Sam Neill Says Slapping Isabelle Adjani In Possession Was 'The Most Distressing Thing' He's Ever Done On Film

No other movie operates at the same frequency as Andrzej Żuławski's 1981 psychological horror film "Possession." Extreme is not even a fitting enough word to describe it — madness is really the only description that makes sense. This story about the dissolution of a marriage boils over with a pure, raw madness that could only manifest as you look at a person you once loved with nothing but venom. "Possession" stars Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill barely reflect natural human beings, operating at an intensity for two hours that most people wouldn't even last one second at in their lives. "Possession" is a unique experience, and if you are not able to tap into the wavelength of its madness, it may be tough sit for you.

For such an extreme film, it makes sense that the production was not totally smooth sailing. In an interview with The Playlist back in 2016, Adjani said of the experience, "It was quite an amazing film to do, but I got bruised, inside out." As for her internal bruising, that is on full display, having to scream and cry and tear her emotional being apart without a single second to breathe. As for the more outward bruising, that isn't really an exaggeration, and part of that came at the hands of her co-star, Neill. In one scene, he had to slap Adjani in the face several times, and Żuławski wanted it to be for real, which is something you can get away with if you are a crazy European auteur in the early '80s. While Neill eventually complied, it was not without protest or a tremendous amount of emotional turmoil for the actor.

'You can't ask me to do that'

Actors are often asked to do things they may find uncomfortable during production. Some they understand come with the territory of the profession; however, others are highly unusual. Striking another actor in the face falls into the latter category. Through camera placement, editing, and performance, actors have been pretending to hit other actors for a long time with no issue. There are those filmmakers, though, who don't believe something is real unless it actually is, which can cause a lot of problems. 

Sam Neill recently told The Independent about how horrific it was that Andrzej Żuławski wanted him to slap Isabelle Adjani:

"I said: 'Look, Andrzej, I have to say no. I can't do that. You can't ask me to do that. I have never raised a hand to another human being and I have to say no. Please don't ask me to. I'm not going to do it.' Then Adjani came up to me. She said: 'Sam you have to do this. You must.' I said: 'Please, Isabel do not ask me'. She said: 'You must do it.' So I had to do it. I have to say it was the most distressing thing I've ever had to do on film. And there were casualties. Isabelle famously had a breakdown at the end of it."

Though Adjani did give her consent for Neill to really hit her, that consent very well could have been given under duress given the circumstances, especially given that she broke down afterwards. The scene is certainly upsetting, as it should be. However, it also uses a lot of quick cutting that obscures most of the actual contact. You could watch it and assume they were staged slaps, and it's really unfortunate that this wasn't the case.