Possession (1981)

MARCH 4, 2012


Almost as long as the site has existed, folks have been requesting I watch Possession, and I hope they realize I haven't been ignoring them - it's just too damn hard to find! The DVD is long out of print, the rental services don't have it available, and only truncated versions occasionally surface (even though are rare). So when I heard it was showing uncut on a new print I knew the time had come; that today is also my birthday was a nice bit of serendipity - there is no greater gift than seeing a movie for the first time on a glorious 35mm transfer*.

Of course, anyone that has seen it and is familiar with my reviews of other "challenging" movies can probably guess that I had no idea what was going on for a big chunk of the film's second half. I don't mind analyzing a film and getting deep into its hidden meanings - but on repeat viewings. I've used the Inception example before; there's a theory that the film is a giant metaphor for filmmaking itself, and next time I watch the film I'll keep that in mind, but the first time around it works as a "face value" twisty heist film. Possession, on the other hand, at face value is about a monster that grows into a squid-man that likes to screw Isabelle Adjani (and who can blame him/it?) while Sam Neill loses his mind and gets his ass kicked by pretty much everyone else in the movie.

However, what it's REALLY about is how divorce tears people apart (literally in this case) while forever destroying those caught in the middle, in this case their young child Bob, who is easily the best Bob kid in movies since House By The Cemetery (from my point of view, I mean - both were released in 1981! Good year for Bobs). The greatest compliment I can give the film is that I actually forgot I was watching a "horror movie" for the first 45 minutes or whatever it is until the monster first appears. While undoubtedly strange, I was compelled by the drama of Adjani and Sam Neill's impending divorce as Andrzej Zulawski creatively exaggerated the "I love you/I hate you" mentality of any drawn out breakup. They scream, they throw things, they break household objects, they inflict harm on their own bodies, etc. It's tough to watch at times (neither actor holds back when it comes to physical outbursts) but undoubtedly fascinating.

Then the monster showed up, and I was like "Oh yeah, I'm watching this for my daily horror movie". Unlike Audition, I had actually gotten into the movie as a different genre instead of waiting for the horror to kick in, allowing the monster's first appearance to register almost as much of a shock to me as it did for the character who first stumbles across it (besides Adjani, obviously). So good on you, Zulawski.

As it went on though, I found myself scratching my head and saying "Hmm?" more often than not, as it went into full blown David Lynch-ian surreal territory. A little bit of post-movie digestion and a few queries on its IMDb page have cleared up a few issues, though many questions remain. The ballet scene in particular threw me for a loop; I think it's the start of her breakdown, but all the stuff about Faith and Chance ("sisters") went over my slasher-movie loving head. And then some guys want to kill Sam Neill; his character is a spy of some sort but this "subplot" is so underplayed I actually forgot all about it by the time they entered the story again. And who's that girl at the end that the doppelganger gives the gun to? How does the real Mark's body get thrown down the stairs? Etc.

But I was still riveted: half trying to decipher it, half just sort of mesmerized by how unabashedly gonzo and unique it was. Horror or not I can truly say I've never seen another movie like it; there were moments that recalled Polanski, or Cronenberg (and of course, Lynch) but they combined into a wholly unique thing that has no equal. I could probably watch it six times and still be in the dark on some parts (Margie's leg cast?), but also take away different interpretations of what I think I already understood. Plus it has a squid monster humping the shit out of one of the most beautiful actresses of all time.

On that note, even if you understand it even less than I did, there's plenty to enjoy if you're just interested in the horror imagery. The creature is designed by Carlo Rambaldi (who went from this project onto something called E.T.), and we don't see it much but he makes it count when we do. There are a few surprisingly graphic murders as well, and it seems Neill spends half the movie bleeding from some wound or other. And the film's piéce de résistance is a knockout - a full five (?) minutes (one take) of Adjani suffering a simultaneous mental collapse and miscarriage in a tunnel, featuring a mix of blood and some sort of milky liquid pouring from every orifice. Between this and Irreversible, if I ever see a beautiful French woman in a tunnel, I think I'll just preemptively call 911 and get the hell out of there before I see something I can never unsee.

Speaking of Adjani, she plays two roles here. The main one is the wife, but she also pops up as Bob's teacher, who is quite possibly the most hands-on teacher of all time. At one point she visits their home to check in on him, and Neill has her finish bathing/dressing him. I can't imagine one of my first grade teachers ever coming over the house at all, let alone giving me a damn bath. The idea is that she is the ideal version of Adjani (from Neill's POV), just as there is eventually an ideal version of Neill (from her POV), though it goes about it in a wholly different way, and we never learn if her appearance changed from an original, non-Adjani version, but I guess it doesn't matter in the long run.

At 120 minutes or so, it's not a movie for the impatient or easily bored, especially if you're going in expecting a horror movie (even an off-kilter one). It's not an easy movie to watch; at times it's even somewhat draining on an emotional level (not a date movie, at any rate), and the characters are difficult to root for - Neill seems to be trying harder to save their marriage, but he's also far more violent when things go south. But if you seek something that is unlike nothing else you've seen before, I can't think of a finer example. Of all the movies that made me feel kind of stupid, this was my favorite!

What say you?

*Or a gourmet cupcake, which the Cinefamily usually has for sale as well. And the movie is running all week I believe, so if you're in the LA area check it out!


  1. A local video store, Video Paradise, near where I live has a copy. Didn't realize it was so hard to find.

    I found the movie to be dense as well, though you understood it better than I.

    Happy Birthday! by the way. Hope you enjoyed it!

  2. So glad you finally caught this one - your review made me crack up, especially the part about the tunnel scene. Yeah, it's a tough film to watch, but it does hook you in from a few angles. I actually loved the camera work where the director is moving the viewpoint AWAY from stuff that's happening in a few scenes instead of towards it. That and the over-eager taxi driver Sam Neill gets to wreck his cab, the whole chase sequence and that amazing ending that still creeps me out...


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