Divorce ain’t easy. Same in real life as it is in movies, the conscious uncoupling of the human species are most likely prone to jealousy, selfishness and bitter break-ups rather than getting their shit together, patch up and move on to something that resembles maturity and wisdom. But it wouldn’t really make great cinema if people just hug it all out, would it? The divorce drama has given us powerful masterpieces over the decades, and there’s no shortage in mentioning them – Scenes of a Marriage, A Separation, Antichrist, Kramer vs Kramer, Eyes Wide Shut – all of which served up indictments on the fragile, egoistic human nature and our overall inability to transcend individuality. Add to the list Andrzej Żuławski’s nerve-shredding and lacerating Possession, which, not quite unlike Lars von Trier’s hellish portrayal of marriage dissolution, demonstrates the truly fucked-up things divorce does to seemingly rational people.
I recall seeing Possession when I was barely a teenager and didn’t think much of it other than simply a movie about a couple going nuts (the concept of divorce was unbeknown to me back then). But having seen Żuławski’s film with an adult eye and, assumingly, mature mind is an extremely pulverising experience; its domestic horror hitting so closely to home than I’d ever expected, a tremor-filled monster of a film that holds nothing back and takes no prisoners, both from the characters and audiences’ standpoints. Its inexorably pitch-black vision of marital discord is so hellish it’ll put anyone off from the very notion of marriage.
Żuławski’s inexorably pitch-black vision of marital discord is so hellish it’ll put anyone off from the very notion of marriage.
Here, Żuławski reconfigures the relationship drama as an apocalyptic horror film that as soon as Isabelle Adjani’s fractured Anna seeks separation from Sam Neill’s Mark, all hell breaks loose. Moments of tremulous anxiety gives way to psychotic breakdowns, with Anna wanting to escape from Mark’s oppressive, if not passive-aggressive, clutches. First we witness Anna’s signs of betrayal through an insecure male’s perspective, with Mark behaving like a scorned husband, seeking destructive answers from an adulterous wife. Then Żuławski shifts the whole mindset on the increasingly unstable, volatile psyche of Anna, subsequently shoving the film into boundary-pushing, groundbreaking extreme cinema.
There are moments of such undefinable, unapologetic violence here that have made censorship boards go apeshit, but Żuławski neither justifies nor elaborates on the relentlessly dark occult that exists at the heart of Possession. Which makes his film even more compelling – the less we know, the better. Even when Possession dips into the Cronenbergian creature-feature territory, the psychology and emotional resonance remains true to the inherent nihilism in humanity. That when Adjani breaks into a three-minute frenzied fugue in a Berlin U-Bahn, in a history-making performance that defies all the rules of acting you’ll ever come across, the effect on us viewers is that of speechless astonishment. One of the greatest scenes in the cinematographic record, Possession is tenfolds more profoundly frightening than your averagely intelligent horror that’s because it never truly defines what levels of destruction and loss of rationality we humans are really capable of in this godforsaken existence.