Possession review (Blu-ray)

Possession is a daunting film to attempt to even synopsise, let alone review, defying the conventions of mainstream western filmmaking and acting while also aligning itself with the horror genre to produce a film that is as unique and disturbing as David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Despite winning major awards for lead actress Adjani (César Award for Best Actress, Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award), Possession was banned in the UK on its video release as part of the Director of Public Prosecutions idiotic campaign against video nasties. In America the film was drastically recut, rescored and had stupid optical effects added in a doomed attempt to make it appear more like a conventional demonic possession film. Finally released in HD by Second Sight, this Blu-ray offers an opportunity to sample one of the most singular of all European genre films. Simply put, if you have never seen Possession then you have never seen a movie like it before, and you are have seen Possession you know you have never seen anything like it since.

The action takes place in West German Berlin, Mark (Neil, following his turn as the antichrist in The Final Conflict) is some sort of spy returning to his young family after time away on a vague secret assignment. It is immediately apparent that he and his wife Anna (Adjani) are in a state of mutual alienation. You can tell this because when he suggests a trip to the zoo to reconnect with their young son Bob, Anna’s face contorts into a mask of abjection worthy of Edvard Munch. Things further deteriorate when he finds evidence of an extra-marital affair and the couple have a massive fight in public which involves Mark throwing tables and chairs around a café like a demented wrestling fan.

After moving into a hotel Mark suffers a complete nervous breakdown that leads to a period of near catatonia. When recovered he rethinks his initial decision to walk out on his family and attempts a reconciliation. However, when he comes home he finds Bob alone, and assumes Anna is with her lover Heinrch (Bennent). When Mark tracks down Heinrich (who lives with his mother), his love rival first comes on to him (in an astonishing scene of homoerotic panic) then karate chops him to the ground and throws him out. Heinrich also reveals that he has not seen Anna since Marks return, so who has she been seeing during the couple’s split?

Or more accurately… what?

Eventually Mark hires a private detective agency to follow Anna, but the detective sent to pursue her disappears (after an incredibly inept attempt to stalk her unobserved).

If this sounds misogynistic, it really doesn’t play that way. At its essence this is a story of domestic and personal apocalypse. As such it has some common ground with another horror film from an expatriate Polish director, Repulsion (1965). However, Roman Polanski’s classic was entirely introverted, and Zulawski’s film has a wider political background. With its frequent symbols of duality and division, there is clearly political meaning to be gleaned from the picture. The wall that divided that Berlin – separating families, friends and loved ones between 1961 and 1990 – is an oppressive presence throughout. As Mark gazes out of his flat, he is constantly observed by East German border guards. That the uniformed guards observing him through binoculars were most likely actual East German Army wondering what the hell was going on across the wall from them is neither here nor there. Later in the film, Mark begins a relationship with Bob’s kindergarten teacher Helen – who is played by, err, Adjani in a wig and green contact lenses.

Up to the point where the viewer discovers where Anna has been going and what she is hiding, the film could be seen as a drama with mild paranoid thriller elements. In fact, for a good hour you might wonder why this is classed as a horror film at all, and why there is a huge credit to Italian visual FX master Carlo Rambaldi for "special effects: the creature" at the top of the film. All I will say is that I have no idea if Zulawski is actually influenced by Japanese erotic manga, but slime and tentacles have rarely been used to this effect in the annals of European Art cinema.

I’ve hinted at it, but the acting styles on display in Possession go to places only subsequently approached by Nicolas Cage at his most demented. Neil, who was relatively unknown at the time internationally, gives a performance that has come in for much criticism. He delivers line readings that are either strangely disconnected or hysterically overwrought, often slamming gears between the two registers several times in a given scene. However, this must be seen in the context of the whole cast. As Mark’s love rival Heinrich, Bennent is incredibly bizarre, speaking English with an accent so think it often renders his lines unintelligible, constantly stripping off during confrontational scenes, and fondling Neil in an overtly sexual fashion. One scene in which Heinrich faces off against Mark on the landing outside his front door is delivered so hysterically, with the actor bouncing off walls waving his hands in the air, that he reminded me of Ian Holm in Alien after [SPOILER] he had his head knocked off!

These two performances would be the pinnacle of extremity in any other movie, but in Possession they are merely the opening acts for the main attraction. When critics call an actress’s performance "brave" what they actually mean is usually either naked or sans makeup. What it should mean is Adjani in Possession. This is a performance of such scenery-chewing intensity that it rivals Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood (in fact, as her ex, Day Lewis may have taken notes from the actress). Nic Cage likes to call his acting style Nouveau Shamanic (something he has derived from, and credits to, the book The Way of The Actor by Brian Bates). This description perfectly fits Adjani’s astonishing, convulsive performance here. The actress goes from calm to shrieking hysteria in the space of single takes, she reacts excessively to simple stimulus, she contorts and twists her whole body and appears to have attained an altered state of consciousness. It is a performance that is closer to Japanese Kabuki theatre than any classical western or method form.

The exaggerated and stylised acting is matched by Zulawski’s direction. This is best exemplified by a brilliant early scene in which Mark is interviewed in a vast empty office space by representatives of The Mysterious They. The weird, context-less questions – "did he wear pink socks" – and flat delivery are filmed with a fluid constantly moving camera that swirls around the actors. It’s deliberately ostentatious stuff, clearly intended to emphasise the artifice of the film in a Brechtian fashion (I’m determined to match the film’s glorious pretensions with this review, and I am not even coming close).

Despite being little seen and undervalued in its release, Possession clearly had an influence on subsequent filmmakers. Lars Von Trier simply has to have watched it, as echoes can be clearly seen in The Kingdom and (the vastly inferior) Antichrist. One writer/director who definitely saw and loved it is Clive Barker. Several of his short stories (most notably Jacqueline Ess Her Will and Testament from his Books of Blood collection) bear traces of Possession, but its greatest stamp can be seen on Hellraiser. Several scenes in Barker’s film appear directly derived from Zulawski’s. It is also possible Possession may have fed into Brian Yuzna’s terrific cult movie Society. The brilliant Park Chan-wook has cited the film as a key influence his film Thirst (2009); it makes perfect sense that a film set in a divided Berlin would strike a particular chord with a Korean filmmaker.

Possession is a film that jumps off the deep end from the opening scene, sinks to the bottom of the pool, and then stays there for two hours. The final 30 minutes are as genuinely deranged as anything I have ever seen on film, but also profoundly haunting. I honestly can’t say I really have any idea what Zulawski is actually on about; his purpose is too obscure to be divined from a single viewing, but it lingers in the mind, setting off firecrackers for days afterwards.

A few words on the presentation. Second Sight’s Blu-ray looks wonderful; the film’s austere palate of concrete grey and melancholy blue is perfectly restored. Rambaldi’s FX have never looked ickier, and Adjani’s dilated pupils scream madness in 1080p. The sound is clear, although the English dialogue often appears to have been post-dubbed deliberately out of sync for extra discombobulation. The film’s sound design and oppressive, but sparse music are as impressive as that of The Exorcist or Angel Heart. This is an exceptionally good Blu-ray.

EXTRAS ★★★★ Two commentary tracks, one with Zulawski, the other with co-writer Frederic Tuten; a video interview with Zulawski; a doc on the films horrific American recut; a doc looking at the amazing Berlin locations; a video interview with composer Andrzej Korzynski; a video interview with producer Christien Ferry, the man who brought Zulawski to the West; a featurette on Basha, the Polish designer responsible for Possession’s iconic poster, one of the greatest ever; and a trailer. This is a must buy for fans of body horror and European art cinema.• Review courtesy of Chris & Phil Present

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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