The first time I saw Possession (1981), I didn’t understand it. Part of that was due to the circumstances of my viewing. I had wanted to see this film for years due to its reputation as an unforgettable and strange film. I knew that Plan 9 Film Emporium, Bloomington’s wonderful video store, had a copy. But I never got around to watching it, and since it is infamously rare, I was only able to finally see it late at night on a Twitch livestream. As I finally watched this cult classic, my tired brain struggling to keep up with the increasingly strange imagery, I had only one question: “What the hell is this thing?”
It’s fitting that the first line of dialogue in a film which would inspire me to ask that question, one which is so strange, so unclassifiable, so definitely itself, would be a question. “What has happened?” international spy Mark (Sam Neill) asks his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) upon returning to their apartment in late Cold War-era West Berlin. She has unexpectedly asked for a divorce, throwing their lives into confusion. Some of that confusion vanishes when Mark learns Anna has been cheating on him with an eccentric German man named Heinrich (Heinz Bennett). But as Mark repeatedly confronts Anna and starts his own affair with a young woman named Helen (played by Adjani in a dual performance), he discovers that everything is not as it seems. For one thing, Anna has another lover. And he is much, much more dangerous than Heinrich.
Part of what makes Possession so hard to define is its slippery relationship to different genres. For roughly the first half, it feels like a supercharged version of Marriage Story (2019). Like the main characters in that film, Mark and Anna are undergoing a divorce. But the emotions they feel and the things they do are bigger, stronger, and downright weirder than in Marriage Story. Charlie (Adam Driver) may have punched a wall in that movie, but he didn’t throw a bunch of chairs around a restaurant before four waiters tackle him, which happens to Mark in this film. Even when you’re thinking that you are seeing a divorce melodrama, the filmmakers hint at the strangeness to come.
Over the course of its 124-minute running time, Possession will shapeshift into a psychological thriller about the disintegration of a woman’s mind à la Black Swan (2010), a monster movie, and a bit of a crime film. At times, with its bickering married couple and nosy female supporting character (Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen), Possession even feels like a bit of a sitcom. The only constants in the film are the intense emotions from its male and female lead — Adjani would even win the Best Actress Prize at Cannes for her brilliantly bonkers performance in this film as well as for a film called Quartet — and the exceptional cinematography by director/co-writer Andrzej Żuławski and director of photography Bruno Nuytten. But even that cinematography keeps you on your feet with unexpected angles and intriguing tracking shots. One of them, in which the camera travels 180 degrees as Mark debriefs with his superiors, is one of the more low-key ambitious shots I’ve ever seen.
It’s fascinating how many of its mysteries Possession keeps intact. I have seen it five times (most of them on the Metrograph’s streaming platform) and I still don’t understand the origins of Anna’s new lover, or what organization Mark works for, and the final shot is as mysterious as any in cinema. But that sense of mystery is part of what keeps me coming back to revisit it. Even if I don’t find answers to my questions, I still find the questions themselves to be fascinating and worth asking. I am looking forward to asking them, and seeing if I can maybe, finally find an answer or two, for quite some time.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
Jesse PasternackJesse Pasternack
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