The Film: 4/5
Mark (Sam Neill) lives in Berlin with his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and their young son Bob (Michael Hogben). His work as a spy often takes Mark away from home for long periods of time, and when he returns from a mission he discovers that not only has Anna fallen out of love with him and taken up with another lover, but she also wants a divorce. The news devastates Mark especially when Anna moves out of their apartment and he finds a postcard sent to her from Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), the man Mark believes to be her secret lover. Mark confronts Heinrich with his knowledge of Anna's infidelity but Heinrich swears that he and Anna have not been together for weeks. Mark then hires a private investigator to follow Anna in order to find where she is currently living and who with. It is later revealed that she has not taken up with another man, nor with a woman. The creature Anna has been harboring in a dilapidated apartment is an unimaginable horror that gives her carnal pleasure beyond her wildest desires and she will violently do away with anyone who dares to come between them. Eventually Mark becomes ensnared in this twisted relationship and slowly loses his grip on sanity as he takes bloody steps to save his marriage.
Being able to remember those years of my childhood when I watched firsthand as my parents once loving marriage dissolved into loud arguments and slammed doors, watching Possession brought many of those long-suppressed memories bubbling back up. This is one of those movies I had experienced in the past but only in passing at whatever neighborhood video store just happened to be in the one of innumerable neighborhoods I lived in at the time. The VHS cover art depicting the sensual image of a beautiful woman's partially bare backside (even exposing a bit of ass crack - the scandal!) with a demonic claw gripping her shoulder is a startling piece of art that experienced a resurgence when the film first hit DVD in the U.S. over a decade ago. It didn't emanate the mystery and quiet terror of the original European theatrical poster, but it performed admirably in communicating to potential viewers that Possession was not going to be a garden variety tale of doomed love. From the performances to the carefully unfolding plot and concluding with a final series of images destined to be analyzed by dedicated film buffs until the end of time, there is nothing about Andrzej Zulawski's haunting minor classic of 1980's horror that can be considered ordinary.
Possession is positively fearless in its depiction of a marriage between two seemingly fulfilled and mentally stable people getting stuck somewhere among the bottom four circles of Dante's Inferno. The film has a monster at its disquieting center and yet you couldn't exactly label it a monster movie. The creature doesn't desire to consume the flesh and blood of the living, but only to love and be loved on its own twisted terms. Most troubled relationships have at least one partner who shares those character traits. The formerly happy love story of Anna and Mark has become a love triangle that drives them both beyond the brink of madness, and Zulawski makes sure to document every skin-crawlingly intense moment through the fiercely committed acting turns from his stars Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. Adjani in particular gives one of the most daring performances by an actress in modern times. She wears the conflicting emotions and festering insanity of Anna on her face and in each inflection of her voice. Her breakdown scene in a Berlin subway tunnel has become the stuff of legend; Adjani gives herself over fully to the moment and turns a full-blown psychotic meltdown into a demented dance of despair and confusion over the burden she has taken upon herself to bear into this politically and economically divided world. The actress' sad, widening eyes conceal a veritable universe of forced secrets and misery. I've never been a fan of Isabelle Adjani's though I have admired many of her films in the past, but if there is to be a performance from Possession to remember forever it must be hers; it is truly astonishing and capable of haunting your dreams.
The actor who really surprised me in this movie was Sam Neill. For years I've known Neill to be excellent in portraying decent and upright men often of a complex nature battling against the dark forces of the universe or succumbing to them, as in Event Horizon and John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness. Sometimes he played the part of the ambiguous villain and played it brilliantly. In Possession Neill starts out with one of the intricately modulated performances he made his acting career on, but as the story progresses his character Mark barrels forward into uncompromising lunacy and Neill rises to the occasion to capture every operatic and maddening action. You can't blame the man for losing his mind as long as you realize that he just found out his wife was cheating on him with a slime creature from parts unknown - unknown at least for most of the movie - and it could give her greater satisfaction than he ever could. It does become difficult to sympathize with Mark once he totally loses it and starts slapping Anna around viciously in one scene to the point where she is left drooling blood. Then there's the scene where the two take turns cutting themselves with an electric carving knife. It was at that point I realized it was futile to find empathy for either one of these people; they're absolutely bonkers and the love they once shared has been perverted into something irredeemable. Neill gives the character of Mark his all as Adjani did with Anna and the results are glorious, if a little troubling to watch at times.
Among the supporting cast no one makes much of an impression other than Heinz Bennent as Heinrich, the enjoyably loopy human lover of Anna who is rewarded for his cuckolding by becoming a cuckold himself. Bennent, who had previously worked with filmmakers Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) and Ingmar Bergman (The Serpent's Egg), enlivens his scenes with flamboyant humor and a drunken poet's sad grace like the world's greatest party guest attending an Irish wake. He doesn't have to play the role comically because the character is so out there emotionally to play it straight is more than enough. Production designer Holger Gross, later to ply his trade on movies like Universal Soldier and The Negotiation, takes full advantage of the glorious German architecture but is just as comfortable with the calm domestic setting of Mark and Anna's apartment that becomes their nightmarish emotional battleground and the cavernous flat where Anna keeps her inhuman secret lover hidden away from the world, all of which is filmed magnificently by cinematographer Bruno Nuytten (Manon of the Spring). The disturbingly baroque music score composed by Andrzej Korzynski is by turns boldly experimental and 80's to the core with brooding, propulsive synthesizer work in the mix.
