), whose marriage is collapsing, as it deteriorates into complete cruelty. The film is structured in two halves, as if the first half plays out like a more distressing variation of Scenes from a Marriage as the latter half becomes a psychological horror film in the vein of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion merged with the sensibilities of a David Cronenberg film, most notably The Brood.
A visually menacing, otherworldly horror picture, whose setting is a surreal one that defies realism and unfolds with dream logic, which examines a marriage collapse in the aftermath of a torn Berlin, Zulawski explores emotional truths about the endless state of cruelty within the human condition. Possession is easily one of the greatest horror films ever released, one that is in the same realm of discussion as Dario Argento, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and Roman Polanski who also crafted artful, demanding and hallucinatory horror films that hold surrealist qualities.
Despite the pigeonholing to other films and styles, there is no doubt that Possession is a singular and visionary work that holds its own distinctive sensibilities that is still unlike anything you will experience. Not only does Zulawski deliver cynical themes about human nature that are misanthropic, there is still a metaphysical quality in which characters are aiming for repentance; as they even attempt to reinvent themes in this purgatory realm they are trapped in that consists of emotional suffering, cruelty, hatred, miscarriages, torment, and violence. Merged with a hyperreal style with some dark comedy, that also holds haunting images of a grotesque creature that feels like it’s right out of a Franz Kafka novel or a David Cronenberg film. All of this pivots Possession into an unforgettable experience that will forever haunt your subconscious.
Greatly directed from scene to scene, an ominous menace penetrates every scene with it’s brooding atmosphere, and elegant set-pieces that are submerged with astonishing tracking shots, impressive camera movements, and a brilliant use of wide lenses that vary between wide-open spaces and closed-in confined areas, a crafty command of a blue color scheme, and some more frantic camera work as the drama escalates–these are all the impressive stylistic traits found in Possession. Intoxicating and spellbinding on every level, the film deals with the vileness of cruelty, that is also structured with brilliant jump cuts, impressive monologues, and of course Isabella Adjani’s fearless and bravura performance is one the greatest performances in cinematic history. It’s a tour-de-force performance that took Adjani years to emotionally recover from. The breakdown scene that serves as a metaphor for her own miscarriage is one of the most shocking scenes you will see in any horror film.
Uncomfortable, and at times darkly amusing, cold yet deeply personal, and always universal in theme, Possession is an effective horror film because it shocks us with it’s anxiety and uncomfortable truths how humanity treats one other than with endless gore and kills, such as the endless and loud bloody count in David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills, or the desensitized violence you find in many modern horror films. The film’s cult success lies primarily on its first-rate performances merged with thought-provoking subject matter that raises complex questions about the state of humanity that never seems to evolve out of misery, war, chaos, and division. The film also explores issues of infidelity, narcissism, misogyny, and even innocence.
There is no doubt when Mark and Anna’s young child Bob is always glued to the bathtub, he’s an innocent young boy who is horrified by all the wickedness that retreats to take a bath so he can cleanse himself; it can also serve as a metaphor for a womb in wanting to escape either to a different realm, perhaps to a state of non-existence. Young Bob even screams out at the end of the film “Don’t open it, don’t open it” as Mark’s doppelganger knocks endlessly on the door, and Anna’s doppelganger is reluctant in opening the door as we hear chaos and bombs in the air that recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Shame and Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. This is Zulowski’s commentary on the Berlin Wall, that no matter what side comes in, everyone loses to the corrupt side of human nature.
It’s in these key scenes during the aftermath of police shootout that feels like a parody of action films where the themes of duplicity come intertwined. In a cynical viewpoint of Zulawski in how humans are aiming for repentance, forgiveness, redemption from God so they can reinvent themselves from their own cruelty, only to find that it’s all a façade as it’s sad reality that many humans will rationalize that they will change when in fact they don’t. No matter how one perceives Possession, there is no denying that it’s a nightmarish film that holds many layers and endless interpretations.
At its core, the main experience is something of hysteria and anxiety as the performances in the film are expertly histrionic. The performance by Heinza Bennett, who plays Heinrich, feels like a role that Udo Kier would lap up, who plays the man of a free-love intellectual that believes in astrology and higher forms of consciousness eventually is led to his own demise due to his own shattering heartbreak after he encounters Anna residing with the grotesque creature; in which her own madness leads to brutal murders of two private investigators that Mark hired to find where her new residence is.
As bizarre and deranged Possession can be, it is a superbly fascinating, greatly-acted framework that feels just as unique and timeless as it was back in 1981, it also has flawed but richly drawn characters that the audience will be on a compelling journey with for nearly 2 hours. In contrast, Possession is a no-holds film that prevents taking sides of the marriage, both are flawed, both are tormented. The film unfolds with many dramatically effective and horrifying moments. Zulawski’s abstract film explores our existence and boldly travels to dark places that many pieces of cinema fail to go, with sheer audaciousness and shocking anticipation. Possession is a masterpiece of terror, that finds shock and paranoia in the mundane forces of our own reality, this alone makes it a triumphant and essential work that will be eternally treasured throughout cinematic history.