Spooky season is upon us: Andrzej Żuławski's Possession remains a staple of surreal horror, but Vienne Molinario finds both a spectacle and salvation of a love fizzled out – during a first breakup, it was her saving grace.
Of all the distress and disturbia Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession has to offer, one image of Anna (Isabelle Adjani) standing in the doorway of her kitchen is particularly frightening. The camera slowly drones on her expression as her figure looms over her husband, Mark (Sam Neill). Having just impulsively cut the side of her neck with an electric knife, her aloof, unfazed expression eerily contradicts the action. She slowly says, “It doesn’t hurt.”
I recognised the facade that flickered over her in that moment – it was the same curation of affirmations I used to neutralise unfavourable outcomes. It was not the face of someone resisting the present moment, but of someone who believes that by convincing others they can convince themselves. It’s not the first time there is an emotional pivot in Anna’s character, nor the first sequence that leaves more unanswered questions about the motives of these characters.
The first time I watched Possession was after a two-week isolation period recovering from Covid. I was let out after everyone on campus had already moved out, the residence hall stripped down to its hollowed-out co-ops until the summer students moved in. The disorientation of entering quarantine during the hyperactive stress of finals, then leaving the space to abnormal stillness, loomed over me until I had to move out.
I found something comforting in the film, as gaunt and delirious as it was. Until that point, I had only seen the film through different stills of Adjani online, assembling its mise-en-scene like a vague puzzle. It could have been the agoraphobic filter I was subjected to watching the film through, but even after the essential viewing, there was still a mystery lingering in Possession’s periphery.
In the months that followed, there was a ravenous need to blame something for all of the misfortune I was being dealt. That summer, I was abruptly rejected from an internship I was deviously led to believe would be mine, having received an interview before even applying. Having relied on that internship to help support my finances for school, as well as a required off-campus credit, I began to feel the weight of taking on extra, part-time work for the season. Drawing near the end of a difficult summer, a similar situation from the spring mirrored itself in a decision that put me at risk for homelessness.
Half of me wanted to project the blame on anyone that I considered to be aligned with the architects of my mental state, even if it was unjustified. The latter half of my psyche mounted itself in the fantasies I turned to in times of grief: Tarot and rosé by the beach; A closet full of silk and pointelle delights; Picking up my future daughters from ballet or tennis; A love that was quiet and safe.
Still, the feeling I was searching for felt like crawling on the ground with the lights off, but they were on for everybody else. To subvert any future calamity, I took cues from “dark feminine” influencers, started wearing what I was told would make me more confident, despite how out of touch I felt.
I became the main character of my own cautionary tale, not being able to perceive myself after the unending turn of unfortunate events. So when I found myself heartbroken after falling in love for the first time, close to a year after grieving the passing of a friend who I also had feelings for, I understood the fear that tied Mark and Anna’s marriage together.
I rewatched the film for the first time a week and a half after this year’s Valentine’s Day. Still coming down from the stomach-twisting withdrawal that the heartbreak left me in, it felt like I was watching the movie in reverse, which seemingly made the missing pieces click into place. I was watching my subconscious fears of feeling replaceable, undesired, and abandoned without justification unfold for two hours.
There were moments where I felt nauseating strikes of déjà vu. Mark lying gangly across his bed after Anna leaves him, unable to accept his present. Anna’s devastating gaze when she kills a private investigator, a choice she felt controlled to make. The confession she makes to Mark after ravaging their apartment: she screams, voice rattling the audio, “I feel nothing for no one!”
Possession unintentionally sympathised with the couple, the feeling of not being enough and turning to decaying, dizzying measures to move on from the other. Devoid of empathy, the ideas of two sisters, Faith and Chance, are brought up during a few of Anna’s manic rambles about the circumstances she concedes she has put herself in.
A scene where Anna miscarries in a subway tunnel is as famous as it is misunderstood. For one, it’s the first and only scene where Anna is left completely by herself, no consciousness to stop her from obeying compulsive and harmful thoughts. Her movements are strenuous and deranged, contorting her body as if some spectral force is controlling her. According to the script, what’s expelled from her emulsifies with the ground and mutates into a creature that, over time, morphs into Mark’s doppelgänger.
The evil in this relationship is the miscommunication between Mark and Anna, and the creature Anna has sex with is another victim of it – just abstract in its composition. We’re all well-acquainted with erotic horror, but what makes Possession mind-boggling is its arms-length defiance of the genre. Nudity is kept minimal, and the only real sex scene is less graphic than it is surreal.
Even the title suggests a state of depravity, punctuated by the emotional pivots between Mark and Anna spiking at different points in the film. Anna fidgets and pulls at her skin like she’s trying to rip the evil out of it, but it’s unclear if the evil is the manifestation of their separation, or a sublimation of their wrongdoings. In a cafe, freshly after Anna’s infidelity is revealed, Mark suggests leaving their son to Anna. Slamming her hands on the table, she can’t even finish her sentence when she suggests that what he is doing is… “Inhuman? So what you’re doing must be human?” Mark bites. They don’t even make eye contact when he says it.
So badly did I need to feel believed in, but the ones who did weren’t who I needed them to be. Like Anna, what I had created from the debris of trauma ended up destroying something I wanted to protect. “My faith can’t exclude chance, but my chance can’t explain faith.” Maybe this affirmation allows Anna’s unpredictable moments and traumas to feel less humiliating, or confirms that her infidelity was motivated by the evil existing outside from her.
As entertaining as it would be to see Mark and Anna as modern iterations of each other, Possession is the kind of film that could never be made again. Despite being 40 years old, the story hasn’t had enough time to be unpacked in all its gruesome glory, and the gestural, elongated performances would make new actors look ridiculous. But the visceral whims the film is packaged with feel entirely of the moment.
In the end, not even love could save Mark and Anna. In the latter half, they have sex one final time before the creature is fully untwisted. Concluding on a staircase spiralling upwards, Mark meets the creature as he bleeds out, their only difference being the sirenic green eyes of Mark’s doppelgänger. Anna’s demeanour is softer, but there’s a crawling evil under the interaction. The two share one final, bloody kiss before dying together, the doppelgänger getting away.
It took some of the most unexpected and undeserved tragedies for Possession to fully digest. On a recent trip to New York, I took the M line to the Flatiron district, wrapped in a button-up denim dress with my hair in a low ponytail. Intentionally, I dressed like Anna, completed with violet shades as the sun set. When the train started moving I half expected credits to pop up. This time with a far less deflated ending.