POSSESSION, or, DOES FAITH MURDER CHANCE IN A SUBWAY TUNNEL?
Dir: Andrej Zulowski
Does 'Possession' have as many disparate elements as a Cronenberg creature? For a while, it certainly seems that way. Wending its way through a divorce drama psychological to creature horror to 'did the world just end?' horror, the film seems to be a collection of parts rather than a coherent whole.
Set in West Berlin, 'Possession' begins with Mark (Sam Neill, from long before his appearances on 'Jurassic Park'), a cold war spy, returning from an assignment to his home where he finds his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani shortly after her star-making turn in 'Adele H') seeking a separation. What begins as a story about how people in divorces can hurt each other quickly veers into a different territory as Anna exhibits some very odd behaviour. Mark continues his pursuit of Anna however and even confronts her lover. So far, it is a disturbing story, but still appears to follow the tropes of a divorce drama.
When a detective actually tracks down Anna to a secret apartment in an abandoned building, the movie becomes something else. Now coming thick and fast upon us are images of gore and squick, the director throwing the grossness at us with what appears to be unabashed glee.
Death and dismemberment follows in a cityscape bare of people, with desolate surroundings, always-messy interiors in nice, clean buildings and scrupulously clean floors in decrepit buildings. Anna's doppleganger Helena shows up. Heinrich (her former lover) too visits her secret apartment. Mark joins in on the murderous action. Various characters have sex with each other. Various characters hold each other's hand. Pink socks become important.
And then things get worse.
By the end, when the credits roll, if you are left wondering what you just saw, that's possibly by design, but this is not the 'WTF' reaction exacted by many French film-makers, or even David 'WTF' Lynch. It is combined with a sense of relief that it is over.
For 'Possession' is exhausting. It's like being battered with blunt instruments while piercing screams play in the background.
In trying to understand why, I sought to separate the facets of the film. The camera-work is top-notch, the framing perfect for the effect sought to be created, for which one should credit Bruno Nuytten (who would go on to direct Camille Claudel). The acting is also fantastic, which I will come to later.
But the script...that seems to be where the bulk of the blame would lie. The director also wrote the script for 'Possession', and the blame, if we are to call it such, is laid easily, for Zulowski clearly wrote the script in a disturbed state of mind, while going through his own divorce. Moreover, this is a French-German collaboration that, for reasons unknown, was made in English. And the disconnect shows. With only Sam Neill (A New Zealander) being at home in the language among the cast and possibly the crew, there is a sense of disconnect that contributes to the atmosphere of separation that pervades the film. The dialogue comes across as flowery to the point of being a joke. Incongruous language is delivered with theatrical flourish by actors lurching from side to side. The pacing is off, somehow, going along sometimes at a speed that does not allow for understanding, and the editing often renders the events on screen incomprehensible, making the central theme (the pain of separation, I speculate, for humans and countries) so obtuse as to be completely misconstrued by the end.
If all this sounds faintly ridiculous, it is, a little. But far more than that, it is disturbing, unsettling, often deeply so, and undoubtedly, for all its flaws, riveting.
The credit for holding the film together rests on the shoulders of Isabelle Adjani; shoulders which must have attained a strength far beyond their apparent delicateness over the course of her career.
It is remarkable that she is able to portray vulnerability when Anna needs to be vulnerable, and diabolical when Anna needs to be diabolical, and do both equally convincingly. It is mind-blowing that she is able to radiate both feelings at the same time. And yet, this is Isabelle Adjani.
Had the film cast Judy Davis (as was planned when Adjani's agency turned Zulowski down), or anyone else, it is certain 'Possession' would have been yet another obscurity of European cinema, a 'neither here-nor-there' film that could not decide whether it was horror or drama or even what kind of horror it was. But Adjani did eventually come around, and so we end up with a film that is still a 'neither here-nor-there' film, but now it is a 'neither here-nor-there' film that has one of the finest actors in the world carrying out a role of a lifetime. Bringing her intense physicality to the film, Adjani makes Anna into a maddening, haunting creature whose every movement speaks volumes and fixes the viewers attention to the screen. Completely unpredictable as the character is, it is the talent of the actress at never letting the viewer know what to expect next, but making what happens next perfectly believable, that allows 'Possession' to rise above the disjointed nature of its script.
Whether I would positively recommend 'Possession', I do not know. It is something of an artefact, a film made by a Polish director in Cold War Germany using a divorce and creature horror to make a statement about separation that ends up being too close to gibberish to really have an impact. But it also features some extraordinary flourishes from actors who gave a lot of themselves to their roles, and whose subsequent careers rightly speak to their talents.
So I suppose i would leave it as something that, if you do choose to watch - should be watched at the viewers own risk.