Back in the lunatic days of the Video Nasty witch hunt, nothing summed up the stupidity of the police, the DPP and the tabloids quite as well as the prosecution of Andrzej Zuwalski’s Possession, an intensely powerful and creative movie that was reduced to the level of ‘octopus sex film’ on the basis of a single scene that didn’t even feature octopus sex. Thankfully, common sense for once prevailed and the film was acquitted of obscenity charges – but can you imagine anything so ludicrous?
Possession is about many things, but at the heart of it is a particularly bad marital breakdown. Sam Neill is Mark, a likely government agent (it’s never really explained who or what he is) who returns home from a mission to try and patch up his failing marriage to Anna (Isabelle Adjani). Anna has taken a lover, the slimy Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), and it’s fair to say that neither of them is handling the situation very well – Mark vegetates in a hotel room for three weeks, Anna leaves their young son alone in the flat, and they have intense physical confrontations as Mark flips between pushing her away and begging her to return. But it soon turns out that she has moved on from Heinrich, and now has a mysterious new partner – a grotesque, evolving tentacled creature that she will do anything to protect. That’s a very basic rundown of what this film is about and frankly it’s not much more satisfactory than calling it an ‘octopus sex film’. Possession is a film that works on a level beyond mere narrative – it’s more like a look inside the heads of a disintegrating couple, taking all their angst and pain and despair and elevating it to the exaggerated levels that couples who are slowly and painfully breaking up will know only too well. What we see is as much a display of personal anguish made flesh – quite literally – as it is a coherent story.
Possession is a remarkable film, quite unlike anything that you will have seen before. Set in a grey, depressing West Berlin (the Wall is literally right outside the couple’s window), it would be a deranged, intense film even without the bizarre creature – if you think you’ve ever had a bad breakup, this film might make you think again. Neill and Adjani are both at full throttle, reaching levels of hysteria so overwhelming that you worry for their sanity at times, Adjani especially going all out as she not so much descends as plummets into madness. When I see actors talking about how some bland movie performance has put them through the emotional ringer, it’s hard not to scoff because this is the real thing – acting so beyond the normal, emotions so heightened and hysterical that it must have been a brutal experience for all three leads. The infamous ‘birth’ scene is rightly notorious for the level of dementia the actress shows, and never loses its power to shock and repulse. The entire film, though, is so awash with madness and mania that it doesn’t even seem that odd when it happens – a mere stepping up of the film’s overall intensity, perhaps.
While not really a horror film, Possession certainly ventures into that area and does so impressively. The creature could’ve derailed the film by taking things too far and causing audience laughter, which it does with some audiences, but even then more in a sort of aghast disbelief than actual amusement. Given the deranged nature of what we’d seen so far, its revelation isn’t that odd and it is so weird, so grotesque that its appearance adds to the overall bizarre shock value. The monster – a creation of Anna’s own desires and very much something from the Id – is a worryingly authentic sexual horror. In contrast to this grotesque creature, the rest of the film’s violence has a sickly reality to it – in large part because so much of it is on a very small scale, the sort of thing the viewer can relate to much more than an exploding head or even a bullet wound – the scene where Adjani takes an electric knife to her neck is still shocking and upsetting because we all know what that would feel like. The bloody violence here is an extension of the overall angst – intimate and relatable moments of physical pain to go along with the mental distress.
Zuwalski’s direction is thankfully restrained – he resists the urge to fill the film with florid visual touches and instead is content to mostly allow the wildness to happen within the characters, while the film itself has a sedate, cold and observational feel to it. There’s a political part to this story – it was his first project after leaving Communist Poland and it’s clear that the evil he sees in the story isn’t just that involving tentacled creatures but also in their fractured city and Mark’s mysterious, dehumanising work – but it’s not laid out in a heavy-handed manner, instead making up a part of the general insanity. After all, what could be more insane than a city split in two by a giant wall? Everything pales into insignificance compared to the backdrop of national separation.
In a strange way, the Video Nasty debacle was the making of Possession for a whole new audience – it was critically dismissed at the time of original release and then passed off as just another monster movie – with a bit of kinky sex to liven things up – by distributors. It’s not an easy film to categorise or to enjoy, and that made it rather attractive to the new cult movie audience that was looking beyond genre boundaries and conventional filmmaking styles – the prosecution also saw the UK distributors re-release the film with a sleeve that played more on the arthouse credentials and that helped no end. I’ve always been baffled by people who dismiss the film though – it left me stunned on first viewing and it remains as powerful now as it was then. This is a movie too unique and too emotionally raw to ever get old. Possession is a disturbing, astonishing, sometimes darkly comic and often moving tour-de-force that straddles the arthouse and the grindhouse while ultimately transcending both. It might never quite be the sort of thing that mainstream critics understand but that’s their loss.
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