Start with "Vertigo", Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece in which a man becomes obsessed with "the image of a woman" to such an extent that he "remakes a woman to resemble this idealised image".
Flash-forward to Brian De Palma's "Obsession" (1976), a film in which the director reveals himself to so obsessed with Hitchcock that he moulds his own film - literally his "Obsession" - into the image of Hitchcock's "Vertigo".
Not only that, but the lead character of this "new film" is himself so obsessed with "the image of his lost wife" that he "remakes a strange woman to resemble his wife's image". The problem is, the woman he "remakes" is his daughter, his infatuation is incestuous and she's busy restoring or remaking a fresco in a church. End result? An obsessive remake of a film about remakes and obsessions which is itself about the destructive obsession of remaking. In other words, its an allegory for not only the postmodern predicament, but De Palma's own brand of cinema, which stages revivalism as a form of necrophilia, indecency, voyeurism or incest.
The plot: Cliff Robertson plays Michael Courtland, a man paralysed by melancholia. Courtland, we learn, lost his wife and daughter during a bungled kidnapping and ransom situation many years ago. Rather than pay the kidnappers money, Courtland filled a suitcase with blank pieces of paper, an act of deception which led to the deaths of his wife and daughter. And that is the awful, crippling weight Courtland now bears: he chose the money over his family. Over the "real image". Money thus become abhorrent to Courtland, and he begins to increasingly associate his wealth with the loss of his wife and child. This becomes the first "risk" of the film: because he dared not risk losing something valuable, Courtland has lost the ability to find value in anything.
Years later, however, Courtland sees a double of his dead wife. She's not only a "perfect image" but an "impossible image", as she looks not as she would be now, but exactly as she looked then. Furthermore, this strange doppelganger is working on – naturally - the restoration of a local church. It is here where she faces a dilemma: beneath one of the church's frescoes seems to be another painting. It could be a great lost masterpiece or it could be nothing. This is the second risk of the film: should she risk destroying the fresco for the sake of what might only be a stain?
Of course this dilemma, this risk, is doubled in both Courtland and the doppelganger: should he investigate and dig deeper at the risk of destroying this young woman, or worse, destroying his image of her? And should she dig deeper into Courtland, at the risk of losing a potential lover?
The film's ending, suffused with a dream-like haze (indeed, everything and everyone in the film seems dead, ghostly, like resurrected images), initially seems to be a happy ending, a moment of resolution, but look closer and it is a vaporous, disturbing, distinctly creepy thing; father and daughter, subject and object, lover and incestuous image, spinning around and around, gripping each other's hands
One must remember that De Palma directed both "Phantom of the Paradise" and "Get To Know Your Rabbit" before "Obsession". "Paradise" was about a devilish record producer who constantly resurrects nostalgia bands and an artist who, in aligning himself with a parasitic devil, sells his soul in order to make easy cash. So if "Obsession" is about resurrecting "images from the past", "Phantom's" preoccupied with a resurrecting of past sounds. And of course "Get To Know Your Rabbit" is about a man who quits this soul-deadening cycle to become an artist. How does he do this? He becomes a magician (a career choice which leads to him being exiled and ostracised by friends, co-workers and family) and trains under none other than Orson Welles, a director kicked out of Hollywood for refusing to sell his soul (or more correctly, repeatedly forced to sell his soul) and for being too original. Problem is, as soon as the film's hero becomes a successful magician, the devils come knocking again, quite literally consuming and turning the "magician's humble art" into an insidious version of corporate hell.
The character arcs of every film De Palma made during this period therefore reflects his own career trajectory. Fired from "Get To Know Your Rabbit", with his early satirical/counterculture films making little money and with his career almost over with, De Palma was pushed, like Welles, into making thrillers to keep working. These thrillers are typically dismissed as works of pastiche (they are), but there's always a critical mind, a satirist, operating just underneath. In this regard, something like "Black Dahlia", dismissed as "noir homage", should really be viewed through the lens of De Palma's more political films ("Redacted" etc), or even the more playful "Phantom of Paradise"; one's about the rot of the music industry, the other about the rot of the image factory.
Incidentally, the majority of "Obsession's" "incestuous subplot" was edited out (or cleverly masked using edits and fades) due to protests made by Bernard Herrmann and the film's producers. The result is the film's confused approach to the father and daughter romance at its core. Their incestuous relationship is not only barely acknowledged, but shamefully covered up.
8/10 – A lushly shot, macabre comedy. Worth one viewing.
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