Nick Davis probably didn't think that he'd be using his Carry On Campaign donation as a means of extending the Summer of Blood, but that's just how things work ed out. At least he had the sense to pick the mostly weirdly artsy film to ever be branded a scum-sucking horror movie.

From among the Video Nasties

The surprising thing is not, maybe, that there exists in this world a body-horror picture made when the male writer-director was suffering his way through a contentious divorce, working through his emotional trauma by depicting his film's female lead as an unknowable, even monstrous object of danger and destruction. It is perhaps a bit more surprising that there are two of them, made only two years apart. Most of us probably first think of David Cronenberg's 1979 The Brood when the phrase "misogynist body horror film made by a bitter divorcée" comes up in conversation - heck, it happened to me three times just this afternoon! - but that film, for all its notoreity, managed to escape the British Board of Film Classification-but-really-Censors with just a few trims (one of which, according to the director, actually served to make the film more disturbing). The reason we are here now is the other one, which had the misfortune to arrive on video just at the wrong time, to end up on the Video Nasties list, easily the most bizarrely out-of-place of all the 72 films on the DPP's hit list: Andrzej Żuławski's 1981 depiction of psychosis, marriage, and hot woman-on-humanoid-squid sex, Possession.

Here's the thing: you can try all you want, but you can't make this a horror film, an exploitation film, a this or that film. It's an art film. The other art house movie on the Nasties list, Paul Morrissey's Flesh for Frankenstein, at least has the benefit of being deliberately and enthusiastically trashy, splashing around in horror movie iconography, even if it was in a hugely satirical manner. Possession is... not that.

It is instead the story of Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabella Adjani), a married couple living in West Berlin. Mark has just returned from business, the apparently cloak-and-dagger nature of which is never quite explained - and if I actually type out "which is never quite explained" each and every time something is never explained, then this review will hit 3000 words before I get to the film's third scene, so just go ahead and assume that it's implied. Long story short, Mark gets back to find that his marriage has gone straight to hell, and that Anna is very probably cheating on him. She denies it, but evidence keeps piling up (she's not really trying to hide anything, it would seem), and Mark eventually storms out, descending into a mad spiral that ends some days later as he's nursed back to health by Anna's friend Margit (Margit Carstensen), whom he has never previously liked. Returning home to find Anna gone and their young son Bob (Michael Hogben) alone - apparently since Mark himself left - Mark devotes himself to finding this cheating Heinrich fellow (Heinz Bennent), and winning back his wife. But Anna's not with Heinrich; in fact, shortly thereafter, she comes back to Mark like nothing has happened, though she's prone to acts of unexpected crazytude without warning, like in one particularly grueling moment in which she nonchalantly starts cutting her neck with an electric knife.

It eventually turns out that, more than either Mark or Heinrich, Anna is enthralled with the lover she keeps hidden in an apartment overlooking the Wall: so enthralled that she unhesitatingly kills the detectives Mark hired to find her. It turns out to be some kind of thing with tentacles and a vaguely man-shaped form, and from then on, I will not spoil the movie (our second viewing of the thing comes just inches over the halfway point), not because I am a kindly reviewer, but because I have absolutely no idea what I could possibly say about the plot.

Customarily, I would here place a variant on the phrase "of course, the plot doesn't matter", except that in Possession it sort of does. Crazy stylistic excess can carry a movie pretty damned far, and Żuławski is nothing if he's not a visionary stylist - specifically, a visionary whose film is expressed largely in terms of metaphor and symbolism. And this is where things start to get wobbly, for in order to properly appreciate the symbols, it is necessary to understand the "reality" in which they occur. Otherwise, it's just crazed imagery for the sake of it - which by no means do I argue against! In fact, much of Possession puts me in mind of a simply brilliant film with even less narrative coherence, David Lynch's 1977 Eraserhead, which was similarly inspired by a crisis of manhood in the filmmaker's personal life (his ambivalence over being a father). That film barely tells a story at all, but the little story we can piece out, coupled with the precision of its imagery and even more its soundtrack, still manages to absolutely and indeed, unmistakably communicate a certain kind of emotional anxiety regarding parenthood and sex.

There are moments in which Possession achieves this level of direct intensity; a great many such moments, in fact, and the last thing I want to do is indicate that it's a failed work. On the contrary, its failures would be almost invisible if its successes weren't so excellent. Literally from the opening, which throws us into a vituperative domestic squabble between Anna and Mark, totally devoid of any kind of context whatsoever, we are tossed into a roiling sea of words and images and performance, and all but told that if we can't survive it, well, Żuławski and company just don't really care. You can't have that kind of balls-out energy turned on in every moment without having some things stick, and Possession's batting average is well above .500: whether it's the sweeping camera movements, dolly shots that zoom around the room like a penguin on meth; or blown-out windows drowning the set in light (shot on indoor-temperature film, no less, so everything has a sickly blue cast); or dialogue like "For me, God is a disease", or of course Anna's squid lover, one of the most magnificent triumphs of the great effects artist Carlo Rambaldi (who, in a curious twist, also worked on Flesh for Frankenstein; while later in his career, his most famous creation is unquestionably the title character from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial); in all this and more, Żuławski does exactly what he set out to do, plunging us into a world in which all rock-steady signifiers have been stripped away, leaving only a constant state of emotional uncertainty and anguish.

On top of all this, it's impossible to overestimate the value of Neill and Adjani. In the latter case, it's no surprise, exactly, that she's capable of credibly bringing life to a woman unfathomable to all men, almost certainly insane, and not apparently residing in the same plane of existence as the rest of the cast. It's one of the things she's always done well, though good enough in this particular case that it netted her Best Actress at Cannes (along with Quartet). Neill's role, is far more reactive than hers, but given how incredibly big her performance is, it would take a hell of a lot to react, which he does quite well; and between the two of them, they are most responsible for the sense that we are watching something effectively inhuman.

But then, on the other side of things... Eraserhead works because it is so much more committed, following no more logic than the scattered jumping of a nightmare. It makes absolutely no sense, except the emotional sense that crawls up from between the images. The great mistake of Possession is that it makes enough sense so that it needs to make more sense, as it were. There's enough about Anna's behavior that is completely explicable, even if its only in context, that the big unanswered questions cannot brushed aside as needing only the logic of surrealism to explain themselves. And at 127 minutes, the film is much, much too long to get away with this kind of now-disjointed, now-coherent plot (the last half-hour drags by awfully).

Add in the fact that Żuławski poured all of his present anger at women into every frame of the movie - if it's generally unforgiving of male sexuality, it's positively enraged at female sexuality - and Possession is, honestly a bit of a rougher watch than I'd like it to be. Captivating and stylish and haunting: yes, but also frustrating. Still, it's the kind of frustration that is typical of ambition and a strong personal vision, with no eye towards what is commercial or easy (lord no, no eye towards that at all), and it is a damnable quirk of history that the people who would most enjoy the film's psycho-sexual probing are exactly the people least likely to see something which somehow got misfiled into the "outré gore" wing of the horror genre. It may be problematic, but it's a terrifically fascinating example of a style of psychological representation that had been largely abandoned by English-language cinema by 1981.

Body Count: 8, although I am reasonably confident that it wasn't the deaths that got the DPP worked up, not in a movie where the phrase "squid-fucking" can be so readily worked into the synopsis.

Nastiness Rating: 0/5; DPP, don't be such an asshole. I can state with something approaching absolute certainty that more impressionable teenagers watched this movie as a direct result of its presence on the Nasties list than would have ever even heard of it otherwise. And I mean, sure: squid-fucking. But it's no more "nasty" than this your average Bergman film.