not in our stars, but in ourselves
I can’t exist by myself because I’m afraid of myself, because I’m the maker of my own evil.
If you’ve ever been in a rapidly deteriorating relationship, perhaps you’ve heard or said or thought something like the above. Perhaps you’ve struggled with the twin horrors of continuing to remain in a relationship that had turned septic, versus the unknown horror of being alone. In Possession, those horrors are given visceral life – and whether the intention is metaphorical or literal, the punch it packs is a wallop.
In West Berlin, Mark (Sam Neill) returns home after months away. He works in international espionage of some sort, but he is eager to resume life with his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), and their young son, Bob (Michael Hogben). Anna, however, seems to have cracked while they were apart. She’s not sure if she wants to continue with the marriage, or get a divorce. Mark suspects infidelity, and his suspicions are confirmed when he finds a brief but unmistakably amorous postcard from someone called Heinrich. Anna admits that she’s carried on an affair with Heinrich, and she says she doesn’t want to give him up. When Mark confronts Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), however, Heinrich insists that he broke it off with Anna before Mark returned home. And yet, Anna still disappears – sometimes for days – with all signs pointing to continued infidelity. Mark hires private investigators to follow her. The hapless detective finds Anna’s dilapidated flat, overlooking the Checkpoint Charlie sign, calls Mark to let him know the address, and poses as a building inspector to try to find her lover. What he finds is an oozing, tentacled monster in the corner. Anna kills the detective, and sets aside some of his body parts in the fridge. This pattern repeats itself several times – with Mark sending men to their doom. During one of their screaming-match confrontations, Anna recounts a miscarriage she had while walking through the Berlin subway tunnel: a furious, abject, violent miscarriage that resulted in her bleeding and oozing from every possible orifice of her body. She leaves Mark again, so he blows up her apartment. Eventually, he finds the creature “making love” to her at her friend’s apartment. Somehow, even then, he doesn’t give up hope – but honestly, he probably should have.
With such a batshit crazy story, it’s tempting to try to see it as a metaphor or allegory. Certainly, there are ways we could apply Possession to other ideas and narratives: perhaps it’s a fever-dream that Mark has when he realizes his marriage is falling apart, with all the justification he needs for leaving his wife contained within his imagination; perhaps it’s about the Cold War, with both sides incapable of existing without the other, and yet determined to destroy each other; perhaps it’s The Exorcist for grownups, with the focus of our disgust and horror the inconstancy of the adult female (rather than the terrifying spectacle of a girl becoming a woman). It would be possible, and provable, to make any one of these points. There are plenty of examples in the text, so to speak, to support any of these theories. Still, I suspect it’s really about what it looks like: the violent rupture of a marriage.
Consider both sides. Mark is absent, physically and emotionally, for ages. He assumes that Anna has more or less put her life on hold while he’s been away, waiting patiently for him like Penelope for Odysseus, but that’s an awfully cruel assumption to make. It would be entirely plausible for a woman in that situation to go slightly mad – particularly with a young child at home – and to seek some solace elsewhere. Right? Perhaps not. But plausible. And of course, once you start cheating, how do you keep that hidden? The guilt becomes its own monster. It’s impossible to deny or ignore. Even if Anna had wanted to work things out with Mark, she can’t pretend she’s been nothing but his little wife. That guilt, that horror, that misery would metastasize and consume her from within – or else consume Mark. Either way, neither of these two would get out alive.
Beyond all the thematic concerns, of course, Possession is an extraordinary couple of hours of filmmaking. Adjani is brave in the way we never mean it when we talk about beautiful actresses nowadays. Imagine a serious, popular actress gunning for an Oscar, and allowing herself to be as shrill and grotesque and fucking terrifying as Adjani is throughout (particularly in the subway scene). It wouldn’t happen. Neill is great, too, playing on his early everyday good looks to grant his tortured, clueless husband the kind of patheticness Mark embodies. Aside from the performances, however, there’s the use of place: the divided city of Berlin, with East German guards watching over everything from their post outside Mark and Anna’s apartment. There’s a constant sense of being watched while still being alone, guarded while still being vulnerable. The film uses the color blue everywhere – in Anna and Mark’s apartment, in all Anna’s clothes – as if her own mesmerizingly blue eyes were being cast out at the world and reflected. Normally, blue is such a calming color, but it adds such an eerie touch here: the bright red blood seeps out of all these bodies, and stands out in stark relief against the seemingly innocuous blue, before being absorbed to turn purplish black. With this couple – each complicit in the other’s transgressions – there’s surely some sort of metaphor there about one spouse’s evil becoming part of the other. And above all of this – the camera work! Cinematographer Bruno Nuytten gives us a mobile, roving, exploratory camera, often swooping around Mark as his world crashes around him, following Anna through her histrionics and explosive outbursts, tracking each player in this horrible drama. The effect is one of tremendous unease. We never find out what the creature is, exactly: is it supernatural? has Anna invented it? is it folie à deux? Whatever it is, we can’t help feeling that we take its place in the film, circling and mocking Mark and Anna and the rest while they tear each other apart.