Since its initial release 30 years ago, Andrzej Żulawski’s daring depiction of a marriage falling apart has been hailed as a masterpiece and dismissed as pretentious trash.
Since its initial release 30 years ago, Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) has been hailed as a masterpiece and dismissed as pretentious trash. In the United States it was cut down from two hours to 80 minutes, turning an already confusing film into something incoherent, while in the UK it became arguably the most bizarre film to end up on the ‘video nasties’ list. It was removed the following year, but its presence on the list brought Possession to attention of a great many horror fans who mistakenly believed it was another gratuitous slice of Euro-splatter, with effects courtesy of Alien‘s Carlo Rambaldi. That assumption was probably dispelled by the time the lovely Isabelle Adjani - already known to horror fans for her roles in Werner Herzog’s exquisite Nosferatu remake and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976) - started giving birth to a tentacled monster in a deserted subway tunnel. Shattered illusions aside, Possession did find some appreciation within the horror crowd - especially among lovers of David Cronenberg’s unique brand of ‘body-horror’ - although it remains difficult to assess in genre terms. It does include a monster, graphic gore and explicit sex scenes, but despite these elements the film remains a domestic drama at heart, albeit a twisted and somewhat disturbing one.
With their marriage reduced to a series of violent and bloody confrontations, Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) begin to look elsewhere for affection. Anna gives birth to a monstrosity that she then takes as her lover, guarding it from the attentions of her jealous husband. He in turn begins a relationship with their son’s teacher, who appears to be an exact duplicate of his wife. In effect, both seem to have created a ‘perfect’ replacement: Anna has a tender and affectionate lover that possesses no part of her husband, unlike her human child; Mark’s new lover has the body of his attractive wife but with an entirely different personality. During the writing and shooting of Possession, Żuławski was going through a difficult and acrimonious divorce, and it is clear that despite the fantasy trappings, much of the film was informed by the director’s recent experiences. Thoughts that would normally remain unspoken - the desire to kill or physically injure one’s former spouse, for example - are given a physical form and acted out by Adjani and Neill, both of whom seem to live solely for the opportunity to hurt each other, ignoring their child in the process. Anna’s monstrous offspring is the physical realisation of both her guilt and self-loathing, and her repressed sexual appetites, but neither the monster nor the doppelgänger are realistic partners. In the end, Żuławski can think of only one suitable conclusion to his tale: the destruction of the entire family. It’s a downbeat, pointless ending, but it really is the only appropriate one.
Watch the official trailer for Possession (1981):