Brian De Palma
- Cliff Robertson as Michael Courtland
- Geneviève Bujold as Elizabeth Courtland/Sandra Portinari
- John Lithgow as Robert Lasalle
An unearthly and mysterious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Obsession comes courtesy of Brian De Palma and displays him at some of his most overwrought and haunting. Complete with a spellbinding score and slowly more twisted story, Obsession has a lot in it that won’t leave your mind in a hurry.
Michael Courtland is a wealthy real estate developer in New Orleans with a great business, along with a beautiful wife Elizabeth and daughter Amy. Then out of nowhere to destroy this idyllic life, Elizabeth and Amy are kidnapped by criminals, who demand a very high ransom for their release. Going to the police and desperately trying to get his family back, Michael agrees to a rescue mission that looks like it could be successful. The plan is to take a briefcase to the drop point with fake money and a tracking device implanted, thereby leading the police and Michael to the whereabouts of his captured family. Unfortunately, the attempt to retrieve Elizabeth and Amy goes horribly wrong and after a lengthy chase, the kidnappers along with Elizabeth and her daughter die after their car crashes into the river. Over a decade later, Michael is still haunted by the loss of his family and totally obsessed with the memory of them. On a business trip to Florence with colleague and best friend Robert Lasalle, Michael visits an old church where he and Elizabeth first met. To his surprise he comes across Sandra Portinari, an art historian who is the mirror image of Elizabeth. Although completely at a loss as to why Sandra looks so much like his late wife but seeing that this could be a second chance, Michael gets completely infatuated by Sandra. The sprightly and effervescent Sandra returns the favour and the two fall quickly in love, though it is very obvious that Michael wants to recapture something that he had with Elizabeth through Sandra. Though Robert is concerned for his friend as he finds the whole thing very uncanny and worrying, Michael goes ahead and brings Sandra over to New Orleans with plans to marry her. But Sandra quickly grows fascinated by Elizabeth and begins acting odd, as if something about her predecessor is behind it. It looks as though history may well repeat itself with more fatal incidents, just as Michael believes he’s been given another shot at life. What follows is something that you will most definitely not be expecting.
Brian De Palma revels in channeling Hitchcock for this film, and does a pretty commendable job at emulating him. The devil is in the detail and the archness of De Palma’s approach, which genuinely makes for good viewing in this most twisted mystery. It can be said that Obsession gets a bit overly clever at times and has maybe one twist too many in its bag of tricks, but regardless of that it is a very compelling mystery thriller. The sprinkling of an atypical romance that eventually becomes disturbing allows the film to be one that is sure to reap benefits of repeat viewing. The screenplay from Paul Schrader is purposefully mysterious and knows exactly when to keep its cards close its chest. And even when it goes overboard, the largely visual story is there to bolster things in an exquisite way. Almost everything in Obsession is shot through a shimmering filter that renders events in a fantasy and otherworldly aura from the very start, for a mystical experience that is not what it always seems. The employing of this form in the cinematography and direction of De Palma is sumptuous and extremely captivating, with nary a frame wasted to paint its unnatural and spooky on a large canvas. Many scenes are free of dialogue which gorgeously lets us fill the blanks in and allows the visuals that abound to weave this particularly dark story, which has a romance in it that takes on another connotation as the rug is pulled from under you. The use of Bernard Herrmann to score the film further evokes Hitchcock, as Hermann scored some of the Master’s best films. Here he imbues things with a deep choral angle that sounds like a returning vessel to the world of reality, while accentuating the hypnotic impact Sandra takes over Michael and later the presence of Elizabeth on Sandra herself. The score is ever-present in the film and it would simply bot have half the impact it does without the mournful yet eerily romantic music from Hermann.
Cliff Robertson is credible in the lead role of a man whose life is shattered, then is given what he believes is another shot through whatever intervention it is. Robertson may be a tad too subdued at times, but his stoic face and gradual shifts in temperament within the chilling story, fill in any gaps and still make it a very good performance. Geneviève Bujold is stunning in the dual role that merges as one on more than a few occasions. Bujold is beautifully ethereal and almost angelic in the best possible way, lending well to the haunting vibe of the overall story and the possibility of a spirit, at least in Michael’s mind, returning once more. You can’t take your eyes off her when you see her on screen as either Elizabeth or Sandra. It is Bujold that sticks most in the memory once Obsession has finished for her transfixing work. Stealing the scenes whenever his presence is required is the versatile John Lithgow, seen here as a disreputable businessman with the gift of the gab. An extrovert with a suspicious mustache, reptilian smile and slightly unusual glint in his eye, he’s a man you can’t help but find funny but also quite hard to read, which is where the excellence of Lithgow’s work lies.
So if you can handle the often overwrought story and sleight of hand tricks and unusual twists are your sort of thing, Obsession should work for you as a sinister yet beautifully filmed mystery, from the skillful hands of Brian De Palma. It definitely deserves notice at least from where I’m standing.