Possession (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #383

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Number of Views: Two
Release Date: May 27, 1981 (Cannes), October 14, 1983 (US)
Sub-Genre: Psychological Drama/Body Horror
Country of Origin: France, West Germany
Box Office: $1,113,538
Running Time: 124 minutes
Director: Andrzej Żuławski
Producer: Marie-Laure Reyre
Screenplay: Frederic Tuten, Andrzej Żuławski
Special Effects: Carlo Rambaldi (creature), Charles-Henri Assola, Daniel Braunschweig
Cinematography: Bruno Nuytten
Score: Andrzej Korzyński
Editing: Marie-Sophi Dubus, Suzanne Lang-Willar
Studios: Gaumont, Oliane Productions, Marianne Productions, Soma Film Produktion
Distributors: Bleeding Light Film Group, Anchor Bay Entertainment, Limelight International
Stars: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton, Michael Hogben, Maximilian Rüthlein, Thomas Frey, Leslie Malton, Gerd Neubert

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Suggested Audio Candy

Andrzej Korzyński “Possession”

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Of all the 72 films banned by the DPP in 1984, none dumbfounded me quite as soundly as Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. Despite being nominated for a BAFTA and the Palme d’Or and netting its lead the coveted Best Actress award at both the Cannes Film Festival and French Césars, it was misunderstood to such a degree that it was trimmed by as much as forty minutes in some cases and wasn’t eventually released in Germany until 2009, despite being funded by a German studio and shot in Berlin, or perhaps because of the latter. One thing is for sure; there is no other film in existence quite like it with the sole exception being Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.


Where Von Trier was suffering from a nervous breakdown at the time when he conceived Antichrist, the Polish Żuławski was enduring a particularly messy divorce and similarly close to mental collapse. In addition, he had been exiled from his homeland and interestingly chose the Berlin Wall as the backdrop to his tale which is particularly poignant considering the division of his two central characters. Just as Von Trier’s personal anguish bled so beautifully through onto film, Żuławski’s angst is given a perfectly cold and bleak canvas on which to paint.

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And paint it he does. The camerawork achieves a sense of confusion from his addressees by remaining constantly mobile while the characters remain static. It tracks, blocks, creates space and, in the same moment, pens you in, all the while forcing you to face up to the ugliness of marital dissolution relentlessly. If being punched in the gut repeatedly appeals to you then I would suggest you give Possession a shot as that’s pretty much its flight plan. As for narrative, that is just as opposed to settling into a rhythm and, once more, this is intentional on Żuławski’s part.

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It begins as abruptly as it ultimately concludes and one could be forgiven for thinking a glitch has occurred as we’re thrown straight into the pressure cooker that is Mark and Anna’s turbulent relationship with very little explanation. Mark (Sam Neill) has barely set his bags down as he arrives home from a lengthy business trip, than we sense that something is far from right. Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is adamant that she wants out and this tears his world apart. Shaken to his very core, he engages on a month-long binge of alcohol and isolation as he spirals ever deeper into the void. It is revealed that Anna has been unfaithful, the full extent of which isn’t made clear but, being the typical injured party, he presumes the solution to be a simple case of whittling her defenses down. It isn’t.

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Neill’s turn as the jilted Mark is delirious in the extreme, overplayed to the point of hilarity as he swiftly slackens his grip on reality. That’s not to say he isn’t excellent, on the contrary, this may very well be his career best performance. But it is hysterical to such a degree that laughter is never far away. However, we’re not talking a lighthearted chortle, I’m speaking of the mirth of madness and regular disbelief. We’re not ever convinced as to his next move as he won’t let us close enough to decipher. His character is erratic, barely pragmatic, but always enigmatic and it’s fruitless attempting not to share in his personal trauma.


Then we have Adjani and it is hard knowing exactly where to start where one of the best individual performances of the entire decade is involved. She is, put simply, tremendous. Where Neill is all external angst, hers is far more internalized which makes the infamous subway scene that much more heartbreaking once it literally gushes forth. Until then, she keeps it pent-up inside, but we watch it bubble to the surface through every tormented, hopeless look she conveys as the camera circles her to dizzying effect. It actually took Adjani several years to recover from the psychological damage caused by taking on the role of Anna and I get that as she throws her absolute all into the character, as though a conduit for Żuławski’s own personal woe.

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For almost an hour Possession plays out like a dramatization of domestic misery but any parallels to Kramer vs Kramer end there as it morphs into something far darker. In the interest of gifting newcomers this inimitable experience without signposts, I shall refrain from elaborating on where we end up but I can reveal it to be a place far more suited to the confines of horror. Dario Argento is a huge fan of Żuławski’s film and that is because it nestles under your skin like no other of its epoch then wrenches your gut in the manner of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, only cranked up to twelve. Meanwhile, the musical score by Andrzej Korzyński is, in Keeper’s humble opinion, one of the most peerless ever committed to celluloid.

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Having recently endured a marital break-up myself, this film resonates strongly with me and watching it over twenty-five years after my initial viewing offers far more meaning while, at the same time, confuses me to an even greater degree. This again is calculated on Żuławski’s part; there is little more honest than a man on the verge of emotional capitulation and he doesn’t want us to understand as he damn well didn’t while making it. His suffering is considerable and the puppets of his pain parade it beautifully for little over two hours, leaving us no clear-cut answers and, in their place, a thousand discomforting questions. In short, there are few motion pictures quite as affecting, fewer still as frustrating, and hardly any as utterly profound and beguiling as Possession.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: It is tough knowing where to start with regards to grue. Should it have been banned? Never; the mere thought of it being chastised makes me vomit blood and milk. How a piece of art, and make no mistake this is as close to true expressionist art as film-making gets, can be so gravely misunderstood is a concept I am never likely to understand. Having said that, it is violent, unruly, schlock-filled, and may well encourage your lunch to pay another visit once Carlo Rambaldi’s hideous creation takes center stage. For Keeper, there is no scene in eighties horror so hard to watch and impossible to look away from than Anna’s subway breakdown. There’s throwing yourself into a role and then there’s this. Horrifying, distressing, mortifying, just a few words which spring to mind. It’s Regan MacNeil in a two-minute nutshell only without the need for latex.

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Read Antichrist Appraisal

Read Suspiria Appraisal

Read Inferno Appraisal

Read Cat People (1982) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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  1. That miscarriage scene… <>

    This film is one of the strangest, most disturbing story-driven things ever filmed, examining the psychosis of obsession, sexuality and the monsters within us…and by “us” I mean myself and the Keeper himself. LOL. Here’s my review (link below). Please visit and share your link on my page as well.


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