a review by the Crow.
(A slightly-updated version of the post which I argue is the only correct reading of this movie.)
Some years ago, I happened across a collection of older, more obscure movies. Among them, was Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani (arguably one of the best actresses of all time). At the time, I had no idea what I was in for, and that made things all the better.
My first viewing left me somewhat confused. And that meant that I had to piece through the movie all over again. And I did, a few times over, in the following months.
Like a few choice movies I could name, Possession leaves its viewers in a puddle of their melted brains on a first watch (the oft-trumpeted Primer will soon make an appearance on The Corvid Review, although I’ve been known to stress how that movie isn’t really so hard to “get”). And just like all those other movies, it’s best to watch Possession blind. And you will, no matter the case. This movie is nigh impossible to summarise. There is really only one way to experience Possession, and that is to watch it.
Like with movies such as The Neon Demon, Possession (almost) belongs to a class of film one might call “pure” or “hard” cinema. The experience they deliver is impossible to convey in mediums other than cinema itself.
That said, you’re here. That can mean that you have no clue what this movie is and at best have only vaguely heard about it. Or… that you’ve watched it and are wondering what in the hell you just saw.
(Or that you just love reading The Corvid Review.)
SPOILER LEVELS at CONSIDERABLE
As I mentioned before: to talk about the plot of Possession would be folly. But I’m not known for making things easy for myself.
The movie opens with Sam Neill’s Mark returning home to West Berlin from a work-trip. Mark’s job involves shady meetings and suspect briefcases; he’s some form of spy, we eventually gather. But the true nature of his work isn’t important to the plot. What is important, rather, is that his wife Anna (played by Isabelle Adjani) asks him for a divorce.
The split happens, and in the days following, Mark learns from one of Anna’s friends that Anna had taken a temporary lover during his recent absence, despite her stressing that she isn’t breaking up with him over someone else. We see Mark descend into agony; unshaven and foetal in bed as the days pass by, mumbling incoherently into his phone.
Eventually, Mark (clean-shaven once more, in a snap) visits his old home, only to find the place a mess, and Bob (his and Anna’s son) uncared for. After a few choice words, Mark and Anna effectively switch places at this point, with Mark taking over the home and the care of their son, while Anna disappears to places unknown.
And this is where things begin to get weird.
From this point onward, I won’t be talking about the plot from here on out so much as reading it.
Of the many ways one could read Possession, the most correct reading, I find, is the fact that most of the events of the movie are lensed through Mark’s eyes.
Anna (blue-eyed, dressed invariably in blue) starts behaving erratically after splitting away from Mark. The word “erratic”, however, barely scratches the surface. She starts transforming into a fictional character, a Lovecraftian medium, if one had to put her transformation down into words.
Distanced from Mark, Anna descends into further and further levels of depravity. It’s revealed to us that she’s been making a Frankenstein’s monster-like creature in a dilapidated apartment, out of parts from other men (including the detective who Mark employs to follow her, and said detective’s lover), which she habitually copulates with.
She rejects and threatens the man with whom she had an affair with a knife when he finds out where she is. The man, Heinrich, frantically calls Mark, who finishes him off in a toilet after a brief conversation.
And I propose: all this strangeness is nothing but a product of Mark’s obsession with Anna. He’s clinging on to his ex, but is also looking for ways to be repulsed by her in his own fantasies so that he can possibly move on.
When Anna rejects Heinrich and Mark ‘murders’ him, Mark is again projecting what he expects Anna to do and what he wants to do onto the film.
When Mark does eventually find love elsewhere, his obsession with Anna interprets the woman, Helen (played also by Isabelle Adjani, green-eyed and dressed in brighter colours, this time), immediately as a doppelganger of Anna.
Over the course of the movie, Mark and Anna meet time and again, circling each other, in varying degrees of abnormality. The story, however, starts taking a stranger turn towards the end.
The monstrosity Anna creates is eventually revealed to be a refashioned Mark (green-eyed, this time), her “idealised” husband, as he would want to be. A sum total of all the men she interacts with over the course of the movie.
On the brink of death, we cut from Mark-blue and Anna to Helen, who Mark-green is about to visit. Bob has just drowned himself in the bathtub, and Helen — the new subject of Mark’s fantasies — smiles. Her face is illuminated by lights from somewhere unknown, Mark-blue is approaching her, and the film rolls its credits.
The plot is thick with suggestion. There are no truths here. Mostly there are allegories and fantasies. So what does this ending mean? The answer is not all that difficult, I think. There are one of two options:
One (the direct reading): Mark has moved on, after a fashion. The obsession with Anna has died. Helen can now be herself. Or can she? Will she always be a slave to the memory of Anna?
Two (the abstract reading): There is a story here about things going wrong in Mark’s work-life. And the story of Anna collides with what’s already a trying time in his life. And what happens is that Mark ‘projects’ his inner impulses onto the film of the movie itself. And this is the option I’m picking. I take Possession to be a movie which has been imprinted with one of its characters’ inner thoughts and feelings.
That said: in the end, Possession is a story about love. Written by Żuławski during his own divorce, it depicts one of the most important aspects about love: possession.
When in love, in proper love, people tend to want to possess one another. The answer to the movie’s mysteries is right there in the title.
The performance by Isabelle Adjani is possibly one of my favourite performances ever. Her work in this movie blows the likes of Heath Ledger’s Joker and even (her own now-ex) Daniel Day Lewis’ Plainview out of the water. Her breakdown scenes go above and beyond the most unnerving depictions of madness ever put to film.
It’s creepy. Isabelle Adjani has long been a favourite actress of mine. And it’s evident why in her “tunnel” scene. The woman commits herself wholesale to the scene she is in.
Sam Neill is on point with his performance, as is pretty much everyone else involved in the movie. Heinrich is a little bit of a disappointment at times, however. He’s just a little too over-the-top at times.
Possession is more unsettling than scary. And its scares come from the potential that we don’t always envision people for who they are.
In everyday life, we know people as snapshots. Just like we act differently to different people, or act differently based on the environment we find ourselves in, so do people behave in concern to us. No matter how well we think we know them, or how much we expect them to give up possession of their selves to us, they’re still snapshots (of course, rare exceptions exist).
The movie explores the darker side of “moving on” from these snapshots. The healing process for some people involves imagining their past love as a truly horrible person. And Mark is one of those people.
Anna becomes a femme fatale of sorts, her evil compounded by her Lovecraftian rituals, and it’s all a product of Mark’s attempts to look beyond her.
It’s possibly one of the best horror movies of all time (right up there with El Orfanato, which will soon make an appearance here on The Corvid Review). That is, if one can even consider it horror to begin with.
I do, because of its surface content. And it’s a damn fine example of what the genre is capable of.
THE CROW: 8.5/10
THE AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE: 9/10
Here’s (one of) the official poster(s):