Another short series about a director, this one in honor of the recently released De Palma, a documentary that continues, but hopefully doesn’t climax, the decade long reinvestigation of one of modern cinema’s most misunderstood directors.
Hitchcockian in the primordial sense, 1976’s Obsession finds Brian De Palma joining the more poetic and certainly less lurid Robert Bresson as the only director who can go round to round with Hitch for dominance over every tick, subsuming each actorly movement, and exerting force over every camera quaver by subsuming it under his jurisdiction. With its rehashed and delirium-caked Vertigo update where a New Orleans businessman (Cliff Robertson) discovers his inner-Hitchcock 18 years after his wife and daughter’s death, even the disjunctive lunacy of the film’s depiction of him courting a new woman to dress and behave like his deceased wife feels like an expression of the histrionic lunatic-fringe that is male obsession.
The slimy senselessness of the hyperbolic tone and the slinky, impossibly wacky plot contortions morphs into a lurching twisted-mirror reflection of Hitchcock that imagines male power as both a buffoonish cartoon we can’t seriously accept at face value and a delusional prospect doomed to fail at its project of image-construction. Erecting an ideal image of womanhood from beyond the grave on a canvas of objectified live female flesh is something Hitch found to be dubious and inelegant of a proper man. Not to be outdone, Obsession suggests that it is downright asocial, the product of a noxious mental fantasy land shared by many men that is visualized in Vilmos Zsigmond’s deliciously overwrought cinematography, constructing the film as a male dreamscape that is slowly perverted and surrealized before our eyes.
Conventional logic is irrelevant within a more delegitimized but no less gloriously insubordinately a logic-be-damned, feeling-first flow as the films of Andrei Tarkovsky or Werner Herzog, although they would have basked in the terms “poetic logic” and “ecstatic truth” respectively. Even when the screws come loose during the nut-job denouement, the structural mishap of Obsession is saved – or at least mollified – by its rococo obliviousness to modulation or mediation, preferring full-on garish assault to common sense. It’s a steamy, black velvet onslaught pushed onward by a spinning camera with a cosmic, affective charge. It stinks vaguely of being awful, but, in that most spiritedly ‘70s of ways that reaches into its bowels to pull out the most scabrously abrasive false-happy ending since The Last Laugh, bless it for going there in the first place. Mustache twirling, mint julep drowning, humidity swallowing, presumably seersucker-in-bed wearing Southern villain and all.
Everyone wanders around in Vilmos Zsigmond’s gauzy haze of cinematography that increasingly feels like an inescapable web of veils all the more terrifying for how gossamer they initially seem, not unlike everyone being encased in a discordant fugue state akin to Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. The style mummifies them like the main protagonist’s obsession with the woman who looks like his old wife enervates him. There’s a fearless confidence to this style; the refusal to calm down or legitimize itself is drenched all over the toccata-on-fugue-on-tocata-on-fugue pile-up of Bernard Harmann’s score, his final work and one which is incendiary in its unmoored, gallant refusal to skulk and sprinkle when it can jolt and demand. Bewildering pitched between discordant extension and nefarious satire of his prior work, it feels like a comic foil to his typically lithe, libertine aural anxiety attacks, like he, near his end, needed to pounce, rather than wither, into his grave with a grand joke at his own expense.
It certainly has nothing on Hitch’s masterly craft, but by accentuating the cunning cheekiness of Hitch’s style into near performative, pantomimed levels of quasi-camp artifice, De Palma is at least able to muster up a semblance of an opinion about Hitchcock, rather than simply – as many of his detractors claim – aping him. Canted angles and luxuriant shadows to bathe in – or, if you’re in a De Palma film, likely arouse oneself – all coalesce around and catalyze a cinematic reprobate with a malfeasant fixation on power dynamics – Hitch’s warring grounds for sure – without much to say about the venomous pigmentation of the male ego, but a lyrically debaucherous style to not say it in. In its brightest moments, the post-coital and post-life haze of the film’s style – an aquarium-gaze-fashion-show take on Florence as a dream portal of the lost – even relays how its own lifeless ambivalence and artifice is a representation and evocation of the apathetic stupor that is the protagonist’s aimless saunter of a post-trauma life. The slimy romanticism of the film’s look takes melodramatic excess and perverts it into a commentary on the romantic delusions of men who wish to control women, especially when they are unhinged by the fallout of past trauma.
Certainly, the mood isn’t polyvalent – the meanings are demarcated, delineated, demonstratively pronounced with authority – but the near-camp hysteria of the always-fluttering-beyond-reality style both honors Hitch’s gut-before-head filmmaking intuition and cunningly slithers around Hitch’s giallo connection, teasing out a way to elevate Hitch to the realm of nightmarish fantasia by plunging him into the murk of human monomania that nearly forced him to produce film after film on the theme that may have haunted him so. It’s cartoon Hitch, sure. But its animated camera and stretched-beyond-reality demeanor tip their hat to that director’s brazen defiance of reality in the name of a good fright, and they metastasize Hitch’s spirit to explore the cartoonish surrealism of the self-justifying obsession of the masculine gaze.