Possession (1981 film)
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Possession is a 1981 psychological horror drama film directed by Andrzej Żuławski, written by Żuławski and Frederic Tuten, and starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. The plot obliquely follows the relationship between an international spy and his wife, who begins exhibiting increasingly disturbing behavior after asking him for a divorce.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Andrzej Żuławski|
|Produced by||Marie-Laure Reyre|
|Music by||Andrzej Korzyński|
|97 minutes (edited version)|
124 minutes (original cut)
|Box office||$1.1 million|
Possession, an international co-production between France and West Germany, was filmed in Berlin in 1980. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, where Adjani won the award for Best Actress for her performance. It was Żuławski's only English-language film. In recent years, it has developed a cult following.
Mark is a spy who returns home to Berlin from a mysterious espionage mission to find that his wife, Anna, wants a divorce. She won't say why but insists it's not because she found someone else. Mark reluctantly turns the apartment and custody of their young son, Bob, over to her. After recovering from a destructive drinking spree, he visits the apartment to find Bob alone, unkempt, and neglected. When Anna returns, he stays with Bob, refusing to leave her alone with the child but attempts to make amends. Anna leaves in the middle of the night.
Mark receives a phone call from Anna's lover, Heinrich, telling him that Anna is with him. The next day, Mark meets Bob's teacher, Helen; she inexplicably looks identical to Anna but with green eyes. Mark visits and fights Heinrich, then beats Anna at home, after which she flees. The next morning, they have another argument during which they both cut themselves with an electric knife.
A private investigator hired by Mark follows Anna and discovers she has a second flat in a derelict apartment building. He finds a bizarre creature in the bedroom and Anna kills him with a broken bottle. Zimmerman, the lover of the now-dead detective, goes to the flat himself, where he finds the creature and his lover's body. Anna beats Zimmerman in a rage before stealing his gun and shooting him to death.
Anna continues her erratic behavior and recounts to Mark a violent miscarriage she suffered in the subway while he was gone. She claims it resulted in a nervous breakdown; during the miscarriage, she oozed blood and fluids from her orifices and ominously tells him she "miscarried Sister Faith, and what left was Sister Chance." Heinrich visits Anna and discovers the creature as well as a collection of dismembered body parts in her refrigerator. She attacks him, and Heinrich flees, bleeding.
Heinrich calls Mark and begs him to pick him up. Mark stops by Anna's apartment first and discovers the body parts; the creature, however, is gone. Mark meets Heinrich at the bar where he is, murders him, and stages it as an accidental death. He then lights Anna's apartment on fire before fleeing on Heinrich's motorcycle. At home, he finds her friend Margie's corpse outside. He drags the body inside where Anna greets him, and the two have sex in the kitchen. Afterward, he makes plans to cover up Margie's death. Heinrich's mother phones Mark asking about her son. When he goes to meet with her, she commits suicide by poisoning herself.
The next day, as Mark wanders the street, he meets up with his former business associates. He is evasive and returns to Margie's apartment to find it surrounded by police and his former employers. He stages a distraction, allowing someone, possibly Anna, to sneak away in his car, but he is wounded in the ensuing shootout. Fleeing, he has a horrific accident and races into a building where he is pursued by Anna, the police, and his business associates. Anna tells him, "It is finished now," and reveals the creature, now fully formed as Mark's doppelgänger. Mark raises his gun to shoot it but he and Anna are gunned down by a hail of bullets from the police below. Bloodied and dying, Anna lies atop Mark and uses his gun to shoot herself. She dies in his arms and he jumps to his death through the stairwell. The doppelgänger flees through the roof.
Later, Helen is at the flat babysitting Bob when the doorbell rings. Bob implores her not to open the door, but Helen ignores him. From outside, the sound of sirens, planes, and explosions fill the air. Bob races through the flat into the bathroom, where he floats in the bathtub face-down as though dead. The silhouette of the doppelgänger is seen from the frosted glass door. Helen stares, her brilliant green eyes illuminating.
