Friday, June 3, 2011

Obsession. (1976) Brian De Palma

I'm surprised to say that I really, really enjoyed this, even watching it on YouTube on my chest*. If it were shown on as retro-fun in the big city (I'll bet it's been featured in more than a few midnight screenings over the years), I'd be interested in checking it out the way it was meant to be seen - on film.

I saw two basic things when watching Obsession: De Palma honing his craft, fine tuning his skills, and switching from Rear Window and Psycho to Notorious and Vertigo in the way he created tension through lensing, long silences, and the use of a beautifully overwrought score.

It's basically the story of a wealthy land developer, Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson), happily married, whose wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom -- but in a botched police sting the two are involved in an accident, their bodies never recovered. Years later in Florence, Courtland runs into his wife's doppelganger (or -- ?), in the church where he originally met his wife. He instantly falls in love. He can't take his eyes off her, gazing at how closely she resembles his wife, looking as vibrant and young as over a decade ago. It's as if the same woman somehow made her way to Italy, and she hasn't aged a bit in all these years. He follows her everywhere, in the beginning very close to a silent stalking (think: Vertigo). Eventually he gets a dinner date, and puts his plans in motion to bring her back to the states and marry her.

De Palma seems to have a thing for actresses who plays two characters in the same film. French Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold, as Courtland's wife and then the Italian doppelganger, was in her early thirties when Obsession was released, and she has an overwhelming beauty, a mysterious kind of attractiveness that would give any man butterflies in the gut. As a guy, I could continue to talk about that, but I won't say too much more. There's a fine line between being captivated and being a pig, and there are threads on the IMDB message boards that already dig into what certain men think about Geneviève. I find this kind of talk worthless, but acknowledge how much easier it is to watch any film - ever - which has a woman whose beauty transcends time.

Obsession didn't have the same second-half nosedive that I noted in De Palma's earlier film, Sisters. The nosedive here was only in the final fifteen or twenty minutes. But the more I think about how outlandish Obsession became, the more it reminded me of exactly why I liked the first half hour of Sisters. In his review, Ebert referred the film's "overwrought excess," which he relished as its own reward in Obsession. I tend to agree with him, and after Obsession I'm understanding even more the early De Palma comparisons to a contemporary film maverick, Quentin Tarantino. Excessive, overloaded, always over-indulgent but coolly slick, and eye-popping to look at, these kinds of films are hypnotic to watch. Image for image's sake.

I've been wading through the De Palma oeuvre and I've spoken excitedly about returning to Carrie very soon. It's interesting that I consider the entire second half of Sisters to be a nosedive, and the final twenty minutes of Obsession to be, well, not exactly a nosedive, but definitely koo koo, a trip to la-la land -- but I can't wait to see the ending of Carrie again for the first time in many years. It's as if in that film, everything came together for De Palma, from his crazed need for parallel story telling made to suit different perspectives in split screen edits, to a splash or two of the gore he seems to love to gross out his audience with, to his need to finally (Finally!) bring about the most bombastic and traumatic ending one can see. Once De Palma started firing on all cylinders, he made a film like Carrie and also several amazing movies that followed.

It's a joy to watch these films in order as De Palma progresses in his craft.

* This is the first time I remember watching an entire film this way. While it obviously isn't the preferred method for viewing Obsession (or much else), I made it work, and here's how: turn every light out completely, lie down on your back in total darkness - maybe with a blanket, maybe in bed (but don't fall asleep) - put the laptop on a pillow on your chest and use the Earbuds from your iPod for sound. The sound is phenomenal, and the Wifi streaming to a point these days where it works just fine. On my chest, that close to my face, even my small Dell Notebook made me feel like I was in a theater (although you can easily tell the difference between digital on the Net and film), but I can't stress highly enough how great the sound is, and with Obsession, the sound is huge to the feel of the film. YouTube was the only way I could track down Obsession, which isn't available through Netflix. I normally only use my iPod or a laptop for documentaries, and even then it's rare (like on the four-hour train between Grand Rapids and Chicago), but I bent my movie-watching rules to make it work for this film, and honestly, it worked great!

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