Halloween Horror Movie Marathon: ‘Possession’

Possession (1981)

Possession defies strict categorization as a genre film. It avoids the common devices used by horror but it lacks the subtlety and restraint of most dramas; hell, it lacks the subtlety and restraint of almost any kind of movie. I have to confess that when I started watching this movie Monday night, it had been sitting around for some time. I had forgotten what it was so I prepared myself for some kind of Italian demon/zombie/possession movie. I was expecting a fun, gory genre horror flick. Instead I got one of the craziest “art-house” films I can recall seeing.

Mark (Sam Neill) comes home to the news that his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani) wants to leave him and their son. This drives him over the edge and when he subsequently learns that she has been having an affair, he goes even more insane. He pleads with her, yells and screams at her, and he even tries to attack her but she resists him and she won’t go back to him. He meets Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), the man she’s been seeing, and he’s just as nuts as the rest of them, though with a lot less histrionics. But Heinrich suspects there is more to what’s going on than what Anna is telling either of them, that she’s living in some mystery location and possibly seeing one or more other lovers. Mark hires a detective agency to follow her and discover what she does with her time. What they find is something straight out a nightmare.

It takes about 45 minutes before we get to the horror elements of the film, but even prior to that I noticed that the performances of Sam and Isabelle seemed to emulate what you’d see from a character in a regular horror film about demonic possession. Well, there are no rotating heads or eyes turning different colors, but the screaming and the physical actions of the actors hint towards it. One of the characters rubs at their skin in a way that suggests they’re trying to scrape something off of or out of their body.

Speaking of histrionics, Isabelle Adjani gives what is possibly the most insane performance in film history. There is a sequence that goes on for about five minutes that mainly consists of her screaming and flailing and writhing on the ground. I’ve never seen anything like it. Ever. She won the award for best actress at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival for her performance in this and a film called Quartet. I haven’t seen that one but she definitely deserves some kind of award for what she does in Possession.

For me the movie was almost all about the performances. I was hypnotized by the blocking, the body movements, the tone and volume of the actors’ voices. I focused on these aspects to the point where I couldn’t tell and didn’t care about the dialogue being screamed at me.

According to Wikipedia, the director Andrzej Żuławski wrote the screenplay during a messy divorce. I don’t doubt that one bit. I’ve certainly had times during difficult relationships where I’ve felt what the actors so vividly display. So if you’re going through a break up, this movie might be cathartic or severely torturous for you.

Can I recommend it? Yes, I can, but it’s not for everybody. But if you’re up for a raw, primitive, emotional film experience like no other you’ve ever had before, have at it. If you can find a copy.


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