Possession (1981)

“Goodness is only some kind of reflection upon evil,” says Anna.  “That’s all it is.”

I’ve seen quite a number of horror films in my life, but I haven’t quite really seen anything like Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 cult classic Possession before (or since).  Zulawski wrote the film while going through a messy divorce, which was heavily influential on the script since viewers have found it very difficult to properly classify.  Is it drama?  Horror?  Suspense?  I saw the uncut version of the film two years ago at Film Forum in New York City (it was originally released in the U.S. in the early 1980s in a butchered version that had removed nearly 30 minutes from the film).  This film is also one of the few “video nasties” that I’ve seen on the big screen.

Mark (Sam Neill) learns that his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) has grown restless in their happy marriage while away on a spy mission.  Upon his return home in Berlin, he finds out that she wants a divorce.  Mark becomes obsessive in learning why Anna wants the divorce, where she disappears to for long periods of time with no explanation, and worries for the safety of their son Bob.  Mark eventually finds out that Anna has a lover named Heinrich, and also meets Bob’s teacher Helen (also Adjani), who looks exactly like Anna but is her complete opposite.  Mark starts a relationship with Helen, but his further encounters with Anna lead him to hire a private investigator to learn the truth about Anna.

The various elements of the film work really well.  The drama is strong in the early part of the film as the relationship between Mark and Anna disintegrates and takes a bizarre turn.  The suspense is played out slowly as Mark tries to find out what Anna has been up to, and the suspense intensifies when he finds out what is happening and responds.  The horror element is very strong, not just in the mood of the situation but also in the creature that is depicted (courtesy of three-time Oscar winner Carlo Rambaldi).  Neill and Adjani dominate the film with excellent performances.  Neill conveys the conflicted and tortured personality of a man who wants to save his marriage.  Adjani is phenomenal in a dual role, portraying Anna’s bizarre descent into madness as well as Helen’s sweet nature and tenderness.  One of the film’s most memorable scenes is the subway flashback where Anna has a seizure and experiences perhaps the most disgusting fetal miscarriage ever put on film.

This film had a brief, limited theatrical run in the United Kingdom.  But then, the “video nasty” scare in the U.K. that started in 1982 led to the Video Recordings Act of 1984.  This film was subsequently banned by the Department of Public Prosecutions list and placed on their list of “video nasties.”  The film remained banned in the U.K. until 1999 when it was finally released uncut on home video.

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