Obsession (1976)

Directed by Brian De Palma


Obsession is very much a version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Both films deal with a man’s loss of power following the death of the woman he loves, followed by a subsequent effort to remake another woman into the image of the deceased.  It’s something that should be creepy, yet in both films, the protagonist is still our hero, and we learn that the woman he sought to control was in on a plan to deceive him from the start.  So in both cases the protagonist does something that could potentially push the audience away, but because he turns out to be the one who’s really been deceived, his own obsession is suddenly benign.

In Obsession, Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson), a wealthy lawyer, must pay a ransom when his wife and daughter are kidnapped.  He goes to the police, but the kidnapping rescue effort leads to a car crash that kills the kidnappers and Michael’s wife and daughter.

The film jumps from 1959 to 1975 where Michael, on a work trip to Italy with his coworker Robert (John Lithgow), a sly man with a strong southern accent that you know means he’s hiding something, meets a woman who resembles his dead wife… in the same church where he first met his wife.

He becomes infatuated with this woman, Sandra (played by the same actress who played his wife, Genevieve Bujold), and he quickly takes her back to Louisiana to marry her.  Robert cautions that he may be moving too quickly, but this just makes Michael more stubborn.  All he wants is to marry Sandra and start his new life.  He begins to disregard his work, and it’s easy to see how Robert might consider Michael reckless.

While this is going on, Sandra does her own research into the death of Michael’s first wife, and at first it’s easy to think that she is becoming discouraged by Michael’s obsession with her and his first wife.  Soon Michael returns home and finds Sandra gone and a ransom note in her place, mimicking what happened to him 16 years ago.  This is where the film gets more crazy, expanding the insanity from just Michael to his whole world.

My first thought was that Sandra, unnerved by Michael’s efforts to make her in a new image, left, but we’re led to believe that she did in fact get kidnapped.  Michael goes a long with the ransom, dropping the briefcase off in the same spot he did 16 years earlier, but this time the briefcase is picked up by Sandra herself along with Robert.

In a series of flashbacks we learn that Sandra is actually Michael’s daughter Amy, believed to have died in the kidnapping 16 years before, and that she and Robert worked together to concoct the plan to extort Michael.  See, how can you make the Vertigo-like story crazier than Vertigo?  Well, have the woman the man is obsessed with in a romantic sense turn out to be his daughter.

Apparently Amy, who is now Sandra, was led to believe that her father killed her mother, and she grew up hating him.  She writes a letter, while on a plane back to Europe, that she sees now that he really loved them both.  She then tries to kill herself but fails, and when she’s wheeled off the plane after it returns to the airport for mechanical problems (or something), Michael is there to embrace her.  It’s a happy ending that really doesn’t feel so happy.  Michael is faced with the woman who likes exactly like his dead wife, whom he had been planning to marry, and who is now his adult daughter he believed to be dead.  I mean, I don’t know how you come back with that.

What I like about Vertigo, which this film didn’t quite capture, is the tormented end to the story and it’s hero, Scottie.  It’s Scottie whose descent into near madness causes everything to go wrong in the end, but everything felt fated to end in death.  It’s like there was a gloom that hung over the entire movie.

In Obsession, the movie feels melodramatic because, I suppose, it doesn’t attach any real weight to the scenes and emotions which waver between ecstasy and horror.  The story fluctuates so much between these two states, but you don’t feel the shift.  You just observe it and shrug your shoulders.  Well I did, at least.

I like De Palma, I’ve come to realize, and I love his insanity even if I don’t feel all the emotions it seems like you’re supposed to feel.  His movies are roller coasters that pretend to be real life.  I can’t tell if the best way to enjoy them is to embrace the roller coaster (as I think I do), or to take the story at face value, going along for the ride as if you didn’t know it was a ride.  There are so many twists and turns that I find the joy in anticipating these turns which are often surprising yet not wholly unpredictable.  You know something‘s going to happen.

But Obsession somehow feels like it goes off the rails.  Maybe it’s because it’s impossible not to think about Vertigo when you watch it, and thus this film has the burden of living up to or surpassing that film.  The heart of the story, Michael’s pain, feels like a Law & Order ripped from the headlines story, rather than anything of importance.  You have to buy into his melancholy to go with his crazy desire to take over Sandra’s life.  And I think, since Michael’s plan is so crazy and kind of sadistic (certainly selfish), we expect him to have some kind of comeuppance.  In Vertigo, Scottie’s comeuppance, I suppose, is the fact that he was fooled all along.  The entire story of Vertigo began with someone coming to Scottie with a job that we later learn was a ruse.  It doesn’t start with any authenticity, in other words, so the crazy twists and turns of the plot are inherent to the story from the start.

With Obsession, these twists and turns feel somewhat forced.  They come out of left field, and it’s only through sudden flashbacks that we learn it was in place from the start.  Vertigo allowed us time to adapt to the story’s own craziness.  Scottie’s obsession was uncomfortable to watch, but Michael’s obsession is portrayed as if it’s beautiful and something to aspire to, like his version of love is real love.  But it’s not.

There is a trend among some De Palma films like this, of recreating earlier works, whether consciously or subconsciously.  Here he remakes Vertigo but Phantom of the Paradise was a reworking of Phantom of the Opera while Blow Out was his version of Blow-Up, and there might be another remake I’m forgetting about.

Obsession takes Vertigo and really focuses on the protagonist’s craziness, but what De Palma does here doesn’t add anything to what we saw in Vertigo.  That previous film had so much more going on and at the same time it seemed to develop the protagonist’s obsession and infatuation on a much more direct, detailed level.

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