Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (1981) opens today at New York's Film Forum for a week-long run and, at Slant, Budd Wilkins writes that it's "a French/German co-production filmed on location throughout West Berlin (and hitting many of the same spots Wim Wenders would later use in Wings of Desire)" and "likewise bears the benchmarks of an entity divided against itself. It's certainly no coincidence that the film opens with shots of armed soldiers patrolling the Berlin Wall's liminal no man's land. Divisiveness and duplicity are at the heart of Zulawski's notorious cult film, and Possession's dramatic structure is almost as schizoid as its protagonists, married couple Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani), whose relationship inexplicably comes apart: The film's first half comes on like Scenes from a Marriage as directed by Lars von Trier and played at 2x speed, a lacerating depiction of disintegration both marital and psychological, while the latter half steadily morphs into Repulsion by way of Cronenberg's The Brood when Anna holes up in a rundown flat and proceeds to dispatch any man brazen enough to disturb her love-in with a tentacular monstrosity she most likely miscarried months earlier."
"Doppelgängers materialize," writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York, "Mark has several hilarious run-ins with a spastic karate-chopping horndog, and Anna has a subway-tunnel seizure of such bat-shit intensity that it surely helped solidify Adjani's Best Actress win at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. Possession incorporates more and more fantastical elements as it goes on — such as a spectacular goo-and-gore-covered creature built by E.T. designer Carlo Rambaldi — but the story somehow remains rooted in the harsh realities of human experience. That the film is much more than a gawk-at-it freak show is testament to Zulawski's talent for making even the most exaggerated behavior resonate with pointed and potent emotion."
When Possession was "first inflicted upon limited American arthouse audiences in 1981, it was in a spayed version that its distributors advertised as an exploitation scarefest," notes Justin Stewart in the L. "In the UK, it was banned with Video Nasty status for almost 20 years…. The edited version (45 minutes shorter) likely worked better as straight horror, since Possession is in essence an escalating series of jolts and Big Scenes. This longer version is intent on being a bullyingly symbolic crackup drama. Unexceptional conversations are visualized with anxious, busy camerawork. A business meeting receives the 360-degree circling cam, while Neill in a rocking chair is an occasion for feverish rack focus. There's a standard psych-horror lexicon of raw meat, oozing fluids, a carnal tentacle critter, and even a crucifix scene, and these generic additions dull the impact of Possession's several actually rattling ideas and moments. Next to the genuinely magical extant clips from Henri-Georges Clouzot's mad-jealousy drama Inferno, they're only louder."
But at Cinespect, L Caldoran finds Possession to be "honest enough to depict the emotional extremes of passion and conflict experienced during a breakup, yet self-aware enough to acknowledge how histrionic and ridiculous such squabbles can appear to outside observers. It's both uncomfortably candid and deeply cynical. And with its blood-and-gasoline-drenched apocalyptic ending, Possession joins the recent Melancholia in portraying the sense that it must be the literal end of the world simply because it feels that way."
Last year, Tom Huddleston and David Jenkins put Second Sight's release at the top of Time Out London's best DVDs of 2010 list: "As a film journalist, one hears the expression 'lost masterpiece' on a near daily basis. So we were completely unprepared for the sheer, mind-melting ferocity and breathless originality of this savage, politically fuelled 1981 marital breakdown monster movie."
Update, 12/8: "A perfect match to the destabilizing urges under fresh study in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, this is mania without analysis," writes Nicolas Rapold for Artforum. "While it's hard to describe Zulawski's experiment as pleasurable, its follies are surely familiar to lovelorn viewers. Fascinating and off-putting, the film ends with perhaps the only possible denouement to a romantic apocalypse; finally, the filmmaker's orchestration of chaos feels like the natural order of things."