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Even with little prior knowledge of Possession, the viewer is informed of its potential as exploitation horror in Carlo Rambaldi’s opening credit. A special effects designer, Rambaldi worked prior on Deep Red and Flesh for Frankenstein; here, he is ascribed as the designer of some ominous “creature,” his name emblazoned in serif type that extends across the composition, in the same motif used to report the director and cast. This seems superfluous, measuring from how little screen time said creature actually gets (which is substantially more in the bowdlerized American cut), and ultimately how dispensable it is in the film’s thematic trajectory. This harms the film, lending it a pretense of horror and violence in its opening minutes-elements that are subordinate to Possession’s principal theme of marital dissolution. This is also chief among the reasons appreciation for this film has been stifled since its 1981 release.

Possession debuted at Cannes, where it was received with notable press. It was nominated for the Golden Palm and Isabelle Adjani received honors for best actress; her rampant performance has received most of the film’s modest laurels. In the aftermath of Andrzej Zulawski’s prior film, the halted production of The Silver Globe, this is a redemptive gesture, but did little to ensure a proper release of Possession in the United States. This didn’t occur until two years later, and with some 40 minutes of the film cut. The truncated version remained available until the Anchor Bay restoration in 1999.

As in most cases of censorship, the stigma functions to secure a film’s appeal, specifically as exploitation. Shortly after its release in Britain, Possession was among the first round of titles resorted to the Video Nasties, along with I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left—unpretentious exploitations with which it shares few similarities. This inference is incomparable to the American cut, with scenes shuffled in an arbitrary sequence, and with erroneous footage of the creature added. Horror being a profitable genre in the early 1980s, Possession was made to pronounce an aesthetic more visceral than cerebral, in turn more superficial than it was initially conceived to impart. This is not to say the overall enterprise in its intended form isn’t a grim experience, creature or no.

The central couple, Anna and Mark, is introduced at what appears to be the beginning of an estrangement. Their marriage already broken, neither party will allow the separation to be resolved without exerting some hardship upon the other. When one is in the other’s company, exchanges are delivered with great volume, and sometimes violence: late in the film, Anna conspicuously enters her old apartment, still tended by Mark and their young son, and is immediately confronted by him. Screams ensue. She operates a meat grinder, indelicately toying with its offshoot with an electric knife—this in the periphery of one of the couple’s active arguments. She screams at Mark, and holds the knife to her own neck, producing a gorge of blood before Mark removes the instrument from her grasp. My description synopsizes the scene as a climax; in fact, the violence is attuned to the film’s rhythm of irresolution, with one act of violence regularly subsequent to another prior. Shortly after Anna exits the kitchen, Mark sits and holds the electric blade to his forearm. The pain results in neither expression nor response; the communal pain will only escalate.

The most prominent damage is bestowed on the couple’s son, an involuntary fulcrum between the two’s heated exchanges. This is a more interpretive statement, as his character remains under-developed, though his presence at his parents’ arguments does elicit sympathy. The parents are harming each other in an effort to better themselves, but their son is the greatest casualty of the divorce. He is also a somewhat altruistic presence in the film, at least because his parents seem dictated by some emotion: Anna by a lust she cannot satiate, Mark by a hostility his frame inadequately supports. In Anna’s absence, Mark meets Helen, his son’s schoolteacher, who looks exactly like his wife, only with supernaturally green eyes. She is the latter’s replacement, at least sufficiently for Mark who proceeds to bed her. In the first night she stays over, Mark is awakened by his son, screaming for his mother, unfooled by her ostensibly perfect replacement.

It is at this point in the film that the creature is revealed. Mark hires a private investigator to trace his wife—who, along with a colleague, finds she escapes to an undecorated apartment she shares with it (revealed to be, in a gruesome flashback in which she gives birth, her own, tentacled progeny). She kills both detectives to satiate her incestual lover’s appetite. This portion of the film would be better told if it retained any revelation; unfortunately, you’re anticipating some grim, sensational beast in one of the sparse bedrooms in the dimly-lit apartment. To this end, however (and with some hypocrisy in my criticism), the revelation is absolutely obscene, despite the expectation: a body comprised almost entirely of phalluses, and Anna submissive to its more vile sexual enterprises.

This creature will evolve to resemble Mark by the film’s end, his replacement as identical as Anna’s. This evolution—which, I should note, is relayed with some haste—is crucial in de-emphasizing the creature; it’s an abstract manifestation of both party’s insecurity and obsession. Mark’s clone is more at ease, and capable of satisfying Anna in manners he can never aspire to. Anna’s is responsible (she is more affectionate toward the son), and much less neurotic. Each has fashioned an ideal, yet remain in their varying states of hostility because their endurances have changed them for the worse. At the end, the two climb a spiral staircase in fleeing from a team of policemen. It is an ascent toward the most justified fate for both, and they lock each other in an embrace before their final breaths exit their bodies.

Limelight International
123 min
Andrzej Zulawski
Andrzej Zulawski
Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton, Michael Hogben, Maximilian Ruethlein, Thomas Frey, Leslie Malton, Gerd Neubert