Lena Wilson discusses why Isabelle Adjani’s performance in Possession is one of her favourites by an actress in a horror film. Explore our coverage of Women in Horror Month here. Discover our book about feminist horror here.
One of the best moments of performance in horror movie history takes place in that most horrifying of places: an empty subway station. What it lacks in words, it makes up for in excretions, as the murky-wet concrete of a metro hallway is coloured pink with vomit and blood. I am speaking, of course, of Isabelle Adjani’s miscarriage scene in Andrzej Źulawski’s 1981 Cannes competitor Possession.
In this three-minute, three-take sequence, Adjani commits like a motherfucker, launching into a frothing, frenzied fit. Restless and philandering housewife Anna (Adjani) exits the platform and, once alone, begins to maniacally laugh. Whatever has unhinged her grows in its intensity, as her laughter seamlessly oozes into screaming until the two are indistinguishable. She convulses, smashing her bag of groceries against the wall. There is a cut — how much time has passed, seconds or hours? — and then Anna is against the wall, barking and thrashing her neck and wrists about to an odd rhythm. She whips her head around until she falls to the slick, black floor, then gets up before falling again, as her wails rise in pitch like the cries of an injured coyote. She rolls across the ground, through the milk she spilled earlier and the dubious subway fluid. And then, after the next cut, it happens: she kneels, gurgling painfully, as white liquid pours from her mouth and blood seeps from between her legs.
The scene is extraordinary in its dizziness. It’s impossible to tell if Anna is completely in pain, completely terrified, or completely overjoyed — she shifts from chuckles to howls as swiftly as she can swing a carton of milk. Though it is certainly a harrowing scene to watch, particularly when the gore kicks in, its origins in laughter imply a kind of unhinged freedom. Here this neglected stay-at-home mom goes, toting groceries back to her child — until evil liberates her from her senses and the second child growing inside of her. Like countless other women in horror, Anna is not only conscripted into moral or sexual liberation by forces beyond her control, she welcomes them.
To call Adjani’s performance here “acting” would be like calling Paris a sleepy little hamlet; this is balls-to-the-wall scenery chewing, a paroxysm so stunning it is easily the most memorable part of the film. Of the nine award nominations the film received at the time, four were for Adjani’s performance. She won three of the four, including Cannes and César Best Actress accolades. At the heart of every truly excellent horror film is a feral woman, a she-beast so overcome by insanity or possession or fuck-this-shit-ness that her insides become her outsides, her perfectly composed exterior gives way to an abject interior. Linda Blair’s puke coats her bedroom; Sissy Spacek’s white prom dress is drenched in blood. Adjani’s iconic Possession miscarriage takes this to a literal extreme, her sanity leaching out of her body along with unnameable viscera until only alien bloodlust remains.
In her 1991 essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Linda Williams identified the commonalities between pornography, melodrama, and horror. She posited that, in each of these “body genres,” female bodies enact sensational performances — that is, performances which are intended to inspire a physical sensation in the viewer. Ejaculate, blood, and tears play the same role in their respective genres: they make the inner feelings visible. Adjani’s performance in Possession is extraordinary because it takes place at the intersection of ecstasy, agony, and sorrow. Her cries are as ambiguous as the white fluid spilling out of her. Whether cum or bile, it is messy, human stuff, and this is a messy, human performance. Anna, in all her histrionic glory, finally becomes a woman undone.