31 Days of Horror 2022: The Performances That Make Us Scream — Isabelle Adjani, “Possession (1981)”

This installment of 31 Days of Horror was written by author Clay McLeod Chapman.

I need to talk to you about Isabelle Adjani. Particularly her performance in Possession, a 1981 horror film co-written and directed by Andrzej Zulawksi.

The film itself defies a pat synopsis, but the story in essence revolves around a relationship in crisis. Mark (played by a baby-faced Sam Neil) discovers his wife Anna (played by Adjani) wants a divorce. She insists she’s not having an affair, but Mark will eventually come to realize this isn’t true. She’s having two, as it turns out—one with a flashy fellow by the name of Heinrich, and another with… well, with a tentacled entity that lives within an abandoned flat.

It’s a confounding film, clocking in at over two hours, made even more confusing by a bastardized American release that edited nearly a third of the movie out. I’m begging you to find the original director’s cut, if you can, and avoid the 81-minute edit that made its way to the states. For years, this reduced cut was the only available copy in the States, haunting the shelves of video stores all across the country.

I found Possession on the shelf of my very own Video World, its ratty VHS cardboard container presenting a picture of Adjani’s bare back to me, her dark hair slung over her shoulders. I convinced the clerk to let me rent it even though, at ten, I was way too young to comprehend the surreal underpinnings of cosmic infidelity at the time. I still don’t.

There’s a scene—this one—that remains intact in both versions of the film.

It’s three minutes long. Only two edits. It certainly feels like a single, long, extended take, even though it is broken into three seamless segments. The camera is handheld, hoisted onto our cinematographer’s shoulders as we follow Anna through this bland West Berlin metro station. She’s carrying a cloth bag of groceries. Glass containers of milk clink against each other.

The subway station is completely hers. As soon as she scales the escalator, plunging through a winding concrete tunnel, we never see another soul. The gray asphalt is wet. Her footsteps echo through the passageway. But we sense something is off from the get-go.

We watch Anna enter into some sort of ecstatic breakdown.

Words cannot describe the sheer emotional scale that Adjani climbs, then descends, within the scope of these next few minutes. It feels like a psychotic break. It looks like a sexual encounter with an angel. It sounds like a traumatic aria. Adjani wails. And laughs. And shrieks.

It seared its way into my ten year old mind. It remains there to this day.

What pours forth from Adjani’s orifices goes beyond a mere miscarriage. It’s as if we’re watching her sanity, perhaps her very soul, come flooding out.

Your nightmares will never be the same.

Clay McLeod Chapman is the author of the novels Whisper Down the Lane, The Remaking, and Ghost Eaters. Chapman is also the writer of the Marvel series Scream: Curse of Carnage and the graphic novel, Lazaretto.

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