Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles.
A few years back I stumbled across a meme that was making the rounds among my actor friends. It featured a famous scene from Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 film Possession starring Isabelle Adjani. Her performance as Anna is remembered as a full-throated portrayal of a woman slowly breaking down, as told through a vaguely Lovecraftian lens. And at the point in the film the meme is referencing, the words “breaking down” do not even begin to describe what’s happening to Adjani’s character. But what got under my skin was the sentiment behind the meme. It said, “Me When the Director Says, ‘Just Make a Strong Choice.’” The joke? That she’s indulgently overacting.
We’ve all seen overacting, be it in a straight-to-video action movie or your kid’s summer musical. But can you actually describe it? How would you talk about an unconvincing performance? Are the actor’s facial expressions too big or unnatural? Do you think they are trying to force an emotion or they seem disconnected in a scene? While these can be valid criticisms of an actor, I don’t believe they account for those heightened emotional states — like trauma or abject horror — where there’s no telling how someone may react. And while in this scene Adjani’s movements may seem over the top and unrealistic, I find that she viscerally embodies, through a hyper-stylized performance, emotions that are difficult to express with mere dialogue.
Adjani has made vague references to the toll this role took on her, but she and co-star Sam Neill, who plays Anna’s husband Mark, are both famously cagey on discussing their experiences working on Possession. So what clues do we have to help us understand how Adjani got to such an emotionally devastating place?
In the years between her star-defining role in François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H and the one-two punch of Possession and Merchant Ivory’s Quartet in 1981, Adjani was underutilized in her English language features. From 1976’s The Tenant through Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre in 1979, she has scant scenes and even scanter dialogue, typically playing characters who are just in service of the men around her. How could an actor of Adjani’s caliber — classically trained at the oldest theatre company in France – not find this increasingly frustrating? She could do so much more than what the male gaze was asking of her.
Her performance in Possession can be seen as her violent response to this frustration, channeling all of these real emotions into a role that would finally let her explode. We see an anxious pain behind Anna’s eyes that feels all too real. A pain she then uses as a cudgel against the clawing, suffocating neediness of her husband, but also against the audience itself. Her pain seethes with raw emotion, forcing us to uncomfortably watch as the character grotesquely contorts into a conscious juxtaposition of her own beauty.
This discomfort reaches a pressure point during the climactic subway miscarriage sequence. In three long takes, Żuławski’s camera follows Anna, carrying groceries, as she hurriedly walks through an empty subway platform. We slowly watch Anna’s face fill with a smile that seems to not come from her, but somewhere else. Her expressions become manic as her movements turn frenzied, smashing her bags against the tunnel wall as she slumps to the ground, spilled milk mixing with the blood and pus that oozes from her.
Looking into her eyes, you can find a mixture of anger and confusion at her out of control actions, as if she’s battling something within herself. This can be seen as a metaphor for Anna’s conflicting emotions as she pulls away from her husband and her lover, unsure of her place in the world as both a woman and a hesitant mother. That’s of course not accounting for the 300-pound tentacle monster in the room that is literally changing Anna from the inside out.
A typical scene would not do this moment justice. The only way Adjani could play this abstract, heightened state of mind is through this kind of intense physicality. She is oftentimes tearing at her hands and face, as if struck with delusional parasitosis, desperately trying to exorcise something from within herself. These gestures verge on being Butoh-esque, an extreme style of physical theatre that originated in Japan, notable for expressionist movements counter to traditional forms of performance. Like Adjani’s gestures in this moment, butoh can be erratic and evoke a deep sense of unease.
In the following scene, Anna confides in Mark that she feels split by a concept she refers to as Sister Faith and Sister Chance. To her, she miscarried Sister Faith, and with it her hope in there being some divine force of good in the world. So she’s left only with Sister Chance, as well as the realization that her life is ultimately random and meaningless. This tortuous miscarriage ballet isn’t rooted in the trauma of losing a child, but rather the representation of her loss of the will to live. The performance works because Adjani has given herself emotional stakes so high that they can only be reached through an extreme method of acting.
Sure, her actions are big, her expressions bold, but nothing about Adjani’s performance in Possession is bad. It’s just completely unconventional. Not many actors will take such a radical approach to express complex emotions, and even fewer can do it without making their actions feel forced or untrue, which is one of the reasons why Adjani took home the Best Actress award at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. Her performance as Anna is the perfect example of how much of an art form acting can really be. This is a vulnerable piece of performance art, rife with metaphor, and apt to be studied and analyzed by acting students and film scholars for years to come.