Directed by Brian de Palma and screenplay by Paul Schrader from a story by de Palma and Schrader, Obsession is the story of a grief-stricken man who travels to Florence, Italy where he meets and falls for a woman who looks like his late wife whom he tried to save during a kidnapping attempt that also included his daughter. The film is a study of grief set in a neo-noir setting where a man deals with his own loss and his obsession towards the woman who looks exactly like his late wife. Starring Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold, John Lithgow, and Stocker Fontelieu. Obsession is a riveting and haunting film from Brian de Palma.
The film revolves around a real estate developer who had lost his wife and daughter following a kidnapping attempt over money as he would go to Florence sixteen years later with his business partner as he meets a young woman who bears the same face as his late wife. It is a film that is about man still reeling from the death of his wife and daughter as he feels guilty over how he fumbled the attempt to save them as the presence of this young woman who looks exactly like his late wife has him obsessed about getting a part of his life that he lost. Paul Schrader’s screenplay is a study of grief as it plays into a man consumed with guilt and loss as the land that was meant to be a thriving plot that would make him rich but instead turned it as a memorial for his wife and daughter that is a replica of the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte in Florence. It is where Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) met the woman who would be his wife in Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold) as he would see a young woman in Sandra (Genevieve Bujold) who looks exactly like Elizabeth as she is restoring a painting in the church.
Courtland’s business partner Robert LaSalle (John Lithgow) also sees the resemblance upon their visit to Florence for business reasons as he returns to New Orleans where Courtland stays in Florence to meet Sandra. Courtland would bring Sandra to his home in New Orleans as those close to Courtland are shocked by how much Sandra looked like Elizabeth as things become more troubling. Schrader’s script does play into Courtland’s own obsession relating to his late wife through Sandra as the ideas of fantasy and reality would blur to the point where even those close to him become concerned. Yet, more revelations would be unveiled in its third act as it plays more into the night Courtland tried to save his wife and daughter along with those who tried to make a play on the kidnappers as it adds to Courtland’s own troubled obsession.
Brian de Palma’s direction is definitely stylish as it does bear some ideas from one of de Palma’s favorite filmmakers in Alfred Hitchcock and his 1958 film Vertigo as both films explore grief and trauma. Shot on location in both New Orleans and Florence along with nearby locations for the former, de Palma does make both cities characters with New Orleans being a vibrant and thriving city where Courtland is about to make his fortune yet wanted to share it with his family as the film opens in 1959 at a party where de Palma maintains an intimacy as well as some dream-like imagery to play into the idyllic world of Courtland at his home with wife and child. It would all crash down the moment Elizabeth and her daughter Amy (Wanda Blackman) get kidnapped as de Palma’s rescue sequence is intense as it’s about what isn’t shown and how Courtland is convinced by the police to try and swindle the kidnappers is where everything went wrong. When the film moves to Florence, the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte is a key location of the film as it is where Courtland met Elizabeth in 1948 and why the memorial for her and Amy is a replica of that church as it is also the moment where Courtland meets Sandra.
The usage of close-ups and medium shots as well as in the latter where de Palma gets so much attention to detail on an object or on a painting, with portraits created by de Palma’s older brother Bart, as it adds to the drama and suspense. Even in the wide shots where de Palma does use the locations including the scenes in Florence as it adds to the sense of intrigue in the film while its third act returns the film to New Orleans where there's some major revelations happening in the film. Notably in a sequence that is somewhat recreated from another scene early in the film yet there is so much that is happening along what had happened before in this recreated sequence as de Palma is all about those small details. Even as it play into Courtland’s obsession as it is clear he never got over the loss of his family and the guilt over his role in their deaths. Yet, the film’s climax isn’t just about revelations but also a study of trauma as well as an ending that is really filled with ambiguity over what Courtland had come to realize and such. Overall, de Palma crafts an intoxicating yet unsettling film about a man who becomes obsessed with a young woman who looks exactly like his late wife.
