Caught in a Bad Romance
Published on November 30th, 2011 | by L. Caldoran0
“Possession” runs from Dec 2-8 at Film Forum
Running Time: 123 minutes; Unrated Version
If the plotline of Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession” were to be condensed into a tabloid-ready headline, it might read: Serial Killer Wife Leaves Secret Agent Husband For Tentacled Manifestation of Her Loss of Faith. The 1981 film, subject of a week-long revival at Film Forum, may initially come off as impenetrably bizarre thanks to its genre melding of absurdist satire, murder mystery, (often literal) kitchen-sink melodrama, psychological horror, and Cold War conspiracy thriller. But it’s thanks to this risk-taking that “Possession” serves as precursor to later down-the-rabbit-hole marital-jealousy films such as “Lost Highway,” complete with use of doubles and a mysterious home movie left on the husband’s doorstep.
Sam Neill (before he was inextricably linked with “Jurassic Park”) and Isabelle Adjani (who has made a reputation playing different varieties of madwomen) star as Mark and Anna, an ill-fated married couple living within view of the Berlin Wall. After Mark returns home from his latest prolonged work assignment, he is informed that Anna wants to leave him—but she’s cagey about explaining why. Their young son, Bob, is caught in the middle and begins to act out. (Considering the ever-more-disheveled quality of their apartment, is it any wonder that the boy spends so much of the film’s runtime playing in the bathtub?)
It seems Anna has taken a lover in Mark’s absence, an absurd Teutonic New-Age playboy named Heinrich (with whom Mark shares a vaguely homoerotic tension). As Mark continues to quarrel with her, Anna’s mental state becomes increasingly erratic: she neglects her son, wears the same increasingly filthy blue dress for weeks on end, and slices her own neck with an electric knife during an especially heated dispute.
When Anna finally moves out after several messy, violent arguments, Mark has her tailed by a comically inept private detective, expecting her to turn up at Heinrich’s. Instead, she’s rented a deteriorating Berlin apartment with peeling yellow wallpaper—and it’s here that she repeatedly commits murder to protect her other boyfriend (politely billed as “the Creature”), whom she apparently birthed in a subway-station miscarriage replete with vomiting pus and gushing blood. Meanwhile, Mark has found a new lover of his own: Bob’s sweet-natured, level-headed teacher, Helen, a stark contrast to Anna—who also happens to be her near-exact physical double.
Convoluted? Certainly. “Possession”’s tonal shifts and near-camp hysterical excesses can take some getting used to—and a vague subplot regarding religious faith is frankly not integrated very well. It is, however, a film that rewards repeated viewings to cut through the density and intensity, allowing the viewer to hone in on thought-provoking statements such as “goodness is only some kind of reflection upon evil” and further unravel the characters’ motives.
“Possession” was among the UK’s original “video nasties,” which seems a quaint label in the days of “Saw,” “A Serbian Film” and “The Human Centipede”: the violence and gore shown here are a visceral representation of the pain of disintegrating romance, with the protracted fights, self-loathing behavior, and repeated backsliding on both sides that can often characterize the process of breaking up. The film openly sides with Mark against Anna, but also pokes fun at him and his tortured obsession through often-grim humor: e.g., his squirming on a hotel bed in a junkie-like fetal position after she throws him out, or his repetition of a sappy, pointless anecdote about a dog dying under his porch during his childhood. He knows how pathetic it is that he still clings to Anna, but nonetheless can’t tear himself away. (A more in-depth discussion of the film’s treatment of gender relations can be found here.)
“Possession” is honest enough to depict the emotional extremes of passion and conflict experienced during a breakup, yet self-aware enough to acknowledge how histrionic and ridiculous such squabbles can appear to outside observers. It’s both uncomfortably candid and deeply cynical. And with its blood-and-gasoline-drenched apocalyptic ending, “Possession” joins the recent “Melancholia” in portraying the sense that it must be the literal end of the world simply because it feels that way.