Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Possession (1981)

Title: Possession (1981)

Director: Andrzej Zulawski

Cast: Sam Neil, Isabelle Adjani


There are only a handful of filmmakers out there who are willing to take the route of the truly bizarre. To be this kind of a filmmaker, the kind that makes films that can be considered truly bizarre, and outlandish, films that don’t adhere at all to the rules that Hollywood plays by, you have to be a filmmaker with real conviction. Studios will not want to give you money to make your film because of the simple fact that your movie will probably be something that will be considered a hard sell. And a film that a studio doesn’t know who to sell it to is something they don’t want. They want to know exactly who this movie is aimed at, so they can start working on that marketing campaign right away. Possesion is that kind of unorthodox film. It is so strange, so weird, and so bizarre, that it will only find life in the festival circuit or in the art house theater. And honestly, that’s just fine by me because at least that way we at least get to see this kind of film. Films that shock and titillate but at the same time have a brain. Though I’ll be real honest here, there are times in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession where you wont know what the hell is happening, because this is a film that Zulawski made for himself, to exorcise his own demons. You see, Zulawski made this film while in the middle of a divorce. In all honesty, this is one of the most crude and truthful attempts at capturing those last moments in a relationship when one of the members decides they simply don’t want to be with the other. The love, the lust is no longer there anymore.

The film tells the story of Mark and his wife Anna. They have been separated for some time, but for whatever reason, they apparently have decided to get back together. To see if they can work things out for the sake of their son. Turns out things aren’t working out at all. Anna doesn’t love Mark anymore. Naturally, Mark thinks that she has been unfaithful to him even though she flat out denies it. He doesn’t believe her, so he sends a private investigator to follow her and see what they can uncover. As they say, sometimes some things are better left in the dark. This movie really shook me because I personally went through a break up recently after a relationship of many years. I’d like to think that I went about the whole ordeal in a rather adult manner, without any unnecessary drama. I mean, I figure if things aren’t working out, then why force it you know? Sometimes love just dies, people change, feelings change. I understand that. You just have to learn to move on with your life, my advice is this: life rarely stays in a stand still, things are always evolving. What you think will be one way forever; will probably end up changing drastically; if you ask me, that’s just the nature of the beast as far as life goes, you just have to learn to adapt. Or live a tortured life, whichever you prefer. But on this film, Sam Neill’s character doesn’t learn to adapt very well. He doesn’t take the idea of a divorce very well at all.

In fact, what I saw in Mark is what I never want to be ever! Mark is a guy who completely looses it when confronted with the idea of a break up. So much so that he seems to go completely crazy for a while. And I mean completely whacko batshit insane! In this way, Possession seemed a lot like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), where we have a protagonist who we follow through the whole film, but unfortunately we have to see them disintegrate into madness. Same as Polanski did in Repulsion, Zulawski uses odd camera angles to demonstrate Mark’s dementia. Speaking of Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani’s performances, I have to applaud both of them; they truly portrayed a couple who deals with divorce in the most childish and out of control way possible. I guess in this way Possession serves as a mirror to what we should never succumb to should we ever face this kind of situation. And lets face it, chances are that if you life in this world, you will face a heartbreaking breakup at some point in your life. See this movie before you go through one, you will want to deal with things in a more humane and controlled manner.

But Zulawski’s films are never about control. In fact, they are always about going overboard. About excess. This is the reason why I compare Zulawski with Ken Russell, another filmmaker who thrives in depicting human excess in his films. In both of these filmmakers films, characters succumb to the darkest and most depraved sides of human behavior. On Possession, characters don’t want to behave in the correct way; they behave diametrically opposite to what is considered normal or proper. They go all the way crazy and wrong. Not only do they behave incorrectly in regards to their break up, we also see Mark and Anna’s child being neglected because they are so self centered and selfish. They are only thinking about their own emotions and their own state of mind, they are so self centered that they forget that they have a child living with them. This is a very interesting aspect of the film and one that follows the characters all the way through out the development of the story. We get to see the child’s side of the story and how he is affected by the situation the parents are living through. I found it interesting how more then once in the film the kid hides underwater, as if to escape the horrible situations he is living through. His parents fight, scream and even physically attack each other, most of the time completely ignoring the child.

