Dir: Andrzej Żuławski
1981 France/Germany, 119 Mins
Playing as part of Kinoteka’s tribute the titan of Polish cinema - Andrzej Żuławski - Possession remains a genuinely unnerving filmgoing experience, one that also showcases superb performances from stars Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. For her brilliant performance in Possession, Adjani received both of the most important French awards, the Golden Palm and the César, in 1981 and 1982.
When Mark (Sam Neill), a spy, returns home after a vague mission, he finds his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) apparently going through a major nervous breakdown. Anna says she wants a divorce, but then decides to take their young son and leave with her secret lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) anyway. Mark lets them go at first, but struggling to cope with his frustration later (including a period where he seems to go mad), he eventually hires a private investigator to find out more, only to discover that Anna's behaviour is growing increasingly disturbing, including abandoning Bob in the apartment, cutting her own neck with an electric knife during a frenzied argument, and attacking people with broken bottles. Mark himself seems barely able to control himself, growing increasingly rage and paranoia-addled. He is often a walking bloody mess, in one case this is the result getting into a bizarre, unexpected punch up with the effete Heinrich, who along with seeming to make sexual advances towards Mark, reveals himself to be a martial arts master. Mark and Anna regularly claw chunks out of each other as their dispute grows more poisonous, though at time they actually seem to be enjoying the bloodlust.
It soon becomes clear, as the weirdness piles up, that the film is only obliquely interested in depicting a straightforward domestic break-up. The story wanders into more outright surreal and horrific territory the longer it goes on, such as Bob's school teacher looking like the spitting image of Helen, except with brown hair and green eyes. Żuławski keeps us on edge the whole time, starting at a tone of unease and ramping things up to full- blown hysteria in short order. Neill and Adjani give it both barrels too: screaming, hitting, spitting and stabbing at each other, a spiral of rage and despair. Their faces are made up to look deathly pale: they both look ill and sleep deprived, and their actions make less sense the longer the film runs. Random events get thrown into the narrative. We are also kept off-balance by the unclear timeline of the narrative, the dull, colourless surroundings of Cold War Berlin, the expressive camerawork, and an overall feeling that this could all just be a mental projection of the stress of marital disintegration rather than ‘real’. There is a lot going on in Possession, and all of it gripping.