There are films that are bad. There are films that are so bad they’re good. And then there is Possession.

Maverick Polish director Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 arthouse horror flick is like no other experience in cinema. It is ludicrous, demented, incoherent, and jaw-droppingly self-important – yet somehow you cannot take your eyes off it for a moment of its two hour running time.

Mark (Sam Neill) returns from a lengthy business trip to find that his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), has been having an affair and wants a divorce.  Scenes of hysterical marital meltdown ensue as the couple wage a war of emotional attrition over the head of their young son in a claustrophobic Berlin flat.  It’s like Kramer vs Kramer on mind-twisting psychotropics.

Yet both Mark and his wife’s lover must contend with a third, secret love interest: gradually they discover that Anna has spawned and nurtured a diabolical creature in a derelict flat on the other side of the city. Worse still, it’s much better in bed than either of them, and she is prepared to kill in order to protect it.

Possession offers a unique cocktail. The acting, with the exception of the astonishing Isabelle Adjani, is unintentionally hilarious.  The young Sam Neill – never the most towering of talents – is here criminally mis-directed, pushed so far beyond his limits he virtually exits the stratosphere. To this Zulawski adds poker-faced pretentiousness, one of the most incomprehensible scripts ever written, and risible dialogue riddled with quasi-philosophical balderdash. Witness the scene where Mark tracks down and confronts his wife’s lover, Heinrich (an outrageously camp Steven Berkoff type played with delirious pansexual loucheness by German actor Heinz Bennent). The following is typical of their exchanges as they careen around one another like a pair of loons:

Heinrich: There is nothing to fear except God, whatever that means to you.
Mark: For me God is a disease.
Heinrich: That’s why through a disease we can reach God.

Its deeply suspect gender politics notwithstanding, at the heart of Possession is a great idea – a film about sexual possessiveness and marital trauma set against a backdrop of demoniacal madness and body horror.   Alas, Zulawski seems to have made it while absorbed entirely in a private world of opaque meaning.  The film seems to be a cathartic outpouring of his feelings about his own divorce  coupled with a comment on his ill-treatment at the hands of the Polish authorities, washed down with half-baked Cold War metaphors and lashings of sixth-form existentialism.

But what single-handedly entitles Possession to its status as a lost classic is an extended ‘miscarriage’ scene in the Berlin subway, when the evil that has taken seed in Anna finally erupts (see below).  What follow are three of the most intense and harrowing minutes in all of cinema.  The physical and emotional commitment shown by Adjani is remarkable.

Almost as unforgettable is a scene in which we finally witness the creature, brilliantly designed by E.T. creator Carlo Rambaldi. The disturbing sight of Adjani locked in coitus with her demon lover ranks one of the great horror movie images.

These scenes, as well as the sheer unrelenting pitch of hysteria that permeates the film, invite comparison with the likes of The Exorcist, the Polanski of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, early Cronenberg, and even Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.

Combining moments of unhinged genius with some of the most woefully misconceived and self-indulgent film making ever, Possession is mandatory viewing. Just don’t forget to look out for the man in the pink socks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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