When Christina Wehner and Ruth from Silver Screenings announced their Dual Roles Blogathon, it was not long after I had seen Brian de Palma’s Obsession for the first time so, this film had to be my choice for the event.
The ladies’ blogathon celebrates movies where one actor plays more than one role (ex: Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator). In Obsession, it’s Genevieve Bujold, who plays the dual roles; first as Elizabeth Courtland and then as Sandra Portinari.
Obsession is a thriller directed by Brian de Palma, written by Paul Schrader and released in 1976. For its storyline, the film is often compared to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Even the brilliant soundtrack also composed by Bernard Hermann has some similarities with the Vertigo one (the dramatic and then the very melodic notes).
On its release, Obsession received mixed critics, but, fortunately, was a financial success.
I read this on IMDB, so I have no idea if it’s true, that, apparently, Hitchcock was furious with the making of this film, precisely because it looked too much like Vertigo. You know that I love Hitchcock, but I think we have to see this film more as a tribute than as a simple copy.
When I watched the movie for the first time, I really didn’t know what to expect of it, so it’s not because of Hitchcock that I watched it. I watched it because of Cliff Robertson, who is one of my favourite actors. But it also was a good occasion for me to watch my first Brian de Palma’s film and my first Genevieve Bujold’s film (one of our Quebec’s pride).
Before I go further, it would be important for me to tell you what Obsession is about:
Obsession starts in 1959 with Michael (Cliff Robertson) and Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold) Courtland’s 10th wedding anniversary at their big home in New-Orlean. On the same night, Elizabeth and their daughter Amy (Wanda Blackman) are kidnapped and a $500 000 ransom is asked to Michael if he wants to see them back alive. The police organize a rescue, but the kidnappers manage to run away with the two victims. Unfortunately, they all die in a car accident.
16 years later, Michael still hasn’t recovered from the tragic events. He has to go to Florence, Italy for business with his colleague and friend Robert Lasalle (John Lithgow). Florence is where Michael had met Elizabeth. When he returns to the church where they precisely saw each other for the first time, he meets a young girl, Sandra Portinari (Genevieve Bujold), who is an exact copy of Elizabeth. Stunned by this resemblance with his late wife, he becomes obsessed with her. He falls in love with her and they eventually get engaged. When he goes back to New-Orlean with her, things don’t go exactly as he would have expected.
Even if she plays two roles in the film, Genevieve Bujold’s part as Elizabeth is quite short. As a matter of fact, in the short screen appearance of this character, she doesn’t say a word. However, this doesn’t make Elizabeth Courtland an uninteresting and unimportant character. First, just like Michael, we are flabbergasted by her beauty, her doe eyes, and her softness. The fact that Elizabeth Courtland never talks sort of allow us to make our own interpretation of the kind of woman she is. On my side, I see her as a happy, shy and quiet wife. She and Michael simply make our heart beat when they dance together with their daughter during the party.
Even if the screen appearance of Elizabeth is quite short, her character remains important as all the story revolves around her. The spirit and the idea of Elizabeth are alive from the beginning to almost the end of the film (I’ll let you discover why, because I don’t want to reveal any spoilers). Notice that we’ll see her again briefly in some flashback scenes.
Genevieve Bujold’s second character, Sandra, is much more developed and she is the main female character in the film. Even if she looks a lot like Elizabeth, her personality seems slightly different. She has a young spirit and seems more dynamic than Elizabeth. She knows what she wants, and yet doesn’t have the status of Michael’s wife like Elizabeth had. Sandra is an art student, but Elizabeth was a devoted wife. They also both live in two different time periods, so their way of thinking and even their way of dressing is different.
The similarity with Vertigo mainly illustrated is the fact that Michael becomes obsessed with his desire to create the image of Elizabeth on Sandra, just like Scottie (James Stewart) wanted to create the image of Madeleine on Judy (Kim Novak). He doesn’t really love Sandra, he loves what she could become for him, an imitation of Elizabeth.
