Possession – 1981 / Director: Andrzej Żuławski

The last word in love is D.I.V.O.R.C.E…

Breaking up is never easy. There’s that awkward spell when you’re still just about living together, the misguided attempts, either side, at some kind of phoney reconciliation and then the furious rows that ensue when splitting up the CD collection before eventually heading off in different directions.

But so far as separation movies go, nothing has ever got as close to the sheer head-fuck of it all as Andrzej Żuławski‘s barking mad art house horror, Possession.

Not even Kramer vs Kramer.

Sam Neill‘s Mark returns to GDR era Berlin following a mysterious, never fully explained, work assignment. He is met by his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) who immediately insists that they separate. Confused and deeply upset, Mark establishes that his wife has been having an affair, but decides to stay at their blue-hued apartment overlooking the Berlin wall in order to look after their young son Bob. Anna leaves, only to regularly return in increasingly erratic fashion – cutting at herself with an electric carving knife and shoving laundry in the refrigerator. Mark sends a private investigator to follow his estranged wife, confronts her bohemian lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennett) and begins a “new” relationship with Helen – a dead ringer for Anna. At first it seems that Mark is coming to terms with the seperation, but then he begins to uncover the true extent of his wife’s infidelity and the horrific consequences that will follow…

Possession is a multi-layered work of brutal beauty. One that frantically peels away at concurrent themes related to love, the idea of belonging, of identity, free will, desire and fidelity. Difficult to pin down, Żuławski’s film regularly descends into hysteric and incomprehensible episodes of wild, almost operatic, gesticulation – most famously in the subway sequence where Adjani violently miscarries into her groceries of eggs and milk. But as Possession settles into its own odd rhythm, or rather, once the viewer allows this rhythm to wash over them, the strange, desperate oscillations in Adjani and Neill’s performances begin to subsume the need for narrative logic and the film is  transformed into an abstract expression of  both unrivalled abjection and tender emotion.

Both Neill and Adjani’s (essentially primordial) performances dictate that Possession be a film experienced rather than read. Though Żuławski retains a superficial “story” of sorts that we can attempt to follow – one evinced in the “investigation” of Anna’s infidelity and the “espionage” antics related to Mark’s character,  it is a story malnourished by the irrational decisions and wild actions frequently taken by the couple. Any credible grip on “reality” is effectively laid to rest in the film’s final third in any case, once Mark has done away with his bogus  ”love rival”, the narcissist Heinrich, and he has begun a new pursuit of Anna’s true source of affection. And it is here that the film can really be considered Horror, whereas before it might have been better categorised as anxious drama.

But if Possession speaks to its audience through performance, it also has something to say in its construction. Bruno Nuytten‘s cinematography brilliantly dresses the stage for Neill and Adjani’s disintegration. Post-War Berlin (a city in deconstruction at the time) is desaturated and depopulated, allowing for the central characters to explore the resultant gloomy milieu as their own. To emphasise the growing distance between the pair, Nuytten regularly plays with their spatial relationship within a single frame. This is done through deep zoom photography, tight close ups, Neill’s recurring postioning behind, and to the side, of Anna and in several riffs on depth in frame. To underline their seperation Mark and Anna are frequently placed within doorways, by windows and at awkward angles to each other, but curiously this is mainly achieved in intimate space – normally, the apartment’s kitchen, in the bathroom, narrow stairways and in corridors. These claustrophobic settings serve to heighten the hyper-real behaviours of the pair, and prevent the emotion on display an escape route…

The construction of the tentacled beast, Anna’s true obsession, was carried out by Carlo Rambaldi, the Italian craftsman who would go on to design a much friendlier creature in ET the following year. Rambaldi’s beast is under construction throughout the film and is rarely seen until it has fully developed into Mark’s doppelgänger – a counterpoint to Anna’s “other” Helen, and ready to take over the duty of husband and father.

Carlo Rambaldi's creature in the Primal Scene

The tentacled doppelgänger beast is the ultimate manifestation of Żuławski’s seperation anxiety, and it’s “possession” of the estranged couple is one of apocalyptic proportions. Bloodied, spent and corrupted by the film’s end, there is nowhere left to go for the couple and briefly reunited, Mark and Anna share a final poignant kiss before the “new” Mark and Anna / Helen begin their own ambiguous relationship, bringing the freewheeling descent into madness to a close.

Unnerving, often unintelligible, but also evocative and tragic, Żuławski’s film should be considered a noble psycho spatial achievement in the dissolution of Love and belonging. A must see, Possession is, like all meaningful relationships – difficult to get over in a hurry.