A perfect marriage of the personal & political: Why Possession (1981) should be left untouched

Possession - Photo Credit: Shudder
Possession - Photo Credit: Shudder /

Some films are such a product of their times that trying to replicate what worked so well the first time may be an impossible task. Possession, directed by Andrzej Żuławski, is one such film. It's why the horror community reacted so strongly to news that Robert Pattinson plans to produce a remake of the cult film with Smile director Parker Finn.

Some films should simply be left alone, and Possession is one such film. It's very much a result of its era, shaped by Cold War geopolitics and Zulawski's turbulent divorce that inspired much of the film's dialogue. Even the idea of a remake seems so foolhardy because Possession was crafted by the personal and the political.

Possession and the personal

To be clear, this article isn't meant to knock Pattinson. He's become one heck of an actor. His role in The Lighthouse is a great example. Meanwhile, Finn is an exciting new director, and Smile was one of the most successful mainstream horror films of the last few years. That said, Possession is such a haunting, mesmerizing film because it was born from Zulawski's personal life. It works near perfectly as a not-so-subtle metaphor for divorce because the Polish director drew from the pain, anguish, and tumult that his divorce from actress Małgorzata Braunek caused.

Trying to duplicate that personal inspiration will be challenging, if not impractical. Zulawski even pulled much of the film's dialogue from spats he had with his ex-wife. Those numerous scenes between fractured married couple Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neill) feel so uncomfortable and raw because that's what Zulawski experienced. There's something so visceral about their on-screen arguments, especially that scene where Anna takes a knife to her throat because she so desperately wants out of the relationship. This only causes Mark to sympathize by cutting his arm. Yes, this is a film about emotional despair alright, and I can't fathom how any modern rendering will recapture that.

Possession - Photo Credit: Shudder /

Meanwhile, Anna and Mark's son, Bob (MIchael Hogben), is caught in the middle. Possession also works so well because it illustrates what it's like for a kid to be stuck between two parents as they undergo a split. In fact, Bob is one of the only normal characters in the film, but his parents undo his world. That sense of safety he felt in a two-parent home unravels, and it's devastating to watch.

Possession and Cold War geopolitics

Possession was also forged by Cold War paranoia of the early 1980s. Mark works as a spy behind the Berlin Wall, and, in the opening scene, he returns home, already suspecting that Anna is cheating on him. His job fuels his distrust. While it's true a remake could cast Mark as a spy or place him in a similar role, it's doubtful it would be so effective.

The Berlin Wall factors heavily into the film, both as a symbol of Cold War geopolitics, specifically a country ripped in two, and a heavy metaphor for divorce and a broken relationship. The wall is shown several times, along with graffiti scrawled on it that reads, "The wall must go." Is there anything as symbolic that can work as a visual metaphor in a remake? I'm skeptical.

The idea of division is reinforced not only through the wall, but the way Żuławski filmed and showed Anna and Mark. In several scenes, they're divided, on opposite sides of the frame, sometimes separated by a wall within their apartment, or, in one harrowing scene, seated at opposite tables in a cafe. The Berlin Wall metaphor only reinforces their separation and growing disdain for each other.

Further, Mark's job continually factors into the film. He wants to escape, but the powers that be won't let him. In one Kafkaesque scene, they're seated at a very long table, in suits, with Mark seated opposite, appearing smaller and powerless. He tells them he wants to quit, but they really won't let him. The spy thriller elements within Possession fit the Cold War era, especially in the last act. It's difficult to see how this would translate to a remake. Anna and Mark want to escape the geopolitics of the era, but they can't. They're eventually undone by it.

Isabelle Adjani's gut-wrenching and bonkers performance

While Neill is really, really good as Mark, exuding anger and jealousy, Possession is Adjani's film. She's what everyone remembers about the feature. The subway scene is the sequence that especially stands out, where she flails about, twirling a bag of milk, before kneeling on the ground, either having a miscarriage or birthing something sinister, however you want to interpret it. That scene has been acknowledged in everything from Climax to The First Omen. It's iconic and likely can't be replicated.

Isabelle Adjani
La Rochelle Fiction Festival : Day Four / Sylvain Lefevre/GettyImages

Though the subway scene is the most famous, Adjani shines throughout the runtime, from her wide-eyed hysteria to her squabbles with Mark. It's a performance for the ages and truly bewitching. This role earned her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1981. It's just really difficult to imagine anyone else taking on the role of Anna, despite the numerous talented young horror actresses working today. It's simply a role that should be left alone because ultimately, it'll be compared to the original.

Years later, Possession finally found its audience

Though Possession played the Cannes Film Festival, it struggled to find its audience afterwards. Because it landed on the Video Nasty list, it was banned and restricted for years. A heavily edited version was then released and later on, it arrived on various forms of physical media.

Still, for years, Possession, as it was intended to be seen, was difficult to screen. Only very recently was it available to stream, thanks to Metrograph and then Shudder. Now, finally, more and more horror hounds are discovering the film for the first time. All these years later, Żuławski's only English-language film is finding a wider audience. It deserves to continue to do so.

Possession is a film that was way ahead of its time, and as emotionally devastating as it is, it's a feature that warrants more than one viewing. You'll discover something new each time. Pattinson and Finn are immensely talented and entitled to create and finance whatever films they want. Still, Possession is a film born out of the deeply personal and political that's simply better left untouched.

Possession is currently streaming on Shudder.

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