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Film

'Possession' at 40: Revisiting Andrzej Żuławski's tormenting horror

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'Possession' - Andrzej Żuławski
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Away from the fantasy of slasher killers, paranormal activity, or the zombie apocalypse, there is perhaps nothing more dreadful than the fear of loneliness, isolation and divorce. Charting the rise and fall of a tumultuous love story is an emotional leech in and of itself, though combine it with the visceral terror of abnormal possession, and you have a truly draining experience. Such is the case for Andrzej Żuławski classic horror, Possession, starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill that is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary

Nominated for a Palme d’Or upon the release of the film in 1981, Żuławski’s Possession is a film way before its time, inspired by the likes of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion in its depiction of psychological breakdown before escalating to the body horror of David Cronenberg’s The Brood or David Lynch’s EraserheadSuffusing a solid through-line of mental turmoil with a strong sensory horror experience, Żuławski bears many more similarities to modern-day filmmakers than his contemporary peers. 

The prickly romantic horror follows the divorce of Anna (Adjani) and Mark (Neill) due to suspicions of infidelity before Anna begins displaying disturbing behaviour that makes way for something far more sinister. A classic of 1980s horror that defied the popular slasher zeitgeist, Possession achieved cult status thanks to a combination of both Isabelle Adjani’s win for Best Actress at Cannes, along with the labelling of the film as a ‘video nasty’, finding itself banned in the UK and the US. Just like many other horror films tarnished with the same stamp, such enticing, banned delights only increased the film’s popularity. 

With fluctuating parallels to psychological torment and violent body horror, Possession is a dread-filled tragedy that escalates and quietens its impact, much like the tumultuous journey of a breakup. Such is joined by a delicate political subtext that underlines the expressive horror, amplifying the director’s own divorce from his home country, Poland. Set in cold war-era Berlin at the beginning of the 1980s, Possession exposes the fractured scars of a country still recoiling from the terror of the 1940s, with the wall separating east and west Berlin illustrating such a disconnect.   

Combining the torment of lost love with the horror of such personal realisations, Possession is today recognised as a classic, sinister breakup movie, identified by modern master Ari Aster as one of the best of its kind. Whilst in discussion with YouTube channel Birth.Movies.Death, Aster noted that the film had a significant influence on his 2018 horror, Midsommar, explaining: “Zulawski’s possession, that’s a big one and that’s a big one that I return to again and again”.

Continuing, the director adds, “I think if there is any legacy for the film, I would love for it to be a movie that people go to when they’re going through a breakup, I hope this qualifies as a contribution to that tradition”.

With lead actor Sam Neill going further, to call Possession “the most extreme film I’ve ever made, in every possible respect,” Andrzej Żuławski’s classic remains both a pertinent pioneer of body horror as well as an emotional journey dissecting one of life’s most arduous mental processes.

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