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Possession

I’ve been meaning to see POSSESSION – the 1981 French/West German co-production from Polish director Andrzej Zulawski – for years. I’ve heard superlatives from its devotees, knowing little of its plot, just a description of its strange, arty vibe. But holy shit does it live up to the hype!

It’s a crazy fuckin horror movie. It’s a crazier fuckin relationship drama. Mark (Sam Neill right after OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT) comes home to Berlin from a business trip, meets his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani, THE DRIVER) outside their apartment, is frustrated that she hasn’t made a decision yet. It seems things are not working, they don’t know what to do, and are doing a bad job of faking it in front of their young son Bob (Michael Hogben). Anna is manic and indecisive, and Mark finds out she’s been sleeping with some guy he doesn’t know named Heinrich (Heinz Bennent, THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM).

Mark is understandably frustrated, angry, jealous, impatient. But he’s far from blameless. He seems to have abandoned her for whatever his job is. (We later see that he’s some sort of spy, which seems to only be there to make the story more weird until it becomes setup for a stretch where he does some crazy on-the-spot MacGyvering. Not that I need that set up.) He’s quick to vindictively refuse to visit their son. When she hits him he hits back, repeatedly and hard, then chases her down the street with blood all over her nose and mouth. It’s scary.

Their breakup is a feverish back and forth. Lashing out at her, then trying to make amends. Stepping up to take care of Bob when she starts disappearing, trying to track her down, talking to her friend Margit (Margit Carstensen, THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT). He finds Heinrich, who turns out to be a bizarre older man who lives with his mother (Johanna Hofer, VERONIKA VOSS), preaches some kind of free love and doesn’t seem to even understand why Mark cares about the infidelity. During their first face-to-face confrontation he practically makes a pass at Mark, then does some weird modern dance martial art on him.

For 45 minutes it’s this stuff, this heightened, surreal marital spat, which is engrossing on its own. But the opening credits made a strategic promise: creature by Carlo Rambaldi. (This was probly right before he did E.T.!) So we wait for it, wondering how the fuck a creature is gonna fit into all this. When we finally see it it’s still shocking.

By this point Mark has hired a private detective (Carl Duering, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) to spy on Anna in her new apartment. The p.i. pretends to be a building inspector and “checks the windows” in every room, thinking she must have a boyfriend in one of them. And I guess she does, if The Creature can be considered a boyfriend. We see it from outside a dimly lit room as we look in through the doorway. It feels like something we’re not supposed to be seeing. And we’re not quite sure what exactly it is we’re looking at. Our eyes don’t believe it.

The best scene is the next day, when the detective has disappeared, so his boss (Shaun Lawton, CLOUD ATLAS) goes looking for him. He tries the same inspector shtick, and Anna doesn’t bother to try to hide it this time, just tells him “He’s in there.” And he walks in and sees it laying on the bed – a gooey blob with squid-like tentacles, glistening in slime and blood, vaguely almost sort of human shaped, writhing hornily.

“He’s very tired,” Anna explains. “He was making love to me all night.”

Even before it starts getting really nuts, there always seems to be something odd going on in every scene to keep it from being boring, or to make it feel a little off. Like when Mark goes to hire the detective he goes into his office and sits down in the chair and starts swiveling it right and left as he talks. At first it seems like the nervous energy of a guy who can’t believe he’s hiring somebody to spy on his wife. But he keeps doing it until it becomes the focus of the scene.

In another one they have an intense talk, and she answers his questions with nods, but she never faces him, and is using a loud electric knife and meat grinder the entire time. Then she suddenly slices her own neck with the knife, and he knocks it out of her hand and drags her into the bathroom to bandage her and talk her down. Then he goes back into the kitchen and makes three small slices in his arm with the same knife. When things have calmed down they talk again and he’s sitting in Bob’s tiny chair at his tiny desk.

I mean, you talk about having too much drama in your relationships! This is pure undiluted maximum drama drops straight into your eyeballs. Fights, fits, screaming, self mutilation, cheating, leaving, disappearing, shacking up, abuse. The kind of couple that meets in a restaurant and sits at separate tables around a corner with their backs turned as they talk and they still end up chasing each other around the place screaming and throwing furniture and the kitchen staff has to turn into bouncers. Causing a scene in my opinion. Not as much as if she brought her tentacle toy in there, of course. Who knows what kind of inappropriate PDA they’d be making?

Neill is outstanding, but Adjani is otherworldly, carefully ratcheting the full range from natural to mega like Nic Cage in MATCHSTICK MEN or FACE/OFF. It’s a dual role too, by the way, but that has nothing to do with what makes it so impressive. There’s one single scene that obliterates the entire filmographies of most normal human actresses. In a sequence of long takes she walks alone in a subway terminal, upset, then shaking, then spasming, then completely flipping out, spinning and slapping against the wall, smashing her grocery bag against it, splattering an unbelievable amount of eggs, cream and yogurt and shit that she smears and then collapses and rolls and slides around in, jerking madly, screaming and whimpering, until she’s sitting on the ground, a river of goo pouring from between her legs, some monstrous miscarriage.

(Luckily no other commuters ever walk past her during this. That would be awkward for everybody.)

POSSESSION is some kind of deranged masterpiece – relatable, horrendous, deeply uncomfortable, bizarre, hilarious, tragic, cynical, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, or thought of seeing. It’s amazing. Bring a date.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 16th, 2019 at 10:21 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “Possession”

  1. Republican Cloth Coat

    October 16th, 2019 at 10:59 am

    Yes, this movie is totally unwound. Yet it proceeds logically. Watching it with someone is a test of friendship. You may regard, and be regarded, differently.

