Possession is one of those films. The original cut was so graphic and disturbing that it was banned in many major markets, resulting in a heavily edited version — 40 minutes of the two-hour runtime excised by censors. For decades, it was just a good horror movie. After a director’s cut became widely available in 2011 and now a new 4K restoration released in Australia from Umbrella Entertainment (who kindly provided me a copy for review), the film has experienced a well-deserved critical reappraisal. Not only is it a major work of horror cinema, it’s a tremendous work of filmmaking in general.
For a film with such a controversial reputation, Possession has a relatively simple premise. Set in West Berlin during the 1980s, Mark (Sam Neill) is an international spy ready to settle down with his family. The Cold War is nearing its end. There’s only one problem: His wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), is having an affair. To make matters worse, they have a young son, whom they both care for but want to protect from the other’s secret lives. Mark seems willing to try and mend past differences, with some hint he is also letting himself off the hook, but his wife is clearly in torment with something beyond her affair.
Her pain takes the shape of, rather notoriously, an otherworldly tentacled creature that may or not be representative of either Mark or Anna’s psychosis, a metaphor for deep-seated yearnings or a real entity. Maybe some mix of the three. To delve further into the plot would be to spoil the shocking twists and turns but suffice to say the experience is both harrowing and rewarding in equal measure. Possession is a film that does contain some shocking and stomach-turning moments of body horror to be sure, but it’s the harrowing and gut-churning emotional horror that gives it an enduring reputation.
The emotional conflict between Mark and Anna already starts out at a 10 and only dials up, with the couple disintegrating in real time. Their arguments and fights happen in public and private. As a viewer, they’re as uncomfortable as any physical dismemberment.
Neill and Adjani deliver some astonishing performances as a couple who can’t stand to be together but hate even more the prospect of being apart. Adjani in particular delivers one mesmerizing scene in the Berlin Underground that has to be seen to be believed and might be one of the greatest performances ever filmed — all without Adjani uttering a word of dialogue. This is like Kramer vs Kramer or Marriage Story, but horrifying. Of course, in those films, the couples ultimately loved each other and, despite growing apart, came to a mutual understanding of their differences. That’s not happening here. Neill and Adjani make the film and will truly unsettle you. By all accounts, the whole ordeal took a toll on them, too. Neill stated afterward he could not simply “do” a film like Possession and that he “barely escaped with his sanity intact.”
It’s not just the excellent performances that make Possession such an unforgettable watch. Andrzej Korzyński’s experimental electronic score is at times both driving and haunting and, like much of this film, weirdly memorable. It feels very much of its time and place of ’80s Berlin. Director and co-writer Andrzej Żuławski makes entrancing choices, too, with unconventional framing and cuts to increase the disorienting anxiety of his character’s breakdowns. Everything seems just off-kilter. Żuławski had recently experienced a marital divorce, as well as another type of divorce; he had left his native Poland to make films in the West. His pain can be felt in every frame of the movie.
Anna and Mark’s story is pretty clear, but their breakdown speaks to Possession’s larger thematic concerns. The divided city of Berlin is an obvious era-specific choice for the story of a mismatched marriage in peril. The Berlin Wall features heavily. Anna’s monster is somewhat open to interpretation, too. It’s easy to extrapolate that Mark might see his wife’s betrayal as on the same plane as sharing her most intimate self with literally another creature, evolved to replace him. Graphic, terrifying and utterly thrilling, the true cut of Possession is one of the best horror films ever.
Umbrella has released a new Region B copy of the film under its Beyond Genres label. A fantastic initiative, this sub-label of the brand gives Australian, and all owners of Region B-coded Blu-ray players, the chance to view classic films in their best shape with a host of extras as well as handsome physical packaging. The 4K scan on Umbrella’s disc is astonishing. It is incredibly clean, presented in the original 16:9 aspect ratio, and I’m very glad Umbrella went to the effort to get this scan rather than just releasing a simple DVD — which Australian consumers have had to deal with far too often in our market.
Bonus features are extremely generous. Two audio commentaries are present — one with Żuławski, the other with co-writer Frederic Tuten. In addition, Umbrella also included a 50-minute making-of video, a 36-minute interview with Żuławski and other interviews with cast and crew. Also included is the 80-minute original U.S. cut — and if you want to see how this film looked before the 4K clean-up, this will blow your mind — and an accompanying documentary on the difference between the two cuts.
Umbrella has also delivered an aesthetically pleasing package. The handsome physical packaging is a nice touch for a collector like me — numbered spines in a glossy uniform-black slipcase ensures that Australian consumers can finally have a publisher creating products on the level of Eureka, Criterion, Arrow and other boutique labels. Possession is simply one of the all-time greats.