Bernard, a newly-successful author, breaks up with his girlfriend and returns to a small Italian village where he has holidayed frequently since childhood. This visit is motivated by one factor, though-the memory of a hotel maid named Tilde with whom he'd gotten somewhat acquainted on his previous visit. It turns out that memories are all that remain of her, after she committed suicide by poison in mysterious circumstances shortly after Bernard left. He's informed by a local hunchback that her corpse, which was pulled from the picturesque lake around which the village is built, bore evidence of a throat slitting as well, and that the allegedly virginal (according to the autopsy) Tilde was pregnant at the time of her death. As he begins to suspect the family which runs the hotel of having more than a passing involvement in the tragedy, Bernard gets pulled into a mystery which exists as much in his head as it does in reality.
This is where the arty stuff comes in. The film constantly plays with the audience, with the film cutting to a shot of Bernard entering his hotel room after almost every noteworthy scene. What we initially understand to be memories become mixed with dreams, and even hypotheses, with Bernard ultimately 'solving' the case by imagining various confessions and revelations, which turn out to have been presciently correct. Whereas Dario Argento later imbued specific memories with significant clues, here the memories are much less defined, and exist in a liminal psychological space over which Bernard ultimately has agency. He replays a sexual encounter of Tilde's he once witnessed, introducing various characters as her lover. He imagines conversations she had which he didn't witness, merging memory and imagination in an attempt to discover the true cause of her death. In many ways this depiction of memory, as a nebulous and undefined phantom of the mind, is far more accurate than Argento's rigidly formal depiction, wherein a fixed image/vision must be reexamined from a second angle to bring the truth to light. In The Possessed all is light, and all is darkness, all at once.
As befits an art film, and a loftier giallo, the investigation here is at least as much about Bernard turning his critical gaze upon himself as it is about an accumulation of external clues (especially so here, with almost no clearly-defined 'clues'). As a writer (shades of Sam Dalmas and many other giallo heroes who have artistic backgrounds), Bernard is acclaimed, although Francesco, the town's hunchback (and, crucially, photograph developer-he is perhaps the only person who can forge clear, distinct images from the murk of the past) critiques his most recent book, saying that he feels the work suffers from a fear of "not finding an answer for everything." In many ways this is the impetus for Bernard's continuing investigation-he's seeking the truth of what happened to the girl, but also in a wider sense he's seeking to lay bare the village's murky past, a past of which he's been a part since he first visited aged 10.*
Bernard seems to acknowledge Francesco as a voice to truth, when the latter appears in what turns out to be a dream sequence and tells him that with all the obsessiveness and desire to uncover the truth, Bernard is afraid to see Tilde as she really was. Bernard replies (and remember, as this is a dream he's essentially speaking to himself) by saying that he's afraid that he's losing his grasp on reality. In the English language version, Francesco closes the dream by saying that "Everything is simple to deal with, until you're faced with reality." Cue a cut to Bernard waking up in bed. Note also the early voice over passage (again in the English language version) wherein Bernard stares at a photograph of Tilde, anticipating an imminent meeting of the two, saying "I was afraid the face in the photographs only reflected my dreams instead of showing me Tilde as she really was."** This slightly-too-on-the-nose-too-early line reinforces the later dream conversation with Francesco, with the inference clear-Bernard is being driven by a desire for something, and someone, that never really existed in the first place.
This is something which has long been the downfall of man, in all his arrogance-placing women on a pedestal only to cast them aside on a whim when some impossible ideal is not met. This is what happens to Tilde, in a way (SPOILERS not that not fucking a father and son combo is an impossible ideal, but her youth*** and desirable beauty become sullied by her pregnancy and general behaviour, for which she suffers the ultimate punishment SPOILERS STOP). Bernard's desire to right the wrongs of his past (and previous novel) by investigating the past thoroughly sees his obsession with-and love for-Tilde decrease with every new revelation about her past, even as his strange attraction to the mysterious Adriana, who's newly married into the hotel-owning family, grows. This suggests that the more men learn about a woman, the more the impossible ideal is broken, but I'd argue that men are likely more enamoured with women when they can project themselves and their own obsessions onto them. The more truth they find out about the woman, the less space there is onto which one can project one's desires and fantasies. Consider even the film's Italian title-The Lady of the Lake is a lot more mysterious and, ultimately, alluring than The Murdered Maid Who (SPOILERS) Had Affairs With a Father and His Son and Got Pregnant. (SPOILERS STOP)
As a writer, Bernard is well capable of flights of imaginative fancy, initially to project upon his memories of Tilde, and later to fill in the dark gaps in the familial history of the hotel owners. Intriguingly, his hypotheses tend to be unerringly accurate; as the policeman states at the end of the film, he has a strong intuition (almost as strong as a woman's-is writing, and creativity in general, more of a feminine pursuit in the Italy depicted here?). As the film progresses and the memories, dreams and mental projection blur more and more, we're left with very little in the way of cold hard facts as regards what ultimately happened. (SPOILERS AGAIN!) We can be reasonably sure that the daughter of the family, Irma, has murdered her brother (course she has-she's played by Valentina Cortese), and one or both of them (or, along with their father, all three) are responsible for the murders of the two ladies of the lake. We're told precious little about the family's background, though, so don't really know what circumstances have led to their being so dysfunctional. One possible hint at incest comes when the father refers to Tilde (with whom he was having an affair, remember) as being "like a daughter" to him, right as his actual daughter glides into frame. Is that a subtle nod to how he behaves towards daughters?
Ultimately we're left, as is Bernard, to fill in the blanks ourselves, to project our own experiences and prejudices onto these broken characters to try and piece together a full story. It's not as frustrating as I may have made it seem here, though-it's gorgeously shot, and the pacing is strong throughout. There's also a seam of noir running through things-the voice over, for a start (which is occasionally unnecessary, e.g. the image of Bernard staring nervously at the slaughterhouse through a rain spattered window conveys his uncertainty and nerves far better than the voice over could (and does). One could even argue that the ladies of the lake function as femmes fatale in a way (even-and possibly especially-in death, particularly where Mario, the son of the family, is concerned. (Another obvious noir link comes with the final shot, which is quoting The Third Man.) END SPOILERS AGAIN!
So, this film, while it's not going to satisfy gorehounds or fans of trashier gialli, has much to recommend it. As I said, it's not a typical giallo, but then no such thing existed at the time. What it does do is take a cue from genre trailblazers such as Bava and Freda, and meld their innovations to a framework which was influenced by the likes of Antonioni (see L'Avventura). Much like Luigi Bazzoni's later giallo Footprints, it's a delightful swirl of an investigation into childhood, identity and love, filtered through the prism of human memory which, much as the town seems to Bernard as he departs, becomes increasingly strange, inaccessible and distant.
*An excised detail from the original synopsis concerns a childhood romance Bernard had with a girl in the village, with his infatuation with Tilde being an attempt to rediscover those formative feelings. Presumably this idea was discarded because it muddied the (already quite muddy) waters too much by turning Tilde, the 'absent presence' whose memory drives the protagonist's actions, into a cypher of a different 'absent presence'.
**A later line in the Italian version, "perhaps Tilde hadn't been as I'd imagined her," expresses much the same thing.
***In the film's synopsis she was explicitly depicted as being underage.