Possession’s notorious government black-brushing during the DPP prosecutions of 1983, which condemned the film as an item of extreme perversity and vulgarity with the capacity to corrupt a majority of it audience, means that this extraordinary depiction of the violent fallout of a marriage has long been nothing more than a tick on the checklist of VHS hounds eager to complete their video nasties collection. In truth, just like fellow nasty The Witch Who Came From The Sea (1967), an ethereal mermaid horror with themes of incest and sexual abuse, Zulawski’s masterpiece is a serious dramatic work whose more surreal elements landed it on the periphery of national hysteria, where its unjustified banning forever sealed its fate.
In retrospect the furore of ’82 lends the film greater political value. As noted by Michael Brooke in his Sight & Sound review, “it’s fitting that a film so full of paranoia, oppression and surveillance… should itself fall victim to similarly irrational emotions“, and indeed the film’s Cold War backdrop intensifies its sense of foreboding, reaffirming that, just as Germany was, these characters are on a path toward irrevocable change. The apartment of Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani’s decaying couple literally overlooks the Wall’s border, and the patrolling guards, regularly glimpsed at the back of a deep frame, are in one startling shot staring straight into their window – we cannot be disgusted by the invasion of privacy, for we are also voyeurs in this deeply personal crisis. Behind its emotional pyrotechnics and half-assembled body horror, Possession can be regarded one of the great portraits of life on the margin of the Iron Curtain.
Zulawski’s camera pitches itself right into the violent battles of this warring couple, swirling and tracking the disharmony with such relentless energy that it can be exhausting to a first time viewer. We soon gather that the film’s title does not have demonic connotation, but rather marital. Possession is a film which explores the oscillating power play of abusive relationships, the way couples exploit and manipulate each other, often using children as a bargaining chip. Neill’s Mark first appears a clam, pragmatic presence, but we soon come to the conclusion that he is only fighting for his wife to fulfill the image of a bourgeois fantasy; husband, mother and child. He holds her captive under the guilt of a past affair, constantly reminding her that she tore this relationship apart, not him. Through assumed blame and passive aggression Mark tries to possess his wife.
Neill and Adjani’s performances are two of the greatest ever committed to film, with the latter winning Best Actress at Cannes for her tormented Anna. Most discussed is the scene of her mental collapse and alien miscarriage in a tube station, but it’s worth addressing the hushed scene before where she urgently grunts at a church altar, trying but failing to speak to a God which may or may not exist. Adjani’s performance is often referred to as histrionic but it’s in these softer moments, where the rage exists in her eyes and slowly builds to the surface, that you see the genius of her work. The tube scene – a flashback, explaining the origins of the cephalopod creature she hides away in a nearby apartment – is in fact the highest pitch of her performance, and while throttling in its intensity, is not its fairest representation.
And what of the creature (designed by effects maestro and E.T. creator Carlo Rambaldi) who resides in Anna’s hideaway? My theory is that the monster is no monster at all; the slithering mutant octopi is merely a symbol of Anna’s guilt for miscarrying the child of her illicit lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennet), hence his reaction to it in a state of almost paralytic shock and then blindness. The creature’s slow transformation into Mark (for the weirdest sex scene in screen history) is merely an example of her fragmented, dissociative mind, ticking back and forth between these controlling and violent lovers. But ultimately Possession is a film best felt and not analysed – its cacophonous volley of emotions can be overwhelming and should be submitted to. It could well be that there are several readings of the film’s symbolism anyway, and no single unifying theory exists (of course, other symbolic features like Adjani’s angelic doppelgänger are an obvious play on the Madonna/Whore complex and serve as an easy reading of Mark’s mental state).
Aesthetically Possession boasts a pallid palette of feint blues, sterile whites and grungy greys, and it’s in this sense that the Blu-Ray is a revelation, revealing colour tones never before seen on a home release, but which inform so much of the film’s disquieting tone. Zulawski and DP Bruno Nuytten opted for decorated sets to illustrate shadow, rather than manipulating natural light – so in some cases the shadows on the wall of Anna’s apartment are painted like those in expressionist films, and particularly The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920). Equally the film’s brightness has never been this clear before, the details of the production design and costume never so important (the blood and dirt stains leap of the screen here, turning a domestic environment into relative squalor). It’s truly one of the greatest restorations I’ve ever seen, as just through simple colour correction and added texture it allows us to see for the first time a vision close, if not superior to Zulawski’s original.
The disc is also hugely impressive, with two audio commentaries (one from Zulawski, the other from co-writer Frederic Tuten), a visual essay comparing the 1981 director’s cut (this version) with the savage 1983 US recut (where, for purely commercial reasons, it was sliced by 40 minutes, re-coloured and blemished with additional, demonic sound effects), a second visual essay comparing locations then and now, and further documentaries on the making of Possession, the sound design and score, poster design, and a 35-minute interview with Zulawski which is both witty and revealing. This package is not only essential, it’s the best UK release of the year and created with the sort of love and detail which we usually associate with Masters Of Cinema or Criterion.
DIRECTOR: ANDRZEJ ZULAWSKI
CAST: ISABELLE ADJANI, SAM NEILL
RUNTIME: 119 MINUTES APPROX
COUNTRY: FRANCE/WEST GERMANY