Both actors outdo themselves; I’ve never seen Sam Neill act so crazy on any film. But it seems like Zulawski wanted the characters to purposely act like they were high on something all the time, because there are very few moments where the characters act in a way that can be considered ‘normal’. The performances on this film aren’t to be considered realistic in any sense of the word, they are enhanced, like human emotions on crack; running wild and without restraint. The only time they act in a normal fashion is whenever they face society, but when they are alone with themselves inside of their apartment, their ugly side surfaces and then, this ugly side is the only side they show each other. Isabelle Adjani won the best actress award on both the Cannes Film Festival and the Cesar Awards, and when you see this film you’ll see why. There is this one scene that demonstrates how feelings and emotions can make you blow up in anger, and make you completely loose it. Anna completely looses it in one moment of the film, so much so that it feels like she is possessed, hence the films title. The scene is grueling and long, but it makes an impact. It’s one of the most memorable sequences in the film. I say one of the most memorable ones because there are other sequences that will leave you shocked as well.

Possession is a film that takes every angle about a break up and analyzes with a magnifying glass. It explores that feeling of insecurity one might feel when faced with the possibility of the break up coming as a result of infidelity. Mark doesn’t believe Anna has been faithful, so he goes out of his way to find out the truth. It asks the question: do you really want to know the truth? If you ask the director of this film that question, he will tell you that no, you don’t want to know the truth. Mark keeps digging and digging until finally, he comes face to face with the reality of the situation. What Mark faces at the end of his search embodies how Zulawski sees that third person that can make its way into a relationship and completely destroy things. And this is where the cosmic horror of the film comes into play, and where a lot of people adhere H.P. Lovecraft influences on the film. I don’t want to give too much away for anybody, but I salute Carlo Rambaldi for contributing some truly excellent make up effects work on this film! Rambaldi’s contributions to this film make for one of the most memorable images this film has to offer, and one of the most shocking ones. By the way, these scenes involving tentacled creatures, suddenly give the film its horror angle. For the longest time, the film feels like a bizarre film about relationships, but it isn’t until we hit the creature angle that the film earns its horror badge. It reminded me a bit of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1978) in a way. In Eraserheard David Lynch compared an unwanted child to a horrible disfigured creature that caused nothing but discomfort and problems, in this way hammering home the message that if you don’t want to be a parent, then don’t, because it can be a nightmare to have a child and not be ready for that responsability. In Possession, Zulawski does the same, but dealing with the issues of infidelity. Giving the attributes of a monster, to the cause of the pain.

Closing words: this film is not only an exploration of the issues of divorce, and disintegration of a relationship, it also explores love triangles, the way a man feels when he is rejected, and the insecurities involved. In one scene Mark gets annoyingly inquisitive about the reasons why Anna wants to leave him. It explores the way a woman feels when she is between two men and the toll that a love triangle can take on a persons sanity. The way the female feels when faced with violence from men. And it even touches upon themes of the existence of god, and the inevitability of death. At one point Sam Neill’s character practically defies death at every turn, looking for the fastest way to die. An amazing movie! A word of warning though, it is a film that is not easy to digest. It is heavy on symbolisms and its hyperbolic style might seem a bit too harsh for some viewers. But if you like bizarre cinema as I do, and if you like excess in your films, then don’t miss this electrifying picture.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

On a recent viewing of 'Possession' I was struck by how relationships in this film are absorbed inter a wider political dimension. The setting for example, which has the Berlin Wall regularly in view is a symbol of both the political division of Germany and the division in the family. The disruption in the marriage, the surveillance, the need to escape is surely a metaphor for the communist rule under which the director lived and for a time worked.

