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Possessed   B

Zentropa Entertainments

Year Released: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Anders Rønnow-Klarlund
Writers: Anders Rønnow-Klarlund, Ola Saltin
Cast: Ole Lemmeke, Kirsti Eline Torhaug, Udo Kier, Ole Ernst, Niels Anders Thorn, Jesper Langberg.

Review by Jim Harper

The run-up to the year 2000 saw a brief craze for end-of-the-millennium horror films, most of which focused on the imminent birth of the Antichrist. While big-budget efforts like End of Days and Bless the Child added little of any significance to the template established in the '70s by films such as The Omen and To the Devil a Daughter, Anders Rønnow-Klarlund's Possessed (Besat) manages to update the usual unholy goings-on by mixing in elements of the medical thriller and the police procedural. For the first half of the film there's no mention of anything remotely occult, so the viewer is spared the clichéd representations of satanic rituals and ominous chants. This time, when the Devil comes back to earth, he's keeping a low profile. When one character questions what Satan is doing in Denmark, the answer is short and simple: "Hiding."

By dispensing with the standard trappings of the Antichrist movie, Rønnow-Klarlund is able to focus on the more human elements of his story. Primarily Possessed is not driven by a desire to put an end to the Evil One's machinations, but by human obsession. The central character is a virologist, Dr. Søren Rastauw, who scrupulously chases down any trace of an unknown virus, not entirely out of a desire to safeguard human lives, but also in order to be seen as the one who saved humanity. He tells his students that it will be a virologist who saves mankind, and halfway through the film, it has become clear there is little Rastauw will not do to fulfil his own prophecy.

Of course the virus isn't a virus at all; it's the Antichrist, leaping from body to body in a fashion that recalls The Hidden. On the trail of the Beast is Vincent Monreau (Udo Kier), an occultist whose obsession with tracking down his quarry is every bit as strong as his medical counterpart's. He isn't averse to endangering innocent lives, even setting fire to a paediatric ward in order to destroy the current host and hopefully the demon carried within. Eventually these obsessions come to little, and both men waste their only chance at redemption by failing to stop the Antichrist. Rastauw is dragged away by the police after trying to kill his own girlfriend, while Monreau is shot attempting to do the same thing. Naturally, the son of Satan manages to escape.

Possessed was produced by Zentropa Entertainments, and it's not hard to see the influence of Lars von Trier in many aspects of the film, from the setting (at least half the film takes place in a Danish hospital) to the casting of Udo Kier in a pivotal role. Many of the hospital scenes have the same grainy yellow tinge as von Trier's own Riget, although for the most part Rønnow-Klarlund chooses more natural methods of producing a murky atmosphere. For example, there is no sunshine in the film; the exterior scenes all take place at night or in heavily overcast weather, and many of the interiors are lit with a dim yellow glow that makes simple, meaningless actions seem furtive and oddly significant.

Since there are few overt shocks in the film, Possessed relies heavily upon atmosphere and plot to hold the viewer's attention. Up to a point this works well, since the low-key atmosphere and engaging characters are considerably more interesting than any number of Hollywood-inspired chase scenes and poorly-timed jump-out-of-your-seat moments. Ultimately, though, the film is drawing from a source that has been tapped many times already, and there's little here that the experienced viewer won't already be familiar with. Thankfully, Rønnow-Klarlund, who co-wrote the script, appears to be aware of the story's limitations and we are not forced to sit around for extended periods of time while the characters try and unravel a mystery that the audience solved some time ago. A brief exposition is given when Kier is interrogated by the police, but outside events take over before the characters are given an opportunity to fully discuss the situation.

One of the main criticisms raised is that the film fails to create a satisfactorily powerful image of the Antichrist. There is some validity to this viewpoint; there are no displays of satanic power and barely even an evil glance once in a while. In fact, the main impression given is that of a frightened animal, on the run and desperate to survive. However, displays of infernal power have more often than not seemed absurd or over-the-top (particularly in the Omen sequels), and flashy special-effects-driven sequences would have been out of place in an atmospheric film like Possessed.

The film is bolstered by decent performances from Ole Lemmeke and Kristin Eline Torhaug as Rastauw and his student girlfriend Sarah. Their relationship, or more specifically its decline, is central to the piece, and their characters remain believable and human throughout. Udo Kier is given little to say until the interrogation scene, silently going through his preparations and giving the police the slip when they get too close. His enigmatic silence is an asset initially, when we are unsure of his exact role in the unfolding events. Movie fans should keep an eye out for Iben Hjejle (High Fidelity) in a small role as Sarah's friend Berit.

As mentioned before, the film's weakest aspect is its tendency to reproduce elements of earlier efforts. Thankfully, these are kept to a minimum. For the most part, Possessed is an interesting and creative reworking of the Antichrist legends that should find favor with fans of modern psychological thrillers. If there is still a place for the "devil movie" in this day and age, then Anders Rønnow-Klarlund's film ranks as one of the best of recent years.

Review published 11.05.2004.

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