Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.6: Brian De Palma's Obsession

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 70 (B)

Upon the re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo, director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Paul Schrader decided to make a movie inspired by the film. Schrader’s script, originally entitled Déjà Vu, was an ambitious, frightening work that the writer felt was his masterpiece. De Palma felt the script was too long, and several other collaborators felt that the entire third act either didn’t work at all. De Palma pared the film down to its final product. The resulting film, Obsession, received mixed reviews and was seen by many critics (including his usually ardent supporter Pauline Kael) as little more than a Vertigo re-tread. It was, however, his first substantial box office hit, making $4 million off of a $1 million budget. It’s not a masterpiece on the same level as many of De Palma’s other Hitchcockian thrillers, but Obsession is nonetheless an important film in De Palma’s career.

1959: New Orleans real estate developer Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) lives a perfect life, but that perfection is shattered when his wife Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold) and daughter Amy (Wanda Blackman) are killed in a kidnapping attempt. Sixteen years later, Courtland is still haunted by the memory of his dead wife. His partner, Robert LaSalle (John Lithgow), takes him overseas to Italy to forget his troubles, but when Courtland revisits the church he first met his wife in, he sees a woman who looks virtually identical. Sandra (Bujold) is charmed and courted by Courtland, whose wishes to remake the woman into the image of his dead wife.

Obsession isn’t exactly subdued, but it’s PG-rating reflects a moodier, more atmospheric type of Hitchcockian thriller as opposed to the often nightmarishly violent Sisters (or, later on, the even more gruesome Dressed to Kill and Body Double). It makes sense, considering that Vertigo is a more atmospheric Hitchcock film as opposed to Psycho (a primary influence on his other Hitchcockian films). The film is also decidedly less film-centric than Sisters or a number of other early De Palma films- it doesn’t often call attention to its own artificiality the way Sisters, Hi Mom!, or Greetings might.

Much of this has to do with the fact that the still Hitchcockian script was written not, as with his other films, by De Palma, but by Schrader, whose works as a writer (most notably Taxi Driver) and a writer-director (Affliction, Hardcore) most often focus on men on the verge of self-destruction, by choice or by subconscious, and their chance at (often violent) redemption. They do not often double as deconstructions of the medium. That’s not to say that Obsession is impersonal. Rather, De Palma’s sensibilities blend quite well with Schrader’s: the two both focus on obsession and guilt (Catholic for De Palma, Calvinist for Schrader), which De Palma combines with his voyeuristic obsessions and fascination with film into a haunting “ghost” story.

Sisters saw a more structure-conscious and technically audacious De Palma. Obsession continues that portrait of the director. He doles out information in the background and foreground to let attentive audience members in on what’s going on. He takes slow, studied tracking shots to almost dreamlike effect to replicate the mindset of Robertson’s character. He and master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (most famous for his Oscar-winning work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind) give the 1959 sections a hazy look to make everything seem like part of a strange, beautiful dream (only to give way to a nightmare). He uses split-diopters as a virtual (rather than literal) split-screen, with one character in the background having a conversation with a character in the foreground, for a more visually dynamic film.  A fluid tracking shot shows a passage of time from 1959 to 1975 in a beautiful, subtle fashion. The camera is constantly moving in Obsession- De Palma is using the instrument to tell a more dynamic story, and without his direction, the film might have been just a rote-Vertigo knock-off after all. That he’s using it to explore the gorgeous New Orleans and Florence locations doesn’t hurt.

Speaking of constants- Bernard Herrmann’s score is a virtually eternal presence within the world of Obsession. It was Herrmann’s second pairing with De Palma (after Sisters), and his second-to-last score (his last being the Schrader-penned Taxi Driver). The score gives the film a consistently haunted feel in order to replicate what it’s like being inside Robertson’s head- there’s nothing to him anymore but his dead wife’s presence, and a chance to relive the past is everything to him. Herrmann’s creepily romantic, often funereal score (complete with an unholy heavenly choir) makes the experience of Obsession ghostly.

The actors in Obsession play like bizarre-versions of their mirror images in Vertigo. Cliff Robertson, a classic movie star with a likable, trustworthy face (there’s a reason he played Uncle Ben in Spider-Man) has his image subverted in the same way James Stewart did with Vertigo. But where Stewart’s obsession was tragic, Robertson’s is terrifying to a level of almost making him the villain of the picture. Lithgow anchors the film with a performance that’s simultaneously flamboyant and grounded as Robertson’s smug, grinning partner whose concern for Robertson seems to extend mostly to monetary concerns. SPOILER HERE: He mirrors the Tom Helmore character of Vertigo as a more overtly dastardly version of the character.

