I didn’t expect to come out of Possession, an infamously divisive cult classic, with such a middling feeling. Credit where it’s due, the film does its damnedest to make you feel some type of way about it. It seems designed for you to find it either grating or enthralling, and just as happy to engender the former as the latter. In that way, it’s a film made for everyone and no one, a work absent an intended recipient, a pure auteurist vision.
And it’s, you know, it’s okay.
I’ll talk first about what I unambiguously loved about it, and that’s the cinematography. Director Andrzej Żuławski and DP Bruno Nuytten construct the sort of overwhelming, fractured spaces familiar to viewers of John Carpenter or Paul W.S. Anderson. There is no symmetry in Possession, no clean lines or comforting shapes. The corners of rooms jut out towards the camera, as though the space itself is resisting the act of filming it. The actors are assaulted, too, on all sides by a world that seems to want them dead. The camera swings around these rooms and hallways, each frame prompting a new angle of attack.
It gives the impression of a film that doesn’t want to be made. This contributes nicely to the horror of it all in a creepypasta sort of way. It’s the sort of film you expect to find abandoned in some dead person’s attic, or thrown from a car window on the side of the highway. You watch it and get the unsettled feeling that it’s somehow watching you back. You feel as though you shouldn’t be here, that this film shouldn’t exist, and yet you’re compelled to keep watching.
The problem is that it too often tips its hand and goes for more straightforward chills. I have nothing against the sort of bloody violence we see in the film’s latter half, and the creature is really well-done, properly creepy. But I wish it could live more in its ambiguous frights than its big brash shocks.
At the very least, I wish it would choose one or the other and run with it. I was exhausted trying to get a handle on the film’s ambitions. It wasn’t until the end that I realized it never had any. There’s no real perspective to speak of in Possession. You can read it simultaneously as MRA propaganda and an ode to feminist creativity. This isn’t a result of the film trying to have it both ways or find some middle ground, but rather the complete absence of any point of view at all. Its primary aim, if it has any, is to terrify and disturb. Is there anything wrong with that? Not really. It’s just not for me.
The only real problem I had with Possession was its performances. I can see why someone would be bewitched by the work of the three leads. Their physicality is so gonzo, their dialogue so heightened. It’s unlike much else in the realm of acting. I found myself frustrated, personally, by how directed they felt. Obviously every film performance is the sum of collaboration between an actor and their director. In this case, though, I felt the hand of the latter much more than the former. Their bizarre hand movements and flailing limbs felt less motivated and more choreographed. In other words, I never felt they were possessed by anyone but the director. I could be completely off-base here (I wasn’t on set, of course). That’s just what I came away with.
Part of me wishes I either liked or hated this film more. It would certainly make writing about it less of a challenge. The other part of me is comfortable riding the middle, though. I’m happy for the many people I know who are awed or bored by Possession, and I can see why they would be. My feelings on it just aren’t that strong.