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Gird your loins, and probably best to stap your vitals while you’re at it, because it’s Possession, the 1981 movie showcasing one of the most remarkable displays of unhinged acting you’re ever likely to see, with Isabelle Adjani doing the frothing up, and leaving co-star Sam Neill trailing in her wake.

This odd film got caught up in the video nasty debacle in the UK, where it was seen as a horror movie and got banned outright. A similarly negative outcome awaited it in the US, where over 30 minutes of footage was cut to make the film suitable for midnight movie audiences, destroying it in the process.

It’s not a horror film, and yet it obviously is a horror film. I mean, there’s a tentacular alien creature (designed by Carlo Rambaldi, the guy who did Elliott’s extra-terrestrial friend in ET), a fair bit of blood-letting, marrow-freezing screaming, frenzied action, an electric carving knife used to good effect, stabbing, murder, and so on.

It’s written and directed by Andrzej Zulawski, who’d just had production on his previous film, sci-fi epic On the Silver Globe, halted by the Polish state censor, who thought Zulawski’s film un-Communist. Zulawski reacted by defecting to France, where Possession was made. At around the same time as his previous film fell apart, so did Zulawksi’s marriage. It’s the sheer grim awfulness of that seriously rocky breakdown that Possession is about.

Mark (Sam Neill) is a spy who’s just come off a long job. Debriefed, he heads home to the apartment he shares with his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), and child, in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. He already knows that she wants to leave him, and in the film’s early stages things move along in a rational, if fraught way – “Can’t we patch it up?” “I can change” “We’ll make a new start” etc etc.

Things shift suddenly after she announces that, no, they can’t patch it up, and what’s more she’s off to live with a man who is in every way better than Mark – cleverer, more handsome, better in bed, blah blah blah. In a foreshadowing of things to come, Mark and Anna have a spectacular flame-out in a cafe, after which Mark hits the bottle and the film hits its stride.

With a swift change of gears emotions start to externalise and the psychological becomes the visceral. Zulawski introduces the lover (Heinz Bennent), a suave ageing lothario who talks intellectually, dresses impeccably and can fight. He probably has a massive dick too. He’s the bitter fantasy imagining of the cuckolded male made flesh. There’s a fantasy “next partner” for Mark, too, in the shape of his son Bob’s schoolteacher, Helen, who looks exactly like his wife (because she’s also played by Adjani, in wig and contact lenses) but is as sweet as pie.

Isabelle Adjani goes crazy in the subway
Ready for her close up: Adjani

Zulawski is getting it all out there, all his late-night, possibly drunken, recriminatory, self-recriminatory dark thoughts about his marriage, not just making Mark and Anna stand in for amped up versions of himself and his ex-wife, but making the marriage breakdown itself a character – Anna has a rapacious creature locked in an empty apartment on the other side of town.

It is a brilliant expression of a relationship going off like a nail bomb, and it would work absolutely even if conducted in sedate tones in civilised scenes à la Ingmar Bergman. Instead, Zulawski gets his actors to go off the deep end. Adjani is at semi-banshee within five minutes of the film starting, but as things get more and more fractious, she unleashes one of history’s most spectacularly off-the-chump performances, as if the actor herself were possessed. There’s a remarkable scene filmed in one take in a subway at 5am, where Adjani throws herself about in a wildly distressed fashion that is like something out of The Exorcist, except for real.

Against this, Neill can’t really compete, though that doesn’t stop him trying. The avuncular Sam Neill of Jurassic Park was 12 years in the future. Here we have the lean and relatively unknown Neill giving it the max in an attempt to keep up with his co-star. Bennent, father of Tin Drum child actor David Bennent, so obviously no stranger to boggle-eyed weirdness, also gives it his best shot. But Adjani has both of them beat (and if you watch the interview with Zulawski in the DVD extras, it’s clear that, for all his misgivings about casting the notoriously difficult diva, he’s filled with admiration for what she did. Adjani, for her part, says the film drove her to a suicide attempt).

Zulawski pulls off some neat plot reverses towards the end, when it’s suggested that maybe Mark isn’t quite the innocent cuck he’s made out to be, in another appearance of a creepy double. And situating the whole film in the shadow of the Berlin Wall makes it open to political interpretation too, though that’s probably as fruitful an avenue to explore as the screenplay’s various cryptic pronouncements on the nature of God.

The cinematographer is Bruno Nuytten, who was the partner of Adjani at the time (he talked her into doing it, according to Zulawski), and his bright, shadow-free (mostly) and sharp lensing really adds bite and a patina of quality belying the budget. The Steadicam comes into its own in switchback ding dongs between Mark and Anna that would be difficult to imagine without it. It was still a relatively new invention in 1981, and Kubrick had given it a big boost the year before in The Shining (another horror film about a relationship breakdown). Nuytten would go on to do the glowingly warm Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources a few years down the line but could not be further away from the look of those films here.

A masterpiece of expressionist psychological distress… and a great horror movie. And from a writer/director I’d not come across before. Now where’s that Zulawski back catalogue?

Possession – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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