Film Review: Possession

Positioned as a horror movie upon its initial U.S. release (in a truncated version), this delirious psychodrama&#8212;imagine <i>Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? </i>by way of Lars von Trier's <i>Antichrist</i>&#8212;still defies classification and will po

Berlin-based Mark (Sam Neill) is returning home from a business trip (the nature of his business is vague, but it involves long trips abroad and cash stuffed into briefcases) to find that his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), wants a divorce. She won't say why, but insists it's not because she's found someone else.

Mark suspects otherwise and quickly finds evidence in the form of a postcard from someone named Heinrich, and though he's always disliked Anna's best friend, Margie (Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen), Mark persuades her to confirm that Anna does indeed have a lover. Actually, it doesn't take much persuasion at all—he just calls her up and asks.

Mark still hopes they can work things out, but Anna is adamant that it's over, so he gives her a divorce, their spacious apartment and generous support for their young son, Bob (Michael Hogben). He drops by some time later to find the apartment filthy and the neglected-looking Bob alone; but when Anna finally shows up, he makes it clear that while he's not leaving Bob alone with her, he's still willing to try and work something out. She responds by vanishing in the middle of the night, and Heinrich calls to say that she's with him.
Then things get weird: Mark takes Bob to school the next day, and meets his teacher, Helen, who looks exactly like Anna and seems not to understand why he finds that strange. He decides to confront Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), who turns out to be some kind of effete-looking, middle-aged, touchie-feelie guru and swears he didn’t call Mark; in fact, he's been out of town since Mark got back because he wanted Anna to have some space while she decided whether to work on her marriage or end it. He wants to discuss things like spiritually enlightened men, but the enraged Mark would rather deck him…except that it's Mark who winds up on the floor in a bloody heap. What kind of people are these? Oh, and Anna has some kind of seizure in a subway corridor and gives birth to a…well, a creature.
The first half of Possession is peculiar and the second half is bizarre, but it all makes emotional sense; you don't have to know Andrzej Zulawski wrote it while going through what must have been the mother of all breakups to recognize the emotional rawness and irrational behavior, even after the narrative runs amok. Because here's the thing: People do go crazy when relationships go bad. Murder, mutilation and literal monster spawning are the nightmarish faces of character assassination, financial destruction and the psychologically damaging use of children as weapons—not too subtle, but potent. And I venture to say that if Possession had opened in an art house it 1981, it would have been accorded the same reception as Lars von Trier's Antichrist. But grindhouse audiences could spot an art-house movie slumming as horror and stayed away in droves, while most critics—of the few who saw it—dismissed it as trash with pretensions.