Every October, I try to watch at least 31 horror films (as we all should). This is not a tradition that I made up. (just in case you thought i was claiming so) Some people challenge themselves to watch a film a day. I just try to average one a day. Some people challenge themselves to watch 31 films that they have not previously seen. I count all of the feature horror films that I watch during the month. Why am I telling you? Well, I just want you to know that A) I love October B) I celebrate with horror C) I’m kind of a slacker about it compared to some people. I was pretty stoked to find that a 35mm print of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession would be playing on October 1 at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. That’s the first day of my personal challenge! Naturally, I went. Because, why wouldn’t I see this insanely disturbing nightmare that nearly made the Video Nasties list? Let’s get into it, shall we?
(OK. stick with me because this thing is not exactly straightforward) Mark returns home from a mysterious job that kept him away from his wife and child for a long time. Upon his return, Anna, his wife, acts strange and tells him she wants a divorce. She can’t really explain why at first but she insists that it’s not because she’s found someone else. This sends Mark into a withdrawal-like rage / depression / illness for a few weeks before he gets his shit together and returns to the family apartment to find his son, Bob (about 8-years old), alone. He tells Anna that he is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the family together and that he’s staying there for good now. His efforts seem effective at first but end up fruitless. Anna disappears and Mark receives a call from a man saying she’s with him now. This prompts Mark to search for a clue to her whereabouts. He finds a postcard from a man named Heinrich and seeks the man out. Heinrich admits that he and Anna are lovers, but swears he did not call and hasn’t seen Anna for weeks. Mark tries to assault the new-agey sex machine but gets his ass handed to him. Afterward, he assumes the role of sole caretaker for Bob (with a little help from his wife’s best friend, who hates him for unknown reasons). Anna returns periodically (but only when the boy isn’t around) and behaves in increasingly bizarre ways. So, he hires a private detective to find out where she goes. Meanwhile, Mark meets the boy’s teacher who looks exactly like Anna (both parts played by Isabelle Adjani). When she comes to the apartment to talk to Mark about the boy’s behavior at school – falling asleep and having night (day?) terrors – the two spark a bit of a romance. They both seem to realize that this might be ill-advised and maintain a bit of an awkward relationship afterward. When the private detective finds Anna, things go from (very) intense relationship / family drama to holy-shit-what-the-fuck insane nightmare.
There’s an oft-quoted philosophical question (that i’m not going to look up the source of) that really cuts to the heart of the matter when it comes to the media that we love so much. It goes something like (and i’m paraphrasing here), “But, is it art?” When it comes to horror films, sometimes (often) the answer is, “Wellllllll….” I mean, sure, films are an expression of creativity no matter how uninspired and trite they are. But, come on, they can’t all be Dredd. But, Possession, on the other hand… Now that’s unequivocally Art. I’ve seen it a couple of times and I’m still not entirely sure of what it’s about. Obviously, it’s about a man and a woman and their (violently) crumbling relationship, but that’s only the surface of the thing. Is it about the addictive nature of love / passion / lust? Is it about presumed ownership over another human? Is it about infidelity or loyalty? Is it about the fragile bonds of human relationships? Is it about motherhood and / or womanhood? Is it about Lovecraftian nightmare creatures? I’m sure there are many theories out there. And that’s what makes the film so brilliant. It leaves just the right amount of motivation and reason to the viewer’s imagination so that one cannot help but continue ruminating upon it long after the credits roll. Furthermore, the film is played 100% straight. There is no schlock. No cutesy quirkiness. Zulawski takes his time establishing the characters and ramping up the tension. The gravity of the tone adds to the mysterious nature of the story and holds the viewer rapt and breathless for a nearly unbearable amount of time. The inimitable (and very handsome) Sam Neill navigates his way through intense emotions and base human behaviors with aplomb. But it is Isabelle Adjani who burns down every scene she’s in. Her performance is mind-blowing. As the school teacher, she’s at once demure and confident. She can convey empathy, concern, regret, and hope without saying a word. As Anna, she descends into madness with frightening believability. (i would not be surprised to find out she had a mental breakdown during or after filming from emotional distress) She screams. She tears sets apart. She self-injures. She hyperventilates. She throws herself into objects and onto the ground recklessly. As her mental state deteriorates, her eyes dart wildly from place to place until they finally focus, searing holes into the unfortunate objects of her rage / anger / frustration / defiance. It’s beautifully disturbing. The same can be said for the whole film.
The Final Cut: Possession is a beautifully dark and emotionally draining nightmare of a film. Isabelle Adjani delivers a stand-out performance among great performances.