When analyzing the role of the housewife in contemporary Western horror, Bryan Forbes' 1975 film adaptation of the Ira Levin novel The Stepford Wives stands as a prominent point of reference. Katherine Ross stars as Joanna Eberhart, a modern woman who fully embraces the independent ideals of Second Wave Feminism. Her liberated lifestyle is tested when her family moves to Stepford: a white picket-fenced town seemingly trapped in 1950s limbo. As Joanne observes with both fascination and discomfort, the Stepford wives share more in common with mannequin dolls than real women — their immaculate figures, faces painted to perfection, and vacant, soulless gazes altogether suggest an unspoken compliance in fulfilling the Stepford community’s misogynistic gender roles, which as Joanne soon discovers, were fabricated by the town's men in the most literal sense.
Despite it being widely deemed a satirical comedy, The Stepford Wives inspired a new psychological horror that reflected women’s anxieties following the Baby Boomer years. At the root of their fears was the inherent concern that no matter how many liberties the modern housewife was entitled to in domestic life, they would never live up to their husband's outdated expectations of the perfect woman. Though overlooked in comparison to The Stepford Wives, no film of any genre has presented the modern housewife's anxieties with more devastating accuracy than Andrzej Zulawski's 1981 Possession. Isabelle Adjani's portrayal of the unhinged and deeply volatile Anna marks one of most disturbing performances to date, surpassing the likes of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and Linda Blair in The Exorcist. While the latter gained the audience's sympathy through initial displays of kindness and charisma, this transition from “good” to “evil” never quite takes place with Adjani’s character in Possession.
From the opening credits, Anna is introduced as the film's first potential antagonist. She is the cold, estranged wife to Sam Neill's affectionate husband Mark; draped in gloomy shades of black and blue, and indifferent to his attempts in restoring normality to their family life. Audiences are quick to view Mark as the rational partner in his disintegrating relationship, for they learn of Anna's sudden divorce filing and secret love affair at the same rate of confusion and betrayal as he does. Yet, it's Anna's contradictory, unexpected flickers of tenderness towards Mark that keep him desperate in his search for answers, and crucially, unable to move on. Mark's stubborn effort to “save” Anna from herself catalyzes the shifting viewpoint of who is really to blame for their separation. Whether through Mark's persistent interrogation of Anna’s actions, or his invasion of her privacy with the help of both a hired detective and her current lover, it becomes clear that the men in Anna's life are not just obsessive and demanding, but overbearing.
Similar to Possession, both David Cronenberg's The Brood and Lars von Trier's infamous Antichrist present domestic dynamics in turmoil. The wives in these horror films suffer from the same causes of guilt and self-disgust as Anna does, which ultimately leads to their collective descent into madness. These women are burdened with shame over prioritizing their own needs — may they be emotional or sexual, and consequently neglecting their children and disappointing their husbands, proving that they have failed in their essential domestic duties. However, painting troubled wives as the villains responsible for their own families’ downfall makes it all too easy for audiences to sympathize with husbands, whom coincidentally shown to be logical and sane “good guys”, with the sole intention of protecting themselves and their loved ones from such dangerous women. In fact Zulawski himself admitted to drawing inspiration from his own divorce when writing Possession, implying that Mark's torn feelings towards Anna were an expression of the director's own nightmarish experience.
Throughout Possession, Anna relishes in embodying both the sultry siren and the vicious harpy; two interchangeable roles projected onto her by Mark, who fails to recognize that his wife is a flawed, multi-layered human being when admitting that he believed her to be a “monster”. Yet rather than cower or beg forgiveness, Anna gladly embraces her repulsive side to great extremes; from her complete mental and physical breakdown in the public halls of an East Berlin u-bahn, to her reaching climax at the hands of her own tentacled demon spawn before her husband’s very eyes — Anna, bloodied and oozing with puss — is the shining example of what women could never be. It is Adjani who must be praised for delivering such depth and complexity to a character who would have otherwise reinforced the “evil wife” trope, for which she deservedly received Best Actress awards at the Cannes Film Festival and César Awards in 1981. Her dedication to detail is demonstrated in Anna's nervous ticks, irritable behavior, and occasional moments of childlike helplessness, making her bouts of pure hysteria all the more intriguing, and incredibly thrilling to watch for all female-identifying audiences.
Regardless of whether or not the intention of making these female characters simultaneously vile and vulnerable was an ill-intended one, it is clear that they represent every man's worst fears about marrying a woman who cannot maintain the highly idealized Stepford Wife persona he had envisioned for her. These misogynistic views are deep-rooted into films such as Possession, The Brood and Antichrist and yet, they may only be truly evident to their female audiences. The level of restraint and torment these women inflict upon themselves in order to appease their male counterparts is in reality, all too relatable to the female viewer. After all, however melodramatic or violent the emotional outbursts of such characters may be, is it not true that every woman at one point in her life, has faced a similar trivialization of her needs and sanity by the men around her? Such familiarity makes Adjani's deliciously unbridled performance and Possession itself incredibly satisfying to bare witness to — if not purely cathartic — for all women who harbor a secret desire to indulge in disgraceful acts of self-liberation.
about the writer
Nathasha O. Kappler is a freelance writer, graphic designer, and aspiring English Literature and Film educator currently residing in Berlin, Germany.
about the artist
Robyn Maloney is a part time artist from the Bay Area who likes comics and cats. Check out her tumblr robynpaper.tumblr for more dope work!