The Opposing Genres of Possession
by Vincent Bec
Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 horror film, Possession, opens with shots of a city. Views of buildings are cut off by concrete fences. The camera keeps steel structures in the foreground of the shot letting the grey homes and apartment buildings blend together in the background. We travel down a road of decaying walls and structures that block our view of the modern, occupied buildings. We are traveling this road with the main character, Mark (Sam Neill), as he makes his way home to his wife and child. The imagery in these moments, that last less than a minute in total, is a visual display of a tension that last throughout the entire film. Mark is a man obsessed with the mundane. His focus is on one of the most common goals of the earthly world--having a perfect nuclear family that lives in a perfectly adequate home. His car ride past the grit, decay, and ruble that blocks the view of his goal only lasts seconds, but his journey to push past the uncommon, the damaged, and the dirty in order to grasp his perfect life is endless. The tension between the perfectly mundane and the supernaturally filthy is woven throughout the film’s canvas in a plethora of ways, all anchored by Mark and his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani).
A women dissatisfied with her marriage has an affair while her husband is away for work. Desperate to keep his family together, the man returns to his young attractive wife. A scene reveals that the couple has problems with keeping each other sexually satisfied. They have grown apart. They feel empty inside. The man fights with his wife, wanting her to repair their family unit. The wife feels suffocated, defensive against her husband’s constant questions of where she has been and who she was with. She is torn between two men. He struggles internally with understanding his wife’s nature and his own feelings. If the man and woman do separate permanently, how will their young son be affected? The man is shown completely broken, trembling and defeated. He is shown slapping his wife in a regrettable moment of uncontrollable anger. He waxes philosophically about human nature. He takes care of others tenderly. This is the movie Mark exists in. It is a drama worthy of the term “Oscar-bait.” The setting and the conflicts are realistic and familiar. Mark is shown at his best and his worse as he he develops emotionally throughout his navigation of real world problems. He is a realistic character in conflict with himself and others. This space of realism and relatable personal conflict is the space in which Mark’s actions and decisions exist throughout much of the film.
Although Anna may appear to be the object of Mark’s obsession, his obsession is actually with what Anna represents to him instead of being with her as person. His obsession is about control rather than love. In one scene he tells her that she must restore order by breaking up with her lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). He tells her he doesn’t care if she loves Heinrich more, she must think of her family. He hires a private investigator to follow her movements. However, when Anna’s doppelganger, Helen (Isabelle Adjani in a dual role), enters his life, his obsession with Anna begins to wane, because order has been restored without her. When the private investigator’s partner contacts Mark, Mark tells him it was ambition that drove him to find Anna. Mark mentions love throughout the film, but none of these actions are motivated by love. He’d rather stay in a loveless marriage, than give up his family unit. He obsesses over his wife until he realizes he doesn’t need her to complete his picture. Helen offers him his dream of a mundane family. She baths and reads to his son. She converses with Mark about how his son is doing at school. Mark’s obsession is what creates this angelic doppelganger of his wife, just as Anna’s obsession later creates a doppelganger of him.
Anna’s journey through the events of Possession exist within an entirely different space than Mark’s. Her draw is to the carnal, the grotesque and the bodily. Her past as a ballet teacher marks her as someone who is not only in tune with the body, but someone who pushes the body and tests its limits. While Anna’s obsession with sexual gratification is not as obvious as Mark’s obsessive stalking and control of her, it drives her actions and life. It starts with her affair, which establishes her willingness to give up what Mark strives for, and society praises, in pursuit of physical pleasure. When Mark attempts to force Anna to give up her affair, she threatens to jump out of a window. He remarks, “You need it that much?” Her obsession with the physical naturally creates a physical manifestation--a monster created from a woman’s sexual desire. Through this monster she creates her doppelganger of Mark. She must give her body sexually to create this doppelganger, while Mark’s doppelganger of her manifests cleanly. There is a direct connection drawn between a woman overcome with sexual desire and monstrosity. During a fight with Mark she screams, “I’m a whore, a monster, yes, I fuck around with everyone!” Once Anna fell into the role of a sexual woman, she could no longer live and move within Mark’s drama. Her actions instead exist within the genre of monsters.