Mr. Fiendish said...

glad you liked it

Franco Macabro said...

@Shaun: holy smokes, I wasnt aware of that side of the film, I guess Im not at all familiar with politics (actually I despise them!) so maybe this is why those themes whizzed by me.

But I see how the Berlin Wall could also be used to demonstrate the division in the marriage. I loved the locations the used, the german architecture was beautiful backdrop to the film.

I read that the director was going through a major break up while directing this film, and I guess this is why so many of the discussions between husband and wife ring so true. I mean, that authenticity just bleeds into the film, you can tell it all comes from a very real place.

@Mr. Fiendish: Thanks for lending me this film! I'd been meaning to see it for the longest time, I now need to buy it and make it a permanent part of my collection!

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I think its quite difficult to not miss the political undertones of this film. Any film set in the early 1980's in an around the Berlin wall (and the film repeatedly returns to this symbolic image)is set there for a specific reason. In addition the character played by Sam Neil is clearly working in secret for a shady government organisation (work that leads to him being away for long periods and thus creating the circumstances by which his wife takes a lover) showing the direct impact of cold war politics on a relationship. I despise politics as well, but this reading is impossible to ignore. It's a secondary level to the film, but one that is undeniably critical. The director himself has admitted as much in interviews. I'd be interested to see what your other readers think of this.

MPK said...

this movie freaked me the fuck out! I kinda loved that it did that for me... And Isabella Adjani and Sam Neill... Total Hot awesomeness.

Franco Macabro said...

I will admit to having somewhat of a problem in understanding some of the dialog in the film because the audio isnt so good. A lot of the dialog was lost to me, specially the dialog that goes on in that sequence where Mark is in an office speaking to a bunch of official looking individuals. All I got from that scene was that they payed him a butt load of cash.

But I do think that any political interpretations the film might had are secondary to the issues of divorce and heartbreak and psychological trauma. Mark working for the government and staying away from home was the springboard for the relationship break up though, I do agree about that.

The political issues might serve as a backdrop to the story, or as a springboard to trigger bigger issues, but they werent its central theme, at least thats not how I saw it. But then again, what do I know.

Same as you, I'd love to hear what others see in this film, since it is a film that lends its self to multiple interpretations.1

@Myra: Thanks for commenting, glad you liked this interesting, bizarre film.

Jen said...

Great review! This film has been on my radar for quite awhile but I have yet to see it. You have convienced me to seek it out.

Franco Macabro said...

Just remember, its an intense experience! An a flood of emotions. By the way, the film clocks in a little more then two hours, so be ready for that.

Neil Fulwood said...

This is finally getting an uncut DVD release in the UK this month. It's one of those films that I've heard a lot about but never managed to see. It sounds difficult, challenging and intriguing - I'm looking forward to comparing notes once I've seen it.

I Like Horror Movies said...

Two viewings in for me and I am still mystified and amazed by the film. Always reminds me of SANTA SANGRE!

Franco Macabro said...

@Neil: Cant wait to hear what you think about it Neil! Its a challenging film alright, and 2 hours of weirdness might get to certain people, but for those with the guts to see it all the way till the end realize, its a satisfying film! It provokes emotions, because its overflowing with them.

@Carl: Aaaaah, your the umpteenth person that reminds me to see SANTA SANGRE! I need to get my hands on that one, Im sure its pure Jodorosky craziness.

Derek C. said...

First things first, I discovered this film having watched the music video for the track titled, "Plague" by Crystal Castles. In fact, a fan of the band used scenes from the film to create a music video for the track, with imperative emphasis on the scene when Anna completely loses her mind in the subway. Watching her go mental, whilst the music plays is extremely intriguing. I highly recommend watching the music video. Anyway... having read this review, I felt it shed so much light on various things I had trouble picking up on. I must say, the entire time I was watching, I was so consumed in Isabelle Adjani's beauty, like, wow. She's absolutely gorgeous. Not to mention, her acting was phenomenal. Moreover, Sam Neill was brilliant. Definitely, a far cry from Jurassic Park! All in all, a wonderful film, one that definitely kept me on edge. As for the review, very insightful; as well as, helpful.

