Film Review: Possession (1981)

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Film: Possession
Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Heinz Bennett, Michael Hogben
Release Date:  05/27/81 (theatres) / 05/09/00 (DVD)
Studio: Gaumont / Anchor Bay
Tagline:  Murder. Evil. Infidelity. Madness.
Plot: “A young woman left her family for an unspecified reason. The husband determines to find out the truth and starts following his wife. At first, he suspects that a man is involved. But gradually, he finds out more and more strange behaviors and bizarre incidents that indicate something more than a possessed love affair.” (Source: IMDB)

Review Score:  5 / 5

(*Author’s Note: Possession is now sixth in my Top Ten List article and About section.)

Tragically, it’s more timely than ever to witness a macabre depiction of marriage.  According to 2005 statistics, married adults divorced two and a half times as often as adults did back when Possession hit French theaters in 1981.  Director Andrzej Zulawski himself was going through a divorce during production, making the bloody situations on-screen between Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neill) appear as no mistake.  Through his lens, and the powerful acting performances, we can begin to understand what lifts this gem from obscure online forums into cult classic status.

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Mark (Neill) returns home from a lengthy business trip of unknown origin and suspects infidelity on the part of his wife Anna (Adjani), whom only comes to visit him periodically.  Various phone conversations with Anna’s friend Margit confirm an affair with a man named Heinrich (Heinz Bennett).  Upon arrival at his place, Mark discovers Heinrich has not seen her in weeks.  Obssessed with finding Anna’s whereabouts, Mark hires a private detective and discovers her bizzare trail while coming psychologically undone himself.

What sets Possession apart is Zulawski’s unique camerawork.  The biggest factor in any relationship or marriage is communication, and Zulawski is ensuring the ultimate breakdown.  His use of juxtaposed close-ups with medium shots sway the audience between Mark and Anna.  The kitchen scenes use this to great effect.  Focus is on Anna for several shots, then moved to Mark for the remainder of the scene.  Cause, effect.  Question, answer.   Zulawski also utilizes low-angle shots (Mark at his apartments, for example) to inspire fear and insecurity to the film’s world.  These standard tricks match the script’s disorienting property.

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What must also work masterfully for Possession – and does –  is the pitch-perfect acting.  As head-scratching as their roles are, Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani deserve the widespread critical acclaim they received.  Adjani won Best Actress at Cannes Film Festival and the French’s Cesar Award for her role as Anna.  In an interview with A.V. Club, Sam Neill described portraying Mark as “the most crazed thing [he’s] ever done.”  Meanwhile, it’s been reported that Adjani took several years to shake residuals from the film.  Their husband-wife characters go through such a bizarre marital hell that it’s impossible to picture anyone else.

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Zulawski invokes  symbolism throughout Possession‘s 127-minute run time.  One lesser-discussed example is the telephone.  Mark is shown constantly dialing or receiving calls from Anna, Margit, Heinrich, Heinrich’s mother, etc. in contrast to violence erupting in nearly every face-to-face conversation.  Another example is the messy apartments. These depictions are the film’s main theme of distance and breakdown in relationships.  The hidden ‘creature’ in Anna’s apartment represents the ‘true’ or ‘desired’ Mark, perhaps even the one she originally married.

Let Zulawski take ‘possession’ of your eyes and heart with his epic bloody drama.

Possession (1981) IMDb
Possession (1981) Mondo Vision 2013 DVD

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2 Responses to Film Review: Possession (1981)

  1. Victor De Leon says:

    Nice review! I haven’t seen this on a very long time. Need to re-watch it. Looking forward to the camera work again. Thanks!

    • rkummer says:

      It’s rare that a film moves into my top ten list so easily. But everything – the performances, cinematography, set design – culminate beautifully to drive home the tragic story of marital destruction. Not to take away from Isabelle Adjani, but Sam Neill was vastly underrated in his bizzare performance as Mark. Zulawski’s films are hard to find (Mondo Vision has started releasing some, including an upcoming 2013 re-release of Possession), but I plan to seek his entire catalog out now that I’ve gotten a taste…enjoy!

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