POSSESSION (1981): Blood, slime and Isabelle Adjani

If there is a movie deserving the tag ‘psychological horror’, it is Possession. Here the protagonist’s inner evil takes on a living form of a wiggling slimy creature. She goes on a killing spree to keep him alive. That is, when they are not having sexual intercourse. And, of course, there is the famous subway passage scene in which Isabelle Adjani’s character miscarries her own faith. She is rolling in milk, blood, piss, mucus and every other bodily liquid you can imagine. The role earned Adjani ‘The Best Actress’ award at the Cannes Film Festival, yet she claims she is never going to play a similar role again. Possession is two hours of hysterical wailing right into your face. It’s a movie of excess and about emotional excess. The watching experience can only be compared to Antichrist (2009) – except the latter doesn’t have the extraordinary performance of Isabelle Adjani.


The sole reason why the masterpiece does not get the attention it deserves is the movie’s noteworthy talent for disguise. Frequently advertised among classic horror movies of 1970s and 1980s, such as The Exorcist (1973), The Amityville Horror (1979) and Friday the 13th (1980), it probably attracts the ‘popcorn’ audience and is spurned by more serious movie-goers. It is hardly surprising that the only FAQ for Possession on IMDb is “What did I just see?”. Well, not what you expected.

The director, Andrzej Zulawski, is Polish and was born in 1940. Not as beloved in his homeland as his teacher, both critically and commercially acknowledged Andrzej Wajda, he left Poland after his second movie, The Devil (1972), was banned. After his success in France, Zulawski was invited to come back and fulfill a project of his own choice. Ironically, the production of the  ‘project’, On The Silver Globe (1988), was brutally stopped by the same Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Possession (1981) was financed by a French production studio and shot in West Germany.

The movie takes place in derelict and gloomy Cold War Berlin. Mark (Sam Neill) comes back from a duty journey and finds his marriage falling apart. His wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), does not live at home anymore. She has a sexually superior boyfriend Heinrich (Michael Hogben), a kung-fu practicing psychic who sends her postcards from Taj Mahal and brings their son, Bob (Michael Hogben), expensive gifts. Mark sleeps with Anna’s best friend Marget (Margit Gluckmeister). The camera circles Mark’s and Anna’s family drama with a voyeuristic precision. Isabelle Adjani’s performance is striking and her unceasing hysteria starts making you cringe. Everything about Possession is twofold, or binary (even Berlin, which is divided by the Berlin Wall) and Ana’s raving character is countered by Mark, who remains stiff and emotionless. Sounds like a proper family drama, but soon the bodies are going to start piling up and we are going to go on a quest to find Heinrich’s missing soul, even if his body is still intact.

The shift towards surreal and macabre is sudden. It feels almost as if Possession is two in one; as is everything else in it. Either ‘two in one’, or ‘one in two’. Both Anna and Mark have doppelgängers, whose presence is never explained. Action moves from Mark’s and Anna’s claustrophobic apartment to more open spaces, giving room for all the madness to come. After Mark hires a private detective to follow Anna, we find out that she squats an abandoned apartment to hide a monster.  As the movie progresses, the monster’s appearance becomes more and more human, while humans fall deeper into violence, hysteria and ramblings often hard to comprehend. We are heading towards the apocalypse.


Zulawski’s own messy divorce served as an inspiration for the movie. There is a lot of vomiting in Possession, as there’s a lot of excess. Excess is what the movie is really about, about being overwhelmed by emotions, about what happens when they spill over, but it also served the purpose of helping the director to exercise his own demons by giving them an on-screen form. Helen, Anna’s mysterious doppelgänger, claims she comes “from a place where evil seems easier to pinpoint because you can see it in the flesh”, and if you can see it, you know the danger of evil.

Here I have to mention Antichrist again. Von Trier was suffering from depression and Zulawski was mentally exhausted, but there is more (perhaps the Cannes public wouldn’t have been surprised by Zulawski’s name as much as they were shocked by Tarkovskij’s; both would have been equally fitting). First, there is the figure of a male child. He is the only bridge between the male and the female. In Antichrist, the child appears only in the dreamlike opening sequence, at the end of which he dies and the relationship starts falling apart. In Possession, Bob is the only reason Anna keeps coming back to Mark. Here the child is present until the end of the movie – but he is not really present. Bob spends most of the time underwater, trying to beat the ‘world record in tub diving’. He finally drowns himself in the final apocalyptic scene.

In both movies, ‘she’ is the deranged one. The male stays rational. In Antichrist, ‘he’ is a psychiatrist trying to help ‘her’ with the loss of their son. Zulawski’s Bob is the one trying to fix the relationship. He gives up his job for ‘family reasons’ and seeks out for Heinrich in search for Anna, all in vain, until he lets himself be seduced by the Evil and joins his wife’s Danse Macabre. Both ‘she’ and Anna are driven by a primal vitality, which is repressed by the husband’s cold prudence. For Mark, even the thought of God is obtrusive. “God is evil”, he proclaims. He retreats to adultery and even abuse with frigid pragmatism. Throughout the movie, we see a repeating shot of him tightly gripping Anna’s and Bob’s torsos, which is undoubtedly a sign of (attempted) dominance. Mark’s ‘tight grip’ is a central element in the movie. It is why Anna was fascinated by Heinrich, who is full of himself – because of his unrestrained ego, imagination (and religion), narcissism, his (bi)sexual freedom. After she miscarries her “Sister Faith” in the subway passage, the last constraint is lifted and she can let go of the torturing inner evil and even embrace it. In the following disturbing scene, she scolds her ballet students for not having the “righteous anger” to say”I, I can do as well, I can be better! I’m the best!”

“There is nothing in common among women except menstruation”, says Helen, scorning Mark’s “war against women”. While van Trier lets ‘him’ escape the wife’s frenzy, Mark finally gives in. It’s time to let go, and all hell breaks loose.

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8 thoughts on “POSSESSION (1981): Blood, slime and Isabelle Adjani

  1. Bienia says:

    I haven’t heard about this movie before, but this sounds very interesting how and what you describe. I think I will watch it this month.

  2. Nicolas says:

    Approximately as disturbing as interesting. Both quite much. Seems worth watching the movie. A promising and entertaining review. I will definitely follow this blog.

  3. […] POSSESSION (1981): Blood, slime and Isabelle Adjani « Frame 25 […]

  4. Anonymous says:

    just watched it at the charles in baltimore. what did I just see? who cares? it was an amazing piece of film.

  5. laudanumat33 says:

    All I can say is: “Holy shit. Well done.”

  6. Well written, you’ve gone well beyond the usual “he went there and she said that”. Just to note: Bob certainly didn’t drown in the final scene. One can’t voluntarily drown like this. Not even in a movie like Possession 🙂 I think this was just a prolonged scene showing his way of escaping.

  7. Ludascooba says:

    This movie entails exactly what happens when the spiritual(demonically influenced) collides with the natural. It’s not just reality, it’s actuality. This movie also describes what is now happening in our society presently, from well known and prominent people to people who are at the bottom of the totem pole. If we’re not under the protection of God Almighty, then we’re subject to do things past our carnal understanding. Our souls are in the middle of a very real spiritual war.

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