Obsession May 19, 2015
Brian De Palma doesn’t believe in realism. He believes in cinema, in the sweeping gestures of the yesteryear's films noirs. His Dressed to Kill was a chromium-shaded exercise in thriller style fixated on its look and feel; Body Double was characterized by long-tracking shots and grimy excursions into the underground metropolises of entertainment.
In Obsession is it made clear that De Palma still isn’t playing it cool this time around; he’s still taken with the slow-motion breathiness of Rebecca and Vertigo, still concentrated less on spreading a silvery sheen and more on showcasing winsome melodrama. Some of the time, the continuance of the De Palma sensibility works.
But ultimately, Obsession is not as successful as De Palma’s other style-over-substance pictures. Being slippery and sleazy is his strong suit, and the film's more prone to melting its surroundings with sweaty psychosexual entanglements. Most of the time, this is hardly a problem — Obsession is far from a failure — but its forays into the absurd have a cheapened effect rather than a stylish, sexy one.
The film begins in 1959 at the anniversary party of Michael and Elizabeth Courtland (Cliff Robertson and Geneviève Bujold). The two've been married for a decade, and still intact is their devotion to one another. The party can't capture this, but at least their family and friends can at least try to wallow in their celebration of their marital achievement.
In a typical thriller fashion, the harmony surrounding the gathering turns ominous: we discover that the butler is carrying a gun in his pocket. And later that night, Elizabeth, along with her and Michael's daughter, are kidnapped, ransom money demanded. A rescue mission follows, but it is too late: the kidnappers botch the plan, resulting in the death of Elizabeth and the child.
Obsession then jumps to 1976. Michael is still not over the tragedy, mourning eternally. “He lives in 1959,” a concerned friend notes. Then, on a business trip to Italy, his life takes a turn for the better (and the completely insane). While visiting the church that he first met his wife, he sees a woman taking part in a restoration project. But it isn’t just some woman: it is his wife, or, at least, her twin, her double.
This image suddenly on the brain, he becomes obsessed. Obsessed, that is, with turning this woman into his late wife. Wooing her quickly and efficiently, Michael soon takes this mystery femme back to America hoping to get married. But just as things seem too good to be true, De Palma and his screenwriter, Paul Schrader, rip our throats out with a number of batty plot twists.
Though increasingly feverish (and not always so becomingly), it's easy to enjoy Obsession: sure, it comes on to you like a Vertigo-loving film historian, but its madness is also created by a logical, daring auteur better than his material. And De Palma's confident here. He matches the over-the-top atmosphere with deceptively over-the-top camerawork, distinguishing art from human drama through pulsating close-ups, strained slow motion sequences, and darkened, menacing angles. Without De Palma’s aesthetically bizarre eye, perhaps Obsession would merely be ludicrous melodrama instead of artfully ludicrous melodrama.
Even then, the style's not quite overbearing enough for us to ignore the unbelievable – and eventually problematic – story. The conflict asks for no questions to be answered, to leave things enigmatic as to make the romance all the more operatic and fantastical. But De Palma decides to end on a thoroughly explained note, and such is more disappointing than one might expect. If only it would do the smart thing and retain its intrigue until we can hardly bear it: there's a reason why mystery's so much more intriguing than our reality. B-