Possession Review

Isabelle Adjani gets intimate with a squidlike creature in the Region 1 release of Possession. Sam Neill co-stars in Andrzej Zulawski’s cult movie, part horror, part berserk art movie, which gets a good DVD package from Anchor Bay. Review by Gary Couzens.

Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) live in Berlin with their young son. It’s obvious early on that something is not right with their relationship as they often argue, sometimes violently. Unknown to everyone else, Anna has created a squid-like creature, with which she finds sexual fulfilment. But soon madness tips over into murder…

Possession is a film which is hard to judge. Part berserk art movie, part schlock horror, flawed it certainly is, not to mention pretentious, frequently absurd, overheated and overlong. But at its best it’s more effective than a smoother, more “achieved” film would be. Adjani won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her performance here: you have to commend her for her bravery for taking on a role which involves a five-minute screaming miscarriage sequence and a sex scene with the aforementioned creature (designed by E.T. creator Carlo Rambaldi). This prompts one of the silliest lines in film history, when Anna, referring to the creature, lying on her carpet looking for all the world like a deflated vacuum cleaner: “He is tired – he has made love to me all night.” Even so, Adjani is some way over the top, and Neill isn’t far behind.

Zulawski (whose only film in English this is), treats even a scene of Mark meeting his superiors to an extravaganza of circling camerawork. But he fumbles such basic things as exposition: if you miss a line of dialogue here, five minutes into the film, you might wonder why Zulawski lingers on a close-up of a man wearing pink socks nearly two hours later. Some symbolism is heavy-handed (Berlin/divided city = divided relationship), others obscure. But at its best, Zulawski’s film is brutally effective. Say what you will about the scene where Anna, pregnant by the creature, miscarries in the subway, but you won’t forget it easily.

In America, Possession was cut to 81 minutes, re-edited with what the booklet describes as “Omen-like chanting” added to the soundtrack in an attempt to sell the film as straightforward exploitation horror. British viewers should note that the words “uncut” and “director’s cut” on the packaging refer to the USA only. In the UK, Possession has always been shown in the 123-minute version on this disc (despite a brief sojourn on the Video Nasties list) and has never been cut. The booklet contains a brief essay by Michael Felsher which compares the beginnings and endings of the two versions – needless to say, first-time viewers should avoid reading this until they’ve watched the film.

The transfer is in the original 1.66:1 ratio, but is anamorphic. This results in thin black bars at the side of the picture on a 16:9 TV or a “windowbox” effect on a 4:3 set. It’s a very good picture, with virtually no artefacting, with solid – though sometimes often deliberately pale – colours. Occasional softness and grain is due to the original materials, which has an intended natural-light look. The sound is the original mono: nothing spectacular but nothing untoward either. The two trailers (US and international) show the difference in marketing between the two countries. The US trailer goes for outright horror; the international one puts these scenes in the wider context of the film. The commentary takes the form of an interview with Zulawski by biographer Dan Bird. Zulawski is often engagingly frank, describing his pitching the film to Hollywood as “the story of a woman who fucks with an octopus”. He’s generally very interesting, elucidating bits of the film which tend to be obscure. He makes the point that making a French/German coproduction in English might have been a miscalculation, as the film was far more successful in Europe than in the UK and especially the USA. There are thirty chapter stops. The lack of English subtitles is to be regretted, as most of the cast speak English with foreign accents.

Love it or hate it, and many will do either one of those, Possession is hard to ignore and is the stuff of which cults are made. Congratulations to Anchor Bay once again for packaging such a film with due care and attention.


Updated: Feb 27, 1999

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Possession Review | The Digital Fix