But Possession is first and foremost Zulawski's masterpiece. He conceived of the story while going through similar events in his own life and works assiduously to ensure that his film stands apart from other horror movies before forced down the throats of audiences of the time and leaving them wanting more. There are wonderful little touches of visual humor, like a homeless man riding a subway who helps himself to a banana from Anna's grocery bag while she is too dazed to notice, through the story that give Possession its own unique oddball identity. Zulawski also leaves many aspects of the movie open for interpretation, such as the nature of Anna's monstrous lover and its origins and the polarizing final scene that does far more than give Possession a satisfying wrap-up. For all of the valuable contributions made to the final film by his creative collaborators it is Zulawski's voice that is it's driving force. If Possession is to be the summation of the director's filmography then it's a good thing he made one hell of a movie to be remembered for.
Possession has been released in various lengths over the past three decades. The uncut version played all over Europe and Asia but was shorn of over forty minutes when it finally premiered in the U.S. in 1983. Fans had to make do with bootlegs of unreliable quality for years until Anchor Bay released Zulawski's 124-minute preferred cut on VHS and Region 1 DVD in May 2000. Second Sight's Blu-ray also features the director's cut beautifully restored in 1080p high-definition and presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.67:1 - a slight change from its original theatrical exhibition ratio of 1.66:1. The company conducted a full, frame-by-frame restoration of the original negative under the director's supervision and the final result with complete color correction met with his approval. Now though I have never seen the movie before in its previous VHS and DVD incarnations and therefore cannot accurately compare the quality of their transfers to Second Sight's efforts....come on, people. Possession looks absolutely amazing. The picture benefits greatly from the digital noise reduction and most of the grain has been removed. Visuals are very clear with sharpened details and laudable texture that brings out the most in the cold and rain-soaked Berlin locations. The colors have been restored to more warming hues that help to offset the mounting tension.
On the audio side Second Sight has supplied us with a lossless English LPCM 1.0 track. Possession is a movie that starts at top volume and never lets up, so it's given a soundtrack that equals its visual intensity. The audio has been remixed to near-perfection with special attention paid to the hypnotic sound design and the discordant music score by Andrzej Korzynski, but the increasingly bizarre dialogue spoken in tones both soft and operatic is also presented crystal clear with zero distortion. English subtitles are also included.
Second Sight's Blu-ray of Possession is overflowing with some fantastic newly-produced supplements about the film's complicated production, release, and censorship history. Held over from the previous Anchor Bay DVD release are a commentary with director Zulawski and biographer and film historian Daniel Bird and the film's international theatrical trailer.
Zulawski is very detailed and honest in discussing Possession's origins, the film's themes, drawing out the intense performances of his cast, filming against the backdrop of the politically and physically divided Germany, and its eventual reception. Co-writer Tuton also contributes a commentary, exclusive to this Blu-ray and also moderated by Bird, that delves into the narrative aspects of the film and constructing the story. Both tracks are solid and highly informative.
Zulawski goes into greater detail about some of the subjects touched upon in his commentary and more in a new video interview in French with English subtitles (36 minutes). "The Other Side of the Wall: The Making of Possession" (52 minutes) compiles interviews with Zulawski and several surviving members of the crew for a comprehensive look back at the production, controversy, and legacy of the film. The collapse of Zulawski's expensive sci-fi epic Silver Globe, the autobiographical elements from the director's own life that made their way into the script, and dealing with the troublesome political landscape in communist Poland are just a few of the subjects discussed.
Composer Korzynski is featured in "The Sounds of Possession: Korzynski on Zulawski" (19 minutes). Just as the title implies he talks about his working relationship with the director and his musical creations for Possession. When the film was released in the U.S. it was more than forty minutes shorter than Zulawski's preferred cut, "Repossessed: The Re-Editing of Possession" (12 minutes) dissects the differences between the original and American theatrical release cuts from the inappropriate insertion of choral music in one scene to the inclusion of scenes cut from the director's version as well as distracting optical effects and redubbed dialogue that alter crucial context.
"Our Friend in the West" (7 minutes) sits down with French producer Christian Ferry, while "Basha: The Unsung Heroine of Polish Poster Art" (6 minutes) focuses its brief running time on the artist that designed Possession's bewildering European theatrical release poster among many others. Wrapping up the supplement selection on this disc is "A Divided City: The Locations of Possession" (7 minutes), a featurette that takes a look at the filming locations as they appear today and is illustrated with behind-the-scenes still photos.
Possession is a horror film like no other. Going in expecting a run of the mill arthouse monster flick with some interesting moments I encountered something totally different and I loved the film all the more for defying my expectations in the best possible way. I've said more than I should about it in the main body of this review. Trust me implicitly and seek this one out for yourself. Second Sight's outstanding Blu-ray presentation comes highly recommended.