Franco Macabro said...

Glad you found the review insightful Derek, it's comments like these that make me keep on writing! :)

Yannick said...

Great review! This film totally blew my mind and your review helped to clarify many aspects of the confusion I was left with at its conclusion. Like Derek C, I was also mesmerized by Isabelle Adjani's beauty throughout the confusion and bizarreness. Awesome film...

conjure1 said...

I just finished watching the movie and I didn't understand it, and this is how I got to your site. I could see that you focus too much on the relationship side of the movie, but there is much much more going on here.

Aside form the politics, there is obviously a religious aspect, the question of god, belief, faith and chance, Heinrich himself when he talks of the concentration camps links them to God; he appears dressed in black, then sticks to white until his end, this must mean something. I'm not claiming to know anything here, but I cannot support wasting more time on such movies labeled as genius and must-sees just because we cannot understand them.

I do not think that Mark is selfish. He quits his job to spend time with his family, he takes care of Bob, he even accepts that Anna cheated on him and he is willing to forget it because of the family, and in the end, he reaches a sensible decision when he tells her; let's just sit and talk, and Anna calms down and they talk, and something changes in her, and I thought this is the moment when the movie might start making sense; instead it got stranger and stranger, and the religious hints came up again with the sound of the church bells at the death of Mark.

LIke you, I enjoyed the performances of the actors, I liked the shots, the camera movements, the setting… but I came to the conclusion that there is so much going on in this movie that in the end nothing of sense or meaning is being transmitted to the viewer. I would probably compare it to The Tenant and not to Repulsion. Repulsion makes sense at the very last scene and it has some coherence, whereas The Tenant left questions unanswered.

Lastly, thank you for your review. It's nice to know I'm not the only one trying to make sense of the movie :)

Franco Macabro said...

Totally agree with you, there's a moment especially towards the ending of the film, where I was finding it difficult to make sense of everything that was happening, but like a David Lynch film, it still stirred some sort of an emotion in me which is valid in my book, when a film makes me feel rather than understand.

kaz said...

It seems that this view i have is only mine. I thought that sam neill was 'possessed' by his jealousy, and thst she was 'possessed' by the creature. To the extent that she was killing people, and it was mybe feeding on their souls? It started off as a kind of beating heart with tentacles, and grew into a more 'man like' figure each time it fed. I felt that in the end it became the '2nd' sam neill as he was dying, and she took her own life to avoid a fate worse than before. Am i miles out??

Franco Macabro said...

Hey Kaz, that is certainly one way of looking at it, I agree with it. But of course, same as in a David Lynch film, Possession is open to many interpretations.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but this movie is a total piece of shit. And I am unhappy how this article exists to lure people into wasting their time by presenting it as something else.

In essence I agree with all above comments - the political connotations, the openness to interpretation, etc. Yes there is a question of god and a question of personal happiness and so many questions. But just presenting 235672 questions without taking time to at least explore if not answer any of them is dumb randomness, not deep profoundness. And to make things worse, this movie doesn't give any excuse for the viewer to care to interpret anything or to even give it a thought.

A good movie focuses on developing one or several themes and presents them through interesting and identifiable characters, luring the viewer to think and further consider the themes because of how much they care about the characters. This movie takes 7623547 themes and doesn't develop them through completely unidentifiable and detatched characters, distancing the viewer and making him focus on thoughts like "when is this shit going to START already?"

