There is a pantheon for over-the-top screen performances, one that dates back to the silent era and has room for everyone from an unmasked Lon Chaney to a covered-in-bees Nicolas Cage. In the center of this Hall of Fame, however, sits a French actress, her pale blue eyes widened, her head tilted and her mouth opened as if she’s about to scream. The rest are in awe of her, and give her a wide berth; she appears to be a woman not on the verge of a nervous breakdown but deep into an-already-in-progress one. You could point to a number of her exquisitely extravagant turns over the years regarding why she’s gained entry to this elite club, but it’s one role in particular that’s awarded her pride of place.
The character’s name is Anna. She lives with her son in a still-divided Berlin. Her husband, Mark, has just returned from an assignment — something to do with the intelligence community. They have not been getting along. In fact, when we first meet them, their marriage is about to fall apart in the most spectacular fashion imaginable.
Later, after Anna has confessed to taking a lover and fought bitterly with her spouse and moved out to her own flat and maybe possibly murdered several people, she enters a subway station. Her panting is heavy, even though she’s only ridden an escalator up one floor. The maniacal laughter comes next. Soon, Anna is stumbling around a deserted walkway, bouncing off the stone walls. And now the screaming starts — deafening, guttural, primal shrieks. Around and around and around she turns, her body convulsing. These spasms are followed by Anna rolling around the wet corridor’s floors, writhing in agony. Don’t just take our word for it: This three-minute sequence isn’t so much a hysterical fit as a one-woman Hieronymous Bosch painting come to life. And that’s before blood and milky white goo began pouring out of her orifices.
Released in 1981 and instantly causing a stir after its first screening at Cannes, Possession is an intense, unshakable, what-the-fuck-did-I-just-watch movie from the get-go — that subway scene is simply the apex of its insanity, and proof that Isabelle Adjani is nothing if not extremely committed to her craft. A Kramer vs Kramer for cinematic extremists, it’s a divorce movie that translates the bitterness and resentments of one couple into a body-horror nightmare; it’s not surprising to learn that the man behind this madness, Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski, had acrimoniously split up with his wife before making it. The fact that it takes place in a German city still at war with itself at the time is simply sociopolitical icing on the cake. And while it may be a sick joke for Metrograph Pictures to release its jaw-droppingly beautiful 4K restoration across the nation at a moment in which so many of us have long been cooped up, nerve-frayed and come within spitting distance of our own psychic meltdowns, it’s also an appropriate time to dive back into a true look into the abyss. (You can also stream the film on Metrograph’s site until October 31st.) Suddenly, Adjani’s transit-tunnel freakout seems way, way too relatable.
You can’t even say that the French star’s outrageously expressive, if not downright Expressionistic, performance here is the only one jumping the rails of realism here — your money is originally on Sam Neill as the primary scenery-chewer, playing a husband adept at poking wounds and escalating arguments. Having discovered his wife has been unfaithful in his absence, he confronts her in a cafe and then proceeds to trash the establishment before being tackled by the wait staff. The competition gets stiffer when we later meet Anna’s lover, a German man named Heinrich, who shows up at Mark’s apartment looking for her and then engages in what could be a pantomime of a drunk caught in a storm or an impromptu modern-dance piece. (He gets one of the movie’s best lines, too: “There is nothing to fear except God. [uncomfortably long pause] Whatever that means to you.”) Taking a page out of playwright Jerzy Grotowski’s book of tricks, Zulawski allegedly hypnotized his performers and put them into a fugue state before shooting certain scenes, the better to access their characters’ inner torment. The results speak, always loudly and sometimes incomprehensibly, for themselves.
But it was Adjani who took to this unusually Method-y method of directing with a level of dedication bordering on religious devotion, and her no-filters answer to this challenge is what’s given Possession the reputation it has today. She tries to be the voice of reason initially, telling her insistent spouse that his long absences on the job have created a void between them, that their son would suffer from seeing them in a loveless marriage, that parting is such sweet sorrow but is now clearly the best available option. He disagrees, vehemently. Her Anna begins to crack a little, before Adjani shows you how these small fractures can cumulatively crumble whole foundations. The title makes you think you’re walking into an Exorcist knock-off; by the end, you realize it’s a concise description of its star’s process.
Her willingness to go there — where Possession‘s actual “there” is — earned her a Best Actress award at Cannes and the French equivalent of an Oscar. It also, according to Zulawski, caused Adjani to have an actual breakdown, and that she attempted to slash her wrists after seeing the finished result. Thankfully, she recovered, and would find a way to continue doing equally this-performance-goes-to-11 work for another decade; namedrop 1988’s Camille Claudel, a biopic about the 19th century French sculptor, and the first (and possibly only) thing you think of is Adjani screaming her lover Rodin’s name in the rain at full-lung capacity for close to a minute.
After they physically attack each other and stumble out into the street, Anna’s mouth smeared with blood, the movie seems to shift into an entirely different register. From this point on, slightly before the film’s halfway mark, Zulawski starts throwing a number of other disparate elements into their paths. Electric carving knives are put to self-harming use. A private detective meets a grisly end. Both Anna and Mark get their own doppelgängers. Some 40 years later, it’s still impossible to tell whether the tentacled creature, courtesy of Alien and E.T.‘s special effects guru Carlo Rambaldi, is a real manifestation of Anna’s torment or merely a product of a warped imagination. We can regrettably confirm, however, that’s Zulawski’s rumored pitch to an American producer that Possession was partially about “a woman who fucks an octopus” wasn’t just crude ballyhoo designed to sell the film.
These more psychotronic elements, along with the copious amount of Caro syrup that get spilled, immediately got Zulawski’s cinematic equivalent of Blood on the Tracks — now with actual blood! on actual tracks! — labeled as a horror gorefest. While France praised it as an unhinged work of art, Britain condemned it as a public menace during the whole early 1980s “Video Nasties” scare, and an edit from an American distributor that cut the director’s two-hour vision down to 81 minutes would be as vicious and brutal as anything in the film. The full version eventually started making the rounds around 2012, and this new restoration only confirms that it deserves to be considered a first-rate portrait of marital discord taken to its logical mutually-assured-destruction conclusion. (If Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain really wanted to prove their mettle as actors, they would have remade this and not Scenes From a Marriage.)
Except It isn’t the operatic physical violence that we witness happening in Possession that’s so unnerving. It’s the psychic violence that people inflict on each other when a union is rendered asunder — the kind that makes someone going ballistic in a subway station seem tame by comparison — that makes this movie feel so painful, and so precise in terms of pushing hard on your pressure points. There’s never been a better time to catch up with this truly disturbing look at 360-degree disintegration. See it with someone you loathe.