Bujold is the film’s key, however, and without her the film wouldn’t work. We don’t hear much from her as Elizabeth, and there’s a reason- she needs to be a ghostly presence from the very beginning of the film. When her double image (a constant in De Palma’s films), the ingratiating, Sandra takes over, we fear for her sanity as Robertson’s advances become creepier. Her compliance and willingness to be dominated is frightening. Anyone who’s seen Hitchcock’s Vertigo ought to have some idea of what’s going on, but the degree of their twisted relationship is shocking to anyone.

De Palma’s voyeuristic sensibilities give us a look inside the world of a man whose life is becoming increasingly hermetic. Robertson’s Courtland has gone through hell, and we watch him become more and more obsessed with his past. When he sees Sandra at first, we see her through his eyes: heavenly, up on the altar of a church, bathed in light. He follows her every move, like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, but his obsession has taken over far earlier. When he points out how she walks differently from his wife (a glide vs. a sashay), his point-of-view on her body is creepily invasive. He’s looking through her rather than at her, and it’s a distinct type of voyeurism of an increasingly disturbed man.

When she gets a peek into his home, it’s like she’s looking at something she shouldn’t be seeing- this isn’t a mansion, it’s a mausoleum. She’s become an unwilling ghost haunting his house, and as he closes off from the world, the house becomes a tomb to both of them. She visits “her” grave, and it’s both A. a reminder of a scene of Kim Novak’s “past death” in Vertigo and B. a look into a past life she never lived. Not exactly, anyway.

The film’s gonzo-Vertigo retelling culminates in a strange dream sequence (aptly described by The A.V. Club as “fever dream Hitchcock”) that takes Obsession’s heightened drama to excruciating levels. Courtland and Sandra marry, and they consummate their creepy, unnatural love, only to have the sequence end with Sandra telling him that he needs to “relive” her kidnapping. It’s all a second chance for him. The scene was originally envisioned by De Palma and Schrader as reality, only to be made a dream sequence when producers and other members of the creative team got nervous about what this implied about the relationship (more on that later). Would it have worked better the way before? Possibly. Is it still creepy as hell the way it is? Oh yeah.

SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH: as with Sisters, attentive viewers/people who have seen older Hitchcock films will likely notice something’s fishy about the fact that Courtland barely mentions his daughter’s death. It turns out that every move was watched and planned by LaSalle (more voyeurism), who had planned to swindle Courtland out of money from the beginning. He’s gone to extreme lengths at this point, however- he’s kept “Sandra”, really Courtland’s kidnapped daughter Amy, out of her father’s reach for so long that he barely remembers her. Amy is convinced that Courtland is responsible for the death of her mother, but halfway through the plan she realized she had the wrong idea. De Palma makes effective use of flashback by putting Bujold into Amy’s shoes- it’s a stunningly creepy view of an infantilized Amy that helps us realize just how horrifying everything we’ve seen so far really is. He’s been remaking the woman of his dreams out of, and actively lusting after, his daughter. By the end of the film, she can no longer live with herself, and she attempts suicide. When Courtland realizes he’s been duped, he nearly kills her…only to feel her embrace and hear her calling him “daddy”. De Palma consciously echoes the emotionally devastating kissing scene of Vertigo as Courtland slowly realizes the implications of their reunion. Together again. But at what cost?

EDIT: I've mulled it over for a few hours, and I think I know why Obsession doesn't have the same emotional impact that other De Palma films have. While the film's comparative restraint in the realm of sexuality is admirable, considering the subject matter, it doesn't play as well to the strengths of De Palma. Give the man some complex sexual politics or sexuality to play with, out in the open, and you've got gold (Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill). Holding back makes the creepy film a bit less horrifying than it would be otherwise. It's a bit too respectful. Even Vertigo had an unsettling sexual pull beyond the basic plotting.

Obsession made the executives at Columbia Pictures nervous, and they sat on the film for over a year after its 1975 completion before dumping it into theatres in August of 1976. The film was a surprise commercial hit, but critics weren’t entirely wrong when they noted that it didn’t have the same emotional resonance as Vertigo, or that the plot was ludicrous (then again, plausibility isn’t really De Palma’s concern). But De Palma’s frustrations over the film’s release (plus the success of his friend Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese) made him realize he needed to take a more commercial project. If De Palma wasn’t known by critics and audiences across America yet, he would be by the release of Carrie.

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