To me it felt like 2 hours of artistic jerking off rather than anything else, because most of the movie seems to come down to "LOOK what this actor can DO!". Like the above comment says, "I enjoyed the performances of the actors, I liked the shots, the camera movements, the setting… but I came to the conclusion that there is so much going on in this movie that in the end nothing of sense or meaning is being transmitted to the viewer." For example, this movie doesn't put the Berlin Wall in the background to explore the estrangement and the limitations this thing has created in characters, and doesn't use it to create a sort of atmosphere of "ANYTHING could be going on behind it" - it just randomly shoves it there and expects you to go "wooow... look at how SMART they are!!! It's the BERLIN WALL!!!"

It is then left to people who want to look smart to create stuff that isn't in this movie and pretend how they're so "smart" they "got it", while the dumb masses don't see the genius behind it - while in truth, the dumb masses see it for what it really is: a piece of shit.

Unknown said...

This came across to me like Lost Highway.

It basically starts and ends with basically the same two characters, in much the same situation, and with a man with pink socks, just so you know we're repeating the same story.

Before it starts over, we see the couple die, but then, a new couple, slightly different, but much the same, get together with the son, Bob, to start the story anew.

Maybe they're denying their deaths, or perhaps just the death of the relationship, maybe only one character is in denial that's it's all over; perhaps, because, they, the other, or both, died.

I think all the talk and symbolism of God, faith, chance, and death; especially Heinrich's mother's speeches about the soul; are there to indicate that this is some kind of bardo of the soul, much akin to that of Jacob from Jacob's Ladder.

Sure, "the creature" is bizarre, but it could been seen as death and decomposition in reverse, (much like the house that explodes and then puts itself back together, in Lost Highway, symbolizing the denial of death and the repeating of the cycle of denial), it's no coincidence that it's all grown up and ready to meet it's mate just as the couple is dying.

Someone in all of this understands what's really going on, the "end of the world" at the end of the film and Bob's attempts to either hide or drown himself after pleading for Helen not to open the door indicate as much, maybe the "pink socks" man knows, too, and is trying to convince Mark to give up and "let her / their relationship die," when they talk about the dead dog floating in the river.

I think it's all about either Mark and/or Anna's refusal to let go of something they both know is already dead and gone.

Unknown said...

I saw it as either Mark and/or Anna's refusal to let go of either a person or person(s) and/or a relationship that was already dead and gone.

The story begins anew, where it ends, with the same characters, the same situation, and a man with pink socks. The man with pink socks is not a real person, at least, not as we see him, but is a manifestation of the truth / knowledge of the truth, and he attempts to convince Mark to let Anna / Mark's relationship with Anna, remain dead; Mark refuses, however, and starts the cycle of denial and pointless fighting against fate, over, again.

The creature is death and decay, only shown in reverse, as a denial of a death and an attempt to deny the inevitable / fate / what's already happened and cannot be changed, is exactly what we are witness to.

Bob, sadly, is just along for the sick ride, and, even worse, he seems to be aware of it; a sadly accurate metaphor for the fate of children in these kinds of situations.

reidal roncourt said...

For me this movie if pure Lovecraft, at the end is obviously the creature feed of all the evil sam and isabella created and like an Antichrist born to be released outside in the world ..

Anonymous said...

***spoiler alert***

While Possession is about divorce, I prefer to see it as being about "cleaving" an interesting word in English as one can both cleave apart or cleave together. The movie is very much about division and rejoining to the point where it becomes akin to the slang expression "bumping uglies", for the characters slam into each other emotionally in increasingly ugly ways, culminating in Anna's monster, the Freudian Id made manifest with lashings of eros and thanatos. The interesting thing is that the monster IS the relationship and all the people involved in it, including the child (who is also a product of the relationship and the cause and the focus of the love and the ugliest behavior). As the film ends, I consider that the horror of the relationship makes a metaphysical shift from family microcosm to international macrocosm, and in the process, the toxic state of the Cold War world of 1981 and Mark and Anna's sick and now freshly codependent relationship mix together in an unholy coupling. While Mark and Anna are back together, Mark is now a monstrous clone of himself, fully insane, and Anna who loves the monster loves him. As the sirens that indicate the commencement of the nuclear obliteration of the world sound, the nuclear war seem like a cleansing, at once brought on by the secret monster's manipulation but ultimately its destruction. The real question is whether this is a film of philosophically cosmicist perspective? It is hard to say that it is, despite the Lovecraftian monster, as we are not dealing with human insignificance, but the insignificance of the cosmos itself in the face of human madness, thus while a fine horror movie it is in many ways anti-cosmicist, and perhaps a form of cinematic Fauvism. This is a difficult movie with many potential interpretations however, and that means it deserves solid discussion and analysis as a work of art, and is almost certainly the finest horror movie if the 1980s.

