Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 feature, Possession became another victim of the Video Recordings act orchestrated by Mary Whitehouse and was banned in the United Kingdom for over a decade. Censorship rules aside, this injustice is particularly upsetting as it is a film that far transcends the caste of the ‘video nasty’. It bears no resemblance to the likes of Driller Killer or Cannibal Ferox, it is even debatable as to whether it can be classified as a horror. The unusual plot and psychologically distressing subject matter holds but a tenuous link to the genre as it regularly dives into wildly imaginative Dada territory and sometimes that of the Sirkian melodrama. There is no other film more emotionally raw, more confusing or more rewarding than Possession. It is a classic, one that divides audiences the world over.
Simplified, the plot revolves around a married couple and the deterioration of their relationship. Mark (Sam Neil) and Anna (played with total commitment by Isabelle Adjani) argue over each other’s infidelities, the love of their child and the world that surrounds them. It all seems fairly pedestrian at first but soon descends into a shockingly honest and surreal analysis of ‘the break-up’.
At first the couple’s interactions seem grossly overacted and deliberately artificial – almost as if they cannot feel or say what they really want to for fear that something terrible will be unleashed. Soon enough, however, they explode at each other with bursts of crippling rage so severe that, at times, all colour is drained from their skin and their teeth gnash and grind in a horrifying manner. In one particularly distressing moment of emotional turmoil, Anna is so overcome by the madness of her situation that, right after a ferocious display of physical posturing, she literally begins to excrete masses of blood and bile from her genitals. It is strong stuff and not for the faint hearted.
While these scenes provide a backbone to the film, there are some deliciously peculiar story threads that surround them, some veering sharply into the territory of a Freudian nightmare. One of Anna’s lovers, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), for instance, is a flamboyant, narcissistic philosophizer who twirls and poses with every pretentious statement that slithers from his serpentine tongue. The other is an entirely different animal indeed, a grotesquely perverse and wholly disturbing mass of flesh and viscous fluid. This ‘thing’ provides her with great sexual gratification and seems to be a bizarre physical manifestation of sex and death, an overpowering presence likened by one character to God – albeit indirectly. It is horrifying and unreal, but, in a deliciously twisted way, more true than anything else in the film as it provides – and also represents – the most primal and basic needs of humanity. Apart from the effects used to create it, there is nothing phony about it.
The true success of Possession, however, is that the meat of it comes from the feeling it creates, not the story it purports to tell. A minimalist synth score chugs away under the action, instilling a sense of dread to an already intense experience. Strange images come and go like the hallucinations of a lunatic mind and dialogue barks savagely from the mouths of its gibbering orators. In fact, the experience of watching it is more like a fever dream than that of viewing a movie. It is because of this that in writing it is hard to do it justice.
You just have to see it for yourself.