[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Once you’ve experienced the multiple twists and revelations in the last reel of Brian De Palma’s Obsession, and you think about what’s gone before, the basic storyline appears not only terribly contrived but in several ways downright impossible. But the film nevertheless works by the sheer power of a marvelously inventive, multi-layered screenplay brought to life by the simultaneously literary and stylistic genius of one of the most important young American directors. A story as involved and rich as Paul Schrader’s scenario must be firmly grounded in explicable plot; but Vilmos Zsigmond’s richly suggestive cinematography and Paul Hirsch’s relentless-pace editing, under the careful and inspired direction of De Palma, mix memory and desire even more effectively than Schrader’s story. The ultimate achievement of Obsession is not a matching of style to content so much as a resolution of content into pure style.
At its most immediately obvious, the film’s title refers to New Orleans businessman Mike Courtland’s fixation on, first, the death of his young wife Elizabeth in a 1959 kidnap plot; second, his guilt for her death, in having delivered false money to the kidnappers; and, third, the stunning resemblance of a young Florentine art student, met 16 years later, to his dead wife. Court’s is the central experience of the film, the one which most drives its development.
Yet a second association with the idea of “obsession” arises when Court’s psychiatrist describes the student, Sandra Portinari, whom Court has brought back from Florence to his home, as having become “obsessed” with the idea of Elizabeth, to the point of hoping completely to replace the woman she so dramatically resembles. (This is the turning-back point for those who have not seen Obsession; reading on can irreparably harm one’s experience of the film.) When, toward the end of the movie, we learn that Sandra is really Amy, the daughter of Court and Elizabeth presumed killed with her mother 16 years earlier, we perceive yet another obsession motivating her: a methodic repetition of the events of 1959, with the hope of either restoring lost certainty of a father’s love or confirming forever his guilt and avenging herself on him for her mother’s death.