Possession (1981): How a Film about a Homewrecking Tentacle Alien is the Best Romance You’ve Never Seen


by Amelia York

These ones are for all you lovebirds out there. Stick with me for a moment and you’ll understand why Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 horror film Possession should be on your watchlist for next Valentine’s Day. Spoilers abound, but this tour de force is meant to be experienced, not just read about (not like you could even comprehend it, anyways). Set in West Berlin, we jump right to when wife and mother Anna (Isabella Adjani) reveals that she wants to divorce her husband Mark (Sam Neil) because she fell for someone else while Mark was off on an espionage mission. Mark gives Anna and their young son Bob space, causing the spy to fall into an abyss of insanity, drinking and talking himself crazy. This mental tornado is represented visually when Mark eventually finds that Bob has been neglected by Anna while she has been seeing her new beau. While Mark believes that he’s reached the end of Anna’s deceit when he meets her lover, Heinrich, there is a more ominous affair at hand. Stalking and sleuthing reveal a much more sinister and science-fiction-aligned truth: Anna has been “making love” with a gorey, fleshy, alien in a decrepit apartment complex. While Mark has been wooing Bob’s school teacher (played by Anna’s actress, uncoincidentally), Anna has been seeing an intergalactic kraken. The creature is composed of tendrils coated in slime and blood, which wrap themselves around Anna’s body in their more intimate moments. The chilling cherry on top? The creature is learning how to become Mark. Literally. Like, morphing into his body and stealing his voice, kind of literally.

While this summarizes the basic plot, there are too many scenes in between that depict psychosis in its bloodiest, most brooding form that one cannot describe in mere words. Blenders and carving knives are not off limits when it comes to inflicting pain and heartbreak. Shockingly, the most visceral moment has nothing to do with the alien, but rather Isabella Adjani on her own, having the gooiest, stickiest breakdown in a subway ever depicted. Her erratic contortions, animalistic cries, and leaking fluids are often described as inhuman, but I believe it is in fact the most human performance of all time. Under Possession’s layer of ooze, flesh, and tentacles, is the most harrowing love story ever written. The morbid poet Edgar Allen Poe once lamented, “I was never insane except upon occasions where my heart was touched.” This disturbingly romantic sentiment has been adapted to the big screen by no one more accurately than Andrzej Zulawski. You’ve heard of love driving you crazy, but you haven’t seen Isabella Adjani crawl up a staircase towards Sam Neil’s nearly limp body and share a desperate kiss composed of more blood than spit before their inevitable deaths. There is only one emotional depth that ravages your mind, body, and soul more recklessly than insanity; love. Then again, what’s the difference?

“You know, when I’m away from you,” Mark rambles and paces back and forth in agony as Anna minces meat with a carving knife, “I think of you as an animal, or a woman possessed, and then I see you again, and all this disappears.” Outside of the inherently gendered and sexualized politics of possession (give Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws a read for psychosexual analysis on this genre of horror), there is something both demented and beautiful about this remark. The two scream and scratch, but this scarring is done not only externally but at one another’s hearts. When Anna has bouts of madness, it is Mark who sits next to her on the couch (even when he is the source of that madness). While obviously this is a tale of divorce (Zulawski wrote the screenplay while divorcing actress Malgorzata Braunek) and there are plenty of symbols of division that plague the film (the opening shot is of the Berlin wall, perhaps the most on-the-nose representation of severance possible), motifs of passion are just as prevalent. Imitation is the best form of flattery, and the uncanny concept of the doppelganger makes an appearance twice in this film. Mark’s romantic interest in Bob’s schoolteacher who looks exactly like Anna with a wig (because it is Adjani in a wig) mirrors the phenomena of finding your past lovers in present ones. In an even more blatant metaphor, the creature of which Anna has fallen is learning to take on Mark’s form. Anna has found a monster with the ability to take on any outlandish shape and the only thing she wants from it is Mark. If that’s not the most adorable existential horror I’ve seen, I don’t know what is.

Is soul-scorching misery and bloodied kisses still not sounding like your cup of romance? Look no further than Possession’s theatrical posters. With tousled tendrils and ghoulish hands tangled around stand-ins for Adjani foreshadowing the intimate relations of Anna and the creature, the sensual nature and eerie color schemes highlight the duality of the monstrous love portrayed in the film. While the void appears to drown Adjani in inky, black depths on the left poster and the tentacles seem to suffocate her on the right poster, both suggest feelings of all-consuming euphoria of chaotic courtship. While the blue poster is gorgeous from a classical standpoint, I prefer the black poster due to the playful little heart over the “i” in “Possession”. Zulawski’s marketing team was clearly in a silly, goofy mood.

Love is in the air. And blood. And goo. And flesh. And tentacles. But most importantly, love. For a simultaneous cinematic shattering of psyche and Cupid’s arrow straight through your heart, watch Possession and thank (or curse) me later.


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