Possession (1981) – Review

One of the 72 films labeled as a ‘Video Nasty’ in the someone-think-of-the-children hysteria of the 1980’s, Possession was not available uncut in the UK until 1999. The notoriety that comes with the ‘Video Nasty’ label suggests a film will be gratuitously excessive in sex and/or violence and, as is the case with many of them, rather thin on plot. This film is an exception to the second rule at least, directed by the Polish Arthouse director Andrzej Żuławski it is an allegorical, largely character-driven, and often incomprehensible take on the splatter-horror of the 70’s and 80’s.

“You’ve bred RAPTO- oh, wrong film.”

Starring Sam Neill, long before he was being chased by dinosaurs, as a man who works for an unexplained organisation who speak almost entirely in mysterious babble for the viewer to try and piece together, he returns home from an assignment of some sort to his wife and young son. His marriage is evidently falling apart and it is very soon discovered that his wife is having an affair. From here the film meanders along the point as both characters take turns in completely losing it at each other and their surroundings in scenes that could have come across as ridiculous if it wasn’t for the film’s two main strengths: it is shot with a rawness unusual for it’s time – lots of handheld cameras and claustrophobic close-ups create an unconfortable energy, while Neill, and Isabelle Adjani as his wife, give brilliant, extreme performances; most notably in a longer-than-it-ought-to-be breakdown scene involving Adjani enduring what is supposed to be a misscarriage. Barely an inch off some sort of macarbre interpretive dance, Adjani writhes and tumbles around a gloomy subway tunnel screaming and exuding various colours of bloody goo (even from her head) for what feels like a very long time. This scene is representative of many more key scenes in the film – it makes no sense to the plot at face value as she was never pregnant; the miscarriage is visually expressing one of a few fourth-wall-breaking monologues; it continues for an uncomfortable length of time, and on paper it could fit into any of the splatter-gore trash films of the era, but between the heavy-handed direction and devoted acting it is somehow hypnotic to watch, even if you’re watching it with a face expressing a mixture of repulsion and confusion.

I’m not a doctor, but…

The acceptance that what is happening probably isn’t happening but what is actually happening isn’t immediately visible is where viewers either love or hate this film. While I personally like a film that makes you think after it ends, this is a film that takes the idea further into these arthouse roots so that you must read between the lines so to speak and embellish what you find with your own ideas to have even a weak grip on what the majority of the elements in this film actually mean. A film that spends a lot of it’s first act barely skirting the genre of horror, a third act that is brutal, horrific, and very destructive (in terms of character as well as physical), ends on a disturbing final image that on one hand throws a whole new perspective to consider at anyone brave enough to attempt dissecting the film and on the other, provides yet another moment of bewildered horror. A number of sacreligious discussions and images provide the obligatory mix of controversy and self-important intellect in ways that may prove important to an individual’s interpretation of the movie but at face value feel forced and a little bit pretentious.

[Insert religious context]

I can’t say it’s an objectively bad film, as the main cast are excellent while the director has given great care to planting countless pieces to the puzzle that is the purpose of the film, details such as what colours some characters wear at certain points seem important, and small events in one scene tie in to much greater events in another. Even the Possession of the title doesn’t refer explicitly to a single entity. However my view is that a film shouldn’t require this cross-examination and, to an extent guesswork, to be able to say what it was even about; the best films I think make some level of sense on a first watch, rewarding the viewer on repeat viewings with either deeper meanings or a clearer understanding of how or why certain things occur.

Definitely not a film for everyone and, while I appreciate the numerous good points it has, I ultimately found it just too frustrating to make me want to solve the puzzle it presents.



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