FANTASTIC FEST: Possession (1981)

Director and co-writer Andrzej Żuławski’s only English language film, Possession is the only section 2 video nasty that has a lead actress, Isabelle Adjani, who won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.

I often think, “Man, it would be awesome to act in a movie or be part of one,” but at no moment during this movie did I wish that I could be on the other side of the lens. Written during the painful divorce of Zulawski with actress Malgorzata Braunek, this is the very definition of a rough watch.

So what the hell is going on here? Is Anna going insane? Is Mark (Sam Neill) unable to escape their breakup? Are they both dealing with things their own way, and by that, I mean Mark replacing his wife with a subservient drone of a woman (also Adjani) while Anna grows her own Mark in a jar? Is this all happening in a dream? Or are all the dead bodies, grocery throwing freakouts and electric knife mutual self-mutilation sessions really happening? Is it really about Zulawski divorcing himself from Poland? Or maybe as it was made in a still-divided Berlin, is it hopeful about the destruction and rebirth that will come from the tearing down of the Wall?

Zulawski went into this movie wanting to kill himself, as his wife had left him (the scene where the child is left alone for hours and the husband comes home to discover his son naked and covered in jelly is autobiographical) while the strains that Adjani put herself through left her in the throes of massive depression and suicidal thoughts, which the director confirms that she acted upon but survived.

Neill would later say, “I call it the most extreme film I’ve ever made, in every possible respect, and he asked of us things I wouldn’t and couldn’t go to now. And I think I only just escaped that film with my sanity barely intact.”

Mark is a spy home from the cold, yet he returns to a wife who no longer wants to be part of this relationship. She can’t tell him why – it’s not a new lover – but she doesn’t want him any longer. He wants out of the espionage life, even if his handlers seemingly refuse to allow him that choice. Yet she does have a lover – Heinrich – who is not only cucking Mark but easily bests him in a punchup. He in turn attacks his soon-to-be ex-wife and then they take turns attacking one another and themselves with the aforementioned carving knife.

Anna also has a second apartment and another life, a tentacled creature that lives with her, and a room full of destroyed body parts, which soon include the detective that Mark has hired to follow her and that detective’s lover.

Before long, the love that exists – or doesn’t – between the married couple consumes everyone, sometimes in fire, sometimes in bullets, sometimes in knife wounds, sometimes just one another on the kitchen floor.

That tentacle thing – credit goes to Carlo Rambaldi. You know, I just saw A Lizard In a Woman’s Skin at a crowded drive-in and even horror-hardened viewers audibly gasped when his creation of still alive dogs torn apart flashed across the screen. Between that, Alien, Deep Red, A Bay of Blood and so many more, I find it rather life-affirming that the same man who created so many nightmarish visions also had a hand in creating E. T.

At one point, Mark says, “You know, when I’m away from you, I think of you as a monster or a woman possessed, and then I see you again and all this disappears.” This is the most real moment inside a film filled with a cavalcade of fantastic imagery. Tearing apart the life you once had for the promise of something new that may not be as good or may take a tremendous amount of emotional work is the most frightening thing I’ve ever done in my life. Possession gave me flashbacks to those moments where the world felt like it was ending every day, where I felt like a monster and when the only person you could confide in became the person you could never speak to again.

Man, Possession is not an easy watch. Just warning anyone of that going in. But hey – movies should not be just wallpaper. They should attack you. They should change your consciousness. They should take your psyche like a rock tumbler and slam you against the walls over and over until you emerge better.

A new 4K scan of this film will make its U.S. debut during Fantastic Fest on Saturday, September 25, completing the circle of this film from being critically savaged to embraced. It will also play the Beyond Fest, as well as opens theatrically and digitally exclusively at Metrograph October 1 In theaters, then nationwide on October 15.

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