Possession (1981)

“He’s very tired. He made love to me all night.”

Directed by: Andrzej Żuławski

Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent

In a Nutshell:

Blurring the boundaries between Arthouse and Splatter, Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession comes with a bonkers reputation that belies its status as a serious marriage-on-the-rocks film, a little like Marriage Story if it came from the pen of H.P. Lovecraft. It got caught up in the video nasty witchhunt of the 80s and was banned in the UK until 2000.

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill put in bravura performances as the bitter couple locked onto a trajectory of mutually assured destruction, reflecting the tense larger standoff of the Cold War represented by the Berlin Wall visible from their apartment window. Impressively gory creature effects from Carlo Rambaldi, who a few years later would give us a loveable little alien with a glowing finger and a desire to phone home…

The Plot:

Mark (Neill) is a spy returning home to Berlin after an unspecified espionage mission that has kept him away from his wife Anna (Adjani) and young son Bob for quite some time. Although civil to begin with, Mark discovers that Anna wants a divorce. Having given up custody of the boy and their apartment, Mark goes off the rails for a while, before returning to find Bob alone and neglected.

Anna’s behaviour has become increasingly erratic and frequently leaves the kid to his own devices while she is out sleeping with her lover, Heinrich (Bennent). Mark refuses to leave their son alone with her and picks up the school run, where he meets Bob’s teacher, Helen (Adjani again), who is his wife’s doppelgänger.

After Anna tries to kill herself with an electric breadknife, Mark hires a private investigator to get to the bottom of her worsening behaviour. He discovers that she often frequents a derelict flat where she has a second lover, one that does not appear to be of this earth…

Best Performances:

Adjani won Best Actress at Cannes for her dual role, although it is her relentless freakout of a performance as Anna that is the most attention-grabbing… and exhausting. In subsequent interviews she said it took her several years to recover, and it was rumoured that she attempted suicide after the film wrapped. She certainly abandons herself to the role with an admirable and frightening lack of inhibition. This culminates in an intensely disturbing scene where Anna suffers a demonic seizure and miscarries something unspeakable in a deserted subway tunnel, oozing blood and sinister fluids from her orifices.

In the same year that he also played the antichrist in Omen III: The Final Conflict, Sam Neill does his best to keep up with his seemingly possessed co-star, portraying Mark with the same kind of chilly intensity and detachment that typified many of his notable pre-Jurassic Park roles. He also found making the film distressing, claiming that he only just about made it through with his sanity intact.

Of the supporting cast, Heinz Bennent stands out in a bizarro performance as Anna’s louche lover, Heinrich.

Musical Moments:

Andrzej Korzyński’s synth and drum machine compositions are stark and unsettling, underscoring the histrionic onscreen events with an insistent sense of menace.

Sex and Violence:

Sex is an ever-present theme in the movie, as Anna is in the throes of at least two affairs, one with Heinrich and one with a tentacled, gore-slicked creature. Once described, rather reductively, as “a movie about a woman who fucks an octopus”, we do unfortunately get that scene, and I doubt it’s something anyone would want to linger upon.

For its time, the creature effects by Carlo Rambaldi (Alien, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) are still impressive, albeit difficult to fully make out as the thing is mostly swathed in buckets of blood. Side-characters who make their way into the creature’s squat-like pad also meet a grisly end.

More disturbing still is Anna’s subway miscarriage, but by far the most violent scenes are the arguments between the couple as their marriage combusts. Some of those scenes are hard to watch as Mark and Anna really go at each other, looking convincingly like a warring husband and wife who have grown to hate each other with a deadly passion. Strangely, the gory horror elements alleviate the scenes of domestic violence and make Possession more entertaining and watchable. If it was a straight-up marriage drama with this couple going ballistic at each other for two solid hours, it would have been a really tough sit…


You may find your way to this film because of its crazy “video nasty” reputation and horror elements, but it is the multiple sadnesses stemming from the collapsing marriage at its heart that really linger. At once kitschy, melodramatic and bleak, Possession is a disquieting movie that I find myself dwelling over weeks later.




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