Let’s Scare Jenn to Death: Possession (1981)
(By Guest Writer James Olchak)
It’s time again for Let’s Scare Jenn to Death, a 12-month project in film history, narrative criticism, and making girls watch gross stuff they hate. Our subject is the ever-skeptical, sometimes squeamish Jenn, who has thus far breezed through 1997’s Suspiria and struggled a bit with 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Now it’s time to see how her disgustingly healthy heart handles the trauma of watching a creepy skeevy sex horror movie…with her parents!
OVERVIEW: POSSESSION (1981)
This month’s film, Possession, is a genre-straddler. Part espionage thriller, part domestic drama, and part…other. The other is where it becomes appropriate fodder for LSJTD, but let’s talk a bit about the first two bits. Taking place in West Berlin, Possession tells the story of a young couple, Mark and Anna, whose marriage is unraveling. Mark has a nebulous occupation as some kind of espionage agent, and has returned to his wife and child after a mission to find his wife wants a divorce. In an attempt to salvage things, Mark quits the agency, but is ill-prepared for Anna’s unpredictable and secretive behavior. Suspecting infidelity, it’s at this point that Mark starts using his spy skills to track down Anna’s other interests.
None of this is particularly horror-inducing, on the page. But tonally, the film ranks somewhere between “emergency broadcast signal” and “nails on chalkboard.” The film’s director, Andrzej Żuławski, wrote the film during his own ugly divorce, and it’s clear. It’s a disintegrating relationship portrayed in such a way where the characters internal turmoil bubbles freely into objective reality. The tightly-wound Mark (played by Sam Neill of Jurassic Park fame) and Anna (played by Isabelle Adjani, giving a career-defining performance) live right next to the Berlin Wall, armed guards gamely serving as metaphors for the couple’s intense repression. Later, when Anna’s emotional barriers finally give way (underground, out of sight of the watchposts), she literally overflows with the poison she’s been holding back. It’s a film where the metaphorical becomes real. And the results are always grotesque.
By the halfway mark, reality has been kicked repeatedly in the crotch. Grinding meat turns into self-mutilation via electric knife. A violent argument between Anna and Mark results in an overturned tractor-trailer, dumping wreckage in the choked streets of West Berlin. Mark, seeking emotional succor wherever he can find it, finds a nurturing soul in his son Bob’s kindergarten teacher, Helen, who completely coincidentally looks exactly like Anna. Anna’s side-piece, the leathery spiritualist Heinrich finds himself in a tailspin, after discovering that Anna has been disloyal to him as well as Mark. And Anna is quietly making her perfect man out of whatever pieces she finds laying around.
Possession is an exercise in escalation. Never does it dial back the stakes, or the bloodshed, or the collateral damage. In the end, this might work against it. It can leave the viewer numb, despite reaching catastrophic levels of frenzy in the last few minutes. The final message of Possession might be that spending enough time in emotionally corrosive state can make anyone welcome the apocalypse.
So, Jenn, was this the perfect film to screen with your parents? I would like to make it clear to everyone reading that I would have selected something with less explicit monster-fucking if I had known you were going to watch this month’s film with your parents. I cannot imagine how uncomfortable I would have been.
Let’s start with the title, “Possession.” Like many elements in the film, it’s a bit ambiguous. Who are what is “possessed” in the film? Or is the film about a desire to possess?
I had ASSUMED that the movie would be about a demon “possession” because, well, horror movies. I am actually relieved it wasn’t as that is one of my most-feared type of horror movie (despite not believing in demons or possession on any level). So I suppose in this case it is about the desire to possess another, specifically romantically/sexually. It was not AT ALL the perfect movie to watch with my parents, exactly, although we were mostly on the same page of abject horror/outright disbelief at all the same parts, so it worked out OK.
How about the protagonists in Possession. Who are they, again? I mean, neither Mark nor Anna could fathomably be considered innocent, in anything that occurs–both of them murder people during the film, for example. Is there anyone in this film an audience can root for?
