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‘Possession’ Looks at Just How Demented Divorce Can Be

Banned when it came out in 1981, Andrzej Żuwałski’s disturbing cinematic ode to his own break-up is seeing a revival 40 years later (and no, it’s not because of the tentacle sex)

Andrzej Żuławski’s psychological horror film Possession was controversial when it was released in 1981. Though it was nominated for Best Picture at Cannes and it won Isabelle Adjani the award for Best Actress, it was banned in the U.K. and heavily edited for release elsewhere. It was recut for its U.S. release, too — 40 minutes of footage were lopped off, turning a philosophical examination of loneliness and codependency into a straightforward monster-movie freak-out. Since then, it’s been re-released in its original cut and is currently seeing a revival due to Metrograph Pictures’ 4K restoration of the film, which is showing in select theaters throughout November and is available to stream on their website

In Possession, Mark (Sam Neill), an international spy, returns home to West Berlin to find his wife Anna (Adjani) insisting upon a divorce. Mark goes into a depressive spiral but finds that Anna is acting even more erratic, disappearing for stretches of time and leaving their son Bob unattended. As he begins to investigate her bizarre behavior, he finds that she’s been with neither her friend nor her lover, but engaging in something more disturbing than he (or the audience) could have imagined.

To be upfront, Adjani’s character is harboring a malformed, oozing tentacle abomination and killing people to protect it when she’s not having constant sloppy sex with it (it’s sort of the most famous thing about the movie). But to act like the slimy monstrosity is the movie’s primary thrill is doing the picture a disservice. While the creature’s presence and otherworldly occurrences dominate the film’s back half, the first 45 minutes don’t include any wriggling demons at all, and yet they contain a fair deal of the film’s most upsetting content. In fact, one could argue that the richest and most chilling parts of the film don’t involve tentacle sex at all, but simply the violent dissolution of a marriage.

For the most part, the film is from Mark’s perspective. Anna can’t explain why she needs things to end — they just have to, even if Mark wants to try and work through it. From there, their every encounter becomes more violent and psychotic, with it being increasingly unclear which character is possessed. In a cafe, screams between the ex-lovers escalate into Mark chasing Anna through the restaurant and upturning every table until someone stops him. The two writhe, scream, spasm and strike at each other. 

The frightening physicality of the performances notoriously took a psychic toll on the two leads. Adjani struggled with post-traumatic stress for years after delivering her extreme performance, most notably from a demonic miscarriage scene in a subway tunnel where she thrashes and wails while blood and pus ooze from her every orifice. And while Neill has said that it’s the project he’s proudest of, he “just escaped that film with sanity barely intact.” Every actor in Possession engages in a sort of exaggerated performance, such as Anna’s first secret lover, the lubriciously homoerotic Heinrich, or her overly contemptuous best friend Margit. To call it overacting feels insulting. Rather, the actors just commit to a sort of hyper-reality where intense emotions become atmospheric and seep into every action, event and image. 

There are dopplegangers of Anna — and eventually Mark — that represent the ideal lover or the perfect partner to them, but beneath them is a shallowness that makes even their child sure of more chaos. Yet under all the violence, shrieking and unholy abominations is an apparent desire from Mark to understand what’s going on with Anna. After she puts an electric meat carver to her neck while Mark rants about trying to understand her, he carves at his own arm to stay true to his intention. 

There isn’t, however, always reason to be found in pain. As Anna tells Mark at one point, “No one is good or bad.” Broken love is simply brutal, and the loneliness of separation can make us not ourselves, even when it’s necessary.