Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani throw down domestically in Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION, a trip and a half to crazy town with no return ticket. It’s also a endlessly malleable text to be interrogated on numerous levels.
Mark (Sam Neill) returns from a mysterious business trip to find Anna (Isabelle Adjani) wants a separation. He suspects she has taken a lover, despite her adamant denials, and is shortly proved correct. Their domestic life spirals into outrageous disorder, periods apart punctuated by violent encounters in which they berate and cajole one another endlessly and come to graphic blows.
… their emotional chaos is as horrific as any of the imagery in the scenes that made the film a cult horror favourite.
To say POSSESSION is a film about the disintegration of a marriage is unhelpfully mundane and simplistic, although it is perfectly factual. It is also about monsters, doppelgängers, belief in and existence of gods, and the effects of living under an atmosphere of tension and unmitigated human agony. At times the film seems absurdist, daring the viewer to continue to take it seriously, at other moments it expands into full-scale horror, complete with spectres and viscera. The strain of Mark and Anna’s disputes generates a continual distress signal, a perpetually unpleasant note of disharmony in its most raw form. In and of itself their emotional chaos is as horrific as any of the imagery in the scenes that made the film a cult horror favourite.
Their ever-mounting, increasingly surreal violence against each other and others, not to mention the eventual fate of their sole offspring, Bob, disturbs on a level that is rarely matched. The very basic settings and characters are transformed by Zulawski’s direction and writing, stock figures pushed into extraordinary madness. In that familiar frame, he explores scenes and events almost too lurid to believe. Everyone in POSSESSION is perpetually out of air, struggling to breathe against a rising tide of a darkness populated by the evils that lurk in the most remote corners of the human heart. The end is fully open to a variety of interpretations, from the lurching metaphors of literary fiction to the more specific if also more fantastical events of basic horror or science fiction.
…a viewing experience so nerve wracking and unpleasant, one is inclined to ask Von Trier why he bothered.
It is interesting to note that without the advantages of contemporary, elaborate special effects, Zulawksi made a horror film as unsettling as any more recent genre offering. Similarly, he distilled the violence and emotional upheaval within the social borders of domesticity into a viewing experience so nerve wracking and unpleasant, one is inclined to ask Von Trier why he bothered. POSSESSION is a family portrait from which the eldritch horrors and dark underbelly have not been excised.