Possession Exam: Intense, Grotesque, and a Horror Movie Masterpiece

A doppelgänger 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 for “double” and “walker”, suggesting someone’s duplicate in the world. But figuratively, just as a mirror has the ability to both reflect and warp, so does the doppelgänger – who is neither a twin nor a clone. The existence of someone who looks like you but isn’t hits you on a deeper, more visceral level, and the concept has scared people for centuries. First as a literary device, as in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book Double and that of Robert Louis Stevenson The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – and ever since it hit the big screen, like a common horror trope.

A figure of myth and folklore, the doppelgänger has long been floating in our nightmares and its prevalence raises questions about ourselves. Are we truly unique, singular or autonomous if someone we don’t know, but who has our same face, is alive at the same time as us? Our individual identities are theoretically the only things we really own; we are born with them and we die with them. And yet the presence of another person with that same physicality is – as Sigmund Freud described it in his 1919 culture-shaking essay – “strange”. Is the double a manifestation of our repression of fear? Is this a way for us to cheat death? Or does a doppelgänger actually make it real our death by suggesting that a part of us that we cannot control will live after we leave?

Horror likes Freud’s latest suggestion, and the genre has been particularly creative in its imaginations of the doppelgänger figure. As film critic and scholar Steven Schneider writes in his 2001 book Cinema and Philosophy article “Manifestations of the literary double in modern horror cinema”, the genre has invented not only physical copies (“murderous alter egos, monstrous shapeshifters, manic twins or malicious clones”), but also “mental doubles”, which Schneider categorizes it as “schizos, shapeshifters, projections and psychos”. Whether the doppelgänger manifests itself in mimicry of the body or the brain, few things are more frightening than knowledge and not knowing from yourself.

All this to say that in horror – which often pits an individual against an unknowable, mysterious, supernatural, or otherworldly entity – the doppelgänger is unique in that it makes our enemies versions of ourselves. With this trope established in the early 20th century, horror has loosely layered over other genres that ground the doppelgänger in established realism, resulting in films that are equally introverted and outward looking.

The original 1956 version of Walter Wanger Invasion of the Body Thieves and Steven Spielberg’s 1978 remake combine horror with sci-fi to create “pod people” – emotionless, empty, and just like us in appearance. The three versions of The thing (the original from 1951 The thing from another world, the 1982 practical effects classic by John Carpenter and the not-quite-different 2011 prequel) features an alien entity that can mimic, mutate, and use our physiology in purely utilitarian and totally devoid of sentimentality. The Davids (Cronenberg and Lynch) gave the subgenre an unsettling surreal twist with films like the brood, Lost highway, and Mulholland Drive, who reiterated Freud’s theories of how emotional devastation and trauma are the key to strangeness. And more recently, Natalie Portman has twice met doppelgängers in Black Swan and Annihilation, while Jordan Peele (who conjured up the spooky suburban classic The Women of Stepford in his first directorial effort Get out) once again disrupted pleasant neighborhoods with its kill-happy Tethered in We.

Image: Metrograph images

What it means to be human, and how we know if someone is or isn’t, is becoming the dominant question in many of these hybrid offerings – and perhaps no movie has been as relentlessly rude in his exploration of this concept as Possession. Initially vilified, then admired and now the recipient of a 4K restoration and nationwide reissue, Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 film is as uncomfortable as it is brilliant.

Watching Possession feels like you’re sitting in a restaurant next to a couple in the middle of a fight and trying not to listen to each other as they blame each other too hard around them aperitifs, smoke silently through the entrees, apologize crying while sharing a dessert, and end up leaving separately, perhaps returning to different lovers, when the ordeal is over. It doesn’t seem like horror at first, but Żuławski is a master at creating tension and gradually introducing details that add to a bigger, more scary whole. The result is that Possession is both 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 most in the world may not be. care a lot about you.

This duality of brutality and fragility runs through every image of Possession, which was written by Żuławski and Frederic Tuten when the first was in the middle of a divorce from actress Malgorzata Braunek. (She acted in her previous films, other kinds of horrors The third part of the night and The devil.) In Possession, the married couple Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) live in the same apartment in West Berlin, but are not the same couple in love as before. “Maybe all couples go through this,” she wonders as they lie down together, but this deadlock does not seem to be overcome. It smells like the end.

Controlling and obsessive Mark, whom Neill plays with an explosive, explosive energy that eventually gives way to shaken shock and sultry slyness, refuses to let go of the relationship. He will do anything to get Anna back – confront his lover Heinrich (Heinz Béat), hire a private investigator (Carl Duering) to follow her – but then something strange happens. Mark meets Helen (also played by Adjani), the teacher of their son Bob (Michael Hogben), who looks like Anna, but with lime green eyes. And then, something strange: Anna is hiding a secret apartment in an abandoned building in a run down part of town, the kind of place you go to just disappear. Who or what does she meet there?

Through a range of boundary-pushing horrors, ranging from Lovecraftian (the aforementioned creature) to more terrifying (domestic violence, self-harm, and miscarriage), Possession has been heavily modified for initial release in the US and banned in the UK. The crisp visuals and vibrant undertones of this 4K restoration are a revelation. Each scene is emotionally shattered, complementing the film’s obsession with inexplicable extremes. Adjani and Neill’s performances are grueling in physique, including the infamous subway scene that cements Adjani’s work here as one of horror’s greatest hysterical women. The film’s emphasis on the delusional engineering effects of a doppelgänger (so many dismembered limbs!) Possession so unique in his approach to this trope.

What happens in the creation of another person, especially another person who is a copy of someone else? What are the spiritual and physical consequences? Wanting to spend your life with a better version of someone you love is empathetic or delusional? Other films have followed in the doppelgänger mold since Possession, but all operate in the shadow of this film’s dark, gloomy, and grotesque legacy, which suggests that double-making is as destructive an act of exploitation as a failed marriage. Many horror films have explored the intrusion into reality that a doppelganger offers, but few have done so with so much blood, sweat, and bodily fluids as the steadfast shattering Possession.

Possession airs in theaters nationwide and airs exclusively on Metrograph.com until October 31.

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