Thursday, 3 January 2013


1981, France/Germany, Directed by Andrzej Zulawski
Colour, Running Time: 123 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R1, Anchor Bay; Video: Anamorphic 1.66:1, Audio: Dolby Digital Mono

Genre amalgamations go back a long way, whether it be the obvious mixing of science fiction and horror abundant during the fifties, or gangster/vampire combinations such as From Dusk Till Dawn, etc. From what could easily have been the uninspiring and unproductive event of marital break-up in the life of Zulawski was borne Possession (not the one with Gwyneth Paltrow in it!) - something that might be described as an odd collision between social drama and visceral horror. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani play Mark and Anna, a couple in the midst of a marital crisis where permanent split seems like the only viable outcome. Aside from having a young child to consider, Mark appears to be unable to live without Anna but has difficulty communicating what he’s feeling without descending into maniacal, emotionally charged babbling, often turning to manifested aggression in frustration. His psychological state spirals downward while Anna seems ambivalent about what she truly wants, often portraying a need to terminate the relationship between them whilst possibly still exhibiting some feelings that are positive towards her husband, amidst the obvious torrent of confusion. Mark finds out that she’s been having an affair with someone and naturally this does the situation no favours. Finding out who it is he goes to see the man, presumably without intention to discuss the problem diplomatically - the strangely androgynous Heinrich beats Mark up during the ensuing conflict. Arranging to have his wife followed it’s revealed that Anna is frequently retreating to a derelict area of the city (Berlin) where in a run-down apartment she’s mating with some sort of hideous multi-limbed monster.
Rather than being a story of demonic infiltration à la The Exorcist, this movie investigates the results of the ‘possession’ of one human being by another, something that generally occurs in intimate relationships and is suggested here to ultimately have a destructive effect on its closest participants. The film distributors, particularly in America, didn’t really know how to market this project and in all fairness that’s quite understandable, especially in an era when films of a fantastically disturbing nature were good box office business - not only is the trailer a superficially ambiguous advertisement for what could easily be just another monster movie in its audience’s eyes, but the film itself had forty minutes or so removed by a studio who didn’t understand the content. Similarly here in the UK it was placed on the banned list by the Director of Public Prosecutions and effectively condemned as a ‘video nasty’ (something that ironically probably helped gather a small cult reputation for the film). The film has since been restored in the US and permitted an uncut release in the UK under thankfully revised opinion. Controversies aside, what remains now though is something that’s difficult to understand with its apparent symbolism and personal meaning to the director. It’s clearly a response to the despair produced by the disintegration of his own relationship with his spouse but there is much here to decipher, and that’s where many viewers will drop off (to sleep in some cases). However, there are rewards to be had should you be able to mentally focus on what’s going on - the intricacy of Mark and Anna’s relationship is disturbingly realised and the physical product of their interpersonal deterioration is quite fascinating; that is, the terrifyingly passionate hatred between them seems to create the very monster that Anna ends up mating with (thereby producing more offspring). The creature itself is not seen too much but what’s visible is hideous, a bedridden octopus-like monstrosity that conceals something distortedly human in its nature. Anna’s occasional dismissal of her real husband hints at the possibility that she (i.e. the female) sees him purely as the machine that will impregnate her when required. The fact that she’d rather mate with something so horrific (than her husband) in order to produce more offspring possibly offers support to this idea. While Neill does a good job Adjani is simply astounding as Anna. The extremity of emotions she displays is worryingly realistic (indeed she won a couple of awards for this role), most notably in the train tunnel sequence where she goes into prolonged violent spasms before a disgusting miscarriage - this scene must be one of the most disturbing ever committed to celluloid, surely something very few actresses could have achieved, and it pretty much elicited outrage in some people. Its impact is profound and underlines the state of Zulawski at that time. As far as the film as a whole is concerned it's more likely to be a painful experience rather than a specifically enjoyable one, but the latter was hardly the director’s intention.  Plus I would suggest that it is excessively long at two hours. However, films don’t come a great deal more challenging than this and its imagery and overall impact is quite unique.

Released a couple of times in the US by Anchor Bay Possession was restored to its full running time and Zulawski’s original vision, plus it was presented correctly at 1.66:1, anamorphically enhanced in a pillar-box fashion and generally pretty good looking for its time. The DVD also came with director commentary and interesting text notes on his work. The second disc release was identical apart from the fact that it was coupled with Mario Bava’s final film Shock as a double-bill.  Possession was finally passed uncut for home viewing in 1999 by the BBFC here in the UK for a Visual Film Entertainment VHS, and Second Sight have since (in 2010) put out the film on DVD - this UK DVD is the best edition of Possession available at time of writing, presenting the film uncut in the correct aspect ratio (as did the Anchor Bay DVD but with a much more comprehensive selection of extras, albeit missing the AB commentary). More recently US company Mondo Vision have been preparing their own special edition DVD of the film, reportedly with around four hours of extras in addition to being available in either standard SE or limited SE sets, but I suspect the cream of all releases will come from Second Sight this year, who are putting together a Blu-ray consisting of a director-approved HD transfer and host of newly commissioned bonus materials as well as the ported over extras from their 2010 DVD.

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