The Visceral, Surrealist Nightmare That is 1981’s “Possession”

Released in 1981 and subsequently banned and added to the infamous “Video Nasty” list, Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession is a film that for a long time wasn’t the most accessible or easiest to get ahold of.  Thanks to Shudder, it’s now streaming as an exclusive on their platform, and for many fans who are watching it for the first time, they’re finding out just how bizarre, surreal, and visceral a movie it really is!

Messy Divorce (Literally)
The film follows a married couple Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) as Mark has just recently returned from an assignment as an intelligence officer and he comes home to a wife extremely unhappy with him and a marriage on the brink of divorce.  To say that this couple is toxic and dysfunctional is an understatement.  There’s shouting, name calling, hurling insults.  Both actors give it their absolute all, never afraid to be over the top or too extreme.

Sam Neill once cited this as his personal favorite film of his due to the freedom and the fascinating places his character was able to go.  Isabelle Adjani referred to it as equally memorable, although she said that it took her several years to “recover” from playing this role, and after watching the film it’s very easy to see why.

Possession 2
Sam Neill goes to some the darkest places, even more so that In the Mouth of Madness!

Honestly, neither character is likable but that’s very much the point.  And just because they’re not likable doesn’t mean they’re not relatable.  Many of us can relate to getting incredibly frustrated with a relationship gone wrong, or feeling like the one we were in was harmful to our mental health.  As any good horror film does, this one takes that idea and runs with it into absurdist territory.

Writer/Director Andrzej Zulawski loosely based the films and its themes on his own divorce from actress Malgorzata Braunek in 1976.  In a lot of ways, the film was his own way of processing his feelings of frustration and grief for the lost relationship.  And much like in real life, the couple in the film have a child as well (who the film makes you feel real sympathy for when he’s caught in the middle).

Possession 3
At the heart of every breakup is the grief over the loss of love or the loss of what either person thought the relationship would be.

Everything is very heightened and exaggerated for artistic purposes, but it all stems from very real and relatable feelings.  For those with the unfortunate experience, Mark and Anna’s fighting has a very raw and visceral feel to it that is both traumatic for the characters, and potentially traumatic for anyone who’s been through something similar.  Both Mark and Anna are incredibly dysfunctional, but they’re honestly so terrible you feel like they kind of deserve each other.

It’s an unfiltered and complex look at a marriage falling apart, set against the very real foreboding that was the Berlin Wall, which is featured prominently in background shots as if to impose on the characters and story.

Metaphor vs. Surrealism
But this film is so much more than Marriage Story on steroids, otherwise it wouldn’t be the kind of movie featured on Shudder.  As both characters’ marriage and sanity further descends into despair, the film introduces doppelgangers and a grotesque tentacle spectacle that easily puts this movie in the same conversation as films like Eraserhead and Suspiria.  It’s just surreal enough that you’re never really sure if it’s actually going full supernatural or if this is all some shared psychosis based on relationship trauma as well as Mark’s paranoia around his former job (which ties back into the West/East Germany issue and theme).

Possession 1
The audience is just as confused as the characters at some points.

It’s the type of film that could have infinite interpretations and that’s very much the point.  One could interpret Mark dating his son’s teacher who’s played the same actress as his wife as a metaphor for how unless he’s able to change himself, his relationships will always be the same.

You could view it from a social/historical context of how the division of Germany and Berlin forced people who weren’t right for each other into traditional marriage/gender roles.  Or you could see the creature horror as the physical manifestation of the couple’s toxicity.

Honestly, if you’re not saying, “what the hell did I just watch?” after viewing it, did you even watch the movie?  It’s truly more of an experience than a traditional film and if you want to be simultaneously confused, disturbed, and intrigued, check it out while it’s still on Shudder!

What did you think of Possession?  What are some of your favorite trippy horror movies?  Let us know in the comments!

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