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Ari Aster’s Midsommar opened to a plethora of critical acclaim and a slew of headlines claiming it to be one of the best break-up movies ever made. The black comedy horror about a couple on the brink who experience strange awakenings at a Pagan festival in Sweden certainly has all the benchmarks of a great break-up film: the splintering of the central relationship, the ways that seeming concern can cloak painful attacks, the overwhelming catharsis of a messy end, and so on. Aster tells the story through a genre lens, blending horror of the unreal with the painful truth of something many of us have or will go through in our lives.
But to call it the best break-up movie ever, even the best horror one? Well, Possession would like to have a few words with you on that front.
1981's Possession is the work of Polish director Andrzej Żuławski, an art-house favorite whose work was frequently banned or challenged by the authorities in his homeland. Possession is probably the best known of his titles outside of Europe thanks to its notoriety on the midnight movie circuit. If you haven't seen it then you may know it by reputation, or as that movie where Isabelle Adjani f***s a monster.
In our long and tireless work at SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS to bring you the best in monster f***ing movies — from giant spiders to fish-men — it’s surprising that it took us this long to get to Possession. In terms of films where a woman has a sexual encounter with a decidedly unhuman creature, this one is in a league of its own, stripped of any semblance of warmth and presented to its audience for the brutal experience that it is. As a break-up movie, it’s even more horrifying. If Midsommar is about the freedom of realizing you don’t need to be part of a broken partnership anymore, Possession is about the beauty and danger of mutual annihilation.
The story follows Mark, a spy played by Sam Neill, who returns home to Berlin after a mysterious mission, only to find that his wife Anna — the aforementioned Isabelle Adjani — has left him. She tells him that she wants a divorce, offering no explanation but saying it's not because she's met someone else. Her new lover, Heinrich, enters the scene, but it becomes clear that Anna's obsessive affections are not for him, and soon her behavior descends into violent erraticism.
Possession was released in America with a heavily edited down cut of the movie that chopped a solid half-hour off the running time. In the UK, the film was banned outright as one of the infamous "video nasties", a collection of films distributed on videocassette in the 1980s that were censored amidst a campaign of moral outrage that deemed such titles to be too obscene for public consumption. Possession is certainly a tough watch, but seeing it categorized alongside titles like Cannibal Holocaust and Faces of Death is puzzling, to say the least, especially since the BBFC (the British version of the MPAA) passed the film without any cuts no fewer than three times. Say what you want about the film’s titillating nature or whether or not it is deliberately designed to provoke, but you can’t deny that Żuławski takes this story of monster sex completely seriously. It has more in common with Lars Von Trier than slasher horror, a story of pure and utter hysteria that almost hurts to pay spectacle to.
Ari Aster admitted that Midsommar was inspired by his own break-up, and Żuławski went through something similar with Possession. It shows in the final product, which feels like an open wound of a story, with each moment of the disintegration of this relationship violently discomfiting. There's no way to hide from the agony of this grief. He wants you to see just how much it hurts to lose someone you loved and be steeped in that particular strain of madness. At one point, the pair attack one another and Mark slaps Anna repeatedly until blood pours from her nose. During another argument, they both hurt themselves with an electric knife. During one harrowing scene, Mark tries to induce vomiting by swallowing a feather he dug out of the trash.
Anna and Mark’s split tears apart everything around them, including their young son. Nobody is immune to this sickness. If society most praises the happy nuclear family unit then it stands to reason that it too will suffer when said family falls to pieces. Unlike Midsommar, there is no community, however twisted, for either party to turn to for solace. Well, Anna does have a partner of sorts.
At the shattered, screaming center of this movie is Isabelle Adjani. One of the true legends of French cinema, Adjani’s full-throated performance is as riveting as it is horrifying. In the movie’s most infamous scene, Anna has a full-on meltdown and seems to become possessed by some form of evil that leaves her wailing and writhing through a subway station. She smashes her shopping bags across the wall, pulsing and shaking as she rolls around in the filth. By the end, she is bleeding and spilling both blood and some sort of strange liquid from every orifice, a miscarriage of overwhelming pain that may or may not have birthed something inexplicable into this world.
And then there is that monster. It’s a tad reductive to refer to Possession solely as another monster f***ing movie, if only because said creature copulation is one of the less horrifying aspects of the story. Anna nurtures the octopus-like animal, more alien than anything from our world and always covered in blood, mostly with sex but it is also implied that she is feeding it human flesh. This reveal comes about an hour into the movie, with nothing in the preceding hour of relationship drama even hinting at the possibility of the supernatural. It’s unpredictable and utterly bonkers, but then again, so is everything else in the movie, a rare experience of true cinematic madness that’s tough to replicate. To put it bluntly, sometimes sh*t happens, we can’t predict it, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
Anna has destroyed everything around her but this monster. She nurtures it, is seemingly more tender with it than anyone else in her life, and driven to see its evolution through to its unknown conclusion. It’s not necessarily a union of passion and the narrative doesn’t play this as a sexual awakening in the way a lot of these stories do. The film never offers any easy answers on what this monster is, where it came from, or what its ultimate purpose is. That would be too easy, and as with many a break-up, things are seldom so clean. It’s easy to see this thing she has birthed and obsessively loves as the end result of expelling so much hate and evil from her body. It’s a way to destroy the world and start over.
What is born in its place is a new person, or to be more accurate, a new version of familiar people. After Anna has “finished” with her monster, it has evolved into a doppelganger of Mark, identical to him except in eye color. Perhaps this new Mark, born of pure pain but seemingly untouched by it, can do better than the old Mark. Or maybe his mere existence will destroy everything all over again. The latter seems more likely in this story. There’s no salvation for anyone after this break-up.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.