Obsession (1976)

Obsession (Brian De Palma, 1976)
The early career of Brian De Palma is filled with very inspired films that many filmmakers have cited as inspirations like Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Carrie, and Blow-Up. His 1976 film, Obsession is openly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, De Palma’s major and obvious influence. The script written by Paul Schrader has been widely rewritten by De Palma to simplify and make it more appealing to a wider audience. However, the plot and elements are revealing many recurring themes that Schrader has exploited in many of his other works.
Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) is a wealthy businessman with his partner Robert LaSalle (John Lithgow). They are real estate developers and seem to have a very healthy business. Until the day that Michael’s wife Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold) and daughter are kidnapped and ransomed. It will sadly lead to their tragic death. Michael is filled with guilt because he agreed to use the police’s plan to not give money to the kidnappers and to try to fool them.
Many years later Robert convinces Michael to go back to Florence to seal a deal with a future investor. This is the city where Michael met Elizabeth, his now dead wife. In the same church he met her, he meets the young Sandra who is a copycat of Elizabeth. Michael then tries to seduce Sandra and gradually changes her into Elizabeth. In his actions he thinks he is given a second chance to correct his mistakes and to save her.
With this description of the plot lines it is clear that Vertigo was more than an influence when we discover Michael’s obsession about this woman. This is clearly illustrated with the scene of the description of the restoration of the painting in the church told by Sandra to Michael. He responds that he would try to mask the first draft and keep the original one. Just like he would do with Sandra.
On the other hand, the Schrader elements of catholic guilt, the madone represented in his wife, the deliberate self-destructive path of madness, with a finale of redemption for the central character. Just like his script for Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle sees the character of Cybill Shepherd as the madone (the virgin and the whore), his self-destructive path, and the great finale of purification in the act of violence and afterwards liberating the young Jodie Foster from her pimp. However, as mastered as these elements are, the rewriting of De Palma pushed the ending in a very drafty way that seems too simplistic and could have had been more complex. The interpretation of the ending is too Hollywoodian for my own tastes and I think that it would be very interesting to discover Schrader’s version of it all.
Among the aforementioned De Palma classics listed, Obsession isn’t really one of the major  movies of his career. It is very middle of the road directing for him and a little too much Hitchcockian in its story and very Antonionian, another of De Palma’s favorites, in its cinematography. Normally, I don’t care to see a filmmaker’s influences on film but when it is that clear it kind of gets a little annoying. It is a movie worth the look for fans of De Palma and Schrader.


  1. I've been catching up on Brian de Palma's best work during the year, since I had pretty much only seen Untouchables and Scarface previously.
    Obsession is another I want to see. I'm a bit cautious about his recent films, since I've heard he kind of lost his way.

    1. What are the ones you've seen? I also am on a search for his earlier films.
      As for his later work he still uses his old gimmicks but is not as inspired as before. I quite liked Femme Fatale though.

    2. I'll be reviewing Body Double, Dressed To Kill, and Carlito's Way at end of August.

      My Brian de Palma ranking, so far:
      1.) Blow-out
      2.) Body Double
      3.) Carrie
      4.) Casualties of War (would be higher if there was less profanity)
      5.) Scarface
      6.) Sisters
      7.) Dressed To Kill
      8.) Carlito's Way
      9.) Mission: Impossible
      10.) The Untouchables

      I still need to see quite a few: Obsession, Phantom of the Paradise, Femme Fatale, The Black Dahlia, Snake Eyes

    3. INteresting you've sen quite a bunch more than I did! I would recommend Phantom of the Paradise and the aforementioned Femme Fatale. My top of De Palma's here:http://cinephiliaque.blogspot.ca/2012/05/top-films-of-brian-de-palma-by-lmdc.html
      if interested...


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