Possession (1981)

Like many, I discovered Adrzej Zulawski‘s Possession through its inclusion on the original Video Nasties list. Being 16 and familiar with gialli and the decadent excesses of European cinema, I felt that I was prepared. Let me tell you this; I wasn’t. 22 years later, I’m still not sure if I’m ready for this film.

Possession is a gut-churningly vivid depiction of a marriage in disarray told through a prism of surrealism and allegory. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani are Mark and Anna, a couple pulled apart by malaise. Mark works for some sort of shady governmental body that somehow worms its way into the story and, while her husband is away, Anna seeks solace in the arms of others. “Others” is an almost perfect word for this situation because Anna’s affair is not only extra-marital, it may well be extra-terrestrial.

To suggest that Neill and Adjani realise their roles with gusto would underplay just how much hard work they both do. Sam Neill manages to capture anger and desperation in a way that few others could, going from placid to manic in three words or less, while Adjani is a torrent of emotion, sexuality and malevolence. When put together, these two performances simmer and flash until it all might look, to the untrained eye, like two people with foreign accents screaming at each other.

It’s true that it is not for everyone, but those who do indulge in Possession will find a challenging and thought-provoking experience. It’s a film that rewards you for taking part. You do have to participate though, as Possession is an experience rather than just a movie.

The film operates as a tour of your own sexual indulgences and obsessive behaviour and forces you to use this to feed your understanding of various characters motivations. This layer of active engagement takes you on a journey through the movie, creating a very personal viewing experience. Because of this, it is incredibly easy to get lost in the drama and ignore the beauty that surrounds it.

Beautifully realised and crafted, Possession blends arthouse with grindhouse to create something that has to be seen, but makes you feel like you shouldn’t be watching. Zulawski imbued Possession with a muted colour palette of soft greens and blues, alongside sturdy cinematography that makes the very best of Berlin’s stunning architecture. A city has never looked a barren or lonely as Berlin in this film, it’s truly an achievement.

Possession is an artful addition to the horror genre that still packs a mean punch, but not in the way that you might expect. It touches on well worn themes and still manages to be fresh, interesting and bizarre. Operating on a scale between pulp and scorching allegory, Zulawski takes us from Ludlum to Lovecraft and back again with such ease, it’s effortless and masterful in equal measure. It’s clear that Zulawski is still an influential figure in European filmmaking. Fragments of this films haunting use of colour, along with hints at its geometric approach to framing, continue to pop up in Hollywood and European film today.

Possession comes to blu ray on the 29th July from Second Sight.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★½☆

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