Bob. I think that’s it. Maybe his teacher I guess? I think she’s mostly alright. Though I have questions about some of her behaviors. I like her speech about how “the only thing all women have in common is menstruation.” At first I was naturally empathetic to Anna because misogyny and Mark acting like a goddamn alien. But then you know… the crazy violent behavior around her son started and I was no longer a fan. I am not rooting for either of them by the end, at all.
This is my overall reaction to basically everyone in this movie:
What about Heinrich? He seems to be a favorite of the unwashed internet masses, do his spaced-out mannerisms, fruity fight skills, and warmed-over spiritualism move you to any sympathy when Mark drowns him in vomit in a bar bathroom? How about Margie, whose only sin seems to be being a reliable babysitter and a willingness to talk shit to Mark (Were they having an affair, or what)?
So in a regular movie or real life I would not like Heinrich at all. He seems pretentious and insufferable. However! He was a relatively innocent bystander-ish guy to this whole thing. He seems to have actually cared about Anna and not want to boss her around or tell her how she should be or who she should be with. I definitely felt sorry for him when Mark drowned him. In vomit in a toilet of all things FFS. What the hell, Mark?
I felt similarly bad for Margie who seems like a bit of a weirdo, maybe, but like a genuinely helpful friend. I don’t really get what her deal was with Mark. I have no idea the purpose of the scene where she randomly basically puts her face in his junk… that made no sense based on anything leading up to it. I guess she picked a bad friend and it all went downhill from there.
I feel like we should mention the setting, at least in passing. Possession was shot in West Germany, frequently within arms reach of the Berlin wall, which I learned (from the film) was laid out by maniacs, cutting down the middle of streets in chaotic fashion. Even disregarding the gravitas of massive symbol of the Cold War wedged into the film, West Berlin is still portrayed as a dire place; stark, squalid, and oppressive. The interior shots are similarly bleak. With the exception of the café Mark rampages through in the film’s first few minutes, I can’t remember a single location that didn’t feel both sterile and dingy. Any thoughts on how the setting worked with the other bits of the narrative?
So I actually found this really weird because West Berlin was the capitalist supposedly non-oppressive (relatively speaking) side of Berlin. I mean. I didn’t really understand at all, honestly, why it seemed so sterile and stark. I’ve been to Berlin in the early 90s, so not TOO far removed from when this was shot, and it was nothing like this. I feel like someone needs to explain this to me. If you told me it was EAST Berlin that would have made more sense.
I did take note that the entire city always seemed completely abandoned which was also patently incorrect. Berlin is a bustling city and it was in the 80s too. I’m very confused by the entire thing. It’s like showing an empty street in NYC… but not just one, all the streets. Everyplace these people went was almost entirely empty. It made zero sense. Do you know anything else about this that I’m missing?
No, just guesses. There was a real effort by Żuławski to create a dizzying, smothering atmosphere in the interior shots, using wide angle lenses, the orbiting camera, and the actors whirling or spazzing out in place (like Heinrich nearly twirling himself down the stairs, Anna’s fit, or Mark’s hyper-aggressive rocking chair scene). I think those scenes evoke animals caught in traps. I guess the exterior shots are similarly themed, but devised to create a sense of helpless isolation. Not just create the feeling that these characters are trapped, but that no one on the outside of their world can help them.
I mean I guess it works in that way. And in an exciting call-back I would like to reference our first “Scare Jenn to Death” movie, Suspiria, which also took place in Europe in a shockingly un-populated town, where things happened like the blind man with his seeing eye dog walking through a giant empty square with literally not another single person in it, so the dog could….. Get possessed by a witch and eat him? Or something? Lesson: if you are in a city in Europe and you notice there is literally nobody else anywhere around you get the hell out of there immediately.
Good Advice! I would add that ballet teachers in Germany are also extremely likely to practice the dark arts.
I mean my ballet teacher was strict but I don’t think she danced the horizontal tango with the devil.
A film with as small a cast as Possession lives or dies based on the performances of its stars. Both Neill and Adjani certainly put their all into “Mark” and “Anna” (Adjani famously took a year off acting after completing the film). What’d you think of the performances? Was the intensity successful in drawing you into the story, or was it just off-putting and stagey?
Unfortunately, ha, it was super off-putting. I mean it’s an interesting movie that I guess I’m glad I saw but the acting was straight up bizarre.
