Luigi Bazzoni, Franco Rossellini, 1965
Starring: Peter Baldwin, Salvo Randone, Valentina Cortese, Pia Lindström, Piero Anchisi, Virna Lisi
Bernard, a writer, returns to a small, lakeside town hoping to rendezvous with an old lover, Tilde, a maid at the hotel he typically stays in. But Tilde is missing and the locals are reluctant to explain why. He eventually learns from the hotel owner, Enrico, that Tilde killed herself, but soon finds out that there is more to her case. He discovers contradictory information: she was pregnant before her death, but the coroner’s report declared her a virgin. She was poisoned — and her throat was slit. And something sinister seems to be going on at the hotel, but Enrico and he recently married son and unhappy daughter.
Based on a novel by Giovanni Comisso, this unsettling, proto-giallo bears some things in common with surreal Euro-thrillers like Last Year at Marienbad or The Man Who Lies, though The Possessed — literally translated as The Lady of the Lake — is more grounded in reality. It also begins the giallo practice of familiar names and faces. Director Luigi Bazzoni would go on to greater heights with The Fifth Cord and the equally unsettling Footprints on the Moon. Co-director Franco Rossellini worked more frequently as a producer on films like Pasolini’s Decameron, Medea, and Teorema, as well as Caligula. For the script, they were joined by giallo and spaghetti western director Guilio Questi (Death Laid an Egg and Django, Kill… If You Live, Shoot!) and prolific Italian composer Renzo Rossellini (Germany Year Zero, Caligula, General Della Rovere).
This chilling, moody film is not strictly a giallo, but bears enough in common with the emerging genre that it could be seen as a precursor. The protagonist, Peter, is a writer who is a stranger to the area (two common giallo tropes are the writer and the foreigner) and there is the sense that he can trust no one. This air of menace and paranoia was particularly found in the less common rural giallo films — such as House With the Laughing Windows and A Quiet Place in the Country — but is palpable here. Though there are several deaths, all violence is shown off camera and instead exchanged with a haunting sense of reverie shown through hazy flashbacks, claustrophobic hallways, and feverish fantasies.
Though Peter Baldwin (The Weekend Murders) is technically the star, this is a film without a true protagonist. Nothing is revealed about him other than the fact that he’s a writer and carries a flame for Tilde, though he once may have treated her badly. He is not an active figure, but is relegated to a passive role. Even his detection skills are limited and he relies on others to share information. It is the film’s three women — Virna Lisi (Queen Margot) as Tilde, Valentina Cortese (The Girl Who Knew Too Much) as the hotel owner’s daughter Irma, and Pia Lindstrom (daughter of Ingrid Bergman) as the wealthy new wife of the hotel owner’s son — who linger in the imagination and, whether living or dead, exist as spectral presences throughout the narrative. Like Citizen Kane or Hiroshima mon amour, The Possessed is essentially a study of identity, a somewhat failed attempt to uncover a person’s past. This sense of mystery and foreboding is certainly common in giallo films, where characters are revealed to have hidden motives, dark secrets, and traumatic pasts.
Another element in common with giallo films is the theme of sexual perversion. Many rely on the conceit that the deranged killer murders because of some violent perversion. Here — SPOILER ALERT — it is revealed that the kindly hotel owner, Enrico (Salvo Randone of My Dear Killer), had been having an affair with Tilde, as had his adult son, Mario (Philippe Leroy of The Frightened Woman). When she became pregnant and insisted that one of them marry her, Mario is ashamed at the thought of continuing to share her with his father. This sense of contamination has spread to the other two women — Mario’s sister and his new wife — and, like the gods righting the world of pollution in a Greek tragedy, the women are sacrificed.
The disorienting sense of isolation — which I’ve seen compared loosely to the art house films of Antonioni — is countered with a claustrophobic paranoia. Eyes are everywhere and just as Bernard watches and judges the townspeople, they seem to be constantly watching him, waiting for him to uncover their collection secret. Though not everyone was in on Tilde’s murder, many conspired to make it seem like a simple suicide. There is also the constant sense that things are happening out of sight — even just off camera — that adds to the rapidly building sense of unease.
One of the best things about The Possessed is the black-and-white cinematography from Leonida Barboni (Divorce Italian Style) with some camera work from regular Fulci collaborator Sergio Salvati. Barboni’s camera softly fixates on Virna Lisi and Valentina Cortese, as well as the foreboding lake, and beautiful snow-covered cemetery. He uses some kind of filter that gives the light sources a hazy, mirage-like flavor, contrasted with deep blacks where detail — and misdeeds — fades away.
The Possessed will be of interest only to giallo fanatics, or those who like their thrillers heavy on mood and light on gore. Art house fans may also find a lot to like here, and it certainly bridges the distance between the two. As far as I can tell this has never been released on DVD, though bootlegs have been making the rounds for years. It’s certainly worth tracking down, though I am predisposed to love atmospheric, oneiric mysteries with beautiful cinematography and a dose of sleaze.