It’s taken for granted that exorcism films will climax with the religious ceremony that frees someone, normally a young girl or woman, from the supernatural interloper inhabiting their body, relieving the tension of violation that’s been mounting over the course of the narrative. What happens to a character after such a ceremony is performed is usually not the filmmakers’ concern, though one assumes that surviving demonic possession would be, to put it lightly, a life-altering event.
It’s this clever, empathetic conceit that drives Ava’s Possessions, the title referring not to furniture or a book collection, but to a series of monstrous inhabitations suffered by the titular protagonist (Louisa Krause). Ava’s exorcised over the opening credits, while the rest of the film’s running time follows her as she attempts to take stock of her life. The premise is a limitless fount of potential metaphors, of which writer-director Jordan Galland is quite cognizant. Ava resembles a rape victim in her sense of alienation from herself and her friends and family, who clearly see her as “tainted,” and she suggests a recovering addict in her attempts to make amends for the crimes she committed while blacked out, under the demon’s influence.
Galland has a confident grasp of tone, perching Ava’s Possessions right on the razor’s edge separating absurdist comedy from horror. The broad jokes about Ava’s clueless parents or potential brother-in-law serve to intensify the sense of violation she feels, while potentially broad jokes, such as a series of meetings for a group of possession survivors called Spiritual Possession Anonymous, or S.P.A., are staged with an unexpected aura of loss and gravity that honors the pain and chaos of recovery.
The cinematography oscillates fluidly between farce and tragedy, reveling in fluorescent noir hues that underline the subjective fragility of Ava’s regained grasp of herself. The images are bathed in blues, reds, and purples, the furniture and décor of the settings often positioned so as to surreally heighten the audience’s awareness of them as pieces of lo-fi expressionist sets. These formalities embody Ava’s detachment from herself, which might be described as an addict’s feeling that a clean afterlife, while safer and purer compared to the debauchery that preceded it, isn’t “real.”
The film’s atmosphere is striking, then, and Krause’s performance offers a poignant portrait of anger, resentment, lust, loneliness, and a feeling of hollowness that’s hauntingly described by another character when they say that “nothing makes you feel more complete than union with your own shadow.” Ava’s Possessions isn’t an ordinary horror film that’s more concerned with aping the gory set pieces of prior genre hallmarks than establishing its own aesthetic terms. But Galland does allow his plot to get in the way of the film’s free-associational groove, particularly in the third act, which laboriously attempts to attach a series of noir double-crosses onto a story that doesn’t need them. Galland and Krause’s elegant understanding of survivor’s grief is more than enough.