- Isabelle Adjani as Anna / Helen
- Sam Neill as Mark
- Margit Carstensen as Margit Gluckmeister
- Heinz Bennent as Heinrich
- Johanna Hofer as Heinrich's mother
- Carl Duering as Detective
- Shaun Lawton as Zimmermann
- Michael Hogben as Bob
- Maximilian Rüthlein as Man with pink socks (as Maximilian Ruethlein)
- Thomas Frey as Pink socks' acolyte
- Leslie Malton as Sara, woman with club foot
- Gerd Neubert as Subway drunk
Numerous film critics have noted the theme of separation and marital disintegration as core themes in Possession. Scholar Bartłomiej Paszylk notes that the metaphors present in the film also represent "a disintegrating country. The very fact that the film takes place in Cold War-era West Berlin is quite significant for the metaphor of divorce—the wall that separates it from East Berlin being a symbol of disconnection of what was once united—but Zulawski's additional intention might have been for the Berlin wall to symbolize the Iron Curtain, and for Germany to symbolize Poland, a country he had to leave in order to keep making movies."
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It was filmed in West Berlin. The director has stated that he wrote the screenplay in the midst of a messy divorce. Special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi assisted in creating the tentacle creature featured in the film.
The film had a modest total of 541,120 admissions in France. Possession was released in a heavily-edited 81-minute cut in the United States. The film grossed $1.1 million at the U.S. box office.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, "Possession is a veritable carnival of nose bleeds. Because the three leading characters – Anna, her husband, Marc (Sam Neill), and her lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) – all knock each other violently around, they play most of their scenes in one state of bloodiness or another. At times, the living-color Possession recalls Roman Polanski's black-and-white Repulsion, though only because Miss Adjani is required to slice up as many male victims as Catherine Deneuve did in the earlier, far better film." Derek Malcolm of The Guardian described Adjani's performance in the film as "Grand guignol plus," adding that while he felt Żuławski had talent, "what he does with it here makes The Exorcist look like a masterpiece."
Variety said, "Possession starts on a hysterical note, stays there and surpasses it as the film progresses. There are excesses on all fronts: in supposedly ordinary married life and then occult happenings, intricate political skulduggery with the infamous Berlin Wall as background – they all abound in this horror-cum-political-cum-psychological tale." Reviewing the film after its screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Wayman Wong of The San Francisco Examiner panned the film as a "sick and violent piece of trash."
Leonard Maltin wrote of the film: "Adjani "creates" a monster, to the consternation of husband Neill, lover Bennent—and the viewer," ultimately deeming the film a "confusing drama of murder, horror, intrigue, though it's all attractively directed."
After an initial limited theatre release in the United Kingdom, the film was banned as one of the notorious "video nasties," although it was later released uncut on VHS and DVD in 2000 by Anchor Bay Entertainment. In 2014, Mondo Vision released a region-free Blu-ray of the film featuring the uncut version of the film. This release was available in a standard special edition, as well as a limited edition numbered to 2,000 units.
In 1981, Isabelle Adjani won the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for Possession and Quartet. Adjani also won the year's César Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film, and also won the Award for Best Actress at the Fantasporto Film Festival, in Portugal.
In the years following its release, Possession accrued a cult following. Film scholar Bartłomiej Paszylk deemed it "one of the most enigmatic and uncompromising horror movies in the history of cinema." Writer Kim Newman considers Possession to be a "kitsch film," noting: "Zulawski takes his film too seriously, but it's fun all the same...[he] goes mad with his swooping camera, has everything in shot painted in blue and encourages his stars to attack their roles with a kind of stylised hysteria rare outside Japanese theatre." Newman also likened elements of Adjani's character to that of Samantha Eggar in The Brood (1979).
Michael Brooke of Sight & Sound commented in 2011, "Although it's easy to see why it was pigeonholed as a horror film, its first half presents what is still one of the most viscerally vivid portraits of a disintegrating relationship yet committed to film, comfortably rivalling Lars von Trier's Antichrist, David Cronenberg's The Brood and Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage." Reviewing the Blu-ray release of the movie in 2013, Michael Dodd of Bring The Noise was similarly impressed with what he called "an intense exploration of marital breakdown". He argued that this made Possession "one of the few horror films that successfully builds a back story for its main characters".
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