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It’s surprising when you suddenly realise that there are readily available “landmark” films that you’ve never actually seen. Case in point here is “Possession”, the 1981 French/German cult film from the late Polish director/writer Andrzej Zulawski, which remained the only English-language that he ever made. I’ve read a great deal about the film, I’ve seen interviews with the cast and crew, I’ve shook-my-damn-head over its inclusion on the infamous “video nasty” list, I’ve watched clips, and I’ve seen stills. But I’ve never sat down in front of a TV or cinema screen and watched it in its entirety as a normal viewing experience. Time to use the “31 Days” challenge as an excuse to rectify this…

The film stars talented and prolific French actress Isabelle Adjani, along with Sam Neill who was the Antichrist Damien Thorn in “Omen III – The Final Conflict”, coincidentally released the very same year as this film. More than anything else though, “Possession” is regarded as a one of the most controversial cult films of its time. It was heavily cut for the US market, but at least it got proper distribution. In the UK it got a very limited release (mostly in rep cinemas) and was then immediately banned and classified as a “video nasty”. It didn’t get an uncut release on these shores until a VHS release in 1999! This was before the Internet worked its magic on movie distribution, don’t forget. What rankled many people at the time, was the fact that overseas critics were gushing over its virtues, and Adjani actually won the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival when it screened there. Along with plenty of references to extensive “creature effects”, this all ensured that arthouse aficionados and genre fans placed it high on their must-see viewing lists. But what of the film itself?

Mark (Neill) is apparently some kind of spy (although this is barely acknowledged). Absent from his wife Anna (a manic Adjani) and his young son for long stretches, he returns from a lengthy “business” trip to find himself being given the (very) cold shoulder from his missus. The relationship is falling apart and Anna is constantly agitated and doesn’t want to be around him. Mark is bewildered as to the cause for all this hostility and histrionics, but on further investigation he discovers that she has had a long-term affair with douchey lounge-lizard Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). The estranged husband has a nervous breakdown, but eventually recovers when he realises that his son is being severely neglected by Anna. When he confronts smug twat Heinrich, he is shocked to discover that both of them have been cuckolded and his wife is infatuated with a new mystery lover. But nobody is prepared for just what that lover is though and just how far Anna will go to protect him…

It’s interesting watching “Possession” from a fresh perspective and this far away from its opening. The film is very much an angry allegorical story, and feels like the cinematic ancestor of similarly charged films like Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” and (*deep sigh*) “mother!” Apparently Zulawski has stated that he wrote the screenplay when he was in the middle of a very messy divorce… and boy, does it show! The whole first half of the plot consists of maddened dysfunctional characters railing at each other. It all feels like a primal reaction and criticism of the human condition and people’s selfish desires. Anna flies into screaming fits at the slightest provocation and often feels like the movie equivalent of fingernails being scraped across a blackboard. Mark is by turns ineffective and sly. And as for Heinrich… That’s not to say that the cast don’t deserve their plaudits. Neill’s initial regression into a mute childlike state is oddly moving, and Adjani is 100% submerged in her role. It’s just questionable that you want to watch her scream non-stop and roll around in a filthy subway for over 3 minutes before her tantrum reaches a messy conclusion…

I have to admit that I was surprised at the fairly minimal impact of the Lovecraftian monster in the narrative. I had always assumed that the trysts between a woman and the monster were the reason for its notoriety back in the day. But they’re mostly suggested, with only one brief and fairly non-explicit moment when they’re caught in flagrante delicto. Mostly it’s the actions of the characters that supply the blood and more excessive elements, with self-harm via an electric knife and a throat wound from a broken bottle, taking the chequered flag for queasiness. Carlo “ET” Rambaldi’s SFX still stands up to today’s standards when the icky beast makes appearances though.

It’s the latter half of the plot where it starts to go really bat-shit crazy though… Odd decisions are made, flamboyant performances tend to feel like arthouse shows, and the world’s worst detectives are introduced. There’s a bizarre sequence that feels like it was bolted on from an 80’s action movie, and Mark’s spy career makes an unscheduled re-appearance at the climax. There’s also the issue of Helen, played by Adjani again she’s Anna’s far-less-shrieky green-eyed doppelganger. What’s the deal with her? Another creature? And if you figure out just what those last couple of (possibly Armageddon-ish) minutes are all about, you’re a better person than I am (although most people generally are).

I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan of this once the credits rolled. It looks good (West Berlin is given a disturbing apocalyptic look) and the performances are all admirably committed. But it feels like the older sister of “mother!” a film I’m not overly fond of. It’s all about chaos, allegories, and shaking-a-fist at the universe. I’m glad I finally saw it, but it’s probably not a film I’ll return to any time soon. However, it does give Neill at least a couple of great lines that I’m looking to install as ringtones on my phone; ”You… with your Yin Yang balls dangling from your zen brain” & “Bleed for a while. I’ll be there soon”. Culty but faulty for me. But I know a lot of people do dig it…

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