Possession

***

Reviewed by: Chris

For low-budget movies that attract tags like ‘psychotronic’, ‘gore-fest’ and ‘schlock-horror’ to be celebrated at major art festivals is unusual. So that Possession was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won Best Actress at Cannes is remarkable. It means it requires serious attention from film fans besides than the usual grunge brigade that flocks to late night showings of Toxic Avenger or Re-Animator.

It has been rumoured that director Andrzej Zulawski has been known to hypnotise his actors a few days before shooting. The idea certainly fits with the manic performance of Isabelle Adjani. She plays two characters of almost identical appearance. The first is the unhappy wife of the even unhappier Sam Neill. He comes home to find she is engaging in an affair. But who with? Adjani's second character is a schoolmistress who steps in and helps dad with his young son as the marriage descends into psychotic chaos. Helpfully, the first Adjani wears the same blue dress throughout, whereas the schoolmistress is dressed in white.

Heinz Bennent provides our initial suspect - an egotistical, motorcycle-driving, new-age playboy-type, who lives with his mother and spouts mystic at-oneness about his affair as he gently kung-fus an irate Sam Neil into submission and then puts his arm around him. But Sam Neill hires a private detective to locate his wife and that’s when things get really nasty.

Although the special effects are fairly basic, the censors still went into cutting-room overdrive. It was some time before the film could be seen.

What sustains Possession is the excess with which the actors throw themselves into the parts. The frenzied, almost constantly agitated Adjani is a nightmare vision of marriage break-up even before we get to the meat of the horror. (Although it is a superb performance, I did, however, find it slightly wearing, continuing through almost the whole movie without any respite.) Neill is also excellent, at the end of his wits and constantly pushing his character. Bennent is mesmerising. And that’s even before we get to the man in the pink socks.

But then there are faults. The superbly excessive performances are contrasted nonchalantly with the barest utility in other areas. The plot lacks subtlety or any humour to provide light relief. The scripting and sets are the stuff of B-movies. Although this is a downside, it also works strangely to advantage, as we are thrust into the only element that carries conviction – the mental deterioration of the characters themselves.

Just when I thought I had sat through more than enough and was longing for the more sophisticated fare of, say, Brain Damage – that is superior in so many ways – the ending provided a rather neat twist, rocketing the nasty monster element to another level and at last providing some intellectual engagement with what has been happening off-camera. We are persuaded, perhaps, of the evolutionist theory that, when we change partners, we seek a more perfect ‘version’ of the person we have just left.

Possession is a strange and worthy tour-de-force, but one that may still fail to satisfy both gore-fans and serious filmgoers. Watch it and marvel at what it achieves – rather than what it lacks.

Reviewed on: 30 Mar 2008
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After his wife walks out on the family with no explanation, a distressed man hires a detective to help him find out why.
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Director: Andrzej Zulawski

Writer: Andrzej Zulawski

Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton, Michael Hogben, Maximilian Rüthlein

Year: 1981

Runtime: 127 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France, West Germany

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