Possession (1981)


Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani star in this disturbing horror film from writer/director Andrzej Zulawski. Adjani’s character asks Neill’s for a divorce, but when Neill refuses to let her go, both of them descend into madness. Possession is part psychological thriller, part dark fantasy, eventually introducing threatening doppelgangers and a weird octopus monster that scores with Adjani.

If you ask me what Possession means, I’m still not certain after three viewings — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At surface level, it’s a cautionary tale about marriage and jealousy, with the title perhaps referring to both Neill’s controlling ‘possession’ of his wife as well as the demonic ‘possession’ they both experience on their downward spirals. Possession is also a scary allegory about men, women, and sex. Normally, that’d be right up my alley. Yet for some reason, the film falls short of meaningfully connecting with me. I blame the third act, when the film somehow manages to become less open-ended, but more confusing at the same time.

Even though I keep Possession a little at arm’s length, there’s a lot to love here. Neill and Adjani give bold, incredible performances. The characters are always in a heightened sense of anxiety, misery or anguish. The actors constantly run the risk of over-acting, but manage to always feel truthful in their choices — if operatically so. Adjani has the film’s stand-out moment when she… gives birth?… miscarries?… in a subway tunnel, hooting and hollering while throwing her groceries around and oozing out every orifice. (Cannes gave her Best Actress.) Carlo Rambaldi (E.T., Dune) supplies minimal but effective creature effects, while cinematographer Bruno Nuytten delivers scrumptious lighting, composition, and camera movement.

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