Back in the days of the Video Nasty witch hunt, nothing summed up the stupidity of the police, the DPP and the tabloids 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 feature octopus sex. Thankfully, common sense for once prevailed and the film was acquitted of obscenity charges.
Possession is about many things, but at the heart of it is a marital breakdown. Sam Neill is Mark, a likely government agent (it’s never really explained) who returns home from a mission to try and patch up his failing marriage to Anna (Isabelle Adjani). Anna has a lover, the slimy Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), and it’s fair to say that neither of them is handling the situation 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.
Possession is a remarkable film. 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. The infamous ‘birth’ scene is rightly notorious for the level of dementia the actress shows, and never loses its power.
While not a horror film, Possession certainly ventures into that area, and does so impressively. Carlo Rambaldi’s monster is worryingly authentic, and the violence has a sickly reality to it – possibly because so much of it is quite intimate and small scale (the scene where Adjani takes an electric knife to her neck is still shocking). The creature could’ve derailed the film, but given the deranged nature of what we’d seen to far, its appearance isn’t that odd, and Carlo Rambaldi’s creature is so weird, so grotesque that its appearance adds to the overall shock value.
Zuwalski’s direction is thankfully restrained – he lets the wildness happen within the characters, and the film itself has a sedate, cold 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 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?).
As powerful now as it was on original release in 1981, 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. A must-see movie.