“She created a monster as her secret lover!” screamed the poster for Possession (1981), a truly indefinable 80s horror hybrid, brainchild of the hugely undervalued Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski. This is a tagline that not only short-sells the film’s deeply felt psychosexual themes, but also drips with sensationalist desperation on the part of the distributors, faced with marketing a film that was neither arthouse nor grindhouse, but some tentacled love-child of the both. Possession is a film that is impossible to critique from any kind of an objective viewpoint, so frantic is its nightmarish anti-narrative.
The plot concerns the breakdown of a couple’s marriage following the husband’s (Sam Neill) discovery that his wife Anne (Isabelle Adjani) is undergoing an affair with another man. As loyalties begin to crumble it becomes apparent to both men that Anne is concealing something far more disturbing than either of them had anticipated. By locating the audience in what appears to be the recognisable territory of domestic melodrama, Zulawski proceeds to attack the screen with confrontationally heightened mise-en-scène, straight-to-camera monologues and scenes so incoherently hysterical that one feels mad just by bearing witness, as though by watching, accepting, you are somehow a part of its fruition.
Banned as one of the original 72 ‘Video Nasties’, the film is famous for the astonishing and deeply troubling scene in which Adjani undergoes a physical transformation that one can only describe as a demonic miscarriage. Cackling hysterically as though in seizure, her laughter descends into shrieks of pain as blood and slime pour from every facet of her body. A scene of such piercing intensity, it has inspired both Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002), and it’s testament to the enduring impact of the film that neither movie successfully evokes the same sense of utter nightmarish abandon. It’s little wonder that Adjani claimed that it took several years to exorcise the role of Anna from her psyche.
Possession is a deeply personal film, a work of art with a rich system of semiotics comparable to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976) and David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) which both filmmakers admitted were responses to their own fears of parenthood. Here, Zulawski tackles the Cronenbergian themes of sex and death and their interrelation through equally gooey bouts of body horror, the aforementioned monster/lover designed by E.T. (1982) creator Carlo Rambaldi. However, Possession is a different beast – less cerebral (which is not to say the film isn’t intelligent) and more uniquely visceral than anything in Cronenberg’s canon and perhaps any other film ever made, the essence of Possession’s brilliance is its elusive meaning.
While it may be overly long, occasionally disappointingly coherent in its symbolism – the introduction of white-clad schoolteacher, also played by Adjani, being too obvious a visualisation of the Madonna/whore complex – and certainly not a film that everyone will appreciate (Neill’s wonderfully mannered and intense performance is certainly an acquired taste), Possession is a film that feels perfect despite, or perhaps because, of its imperfections, a film that is wonderful for simply existing. Originally butchered to 80 minutes by its American distributors, this two-hour uncut version has finally been given a Blu-ray release in the UK and is long overdue a reappraisal.