– by David Morgan-Brown
Romance films often conform to a certain mood, namely that of optimism. Most of the movies in this genre, although feature a number of minor conflicts, end up with the guy and the girl getting together, happily ever after. There’s not a wide selection of romance films that opt for a different kind of approach, one that shows the suicidal destructiveness and insanity that only true love can bring. If you want a romance film of that kind, you’d have to delve into the video nasties (the films the UK banned and prosecuted, claiming they were corrupting the youth) and uncover this art-house horror sci-fi vomit-fest romantic-comedy Possession, a film that can truly be described as being unique, only being comparable to the others film of its eccentric Polish director Andrzej Zulawski.
No other filmmaker can quite capture the wailing and intense furiousness of the human mind and body like Zulawski. His films are primitively wild and hysterical, the cinematography and mise en scene hardly ever stops moving as actors and the camera constantly wave about on screen in some sort of demonic episode. Possession is the only English language film Zulawski made and it became something of a favourite among a certain demographic of cinema-goers, though not quite in the conventional manner. It was labelled a video nasty in the UK and was banned until 1999. The film suffered censorship in many countries, but is now available on home video in all its disturbing uncut glory.
The film stars a rather early performance from Sam Neill as Mark, recently separated from Anna played by Isabelle Adjani. Both actors try to out-do each other in love-crazed spasms of lunacy and, although it’s a close battle, Adjani takes the cake. There’s hardly any other female performance on film that has required as much physical and emotional trauma as what she gives to this film, and it shows is spades. She flails about, screeching and screaming like in some sort of, as the title suggests, possession. Even in her quieter moments, she conveys the same high level of intensity through just a look in her eyes. Zulawski has put on the screen some of the most audaciously insane moments of cinema to ever exist and Adjani’s performance as Anna is one of them – it’s something that must be witnessed by horrified viewers from the comfort of their arm-chairs (especially when her hysteria reaches its peak in the infamous subway tunnel scene).
It would’ve been easy for her to overshadow the acting of her partner, but Sam Neill’s performance here is not the Dr Alan Grant we’ve come to know and love. He is equally as deranged, suffering terribly from his break-up, yet eventually finds some sort of solace in his pain. I find Neill’s roles in other films often very sleepy, but here he is wide awake and acts as some sort of emotional centre for the film to (somewhat futilely) ground the insanity and intensity of the rest of the film. His performance isn’t as wild as Adjani’s, yet his character goes through more emotional stages than hers, ranging from love-sickness, grief, masochism, nihilistic optimism, and amongst all of this fatherly persistence.
The third main character is not played by a person, but is some sort of other-worldly creature that has been plunked from the depths of some hazardous sewer. It is Anna’s new lover. This creature effect (by the brilliant Carlo Rambaldi, who had worked on monster effects for Alien and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and would go on to do effects for E.T. and Dune, among others) doesn’t have a large amount of screen-time, but its effect will scar the minds of viewers for a lifetime. The design of the creature and the way it has been shot give it a deeply creepy vibe most other horror films aim for, but rarely achieve.
Its obscure cult status has grown over the past decades and a number of analyses and reports have been written about the film (a selection of which are included with the film’s special edition Blu-Ray release) which highlight many different themes that can be discovered within the film such as the question of identity, the politics behind the Berlin Wall, the continuing degradation of institutionalised love, as well as a lot of speculation over Zulawski’s own divorce that inspired the film. It’s unlikely the creators of this film had all of this in mind, yet the genius of the film (and most other films that warrant such a high level of differing analysis) is that it acts as a great catalyst for the artistic discussion of these issues. In just two hours, the film fulfils so many desires — it’s cathartic, political, humorous, frightening, impressive on a horror design level, and it’s a seething and visceral examination on humans when they’re in their most fraught and vulnerable state. This is one film you ought to check out if you’re going through a particularly bad break-up.