I remember going into my horror movie marathon last year assuming that I would come across nothing that existed in a state of unrelenting profound film making, indeed suspecting nothing but genre films ranging from terrible to run-of-the-mill, excluding, of course, the films I chose to revisit for the marathon. Yet, when I encountered An American Werewolf in London, I quickly change my tune and embraced it as one of my top ten cinematic experiences of the year. While that film was certainly in the vein of comedy that just happened to move into a deeply introspective film, Possession, the 1981 horror psychological thriller is anything but hilarious. Beginning in a heightened state of suspense, this film only pushes the intensity to further levels, incorporating an intense, but never evasive soundtrack, experimental cinematography, a semi-linear, but certainly interwoven narrative and phenomenal acting to result in something that defies simple explanation. Aside from affording it my rare moniker of "the perfect film" I can only speak to Possession as something that must be viewed. I know, however, that simply saying "watch this movie" is not enough, because I say that a lot about works, but I also do not find myself captivated and troubled by works as much as I did with Possession. I felt my jaw continually dropping during the movie and even became aware of the frozen nature of my demeanor as it either leaned intensively into the action on screen, or folded backwards in shock at the depictions occurring. Somewhere between the maddening body horror of a David Cronenberg film and the general eeriness that invades the work of Roman Polanski exists Possession, a work that takes the idea of what a horror film can be and subverts it and newly appropriates it, ultimately, resulting in a film that is both cinematically beautiful and narratively grotesque. My gut reaction is to compare it to the dreary look of Army of Shadows, but what unfolds in this failed marriage narrative gone awry is entirely of its own fruition. Suffice it to say, Possession is a vision of genre film, one that does not desire to be accessible, but certainly wants to be acknowledged in both a tangible conscious manner, as well as a subconscious and surreal way.
Possession focuses on Mark (Sam Neil) a former spy who has returned from a series of intense missions only to discover that his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is quite distanced moving about the space of their disheveled house indifferent to his presence, as well as the well being of their son Bob (Michael Hogben). This distrust between Mark and Anna moves from purely spoken threats to bizarre acts of self-violence, when one another attempt to hurt themselves with various weapons, most graphically occurring with a meat slicer. Believing that much of the infidelity is a result of Anna's relationship with the enigmatic sensualist Heinrich (Heinz Bennett), Mark approaches him, only to discover that he too is oblivious to how truly wild Anna's life has become in Marks absence. Attempting to discover what has occurred during his absence, Mark hires a private investigator to study Anna's whereabouts. When this investigator tricks Anna into letting him into her apartment, the man discovers a bizarre creature growing in her room, one that attacks the investigator. Still unsure about Anna's repeated absences, at this point stretching weeks at a time, Mark begins a relationship with Bob's teacher Helen (Isabelle Adjani) whose similarity to Anna is uncanny, indeed, identical. When the investigators partner, in a romantic sense, attempts to find his deceased lover he too becomes victim to Anna's creature, although the death is shown to be distinctly at the hands of Anna in this situation. Heinrich is the next person to invade the space of Anna's apartment, this time seeing the corpses for himself, all of which are stuffed in Anna's refrigerator. Surviving a stabbing at the hands of Anna, Heinrich attempts to warn Mark, who still suspicious attacks Heinrich in a bath room, drowning him in a toilet in the process. Inexplicably, Heinrich's mother begins contacting Mark about the whereabouts of her son, but Mark simply ignores these inquiries and finally enters Anna's apartment where he discovers her engaged in intercourse with the evolving creature, while continually uttering the word "almost." After a run-in with his former associates, Mark finds Anna in a building standing next to his own doppelganger, assumedly the final form of the creature from earlier scenes, resulting in an intense shootout, that leads to the death of Anna and the doppelganger. The final moments of the film, without reason, depict Bob and Anna in their home, Bob running upstairs to apparently drown himself in the bathtub, while Anna stares directly into camera. The sound of sirens and bombs and the flickering of the lights end the film with no context as to their result on the people in the film.
I am fully aware that the description I just provided seems really all over the place and impossibly puzzling. I am also aware that it only covers about half of what is going on in the larger narrative of the film. Much like the works of Polanski and Cronenberg one can certainly pull themes from the film, particularly since there is a degree of repetition within the film even if not blatantly shown in the ways it might in other films. Firstly, the film carries a clear element of panopticism about its narrative, wherein, the characters in the narrative, are clearly aware of a unseen presence (at a few moments clearly seen) watching over their actions. Whether it be Anna's breaking down in the subway tunnel or Mark's hectic movements through the bar in search of Heinrich, there is a clear acknowledgement of a presence that is beyond the space of the film, one that is decidedly invasive and always at odds with the characters. Cinematographer Bruno Nuytten reinforces this feeling with a considerable combination of impossible close-ups, handheld pans and generally innovative camera tricks to make this broken space that much more challenging to viewers. Indeed, one could suggest that the extended presence of the film, the voyeuristic threat is none other than the individual viewing the film, making the distrust depicted by Anna and Mark that much more jarring, as well as helping to explain the break that happens about midway through when the film goes meta and the fourth wall is theoretically broken. Moreover, the film also takes liberties with how the body horror narrative can emerge, particularly when it is shared by characters, and doubled with an element of the doppelganger narrative here. In a more traditional film, say a German silent expressionist film, the doppelganger serves as a confrontation to the unideal self, wherein it is not what the character wants to become, something that happens to certain degree in other body horror films. However, this is where the film seems to share nicely with Cronenbergs work, in so much as the altered body is suggested to be the ideal, whether reinforced in Existenz or The Fly, it is an achievement of mutated madness. Indeed, this also ties itself to issues of the maternal as surrogate for the ideal form, one that requires the womb as a sacrificial space, but that is a theoretical endeavor that I am far from equipped to tackle, however, it is yet another level in which Possession appears to be working.
Key Scene: Anna's breakdown/possession in the subway is intense and drags on indefinitely. It makes for some of the most disconcerting film viewing imaginable, but in a highly profound manner.
This film is out of print, I had to get "creative" with how I obtained a copy. With that being said, I have my eye on the region 2 bluray, hopefully it will drop in price at some point. If you can track this film down, it is well worth your time to view.