I think you said in a chat with me that it was like the acting was done by robots created by aliens trying to mimic human beings. I didn’t understand anyone’s motivations ever, why they never acted at all recognizably like I thought any real human being would react to anything, that they had non-sensical conversations, that they wore the same filthy clothes for months for some reason. They were both way over the top but I’d say Anna less so or less like an alien I guess so… congrats to Adjani for being a little better at it? I guess she earned her time off?
I heard it was more like a breakdown? But I didn’t find any definitive sources on that. She definitely didn’t like talking about the movie, after it was done.
I don’t blame her. I would want to go to one of those memory erasing things like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and have this erased from my memory if I were her.
I know that you weren’t too keen on looking for subtext in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but I fear you’re gonna have to get over it, this month. Otherwise, I’m not sure how we could hope to make any sense of anything that happens in Possession. Just what is happening, here? What is Possession about? Who is the monster, here? Is the monster trifling, dishonest women, or repressive, aloof men? Maybe the monster is Cold War nuclear tensions? Does our monster still wear pink socks? C’MON I KNOW YOU HAVE AN OPINION.
The monster is gender, which is a social construct. I’m sort of joking about the monster but not exactly. If I try to get over the “robots programmed by aliens” acting methods used here I see a woman who resents everything about her life, doesn’t love her husband but also doesn’t seem to particularly care about her son, her lover, or anybody else she encounters. She has been forced into the roles society lets her have and she doesn’t want any of it. I feel you there, Anna. Me neither.
I truly don’t know what the monster was. If you are saying it’s just metaphorical then why did it eat people or… assimilate them or whatever it was doing? The monster was so unexpected my brain couldn’t process it.
I mean, it’s a real monster in the film, cause people who don’t live in Anna or Mark’s mind both see and interact with it, but yeah, I think the monster being Anna’s dissatisfaction with domestic life is as good an interpretation as any. I agree that it’s unclear, like, where it came from, and how it grew. I’ve read reviews where the author thought Anna was feeding it body parts of the men she killed, or even somehow fusing them together to “build” the creature, like a 109-pound Frankenstein. I have no guesses on that.
I mean the thing is, there was the squid creature and then, other places, there were separate things that were different and also looked like a bloody mess. Maybe there was no particular interpretation we are supposed to get from any of it other then “ew”.
Of all of the batshit crazy things that happen in the film, the most memorable is probably Anna’s flailing, grocery-smashing, fluids gushing fit in the subway. What the hell was it all about? Why was she whimpering at a statue of Jesus right before it happened? On film (a film within the film, shot by Heinrich), Anna describes it as a miscarriage, though maybe a metaphysical one? The death of “Sister Faith,” as she describes? What’s the takeaway from seeing blood and ambiguous fluids leak out of all of her orifices?
I spent most of this scene just saying “what? What is happening, what?” over and over.
As for the whimpering at the statue of Jesus, I don’t know. I mean the movie is called Possession? ARE we supposed to think she’s possessed? Is that… cthulhu looking thing… the devil? Is she even fully herself of is something supposed to be controlling her? I truly don’t know because everyone is acting like a robot-alien the entire time! Poor Bob is the only person who I would say reliably acts like a normal human being the entire time.
To paraphrase Salt & Pepa, let’s talk about monster sex. Up until the point at which the first detective makes it into Anna’s secret hovel, Possession could just be a movie about an uptight spy trying to go straight because his possibly schizophrenic wife is cheating on him. Anna’s “miscarriage” could be only that, described by our old friend, the unreliable narrator. But once the audience (And more importantly, a disinterested party, the detective) sees Anna’s number three guy, a knot of bloody tentacles in a fluids-soaked bed, the film gets a tad bit harder to categorize. Up until this point, Anna has been inscrutable in her desires and intentions, but is basically a sympathetic, flawed person. Once she reveals that her most recent lover is literally inhuman, and she’s willing to murder human beings to protect (feed? construct?) it, does it become impossible to view Anna as anything but a monster?
