In "Possession," Desire Gives Way to Monstrosity

Andrzej Żuławski's 1981 film was originally banned in the United Kingdom, and has since become a cult classic.

by Rachel Rabbit White
Feb 23 2020, 10:30am

1981's Possession, directed by Andrzej Żuławski is known as “the ultimate divorce film.” It’s a body-horror movie about desire. Or rather about how desire is rooted in and leads to suffering. How impossible it seems to not ultimately kill the thing one loves—by virtue of loving it.

For years the movie was screened every Valentines Day at Anthology Film Archives, a perfect anti-love film, or at least an antidote to the corporate notions of enduring love.

Anti-V-Day. Thank god for our ridicule of love and romance, right? Maybe that’s what the fellow couples in the packed theater thought.

As for me, I first saw the film while going through a divorce. The man who accompanied me was the lover who’d shaken up my marriage: my longest relationship, my economic and emotional stability. But I left my husband because I was a romantic. I believed in this city of 8.6 million, surely there was one under that deeply starless sky better suited for me, perhaps looking at that same skyline. I thought I’d found him, but after I left my husband, it began to shatter.

Watching Possession, with what I was going through, dissociation would have been the understandable response, and yet, I was enrapt.

Anna (played by Isabelle Adjani) is married to Mark (Sam Neill). The color tone of the film is grays and blues, the somber interiors of the marriage apartment held together by security, the promise of stability. But how it could collapse you, the gray blinds drawn or else open to gray buildings, the steady quotidian in all her pre-determined monotony.

In the slate colored sheets of the shared bed, the married couple’s repressed emotions reach breaking point:

Wife: “Maybe all couples go through this. One mustn't be afraid. One must speak honestly.”
Husband: “What’s happening is natural, feelings change…”

They say nothing, until it is too late.

What follows is the admission of infidelity. She admits to her husband she has a lover, a passion which has finally unraveled those threadbare seams.

Yes. She has been unfaithful.

It’s almost too mundane to admit… it’s betrayal that is inevitable, right?—betrayal is part of what makes us human. But in hearing the admission aloud in the film, I was mirrored back: Yes I am the cheat. The one in the room called slut, exhibiting all that usual rebellious lack of shame. How to not feel the whole world resonating on the screen! God.

Is desire always to end this way?

The choreography of body horror is set in motion, each play their part. First the husband. The once-steely Mark, is pulled into a dance-like sequence, knocking over chairs, throwing himself around the apartment, perhaps all of us are this close to utter instability. Close to what looks like demonic possession. In the grand scheme of life, with its constant turn of the wheel, life’s inevitable destruction, how little a total disintegration takes.

Anna is gone. Gone to her lover. However rare the feelings of falling in love are, the falling is easy, right? That feeling that the hand of something greater, through the lack that exists in any relationship, has found one more rightly bound to you by, what? Fate? By a lack of free will under the grasp of the universe?

But divorce even under the heave of singular passion, remains an entity. The beige curtains of the shared house are pulled back to reveal an utter lack of emotional stability more terrifying than any “body horror:” the realization that one was finding their grounding, their power, their ability to exist as an adult, however depressed, in another. What happens when all that neutral carpeting is ripped from beneath you?

He is undone. And then she returns. In bed, without sex, the husband says. “When I am away from you I think of you as a woman or an animal, and then I see you again and this all disappears.”

What follows is a gruesome escalation. Making dinner with an electric meat cleaver, she suddenly places the whirring knife deep into her neck—that most delicate place: where a lover lays their head, where the clasp of her trinkets would close. The place too taboo to tattoo, to mark. He responds, taking the cleaver to the forearm, blood seeping through his (gray) button-up.

Keeping in horror, there is murder. Mark hires a spy to follow Anna to her secret apartment, where she lives alone. Anna murders the spy, putting his body in the fridge.


But it’s in her bedroom where the real heart of this drama unfolds. There in her bed is a monster. A skinless entity, tentacled, gasping, writhing. There’s the lover, the husband, but who is this monster to her?

Around the time I first saw Possession, my new lover wondered why I needed so much, so much sex, so much feeling, as I was leaving a marriage. He distanced himself. I often broke down while walking down the street, crying so endlessly that my body crumbled, laying in fetal position on Driggs Avenue, cigarette still in hand.

“When we met you were so powerful,” the new lover told me. “But now I’m suspicious of your power. Maybe you only derive it from men.”

It’s an accusation that still rolls in my psyche. What does it mean to gain emotional security from another. Is that human nature? Is it a societal construct or is this our wretched destiny as animals.

But during the movie, as I sat with the man who said these words, there was one scene that lit me up, ecstatic. I watched, beaming.

In Anna’s (murderous) hysterics, she’s scared off the lover. She ignores the husband and he sets off to find her.

Husband walks in on Wife. She is being fucked. Her face luminous as she is fucked by the fleshless monster, vigorous with its many organs, its raw tentacles grasping her body. She is enrapt, ravished tumultuously. “Almost, almost” she moans.

Sometimes one needs to need to fuck monstrosity. Neither husband nor lover, with those charms of new passion, could give her that extreme state, the torrid, the utter limit. After-all, who was it that said it: Possession makes everything wither and fade. While desire makes it bloom.

Andrzej Zulawski