Monday, 19 October 2009

Obsession (1976)

Yet another Brian De Palma movie. A slightly more obscure one this time -Obsession, from 1976. This was released shortly before the movie before Carrie brought him major mainstream recognition. Obsession has a very different feel compared to the other De Palma movies I’ve seen recently, but in its own way it’s just as impressive.

It is 1959, and wealthy real estate speculator Michael Courtland and his wife Elizabeth have just celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary. They have a daughter, and life is very good, until disaster strikes from out of a clear blue sky. Courtland’s wife and daughter are kidnapped and held to ransom. The police are called in, but their ambitious operation to catch the kidnappers and free the hostages goes badly and tragically wrong.

Sixteen years later Michael Courtland has not moved on at all. He is still a successful businessman, but life holds little interest for him until he makes a business trip to Florence. This is the city where he met his wife shortly after the war, and wandering into the church where they met he catches sight of a young Italian woman working on the restoration of a fresco. Her name is Sandra. The resemblance to his late wife is uncanny, and she is about the same age Elizabeth had been when they first met. Inevitably he is fascinated, he asks her out, they get along well, the fascination develops into obsession, and he asks her to marry him.

She returns with him to his palatial home in New Orleans, to find that Michael still keeps a room in the house, which had been their bedroom, as a kind of shrine to Elizabeth. She becomes obsessed with Elizabeth - in her own way as obsessed as Michael. For both Michael and Sandra herself the two women are increasingly merging into one. But this is a De Palma movie, and the situation is not at all as it appears. For both Michael and Sandra a crisis of identity is approaching as the past begins to replay itself. They will both be given an unexpected second chance, but will they be able to grasp it? There are major plot twists to come, but I don’t intend to spoil the movie for you.

As is usual with De Palma’s movies, this is not the kind of movie it initially appears to be. It has elements of the thriller genre, but it’s not a thriller. It’s a story about love, and the power of memory, and the unpredictable operations of chance. This is not Vertigo, although the movie was conceived after De Palma and scriptwriter Paul Schrader had watched Vertigo. Comparisons to Hitchcock's masterpiece can be both enlightening and misleading, which is typically De Palma. The style is very lush and romantic, with director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond giving everything a hazy soft-focus dream-like quality which works superbly.

De Palma chose Cliff Robertson for the role of Michael Courtland because he wanted an old-style leading man, the kind of actor who could easily have turned up as a leading man in a Hitchcock movie of the 50s. It was an inspired choice and Robertson gives one of his finest performances. He approaches the role with a good deal of subtlety and makes a character who might have been just a tad creepy into a very sympathetic if slightly misguided figure. Geneviève Bujold is equally good in a role that was incredibly challenging, for reasons I can’t go into without revealing spoilers. John Lithgow is also good as Courtland’s friend and business partner.

This is a De Palma movie entirely lacking in sleaze! There’s no nudity and no sex, and no graphic violence. This was a deliberate decision on the director’s part, since he anticipated (quite correctly) that he would have enough problems persuading distributors to accept the very touchy subject matter, the controversial nature of which does not become apparent until very late in the movie.

It’s a stylish movie, as you expect from this director, but with a strangely old-fashioned feel to it. Although it was in fact a low budget independent production it has the feel of a 1950s Hollywood studio film. This is appropriate, since for Michael time stopped in 1959. This is De Palma in a serious but very romantic mood, and it’s a psychologically and emotionally gripping and very moving film. Many of De Palma’s signature tricks are there, but this time he doesn’t want us to see them, and they’re done with such subtlety that in fact we generally don’t notice them. Another unexpected treasure from Brian De Palma.

Amazingly enough the Region 4 DVD includes extras! Well one extra anyway, but it’s a good one - a documentary that includes interviews with De Palma, Bujold and Robertson as well as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

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