Possession review: Intense, grotesque and a horror film masterpiece

A double is a kind of mirror. Literally, of course, it makes sense: the German compound word, first published in a novel from 1796, combines the terms “double” and “walker,” suggesting that someone is duplicating out in the world. But in a figurative sense, just as a mirror has both the ability to reflect and distort, so does the double – there is neither a twin nor a clone. The existence of someone who looks like you but is not you hits on a deeper, more visceral level, and the concept has scared people for centuries. First as a literary tool, as in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The double and Robert Louis Stevensons Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – and since it jumped to the canvas, like an ordinary horror troop.

As a figure of myth and folklore, the double has been floating around in our nightmares for a while, and its prevalence raises questions about ourselves. Are we really unique, unique or autonomous if someone we do not know but who has our same face is alive at the same time as we are? Our individual identities are theoretically the only things we truly own; we are born with them and we die with them. And yet the presence of another person with the same physical character – as Sigmund Freud described in his culturally shocking 1919 essay – is “eerie.” Is it double a manifestation of our suppression of fear? Is it a way for us to cheat death? Or does a double actually make real our death by suggesting that a part of us that we cannot control will live on when we are gone?

Horror loves Freud’s latter suggestion, and the genre has been particularly creative in its notions of the double character. As a film critic and scholar Steven Schneider wrote in his 2001 Film and Philosophy article “Manifestations of the Literary Double in Modern Horror Cinema”, the genre has not only invented physical copies (“murderous alter egos, monstrous transformers, mad twins or malicious clones”), but also “mental double”, which Schneider categorizes as “schizos , shape shifters, projections and psychoses. ” Whether the double manifests itself as a mimicry of the body or the brain, few things are more frightening than contemporary knowledge and not to know by yourself.

All this is to say that in horror – which often pits an individual against an unknowable, mysterious, supernatural or supernatural entity – the double is unique in that it turns our enemies into versions of ourselves. With this trope established in the early 20th century, horror has freely overlapped with other genres that ground the double in established realism, resulting in films that are equally introverted and extroverted.

Both Walter Wanger’s original version from 1956 by Invasion of Body Snatchers and Steven Spielberg’s 1978 remake combines horror with sci-fi to create “pod people” – numb, empty and exactly like us in appearance. All three versions of Things (the original from 1951 The thing from another world, The 1982 classic with practical effects from John Carpenter and the 2011 not-quite-different-enough prequel) presents a foreign entity that can mimic, mutate and use our physiology in a purely utilitarian, completely unsentimental way. The Davids (Cronenberg and Lynch) put a disturbingly surreal spin on the subgenre with films such as The Brood, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive, who reiterated Freud’s theories about how emotional destruction and trauma are the key to the eerie. And recently, Natalie Portman came down with doubles twice Black swan and Destruction, while Jordan Peele (who evoked an eerie suburban classic The Stepford wives in his first instructor effort Go out) once again disturbed cozy neighborhoods with his killer Tethered in U.S.

A man holds a woman's head while she looks scared

Image: Metrograph Pictures

What it means to be human, and how we know whether someone is or is not, becomes the predominant question for many of these hybrid offerings – and perhaps no film has been so relentlessly crude in its exploration of this concept as Possession. Originally reviled, subsequently admired and currently the recipient of a 4K restoration and nationwide re-release, Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 film is as unpleasant as it is ingenious.

Looking at Possession feels like sitting in a restaurant next to a couple in the middle of a fight and trying not to eavesdrop while loudly making accusations to each other over starters, smoking silently through main courses, crying apologies to each other while sharing a dessert, and finally goes separately. , may return to different lovers when the ordeal is over. It does not seem like horror at first, but Żuławski is a master at creating suspense and gradually introducing details that add up to a larger, more painful whole. The result is that Possession is at once incredibly performative and disturbingly intimate, and its horrors come not only from a character called The Creature, but also from the realization that sometimes the person you love the most in the world may not care about you at all.

This duality of brutality and fragility runs through every frame of Possession, written by Żuławski and Frederic Tuten, while the former was in the midst of a divorce from actress Malgorzata Braunek. (She starred in his previous films, Other Kinds of Horrors The third part of the night and the devil.) I Possession, the couple Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) live in the same apartment in West Berlin, but are no longer the same couple in love as they once were. “Maybe all couples go through this,” she wonders as they lay in bed together, but this stalemate does not feel affordable. It feels like the end.

The controlling, obsessive Mark, played by Neill with a bubbling, bombastic energy that eventually gives way to a shocked shock and sensual whimsy, refuses to let go of the relationship. He will do anything to get Anna back – confront her lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), hire a PI (Carl Duering) to follow her – but then something strange happens. Mark meets their son Bob (Michael Hogben) teacher Helen (also played by Adjani), who looks like Anna but with lime green eyes. And then something strange: Anna hides a secret apartment in a disused building in a run-down part of town, such a place one goes to disappear. Who or what does she meet there?

Thanks to a series of cross-border horrors ranging from Lovecraftian (the aforementioned creature) to more outrageous terrestrial (domestic violence, self-harm and abortion), Possession was heavily downgraded to the first release in the US and banned in the UK. The sharp images and vibrant nuances of this 4K restoration are a revelation. Each scene is emotionally overloaded and complements the film’s obsession with unexplained extremes. Adjani’s and Neill’s performances are exhaustingly physical, including the infamous underground scene that cements Adjani’s work here as one of the great hysterical women of horror. The film’s focus on the insane effects of constructing a double (so many derived limbs!) Is what makes Possession so unique in its access to this trope.

What goes into creating another person, especially another person who is a copy of another? What are the spiritual and physical strains of it? Is wanting to spend your life with a better version of someone you love an empathic desire or a deceptive desire? Other films have been followed in the doubles form since Possession, but they all operate in the shadow of this film’s gloomy, grim, grotesque legacy, suggesting that the formation of a double is an act of exploitation as destructive as a failed marriage. Many horror movies have explored the intrusion of reality that a double gives, but few have done so with as much blood, sweat and body fluids as the unshakably disturbing Possession.

Possession plays in theaters across the country and streams exclusively on Metrograph.com through October 31st.

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