Isabelle Adjani’s Got That Not So Fresh Feeling™

Been savin’ this one for a rainy day:

Director Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 arthouse horror film, Possession, is a fail-safe litmus test. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’ll drop this movie’s name in casual conversation only to be met with a sunny, uncomprehending stare, or “oh, you mean that Gwyneth Paltrow movie?” Far fewer and further between will be those times when you watch a slow-dawning, complex expression of kinship and mental anguish creep over a person’s face: “oh my god, the subway scene,” they’ll murmur, or “that poor ballerina…” or “remember the squid baby?”

While Zulawski’s vision of hysterical woman-as-monster isn’t quite on par with [edit: or rather, I should clarify, isn’t quite as coherent as] those put forward by Cronenberg, Polanski, or Lynch, some of the scenes are absolutely mind-blowing. This is an experimental film where a young woman’s intense anxiety and hormonal imbalance causes her –literally– to give birth to a Lovecraftian lover (designed by the dude who crafted E.T. ), with dire consequences. Demonizing like that just doesn’t happen every day! (Apparently, the film was inspired by Zulawski’s recent divorce. Go fig.)

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill

In particular, spooky boho art school chicks really seem to bond over Possession. It’s like our Thelma & Louise. I’m pretty sure our fascination has to something to do with all of the unrestrained freakouts, blood, and tentacle sex. There’s just something strangely comforting about watching a cool, porcelain beauty break through the fourth wall and then break down, howling, in a puddle of bodily excretions. It’s like, no matter how “psycho” I get when I’m “ragging out”, I know I haven’t hit rock bottom.

Rock bottom is Isabelle Adjani in that subway tunnel in Possession.

29 Responses to “Isabelle Adjani’s Got That Not So Fresh Feeling™”

  1. Jon Says:

    Hey, Sam Neill’s in it! It’s like the dude is somehow required for Lovecraftian movies; he’s in my favorite one: the first two acts of Event Horizon.

  2. Evelyn Christ Says:

    I was just freaked out by that whimpering in the scene with the crucifix. Must rent this film ASAP.

  3. Zoetica Says:

    The missus and I just watched this last week, following it up with Von Trier’s “Antichrist” a few days later. I recommend this combination for all first-time viewers – you’ll be sure to fear ALL women for weeks to come!

  4. Nick Says:

    You had me at “Adjani”.

  5. Ales Kot Says:

    ”While Zulawski’s vision of hysterical woman-as-monster isn’t quite on par with Cronenberg, Polanski, or Lynch..”

    The missus does not agree. To me, Zulawski’s vision is definitely on par with Cronenberg, Polanski, von Trier and Lynch. Why do you think otherwise, Mer?

  6. celestyna Says:

    It’s like a movie-length Diamanda Galas video.

  7. jon leidecker Says:

    ”While Zulawski’s vision of hysterical woman-as-monster isn’t quite on par with Cronenberg, Polanski, or Lynch..”

    I remember thinking this the first time I saw ‘Possession’, but not anymore, nope.

    I held off on seeing his other films for a long time, how could they be as good? but if you love this one, you want to track down the others. ‘third part of the night’ / ‘the devil’ / ‘on the silver globe’ especially, and there’s some great klaus kinski moments in ‘the most important thing, love’. after 1985 he became a lot more sentimental / traditional in style but of the later ones you don’t want to miss ‘szamanka (the female shaman)’.

  8. Heather Says:

    This looks like the whole film online –

    I’m afraid to watch it though.

    Celestyna – best comment ever.

  9. Nadya Says:

    That was such an amazing, amazing, amazing movie. I watched it all alone, late at night, and it really made me feel great and horrible all at once. It’s so eerie that you made this post draft exactly a year before I watched the movie… to the day! 666! Will have to follow up with “Antichrist.”

    I loved Isabelle Adjani in this movie. She’s such an amazing actress. I love that she wore that blue dress with the buttons on the back in pretty much almost ever scene! I also loved the scene that you took the screen-grab from. The part where she spits blood at Sam Neil early on was the moment I realized, “oh shit – I really am in for it, aren’t I.”

  10. Stache Says:

    Ooh, I have yet to see this one. Soon I too shall feel the scars for life!

    Also, for a movie about treacherous babies, psychotic behavior, and monstrous mayhem better left to decipher by the murkier currents of our festering psyches, I humbly submit “Otesánek” (Little Otik) by Jan Svankmajer:

  11. Paul Komoda Says:

    Well,to say the very least, it’s one of my favorites.

    Awesome post, Mer! I’m so overjoyed when I find out that there are others that know and love this film.
    Hey Nadya, you know, it’s odd….I’ve had that film for all that time we were in Philly, and for whatever reason, I never thought of bringing it up as a Movie Night pick.
    Movie Night host Fail!

  12. Mer Says:

    “The missus does not agree. To me, Zulawski’s vision is definitely on par with Cronenberg, Polanski, von Trier and Lynch. Why do you think otherwise, Mer?”

    To do the hysterical, out-of-control woman-as-monster concept true justice, I think Zulawksi needed to be more in control of his own film.

    I should clarify. The monstrous part, Zulawski’s got down. Adjani’s fucking terrifying. It’s the surrounding narrative and storytelling that doesn’t quite measure up to those other names. Plenty of risk, not enough depth or control. I know it’s an experimental “aaahht film”, and I love it as such, but the lack of cohesion, consistency and development doesn’t always necessarily work in its favor. As much as I love watching everything go to hell in a handbasket, and thrill to rule-breaking camera tricks and edits, nothing is solid or fully actualized enough for me to connect to what’s going on the same level that I do for, say, Deneuve in Repulsion, or one of Lynch’s doomed starlets. It’s too tentative and uneven to compare to authoritative Cronenberg, and unlike von Trier’s most out-there stuff, doesn’t even try to balance style with substance.

