Possession (1981)

She created a monster as her secret lover!
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Possession - She created a monster as her secret lover!

Art house cinema and me, we have an odd relationship. On occasion I can happily see beyond the stylistic tics and spasms which usually free the film of its could-be cogent plot, and I can handle the overblown emotion and the way in which it's examined. And then, perhaps I was expecting too much from Possession, a film which had long been on my hit-list at least partly because so many people with whom I usually share my tastes have raved about it so often. The catchy electronic signature playing over the menu screen immediately put me in mind of Lucio Fulci, only perhaps more sober; what I got instead was Ingmar bloody Bergman with added tentacles.

Any plot synopsis will be hazy because, to tell you the truth, I didn't understand some of the film's elements. This may because my intellect has finally succumbed to the weight of all the cinematic marvels I keep hurling at it, or hey, it might even be that Andrzej Zulawski wasn't sure. Anyway, what happens is thus: husband Mark (played by the admittedly ever-awesome Sam Neill) returns home to his wife Anna in Berlin after being away on a work trip, a project he is rather coy of discussing. He's at first pleased to see Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and their semi-aquatic son, Bob – but Anna soon reveals to him that she is not happy in the marriage and wants a divorce. Mark doesn't take this too well, and makes it his business to find out what has gone wrong. He does discover that she has a lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) but there's more to it than that. Eventually, with the help of a private detective, Mark finds out that Anna has another lover too, and this one is a bit more "diverse" than Heinrich... you have to be bloody careful on that Soulmates.

There's other stuff in there; via the medium of murder we are introduced to the doppelgänger as a plot motif with various gubbins whereby Mr. Sex Aubergine seems to be turning into Mark, and Bob's teacher bears an uncanny likeness to Anna only with expensive green contact lenses and less shrill, repetitive screaming. And, oh, the screaming. I'm very interested in the doppelgänger as a theme and down through the centuries in literature and more recently, in film, it has taken a lot of different forms, but never do I remember it being invoked in a plot with some much hysterical yelling. I looked at some reviews of this film after I'd watched it, in an "Is it just me?" impulse. I saw written somewhere that this was, and I paraphrase, "one of the most naturalistic depictions of the breakdown of a relationship ever committed to film." Erm, really? I'd say this type of relationship strife was reasonably rare, which is good, because if ever I saw anyone behave like this I'd be reduced to rubble. Hysteria of my own crept in as I watched this, usually of the helpless laughter kind. The film just seemed to be reaching out for various noble and interesting themes, then forgetting and rebounding into atrocious feminine outbursts. Is it ruminating on the nature of addiction? “EEEEEK!” Examining the female libido? Lead actress attempts to cut off own head with kitchen implement. And so on.

There are some good things to say about the film, though. It does manage to be atmospheric, even if part of that atmosphere is the fug of your own aching temples. The early 80s Berlin setting is very intriguing, being set in Kreuzberg, a place in which I've had some of the best nights of my life, but it was interesting to see it so austere and well, drastically different than I know it. Also, credit where credit's due, the transmogrifying pervert special effects were very well done, lacking the lurid colouration of a Henenlotter film (which would have utterly jarred against the washed-out palate of Possession). Whilst I don't want to say the creature moves "realistically", care has evidently been taken to not make it look like merely like a randy bivalve. Sam Neill spends a lot of time chewing the Communist architecture, but he's generally an effective presence on-screen, lending some genuine pathos to his role and seeming like a loving father to Aqua-Bob, particularly in the scene where he discovers the neglected child at his mother's apartment and cares for him. These moments which are lower in the mix work far better for me; any semblance of a tragic love story is though typically buried under the rubble of the script and all the other unfolding chaos.

I know, I know, No one ever said Possession had a linear plot or that it followed any of the rules which conventional cinema tends to do. Also, this is evidently a film which straddles a lot of genre boundaries, thus not sitting comfortably in horror, sci-fi, romance or really art-house either, as much as I'd argue it feels most like an art-house flick to me. Sometimes these genre-busters really work and sometimes they don't; for me, Possession is an interesting experiment, but as a piece of entertainment had overstayed its welcome by about the thirty-minute mark. Tentacles or otherwise.
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