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Possession (1981)
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by Jay Seaver

"The end of love is a complete nightmare, but an amazing one."
5 stars

Some movies like to let the audience settle in and develop a false sense of security before hitting them with the strange, figuring that will make it all the more shocking. This is not the game plan Andrzej Zulawski adhered to with "Possession" at all; this movie starts out with high intensity insanity and only cranks things up from there; it's a movie that keeps the audience in its seats as much via stunned disbelief as excellent quality.

Mark (Sam Neill) has just returned to West Berlin after a long foreign assignment, possibly in espionage from the way he's debriefed. Almost immediately, it's clear that his marriage to Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is disintegrating. He practically explodes when he learns that she's been having an affair with someone named Heinrich (Heinz Bennent); she is soon only briefly appearing in Mark's life to spend time with their son Bob (Michael Hogben). Strangely, Bob's schoolteacher Helen is a dead ringer for Anna, and despite Mark's suspicions, Anna is not spending the time she's gone with Heinrich.

This is not the sort of movie about a failing marriage where things appear placid on the outside only to be revealed as crumbling on closer examination; there's screaming from the get-go, the apartment is a disaster area, and both halves of the couple just up and vanish for extended periods of time. After establishing a situation so fraught with tension, Zulawski could step back; instead, he pushes the strangeness further, first into the realm of the eccentric and then into the horrific, and finally...

Well, the last moments of Posssession are as high-concept and seemingly random as anything else in the movie, although by that point the audience has hopefully stopped using logic to follow the story and recognized it as a thing of almost pure emotion and metaphor. From the apartment's closeness to the Berlin Wall to the idealized doppelgangers and rivals that pop up throughout, every strange thing that goes on feeds directly back into the themes of how emotionally violent the end of a marriage can be for all involved, right down to how heightened the actions and emotions of the people involved are.

And, wow, does the cast run with that! Isabelle Adjani spends all her time as Anna on the brink of complete and utter collapse, albeit the supernova sort of collapse that is just as likely to throw superheated material out in all directions. It's a ferociously high-intensity performance sustained for practically the entire running time of the film without ever feeling predictable or becoming something to which the audience is numb. Similarly, Sam Neill goes from hurt to kind of terrifying with impressive speed; despite Mark being in the spot where one would normally find the protagonist, he dives right into the way Mark seems hyper-creepy when intimidating his wife but is just as often made to look pathetic on the follow-through. It's often close to a two-person show with Michael Hogben's Bob mostly the reason why scenes start out relatively calm before really exploding, but there are a couple of other memorable folks in the cast, especially Heinz Bennent as Anna's paramour, who goes from new-agey quirk to just outright peculiar as things go on. Adjani almost has to be considered as having a fun supporting role herself, as Helen's completely opposite nature to Anna makes her easy to recognize even if one doesn't pick up on the color-coding early on.

Zulawski keeps all this going at a full boil, aided by his own music, some nice cinematography by Bruno Nuytten, and marvelously grotesque special effects by Carlo Rambaldi. It's really quite the impressive marathon, taking strange turns that really only the sound and shooting style of the previous scenes has prepared the audience for and never slowing down to explain what's going on. It works because everything that happens leads to the next event emotionally even if cause-and-effect isn't clear, the flow is almost perfect despite the lack of typical guides.

At least, it is in the original cut; the original American release that cut a third of a film that already explains little and relies on the audience being primed for what happens next must have been well-nigh incomprehensible. Even in its full glory, it's bizarre, but never in a way that distances itself from the audience: It's the expression of a raw wound that wants you to feel its pain and terror, rather than ponder it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24040&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/19/12 22:17:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

User Comments

10/18/15 mr.mike Trip into bizarro cinema is not for all tastes. 3 stars
9/28/15 Louise Has to be seen to be believed - weird but quite amazing! 5 stars
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  14-Oct-1983 (R)
  DVD: 09-May-2000

  N/A (18)

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