Obsessionrecommended viewing

Oedipus has seen Vertigo
Brian De Palma
Cliff Robertson, Geneviève Bujold, John Lithgow
The Setup: 
Man loses his wife and daughter in a botched kidnapping. Years later, he meets a woman who looks exactly like his dead wife.

I watched this as part of my drive to see or re-see all the classic De Palma films, and it did not disappoint on any level. It has many of the De Palma touches, both thematic and technical, all stirred into a fascinating and somewhat perverse story linked strongly to Hitchcock's Vertigo.

The movie opens with a wonderful credit sequence that alternates an iconic shot of a church in Italy with slides that provide backstory to the marriage of Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) and his wife (Geneviève Bujold), set to a wonderful (and terrifically operatic, like the tone of the entire movie) score by Bernard Herrmann. This was Herrmann's last score. We go immediately into a party scene, where a wonderful shot informs us that one of the waiters has a gun tucked into his belt! Evil is afoot, and it strikes soon.

But first the couple's nine-year-old daughter comes down the stairs and asks for a dance with Daddy. There is some set-up about how Michael is a Midwesterner who has just made partner in a Southern firm with John Lithgow. Then follows a tense and strange love scene, in which already the erotic objectification is in place, as throughout the earlier scenes and now the wife behaves and is photographed as though she were an doll: a blank expression, a strange, gliding walk, and almost no expression on her face. This helps later, when she is the blank object of obsession on the part of her husband. The wife hears her daughter scream in the other room, goes to check on her. and by the time Michael arrives, both are gone, a ransom note in their place.

The police get involved, and Michael makes the decision to allow them to give the kidnappers paper instead of money, with a radio transmitter inside. This leads to a car chase, and the car containing the wife and daughter explodes.

Michael erects a large tomb-that looks exactly like the church where he and his wife first met-on a large parcel of land that the Lithgow character wanted for their company. The movie then flashes forward 16 years. Michael goes to the same church, and inside he meets a young woman who looks exactly like his dead wife [named Sandra, played by Bujold again]. He romances her, growing ever more obsessed with her, teaching her to walk like his dead wife. To the astonishment and concern of his friends, he intends to marry her and brings her back to New Orleans.

At first I was like "Cliff ROBERTSON? Am I watching some made-for-TV movie? And WHAT is with that toupee?" But as the movie wore on he won me over. He really allows himself to be touchingly vulnerable during his courtship of Sandra, seems to be quietly but convincingly going off his rocker the more he grows obsessed with her, and develops quite menacing by the second half of the movie. In the documentary that's on the disc, they say that Robertson was the only actor [unsaid: that they could afford] who really responded to the material, and he really seems to be giving it all into this character. Go Cliff, you're a winner.

Though almost every director has been influenced by Hitchcock in some way, De Palma seems to be one of the few who really absorbed the deeper insights of Hitchcock's work in terms of telling a story visually, and knowing when to use ostentatious camera work to direct the viewer toward a certain conclusion or to support a theme. Personally, I never resent De Palma's presence intruding into his movies, as I do sometimes in a Scorsese movie. In fact, it's exactly what I love about his movies. And this movie gives you PLENTY to chew on, with long, careful shots, 360-degree pans, plot-advancing actions happening in the foreground while the characters go obliviously about their business in the background. I love movies where the direction IS the story, and that this one has a fascinating story as well only adds icing to the cake.

There is a bit of strain on the suspension of disbelief factor, in a somewhat hootworthy way, as Sandra let's OBVIOUS PSYCHO Michael romance her without a second thought. He stands in plain sight of her for a few days as she paints, but the movie acts as though she hasn't seen him there. He also follows her throughout the city for a few days, but the movie acts as though she doesn't know he's there. Much of this is explained later, but I did get an unintentional laugh from the moment she complains that "A lot of men want to tell you about their wives, and it's not very flattering," then immediately asks: "What was she like?"

This movie also includes a number of beautifully photographed sequences, for example a few walks across bridges while beautiful sunsets unfold in the background. I was also blown away by a similar shot of a jet silhouetted against a thin line of colors in the sky.

In the documentary on the disc, De Palma says that he and Paul Schrader [who wrote the script] went to see Vertigo, were collectively blown away, and decided afterward to develop a movie in that vein. So it's not that this movie is 'stealing' from Vertigo, so much as it is a reworking, and a very interesting one at that. I found the actual obsession in this movie much more convincing [but I've always been cold to James Stewart's acting style], and the whole affair is much more emotional and lurid, in the best of ways. There is enough overlap to make a viewing of Vertigo essential to really 'getting' this movie, but this movie successfully lays out its own stylistic path and follows its own similar but distinctive story.

Canny viewers who have a passing acquaintance with Freud will know that Sandra IS the daughter from the first scene, in which she wants to have a dance with her daddy. And it turns out to be true. She is in cahoots with Lithgow to gain that parcel of land he covets. The thing is she really falls in love with her dad, and turns out to be none to mentally stable herself. It is revealed in the documentary that in the original cut, she does in fact marry and sleep with him. This footage was re-edited to be a dream sequence when potential distributors freaked out.

During flashbacks that explain how the daughter survived and what her story was, De Palma uses a technique he also used in Sisters, where the adult Bujold plays herself as a child, drawing the connection to who she is. It works much more successfully than it did in Sisters, as in that film the adult actress was playing ANOTHER CHARACTER as a child. Here it comes off convincingly, and of course, the adult Bujold can act more convincingly than a child actress likely could.

I, having seen Vertigo, and heard that this film was a reworking of its themes, fully expected that somehow Michael's actions would result in the death of Sandra in some way. Since he had just heard that Sandra was in on the scheme to filch him [and not yet knowing that she's his daughter], and he's running toward her with a gun [as the fluorescent lights throb bizarrely in the background], I thought maybe he was going to kill her in rage, then find out who she is, be anguished, the end. As it is, she runs to his arms, calling him "Daddy." As the camera spins around them in a romantic way [that will be used again in Carrie], Robertson's look of shock carries a lot of the unspoken thought here: "Dang, I thought we were gonna go home and get it on, and now it turns out she's my daughter, and we never can." Then his look slowly changes, and maybe I just have a dirty mind, but I interpreted it as: "Well, maybe we can anyway." It's appropriately unsettling, genuinely perverse. and exactly what I want from De Palma.


Should you watch it: 

YES! It's is completely fascinating, especially for admirers of Vertigo.


VERTIGO is one of the most fully realized and absolutely stunning of Hitchcock's films, and if you've never seen it you need to skip work today and watch it immediately. Tell your boss I said so.
OLDBOY shares a thematic element with this movie, which you won't understand until it's over.