    All that said, I adore this movie, obviously … I just keep it in another tier. (In fact, this is probably a case where I shouldn’t have even tried to compare it to other films or filmmakers. Apples and orangutans. :P )

  13. Mer Says:

    Hahahaha. Paul, I was just telling Nadya, “that movie has Paul written all over it in slimy green goo!”

  14. Evan Says:

    Isabelle Adjani is one of my all-time favorite actresses. I used to watch “Camille Claudel” over and over. I even enjoyed watching her in the remake of “Les Diaboliques”. She is such a fearless, committed actress.

    I’m very much looking forward to finally seeing “Antichrist”. I have no doubt I’ll enjoy it.

    I also think Tilda Swinton is pretty swell, too. Just saw “Julia”. Highly recommended for her performance alone.

    There is a french horror film called “Martyrs” that I highly recommend as well.

  15. Mer Says:

    Tilda’s my idol. Love her. Haven’t seen Martyrs, will have to check that out, thanks!

  16. Nadya Says:

    @Evan – I’m so glad you mention Diabolique! It was my first exposure to Adjani… from maybe when I was 13 or 14? That film had an amazing music score. I know it’s a remake, and I know that in general, it had very bad reviews, but I was absolutely mesmerized. It was the subtext between Sharon Stone & Isabelle Adjani. I had never, ever seen a movie with even a hint of same-sex attraction before (my parents were pretty strict!) and so, accidentally catching that film was a big deal for me at that age. Therefore, even though it’s a shitty remake, I will remember it forever.

  17. Angeliska Says:

    Yes! Thanks for this, Mer. This film is one of my all-time favorites, and
    Isabelle Adjani.. Wow. My respect for her as an actress tripled exponentially after I saw this film. I think she is the most beautiful woman in the world, and I love how she chooses the strangest, most disturbed roles and films to take part in. I loved her also in Polanski’s The Tenant, which I think needs to sit next to Possession, what with all the constant anxiety, and seriously fucked up shit happening right and left in uncanny, gloomy European apartment buildings. The book by Roland Topor is excellent also.

  18. Evan Says:

    Nadya, I agree completely about the “Diabolique” remake! I also kinda happen to have a major girlcrush on Adjani.

    Mer, yes, please do check out “Martyrs”. It’s something to see for sure. There are those who adamantly hate it, and those who adamantly love it. It also has amazing make-up/effects work.

    I remember reading about the man who was in charge of the make-up/effects having committed suicide shortly after the films release. It’s a shame.

  19. Paul Komoda Says:

    “that movie has Paul written all over it in slimy green goo!”

    I might add that the title of this post has had me giggling my silly ass off all week.

  20. Marcella Says:

    After a terrible (professional) haircut yesterday, I took tears, rage & scissors to my hair in a fit of mutilation-fueled self-destruction. This video made me feel better by comparison.

  21. Rick Says:

    Sam Neill? Weird squidy horror?

    *jots onto list*

  22. Noah Says:

    Years ago my film buddies and I rented this as part of a horror marathon at a friend’s house.

    Of all the parts in this movie that blew our minds it was the scene in the resturant where the camera’s P.O.V. is pointed directly at a wall length mirror in such a way that the camera should be visible that did us in. In that moment we became convinced that Zulawski had made a pact with the devil.

    Sadly, this was the American cut so it was vastly shorter than the European edition. We swore that we would hunt down the full length and watch it all together. This never came to pass. I am the only survivor now… okay just f’n around on that last part.

  23. drtenge Says:

    One of my favorite movies.

    ‘While Zulawski’s vision of hysterical woman-as-monster isn’t quite on par with Cronenberg, Polanski, or Lynch’

    Polanski i agree on the hysterical note, but Zulawski surpasses cronenberg and lynch so easily…regardless of plot (which i’m sure both directors handle better), Zulawski has the balls to create a female character that severely neglects her son in favor for her incestuous romance with a creature which she feeds with the corpses of the men she seduces.
    i’m sure lynch would have stopped at ‘weird’ and cronenberg would have left reality as a ‘what-if’.

    Also, it’s the favorite movie of Shozin Fukui (Rubber’s lover, 964 Pinocchio)…he made a huge tribute to the hysteria scene in his short ‘Gerorisuto’ movie with a girl vomiting for nearly half an hour.

  24. Remembering “Possession” « Strange Ink Says:

    […] at Coilhouse, Meredith Yayanos  gives some love to Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, the 1981 horror classic with starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam […]

  25. Ales Kot Says:


    Heh, the movie’s inconsistency is one of the reasons why I like it so much!

    That said, I agree – no need to compare.

  26. John Says:

    I think I went to school with that girl.

  27. Mer Says:

    “That said, I agree – no need to compare.”

    Well alrighty then! :)

    John, I think a lot of us went to school with that girl. Or were that girl!

  28. gregor Says:

    my god, if one can endure the first half of this movie, you “win” the jaw dropping horror of the second half. the first half is non-stop emotional screaming, and it’s possibly AS hard to endure as the rest of the film. Amazing, top notch acting here… I was left stunned and out of breath.
    Now, will some American release Zulawski’s OTHER films in the US?

  29. Joe Says:

    Sam Neill was awesome in “In the Mouth of Madness”. He is definitely required for Lovecraftian films. A MUST!!