In the opening moments of Possessor – Brandon Cronenberg’s long awaited sophomore body horror – a woman walks into an upper-class soirée and brutally murders a man with a knife, stabbing him repeatedly in the throat and torso until the floor runs red with gore. It soon becomes apparent that this woman is quite literally not herself but is being piloted by Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin who takes control of her victim’s bodies so she can commit her crimes under a perfect disguise. However, when it’s revealed that Vos’ vessel was also carrying a gun, it begs the question: why butcher the mark so brutally? It’s this hook which sets up one of the key discourses in Possessor’s fluid heart: when several personalities occupy a single body who is in control, and what impulses control them?
The idea of female violence is of course nothing new in cinema, though it’s traditionally framed as an extension of a woman’s sexuality: femme fatales are frequently coded as bombshells who are equal parts seducer and destroyer, catching men in the Venus fly-trap of their sex before swallowing them whole. In this sense female violence can often be read in terms of male anxiety, or – to put it more bluntly – women are reduced to being understood only through the lens of men.
In Possessor the whole idea of gender is rendered unstable. Vos can – and does – control both male and female victims, and though she has sex in the host bodies this is not her chief aim. An early love scene with her separated husband shows her staring lifelessly at the ceiling, a woman as displaced within her own skin as she is within others, and although she kills both men and women she doesn’t seem to derive any pleasure from this: even in a particularly protracted mid-point assault it is more dispassionate fascination than sadistic glee. For her the violence seems to spring from somewhere deeper: her own nature, perhaps on a subminimal level even she doesn’t fully understand.
This category of sexless female violence has long been taboo in Western culture: in contrast, violent men – whether in cinema or real life – are widely accepted as evil but expected. Women are not afforded this liberty: their violence pathologized as much more deviant, the rigid paradigms of mother / daughter / virgin / temptress forming constrictions which – again – typically only understand female lives in relation to men.
Cronenberg tears this up, as Vos transgresses boundaries in a soup of gruey dysmorphia. Whilst not exactly emancipatory (the escalating violence is less liberation, more descent into the hell of Vos’ Id) it at least portrays psychopathy as an equal opportunities employer. Comparison’s with American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman (both in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel and Mary Harron’s celebrated adaptation) are appropriate, particularly when his “mask of sanity” begins to slip: in one uncanny moment – immortalised in Possessor’s poster – Vos becomes a mere mask herself, sleeved onto her host Tate (Christopher Abbot) as he wrests control back from her, setting the stage for a devastatingly subversive final act.
For in the closing moments Tate – accessing Vos’ sublimated consciousness – locates her estranged husband and son and, in a bloody standoff, kills them both: or rather, Vos does. Perhaps. As with Lady Macbeth, who vowed about her own child to have “plucked my nipple from his boneless gums / And dashed the brains out”, the infanticide here is a shockingly violent image which challenges the construction of womanhood. Vos’ own nature is absolute and cannot be controlled by what society – and particularly male society – thinks it should be.
To be clear, this is no celebratory air punch. The film’s coda sees Vos as a monetised sociopath, finally accepting some measure of her own identity: she may have transgressed all social and physical boundaries but – like Bateman – she is “simply not there”, and any victory over the patriarchy is salted by the howling void where her own soul should be. In this the audience is bereft of comfort: Vos may be free of constructed limitations, but we’re left instead to consider the human heart, that– whether male or female – is dark and deep, within which lurk untold, multi-gendered horrors.