Normally themes of the body would be connected to the natural world, however this film denies that connection and instead argues that sex, and the grotesque body, come from the realm of the divine. Mark’s obsession with becoming a picturesque, young family is the natural, worldly way of things, whereas Anna’s sexual nature comes from the supernatural. It once again starts with Anna’s affair, her chosen partner Heinrich is both sexual and spiritual, unlike Mark. Towards the end of the film Anna propositions Mark for sex, saying God is currently inside her. “Possession” is a term used in religious spaces, yet Anna is possessed by her lust. Mark’s attitude towards God also reveals its connection to sexuality. When asked by Heinrich what he thinks about God, Mark responds that God is a disease. God is what has infected his life. It is an outside force negatively affecting what he has created. He paints a picture of a visceral god when he later claims the monster in Anna’s bedroom is God, while talking with Heinrich. He says it is the god you reach through fucking or dope. A god of bodily pleasure.
Anna’s connection to monstrosity and the supernatural is both damning and freeing. She is afraid of the evil she has created. She tells Mark she can no longer exist by herself because she is afraid of herself. Yet her transformation throughout the film gives her power and agency. An obvious example is her last interaction with Heinrich. Heinrich comes to her apartment to engage in sexual activity and drugs. He acts aggressively towards Anna, pushing her against the wall while telling her it is pointless to resist because he is stronger than she is. This may have been true at the beginning of the film, but by the end her monster is strong enough to protect her from him. Even more interesting, however, is the power in her transformation from child to monster in Mark’s eyes. Early in the film Mark removes a dirty shirt from his son, Bob (Michael Hogben). While doing so he grasps Bob’s rib cage gently, taking in the fragility of the small child. A few scenes later he repeats this same moment with Anna before he puts her to bed and tucks her in. Mark places Anna in the same position he would a child. The infantilization of an adult dismisses an adult’s ability to live independently, care for themselves, and make well informed decisions. Mark sees himself as Anna’s caregiver--her superior in both strength and rationality. This is clear in how he tries to control and track her movements throughout the film. By the end of the film, however, that has changed. Mark tells Anna that she has hardened, for the first time she looks vulgar to him. While propositioning Mark, Anna grasps his ribcage like he had done to her, finally getting her moment to place someone else in a position of intimate fragility.
Throughout Possession there is a tension created by the two opposing worlds of the main characters: Mark’s drama and Anna’s horror. We can see the characters coexisting in scenes while acting as if they are in completely separate films. In one scene, as Mark and Anne finish fighting on the road outside their home, Anna’s bloodied face suddenly holds an eerily transfixed expression as she walks down the road leaving Mark to kick a soccer ball to some school children. In another scene, Mark calmly ponders his wife’s current feelings and motivations. He makes his big revelation, the climax of the emotional development he has made throughout his drama, while watching Anna struggling to maintain normal human movement. Anna’s hands flail in unnatural ways. She rubs her own skin hard, as if trying to remove something invisible. She looks absolutely terrified by what her own body is doing, while he calmly asks for them to sit and speak together. This disconnect can be quite jarring for the viewer.
Towards the end of the film Mark allows himself to fully enter Anna’s world. He gives into the horror. This happens when he finally is able to accept her as a human adult, instead of seeing her as a child or a puzzle piece in his ideal family unit. At the beginning of the film the thought of her being imperfect sent him into a depressed stupor lasting three weeks. At the end of the film he is able to see her having sex with the physical manifestation of the evil inside her and not only look at it, but gaze unflinchingly.
Vincent Bec is a writer whose sentences are often too long. They hope to one day have a doctorate to back up their ramblings on the representations of gender and sexuality in horror films. They regularly contribute to Anatomy of a Scream and Grim Magazine. Their writing has also appeared on the websites Screen Queens and Scriptophobics. You can follow them on twitter @slasherdaysaint.