There are some films that are so upsetting and disturbing that they bury themselves deep under your skin – even if they’re not entries in the horror genre. These films’ intensities can be brought on by plot, visuals, or jump-scares but more often than not, they’re rooted in the actors’ performances. This is especially the case in Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 Possession, a film that, while it fits nicely within the horror genre – transcends it into something more. It has plenty of disturbing imagery that goes along with the supernatural, but the most horrific moments stem from the commitments made by its two leads, Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill.
Taking place in Berlin, Possession opens with a spy named Mark (Neill) returning home to discover that his wife, Anna (Adjani), wants a divorce. Though she swears her reasoning isn’t because she’s taken another lover, Mark grows suspicious after she exhibits increasingly erratic behavior at home and with their son, Bob (Michael Hogben). He hires a private investigator (Carl Duering) to follow Anna, who discovers that she has a second apartment that’s housing something strange… and otherworldly. The object in the apartment has a mysterious hold on Anna that changes her behavior to something far more sinister, which has parallel effects on Mark’s entire being as well.
Possession isn’t the first film that deals with a character being taken over by a supernatural force and it certainly isn’t the last. These films aren’t a rare commodity, so what sets this one apart from the rest lies in how the story is told, namely through the masterclass performances given by Adjani and Neill. The titular possession happens to Anna, obviously giving Adjani an acting challenge in essentially playing multiple sides to one character. But Mark is just as affected by the change in her life – a change he doesn’t thoroughly understand that brings feelings of suspicion, desire, and primarily anger.
Mark’s descent into madness is not the most important one of the film, but it does deserve more recognition. The growing paranoia he experiences as his wife becomes increasingly estranged causes him to suffer from a breakdown – one akin to Anna’s – in which jealousy and suspicion take over. These emotions could be played by any actor, but Neill – who has to be one of the most underrated and underutilized performers of his generation – never lets the audience go after he’s taken hold of them. His deteriorating mental state is so convincing that one would think his scenes were made from archival footage…the ones that don’t include Lovecraftian tentacled creatures, of course.
The reason Neill’s performance is so overlooked is because of how well Adjani dominates the screen. It’s an iconic horror role that is well recognizable among die-hard genre fans and would be referenced far more often if the film wasn’t subjected to as much censorship. Those who have seen it know fully well that Adjani is a force to be reckoned with and it is hard to believe that there wasn’t some otherworldly being controlling her.
The go-to scene that captures her brilliance is the infamous subway scene in which Anna suffers a violent miscarriage. More than that, her body convulses, she emits inhuman-like screams, and unidentifiable liquids ooze from her body. It is an incredibly physical scene that doesn’t have to rely on dialogue or anything to jump out at the audience to scare them. All that is required is Adjani’s body writhing on the ground and up against the subway wall. What adds to the horror is that the scene goes on…and on and on. It is one of the most disturbing and excruciatingly difficult scenes to watch out of any horror film, yet it’s almost impossible to look away. The power she exudes in this sequence puts the viewer in a trance; they can’t help but look at her…yet there’s nothing they can do to help her.
This scene is impressive – perhaps the most well-known from Possession – and Adjani outdoes herself in it, but there’s another key scene that truly shows off her acting prowess. It’s an earlier scene where Mark and Anna are arguing in the kitchen. The argument depicts yelling, manipulation, and even self-mutilation that lets the two actors utilize every performance tool they have to engross the audience. A key scene ensues after Mark strikes Anna violently. Anna turns to him with grief-stricken eyes, heaving strongly to catch her breath. The viewer wonders what will happen next; whether she’ll strike back, whether she’ll flee. She continues breathing heavily until a slight smirk grows on her face. An evil grin, an expression that doesn’t look like anything previously worn by Anna. It comes off as the smirk of a ghoulish being that’s taken residence inside of her. A look of helplessness so seamlessly morphs into an expression of knowing confidence that it almost doesn’t appear real. Adjani’s acting just in this one shot forces the audience to witness a complete change of self all in a matter of seconds. It’s disturbing, sinister, and most of all, frighteningly genuine.
Sam Neill gives a criminally overlooked role that is one of the greatest of his career. Isabelle Adjani’s performance should rank among the all-time greats, in horror and in general. The power of Possession lies in many things, but the presence of these two forces makes it what it is – an absolutely chilling and overall unique film. It stands out because there aren’t many cinematic offerings in which human beings act like this, and that’s ultimately what scares us. It isn’t the creature in the apartment, it’s witnessing firsthand what evils we are all capable of.