I mean… kind of? On the one hand I don’t like to take a woman’s agency away by saying well she can’t help it because other things were… influencing her. On the other hand I mean… one of the things is literally a squid-monster that she apparently has sex with? So… maybe there’s all kinds of stuff going on inside Anna literally and figuratively that I don’t understand.
I would say she shows her humanity in her continuing to mostly apparently care about Bob at least to some degree. Though she is definitely not doing an adequate or even minimally adequate job, I guess if she was just fully possessed by squid-instructions she probably would let her feeble human son starve to death or something.
Delving into the metatext, is it indicative of director Andrzej Żuławski’s personal peccadillos that, while both Mark and Anna end up with idealized versions of each other, Mark’s jewel-eyed “perfect Anna” is a nurturing caretaker, while Anna’s dark-eyed “perfect Mark” spent much of its existence as a three foot prehensile penis with some tentacles attached?
Probably. All men want is a lovely wife to take care of them and their children and all women want is… giant penises? With tentacles? I mean on the one hand, I never heard the cthulhu say “well, actually” so, he’s got that going for him. Also I’d like to reiterate that Mark’s “perfect Anna” has a bit more to her than just nurturing caretaker, as she chides him for thinking all women are the same and seems not to have much regard for what men think of her.
Is it a further indictment of the director’s viewpoint that when Anna is gunned down by Mark’s erstwhile colleagues in the spy farm, “perfect” Mark simply does not give a shit, and immediately makes a move for “real” Mark’s new Anna? Is this movie just a really visceral “Nice guy” screed?
I never thought of this but could very well be, I suppose. It does not seem to be terribly sympathetic towards Anna.
I’d also like to address the fact that regular old Anna wears a blue dress the entire movie. For a while it is the same blue dress and it gets progressively filthier; but then I began to notice that it started to change. It was the exact same color and had the same probably almost-impossible-to-button-and-unbutton-on-your-own buttons up the back, the front and neckline kept changing. Exact same blue, same length, just the neckline was changing. What is this about? Was it a uniform? Was it just a weird choice? I became obsessed with her clothes for the rest of the movie. In at least one scene there was another blue dress hanging up in the background like maybe it had been washed and was hanging to dry.
And let’s not forget that the movie ends with poor Bob warning Helen not to open the door and then apparently drowning himself. So.
CAUSE OF DEATH
Being that you still tenaciously cling to life, please quantify how well you thought Possession typified the elements of dread, shock, and horror, via a scale of one-to-five severed Acadia heads. These calculations will enable me to more easily select films to scare you to death.
90% of the movie was nothing but dread because nothing was really happening except people were just being EFFING WEIRD. 5 out of 5 heads.
I mean… I was completely unprepared for the squid in the bathroom and anything else that happened after this point so. 5 out of 5?
Geez I’m surprised to say I might have to give this 5 out of 5 too. From the sticking the meat carving knife in her neck scene to the fluids all over her bedroom, the subway, and her having actual monster sex, this was pretty horrific on every level. Not to mention the unidentifiable bloody meat pieces of squids and, I guess, men(?) all over her apartment. I mean. Pretty horrifying.
Finally, now that you have survived a film where a murderous ballet instructor cheats on her murderous spy husband with a drug-dealing new-age guru and a thunderf***ing shoggoth, causing the Apocalypse, what will you remember most about it?
They were really really bad parents. And I mean, I don’t even like kids really. So that’s saying something.
I was actually super conflicted about making Possession this month’s film, not because I don’t think it’s great, but because it was in a sort of tug-of-war with another film, 1979’s The Brood. The Brood is great, too, but it covers so much of the same thematic ground that Possession does (like Żuławski, The Brood’s David Cronenberg was going through a messy divorce while writing the film) that I felt like including them both in a 12-month cycle would have been redundant. There were a couple other factors that tipped the needle in favor of Possession, that I’ll mention in future Let’s Scare Jenn to Deaths.
All that said, if you liked Possession, you’ll like The Brood, probably. It has the same combination of overwrought performances, marital disintegration (with a young child caught in the middle), a too-sympathetic kindergarten teacher, gross creature effects, and horror feminae as this film, it just unfolds in a different, but equally bizarre way.
Yay! Maybe I will make someone watch it with me. And scream in outrage at the bad parenting (I presume).