Anonymous said...

Possession is a movie about a chic who fucks an octopus. ;)

Unknown said...

So I have been on a recent horror movie run since I have become unemployed. I have been scouring the net far and wide for unique horror movies to past the time until a next job oppurtunity comes up. So the first movie I saw on this list was 1989's Society, and boy was that movie unique!!!

It may easily become one of my favorite horror movies, the blending of mystery and suspense leading to the culmination of a spectacular finale. The political and satirical undertones of the movie are loudly present and honestly didn't appeal to me that much. What was at face value was very intriguing and I could have done with more of what they were selling me. It was a great film, underrated and especially unique for it's time, given the slasher craze of the 80's was off the charts.

The second movie on this list is the aformentioned 'Possession'. I am not going to go off into a tangent about what this movie tries to sell you philosophically, I am just going to stick to 'reviewing' [not a review, just couldn't think of another word to insert there] Possesion. This movie is really good for a horror film in the 80's. It is unique as well... The acting in the film, while over-dramamtic, serves it's purpose of tone setting. The synopsis of the film was enough to peak my interest and in many ways, it did deliver. This movie was not dull at any moment to me. However I have a minor gripe with this movie. At a certain point in this movie, the coherency of the plot and intelligence of the writing falls off the map. Thos movie was well written and it's plot well conceived for the first 2/3rd's of the movie, until the finally. It felt like the director and writer phoned it in and went for one big trainwreck to shock and confuse audiences. Look I understand this is the 80's and strong plot/sub-plot/writing is non existent for the most part, but thus movie had an actual coherent plot up until the end. Like I said, you can pretty much tell when the plot goes off the deep end of this movie and takes some completely ridiculous terms. It leaves more to be desired in my opinion. Honestly, it is lazy writing and directing. The ending felt like it was going for some completely over-the-top grand finale, that only leaves you with more questions than answers. With that being said, I did enjoy this movie. As of right now I am searching for movie number 3 which hopefully can live up to the first two movies I have seen.

Franco Macabro said...

Society, wow, I haven't seen that one in a long time, but I do remember a lot of its crazier scenes, specially those dealings with the melding of all the bodies and the orgies and grotesque. I'd like to rewatch it soon.

Glad you enjoyed Possession, agree, it does get more incoherent as it reaches its climax.

What was the third film on your list?

Anonymous said...

Thought ur review was the best out there...just saw the film....isabelle adjani is a young monica bellucci! I felt the same passion in their performances. Absolutely amazing way to recreate the feeling of a failed marriage, sexless marriage, cheating, etc....amazing manifestations of those incredibly difficult emotions. Glad a commenter mentioned Berlin wall because I forgot all about the tensions then and significance of the wall. This movie takes place only about 6 years after US involvement in Vietnam. It was definitely a unique political experience in those days with cold war, hostage crisis etc. Berlin makes a great backdrop for the incessant melancholy and the dystopian nature of Berlin's buildings and settings. Aside from the themes the movie to me is about Ms Adjani's performance. It's a way that only a few actresses reach. I think of Monica bellucci not just in Irreversible but in Malena or How Much do you love me? Both of them add such sensuality and strength to their penelope cruz does in her dramatic roles. The perfomrance here by Isabella is spellbinding. Something that I only ever see from foreign actresses.

Kind regards,
Mao Junior

Unknown said...

I love the possession


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