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond does brilliant work with the film’s luscious cinematography with its usage of low-key and natural lighting for some of the interior/exterior scenes at night as well as dream-like foggy lenses for some shots in the film as it is a highlight of the film. Editor Paul Hirsch does amazing work with the editing with its stylish usage of transitional dissolves, jump-cuts, montages, and slow-motion as its emphasis on style adds to the suspense and drama. Art director Jack Senter and set decorator Jerry Wunderlich do excellent work with some of the interiors at Courtland’s home as well as the places in Florence as well as the design of the memorial for Elizabeth and Amy. Costume designer Frank Balchus does nice work with the stylish suit that LaSalle wears as well as some of the clothing from the 1950s that Elizabeth had and the clothes that Sandra would wear throughout the film
The special effects work of Joe Lombardi is terrific for the minimal special effects as it relates to the chase scene early in the film along with a dream-like sequence in the film’s third act. Sound mixer David M. Ronne does superb work with the sound as it play into the atmosphere of the locations as well as scenes that involve the suspense including some intense moments in the third act. The film’s music by Bernard Herrmann is incredible for its rich and mesmerizing orchestral score as it adds to the atmospheric tone of the film along with themes that play for certain characters and scenes that add to the suspense and drama as it is another major highlight of the film.
The film’s wonderful cast feature some notable small roles and appearances from William Finley as a man at the airport, Regis Cordic as a newscaster, Sylvia Kuumba Williams as Courtland’s maid, J. Patrick McNamara as a kidnapper, Nella Simoncini Barbieri as Sandra’s mother, Loraine Despres as Courtland’s secretary, Stanley J. Reyes as the police inspector Brie who organizes the rescue attempt on Elizabeth and Amy, Wanda Blackman as Courtland’s daughter Amy, and Stocker Fontelieu as Courtland’s psychiatrist Dr. Ellman who is concerned about Courtland’s obsession as he believes that Courtland is acting hastily. John Lithgow is incredible as Courtland’s business partner Robert LaSalle as a man who is full of charm and wear the finest suits as he becomes concerned about Courtland’s obsession towards Sandra and how much she looks like Elizabeth where he also becomes concerned about his business and whatever financial fallout would happen.
Genevieve Bujold is phenomenal in her dual role as Elizabeth Courtland and Sandra where she brings an enchanting presence in the former despite not saying anything while is more livelier in the latter where Bujold plays this woman who helps restore old paintings while learning more about Elizabeth as it is this restrained yet haunting performance from Bujold who copes with a man’s loss but also something bigger. Finally, there’s Cliff Robertson in a marvelous performance as Michael Courtland as a real estate developer who loses his family following a rescue attempt as he becomes obsessed with a young woman who looks like his late wife where Robertson brings an anguish to his role but also someone that is desperate and later jovial until people question about his relationship with Sandra as it is a rollercoaster of a performance from Robertson.
Obsession is a sensational film from Brian de Palma that features great performances from Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold, and John Lithgow. Along with Paul Schrader’s chilling screenplay, dazzling visuals, hypnotic editing, and Bernard Herrmann’s intoxicating score. It’s a suspense-drama that explores trauma and loss as well as a man’s obsession towards a young woman unaware of what is happening around him as reality would force him to think about the moment he lost everything. In the end, Obsession is a phenomenal film from Brian de Palma.
Brian de Palma Films: (Murder a la Mod) – (Greetings) – (The Wedding Party) – (Dionysus in ’69) – (Hi, Mom!) – (Get to Know Your Rabbit) – Sisters (1973 film) - Phantom of the Paradise - Carrie - The Fury - (Home Movies) – Dressed to Kill - Blow Out - Scarface (1983 film) - Body Double – (Wise Guys) – The Untouchables - Casualties of War - The Bonfire of the Vanities - Raising Cain - Carlito's Way - Mission: Impossible - Snake Eyes - Mission to Mars - Femme Fatale - The Black Dahlia - (Redacted) – Passion (2012 film) - (Domino (2019 film))
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