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Review: 'Possession' depicts supernatural horror intertwined with familial drama

The 1981 film has achieved cult status in the past decade, for good reason

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"Isabelle Adjan plays Anna, an emotionally-fraught adulterer possessed by a tentacle monster." Illustration published on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020.


When Polish director Andrzej Żuławski died of cancer at 75, he left behind a dream-like filmography of nightmares and dreamscapes spanning across nearly 45 years, which were occasionally plagued by censorship and have all settled into some form of newfound cult status following his death in 2016.

Żuławski's work tends to feature a blurring of reality coupled with the thinly veiled hostility within familial relations, a pairing of horrors best exhibited in his 1981 drama "Possession."

The movie follows an emotional, fraught adulterer, played by Isabelle Adjani, and her possessive, jealous husband, played by Sam Neill, as the former routinely abandons their young son, Bob, to reside and fornicate with a bloodied, tentacular monster who apparently takes hold of her psyche in unspeakable ways.

Anna and Mark, played by Adjani and Neill respectively, are navigating a crumbling marriage afflicted with violence and deception when Mark discovers his wife's adulterous affair with the pseudo-intellectual Heinrich, and Anna's erratic behavior begins to mutate into something much more frightening. Within the movie’s first 30 minutes, viewers are urged to divert their gaze by multiple depictions of nauseating domestic violence and deceit.

Ultimately, "Possession" is a story about man and woman attempting to control and mold the other into a faultless iteration of a lover. Through sex, violence, manipulation and deceit, both Anna and Mark spiral into a state of alienated delirium as they simultaneously attempt to force one another to take up a new, ideal persona.

As the movie progresses, Adjani enters the plot as a new character; Helen, a teacher at Bob's school, who Mark begins a relationship with. It's unclear whether Helen exists as a separate entity from Anna or is merely Mark's idealized vision of her, a woman who has not been engulfed by the tentacular monster, who ultimately turns out to be her husband, like Anna has.

"'Possession' was born of a totally private experience," Żuławski said in a 2012 interview after his masterpiece was shown at New York City's Film Forum. "Please believe me, it's mentally very disturbing to see that your very private little film became something in which so many people recognize something of themselves. Thirty years later I’m still thinking about it."

While the surreal dismay of the film's subjects feels almost too occult to be informed by reality, Żuławski actually penned the script with Frederic Tuten after the former's marriage to Małgorzata Braunek, mother of his son Xawery, ended in divorce in 1976, similar to the three main characters in "Possession." Some critics have suggested that Żuławski and Tuten also pulled inspiration from Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" in designing their portrait of male rage and his expression of affection as violence and self-mutilation.

What really makes "Possession" so unnerving is Adjani and Neill's performances, with both actors delivering stunning illustrations of emotionally complex characters bombarded by external factors that further strain an already volatile marriage. One of the more notable scenes depicts an unhinged Anna suffering a miscarriage as she flails about in a subway, bone-chilling screams escaping her and unidentifiable liquids gushing out from every orifice.

Żuławski has called actors "complete, incomprehensible human beings," which I interpret as an assertion that actors may be more fully fleshed than the layman. Actors are wedged between reality and fiction and employed to inhabit and convey the life and worldview of a stranger, whose actions and motivations can be controlled by a director to a certain degree, but are ultimately informed by the actor's own relationship to the life they step into. 

Adjani has said in an interview that playing Anna forced her to seek years of therapy from the mental toll the role took on her.

In Neill's portrayal of Mark, he perfectly embodies an incessant, male jealous rage and uses this fracturing of the paternal ego to drive home the most terrifying aspect of the movie: the domestic violence and sexual discontent that is all too real.

Żuławski's depiction of infidelity, fury, violence and, ultimately, love in death in the movie is somewhat present in all relationships. Mark's seemingly fruitless efforts in salvaging his fractured marriage display his innate jealousy and will to possess Anna as her gory monster has possessed her. 

Anna and Helen reveal the former's dissatisfaction with her lover and her desire to control her husband in a reciprocal fashion by means of this anonymous monster. Helen's character and interactions with Mark portray man's selfish and naively idealistic vision of woman, a being who gives affection without asking for anything in return and has no driving desires beyond the scope of man.

The horror lies in the culmination of a terrifying and repulsive supernatural being and the mutual desire of men and women to possess one another. Żuławski's representation of the primal nature of man and woman stepping out from behind the societally conditioned veil and jaw-dropping gore makes "Possession" the ideal movie to treat yourself to this Halloween.


Reach the reporter at stellefs@asu.edu and follow @samtellefson on Twitter. 

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Sam EllefsonMagazine Managing Editor

Sam Ellefson is a managing editor for State Press Magazine, contributing articles between editing and guiding a team of writers. Sam is a junior getting a degree in journalism with minors in film and media studies and political science.


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