One of the “comforting” clichés often quoted when a relationship ends is, “It’s not the end of the world.” But in the case of Mark and Anna, the dissolution of their marriage might just be the beginning of the apocalypse.
If a person went into this movie cold, not having seen any of the promotional materials, for a substantial stretch of the running time they likely wouldn’t have any idea that the movie they were watching contained horror elements, as long as they didn’t notice the credit in the opening title sequence that hints at the very strange things to come: Special Effects for the Creature by Carlo Rambaldi.
At first, the movie plays out like a straight, although highly emotionally charged, drama about the mental and emotional damage caused by a blindside divorce. It’s like a European Kramer vs. Kramer.
Conceived by writer/director Andrzej Zulawski while he himself was in the midst of a divorce, the story begins with Mark, whose job working for a mysterious organization sends him on trips around the world and keeps him away for long periods of time, returning from his latest assignment and coming home to the apartment he shares in West Berlin with his wife Anna and their young son Bob.
Mark and Anna’s relationship problems are apparent as soon as Mark arrives. She told him over the phone the night before that she wanted a divorce. His first night home, they attempt to talk things out calmly and honestly. Anna says there isn’t anyone else involved in her decision, she wasn’t unfaithful, they’ve just grown emotionally distant from each other, feelings have changed.
But Mark soon discovers that Anna has been seeing someone else, and that’s when he has a three week long breakdown. To make matters worse, Anna’s “other man” Heinrich is a hippie-dippie enlightened type who knows martial arts and thus is able to kick Mark’s ass when he tries to rough him up.
As Mark and Anna try to figure out the details of the divorce – who gets the apartment, who gets custody of Bob and who can best take care of him, child support, etc. – and how, when, and why things fell apart between them, their interactions are no longer calm and usually become screaming match arguments that escalate into physical altercations, and even further, to self harm with an electric carving knife.
Mark wonders if there’s any way to fix what’s gone wrong, things can change, they’ll “be the way she wants”, but it doesn’t look like there’s any hope. Circumstances start to look better for him when he meets someone new, Bob’s teacher Helen, who looks just like Anna but with different color hair and eyes (and is played by the same actress). In fact, when Mark first meets her, he accuses her of being Anna in disguise. But Helen has a much different personality than his ex, and she assures him that not all women are as horrible as Anna has him believing.
The problems with Anna persist. She keeps secrets. There are times when nobody knows where she is. To figure out what’s going on with her, Mark hires a private investigator to follow her. When the man trails Anna to her secret apartment, entering the place to have a look around, that’s when the film takes an abrupt turn into horror territory with Carlo Rambaldi providing the effects.
From that point, just under the halfway mark, things go absolutely insane, and so does Anna. The second half of the film brings murder and death, and lots of supernatural discussion involving God, souls, evil in the flesh, of Faith and Chance being sisters fighting for control of Anna, until she literally has a miscarriage of Faith. As things get weirder and weirder, the violence and action ramps up to a climax that may be the end of the world.
Possession is not a movie that most viewers will be able to grasp upon their first viewing, and many viewers won’t want to grasp it at all. My reaction to my first viewing was a dismissive “People screamed at each other, then a monster happened”, but when rewatching and giving it more thought, I began to see that this movie is kind of genius. I can’t say that I fully understand what happens in it, but it is exceptionally well made.
The film has wonderful cinematography and features some beautifully artistic shots. I’m not one for discussing symbolism, but you don’t have to be a film scholar to catch that Zulawski is saying something about his characters and their situations by setting the movie in West Berlin and putting in several shots of the wall that divided the city from its other half.
Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani are great in the lead roles, Adjani being especially captivating as Anna. Though there are times when she has to go over the top and scenes that have her doing things like throwing herself around a tunnel while spewing blood and pus, the most effective moments are in looks she gives, like a smile after she slaps Mark, or a scene that begins with her talking to Bob in a kitchen. Her expression changing from happiness to a look of contempt when she sees Mark (whose P.O.V. we’re in) step into the doorway is devastating. Adjani won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and the César Awards (the French version of the Academy Awards) for her performance, and has said that it took her several years to get over playing Anna.
Unfortunately, Possession is now impossible to get ahold of in the United States for a decent price, its region 1 DVD release having gone out of print. I hope it gets reissued, because this movie deserves to be seen by more people. It’ll never reach a wide audience, but there are many viewers out there who would appreciate it and enjoy pouring over its details.