Sandra herself becomes obsessed with Elizabeth and wants to know everything about her. She goes to her memorial and observes her personal belongings in what used to be her and Michael’s bedroom. Is she just curious or does she want to be perfectly like Elizabeth to satisfy her future husband?
No wonder why this film is called Obsession! It’s a perfectly isotopic title.
There’s a scene in the film where Sandra observes a portrait of Elizabeth that can make us think of the museum scene in Vertigo where Madeleine observes a portrait of Carlotta Valdes. Sandra and Elizabeth have exactly the same eyes and this is demonstrated to us with alternated close-ups of Elizabeth’s portrait’s eyes and Sandra’s ones. The same shape, the same colour.
But it’s in a memorable climax that we’ll learn the truth about Sandra. Why was she on Michael’s route? I’ll let you discover that by yourself because I don’t want to reveal any major spoilers.
Genevieve Bujold did great in this film. She plays two characters that, even if they look alike, have a quite different personality. This proves her versatility. As Elizabeth, she is majestic and, as Sandra, she is quite adorable. Due to the joy and innocence Bujold gave to her character, we immediately appreciate Sandra from the moment she says a few words. If Michael is amazed by how she looks, we are amazed by her vivacity and her beautiful energy. Genevieve will also break our heart in this famous climax scene. Moving from casual joy to deep sadness is something Genevieve Bujold seemed to be able to do easily. Of course, it’s the only film of hers I’ve seen, so I can’t really compare with the others.
But I’m happy I did finally see one of her films, because, as I said before, Genevieve Bujold is one of our Quebec’s Pride. She was born in Montreal (where I live) and first had an acting career in Quebec. She became an international star and started starring in a foreign movie when she starred in Anne of the Thousand Days alongside Richard Burton.
As I previously said, the main reason why I decided to watch this film is Cliff Robertson. After having seen him in The Devil’s Brigade and Autumn Leaves, I was curious to discover more of his films. I was certainly not disappointed by his performance in Obsession. Even if Brian de Palma didn’t like working with him, the result was worthy. The film makes me realize that Cliff often plays characters with a very quiet temper (even if really upsetting things happens to him), but when it’s too much, it’s too much and he can explode. Just like Scottie in Vertigo, Michael’s character is a bit creepy, but fascinating at the same time. I have to say, I’m spellbound by Cliff Robertson’s performance in this film, especially by his voice. It’s the kind of thing that completely makes us forget Gidget…
John Lithgow is not an actor I’m too familiar with (I’ve only seen him in this film, Footloose, and All that Jazz), but, to me, this might be one of his most memorable performances. He is excellent as Robert. At one point, his character can be compared to Marjorie Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) in Vertigo. He doesn’t play the mother figure like her, but he is Michael’s old friend and often tries to bring him back to reason.
The cinematography of Obsession is very interesting and, because the image is often blurry and has a soft light, we constantly have the feeling we are in a dream. This light can be compared to the one in the cemetery scene in Vertigo. It adds a certain poetry to the film, and that’s why Obsession is not a visually crude thriller. The cinematography was supervised by Vilmos Zsigmond, who also work with Brian de Palma on Blow Out, The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Black Dahlia. In 1978 he won an Oscar for his work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg).
Bernard Herrmann’s score for Obsession was one of his last. As a matter of fact, he composed his last score the same year and that was for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The music in this film is both very dramatic and very melodious and poetic. This perfectly reflects the constantly changing atmosphere of the film. He also managed to create a great suspense just like he did with Vertigo. I’ve noticed that some parts of the score are also similar to Spellbound’s one (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945), but this one was composed by Miklós Rózsa.
Obsession is one of those films that deserves to be analyzed in depth. You know, this kind of film you would write a school essay on it. There’s much to say for both its narrative and technical aspects. Now, I’ve given you a brief view of it, but I hope it was enough to satisfy you and make you want to discover this film if you haven’t yet. I know I’ve often compared the movie to Vertigo, but this is something that is quite impossible not to do.
Before leaving you, I want to thank Christina Wehner and Ruth from Silver Screenings for organizing this very original and entertaining event!
Don’t forget to read the other entries!