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Possession (1981)

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Plot Summary:
"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 suspect a man is involved. But gradually, he finds out more and more strange behaviors and bizaared incidents that indicate something more than a possessed love affair."

Review by
John Townsend
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Review Date: 15 July 2013 My Rating: out of 5


Some films defy classification, refusing to be pigeon-holed into any particular category or genre. Possession is one such film. Typically it has been classed as a horror film, even falling foul of the British Board of Film Censorship in the notorious video nasties campaign of the 1980's when despite an initial cinematic release it was banned before being released uncut in 1999. Finally the film is being released in blu-ray in it's full uncut glory and with a plethora of extras.

It is difficult to fully describe Possession without giving much away. The film itself could be divided into at least two parts as one is very different to the other. The opening scenes show Mark (Sam Neill) returning from an overseas trip and being debriefed by his apparent superiors. We are given the impression that Mark is a spy or shady government employee of some kind but whatever his job is it involves briefcases of money and strange phials. When he returns home to his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) she tells him she wants a divorce but doesn't fully explain why. Mark decides to leave the apartment and their young son Bob but is unable to move and on and begins to obsess about whether there is someone else involved. What follows is a bloody descent into madness and tension as more and more is revealed about Anna's other life and the mood shifts from psychological thriller to something far more sinister and horror inspired.

I do not want to spoil any of the twists and turns in Possession as much of what happens is entirely unexpected. As I said the first half of the film follows the disintegration of the marriage and is an intense study on human emotion and suffering. Mark and Anna tear each other apart both mentally and physically and they swing from longing to hatred and back again drawing other characters into their crumbling world. Anna's controlling and slightly sinister lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), who is also unaware of Anna's slowly revealed darker side, becomes a pawn in Mark and Anna's battles. Bob's teacher Helen (also played by Isabelle Adjani but with bright green contacts to distinguish her) becomes a shoulder for Mark and embodies everything Anna is not, but distances herself as events become stranger and stranger and Anna's friend Margi (Margit Carstensen) become collateral damage. All of the performances are cranked up full and are delivered with an intensity rarely seen in a film. The audiences emotions are pulled and pushed repeatedly in different directions with each turn in the story as character loyalties are tested to breaking point.

Director Andrzej Zulawski wrote Possession while going through a messy divorce and the anger and pain is clearly evident in that none of the characters experience any real peace or redemption at any point. The story moves along at such a pace that there is little time for them or the audience to draw breath. The swooping camera rushes in and out of the scenes in such an aggressive manner as to almost physically connect with the cast and gives the audience the feeling that they are right there in the middle of the action.

As the film evolves into its second act it becomes increasingly clear that there is much more going on than the audience could possibly have expected, although for anyone who hasn't seen the film before the DVD cover possibly gives too much away. The story now shifts into more supernatural territory with an ominously malevolent presence now hovering in the background. There are elements of Cronebergesque body-horror and even nods to the serial killer genre and its influences can clearly be seen in Clive Barker's Hellraiser.

One thing can be said with certainty is that Possession commits to film one of the most destructive and unpleasant marriage observations ever seen and is at times extremely uncomfortable to watch. There is no doubt that anyone watching this film will come out the other end knowing they have just had an intensely dark experience and I can imagine the imagery staying with people for some time. I would be surprised if there was any film to rival Possession as a psychological event. This is not necessarily a film to be enjoyed but is definitely one to be respected.

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