    I once took a date to Tetsuo: The Iron Man. In my defense, I wasn’t sure what the movie was about, only that Tetsuo was a metal fetishist. The other party was bemused, but not really offended.

  2. This is not really my type of movie. I’m not as fascinated by dark sexual obsession or unhealthy relationships as most people, and I seem to be allergic to European sound design. I hear all that dead air on the soundtrack and start looking for the door. But if I had to go to bat for one Eurosleaze abusive relationship tentacle porn drama, it’d definitely be this one.

  3. Ok, here’s my story: A couple of Halloweens back, a few of my co-workers organized an all-day horror movie marathon in our empty third floor event space. Flyers were made, giving the start times and titles of the films…except for the last one. You had to stick it out until the end if you wanted to know what it was, see?

    So I show up just after the second film starts (It was FRIGHT NIGHT, btw, my favorite vampire movie) and settle in for the long haul. There was pizza, more movies (sorry, don’t remember the rest of the lineup), and eventually I started in on the beer that I had brought. So I’m a little buzzed by the time of the secret movie.

    Now I gotta back up and tell you that all that October I had been listening to a Horror Movie Music playlist I had found on Youtube, which included the main theme to POSSESSION. So, I was aware of the movie, and being a lifelong Sam Neill enthusiast was quite eager to see it. But my internet research said that, at the time, there was no Region 1 DVD available.

    Anywhoozle, the secret disc goes in, and before anything comes up onscreen (i.e. black), THAT MAIN THEME starts playing and I shoot up, bolt straight, and I exclaim, “Holy SHIT. I know that music.”, and proceed to drink in the raw madness of the movie. Great day.

    And now I feel bad for skipping this year’s marathon, which was last Saturday. I wonder what the secret finale was.

  4. my favourite film of all time. i wasn’t sure that i‘d ever see a Vern review of this one, let alone such a glowing take.

    if this kind of thing is your jam, and why are you even watching movies if it isn’t, you will make countless decisions in your life that are far worse than reading Kier-La Janisse’s HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN, which is as harrowing and beautiful and unhinged and unforgettable as this masterpiece that inspired it/her.

    thank you, Vern. i’m so, so happy that you loved this one so much.

  5. This is my cup of tea, but I don’t have a Blu-ray and can’t find a DVD copy for under infinity dollars (except maybe an ebay bootleg). Where can I get this? Now I’m even more psyched.

  6. So glad you’ve gotten round to this one!
    I can remember recommending this one to you last year, minutes after I saw it.
    I can’t believe this film isn’t better known or discussed in horror best-ofs. It really is one of the best movies I have ever seen.
    Wouldn’t watch it with the missus, though! Jesus.

  7. You don’t need the Blu-ray or DVD to watch this. Try to watch it on VHS after a night out and just a bit too much to drink, ideally at a still impressionable age. For when people talk about “the stuff of nightmares” this is the actual movie they are talking about.

    This too made the “video nasty” lists in the UK and it really goes way above and beyond most of the cannibalism, revenge nightmares and zombies that made up the rest of those lists. For one thing this has an arthouse director and a visible budget, and on top of that it has a couple of actual movie stars giving it 100% with not a trace of irony.

    It’s also one of the great “divided Berlin” movies, maybe a fun double bill with WINGS OF DESIRE, although more likely with CHRISTIANE F. Not BRIDGE OF SPIES anyway.

    Massive Attack paid homage/ripped off the subway scene for their video for Voodoo In My Blood and while Rosamund Pike makes a decent fist of it, she doesn’t come close to Adjani. For one thing the music track eliminates the need for the persistent mewling, groaning, screaming that Adjani keeps up throughout the scene. But it makes you think about the movie GONE GIRL might’ve been.

  8. TCM plays this fairly often in their “weird shit” time slot (Saturdays at 2am). The first time I saw it, I went in completely cold, only knowing what time slot it was in. I have to say, even before it got to the tentacle porn/gooey creature miscarriages, I never once questioned why it was in the “weird shit” time slot.

  9. Thanks for THE HORSE WHISPERER, Vern. What with that and this and THE PIANO Sam Neill really was the go-to rejected husband back then. And THE HORSE WHISPERER would’ve been truly great, if Robert Redford had had tentacles.

  10. This is the rare non-David Lynch film that makes me think I’m losing my mind. “Intense” isn’t a strong enough word.

  11. This movie is so good just reading about it makes me want to start throwing chairs!

  12. Thanks, jojo. I have had cable (or owned a working television) for nearly 11 years and am pretty much stuck to DVD or streaming. I also love dog fighting and long walks in the park. There are cheap DVD copies you can find on ebay, but I’m pretty sure they’re bootlegs. I’m too all-in on DVD. Death before Blu-ray. The (mostly passive) search continues…

  13. Sorry, have “not” had cable or a working television. Turns out the “not” matters.

  14. This review was the kick in the pants I needed, so a few days ago my wife and I sat on the couch together, cracked a bottle of wine, and watched a spooky Halloween double feature of MIDSOMMAR and POSSESSION. Not sure if our marriage will survive.

  15. I’ll go with the inoculation theory and posit that if your marriage survives this next year then, after the battle testing of these movies, it’s fucking indestructible. Here’s hoping.

    I know the entire internet was eagerly following my quest to get this on DVD, and I’m tentatively happy to report I found and purchased from Ebay what is promised not to be a bootleg…that will arrive sometime in December. Eager to watch and report back, because this review/thread has me pretty psyched.

  16. December?!? Is it coming from Ulan Bator or something? Also, congrats on finding a DVD. It’s certainly a unique movie and a very…interesting experience.

  17. I’m convinced a bike messenger or lone warrior is personally delivering it from Korea to the States.

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