Jako pametan filmski časopis.
The fourth issue of this wonderful film journal, edited by Adrian Martin and Girish Shambu, is now out. There are four pieces dedicated to the cinema of Brian DePalma, a great article called ‘The Cinema of Compassion by Amelie Hastie, where she mixes the words of Virginia Woolf, Gaston Bachelard, and herself with the images of The Thin Red Line, Whale Rider, and Winter’s Bone, as well as Sam Roggen’s piece on CinemaScope. Check it out. - Greg Gerke
|Glittering Flares: Breaking the Darkness in Out of the Past Victor Bruno|
To the Passion Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin
Time Denied: An Apotheosis of the Imaginary Alain Bergala
A Walk Through Carlito's Way Adrian Martin
Responsive Eyes and Crossing Lines: Forty Years of Looking and Reading Helen Grace
Cinema of Compassion Amelie Hastie
You See It Or You Don’t: CinemaScope, Panoramic Perception and the Cinephiliac Moment Sam Roggen
Getting to Know the Big Wide World Veronika Ferdman
Accidental Specificity: Modernism from Clement Greenberg to Frank Tashlin Burke Hilsabeck
The Grandmaster: A Tour de Force Yvette Bíró
Clone this DVD! Darren Tofts
How We Got the Mob Zach Campbell
To Live (with) Cinema: Documenting Cinephilia and the Archival Impulse Rowena Santos Aquino
Crisis Cinema: Toronto International Film Festival 2013 Girish Shambu
Unspeakable Images Carlos Losilla
|Issue 3 (December 2012): Masks|
|Hail Holy Motors Part One A Spontaneous LOLA collective|
A Pilgrimage to the Peloponnese: Gregory Markopoulos, Eniaios and the Temenos Erika Balsom
Is It Weird? Or, Actualising Disallowed Cinema Philip Brophy
Transient and Intrinsically Valuable in Their Impermanence: Television's Changing Aesthetic Norms Tom O'Regan
Jacques Rivette/John Carpenter: Insularities Compared Emmanuel Siety
Jerry and Me: Fan Psychoanalysis Adrian Martin
The Macao Gesture Cristina Álvarez López
Investigation of a Stolen Life: I giorni contati Yvette Bíró
Sitges 2012: A Drive-Through Carles Matamoros
Road Trip: Toronto International Film Festival 2012 Girish Shambu
Hail Holy Motors Part Two A Spontaneous LOLA collective
|Issue 2: Devils Dedicated to Raúl Ruiz and Gilbert Adair|
|Cinema is Another Life Raúl Ruiz|
A Letter to My Dead Friend Gilbert Adair About Blindness Alexander García Düttmann
A Letter Dana Linssen
Chantal Akerman: The Pajama Interview Nicole Brenez
Chantal Akerman: The Integrity of Exile and the Everyday Jonathan Rosenbaum
Almayer's Folly: Synopsis and Statement of Intent Chantal Akerman
Seeing For Others? Alexander García Düttmann
Aesthetic Risk and Deficit Thinking: Some Profit and Loss Statements about Cinema and Thought Helen Grace
Revolution of the Head: Vilém Flusser Adrian Martin
Filming Bombs: On Farocki's War at a Distance Sarinah Masukor
A Dangerous Method Janine Burke
A Bright Darkness: Masao Adachi Cloe Masotta
Sustaining the Festive Principle: Between Realism and Pleasure in Institution-Building Meaghan Morris
Cine-Letters, Rotterdam 2012 Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin
The Theory Demon and the Mad Traveller Edward Colless
|Issue 1: Histories|
|Contemporary Cinema? Joe McElhaney|
Innuendo 1.5 William D. Routt
Expressing the In-Between Andrew Klevan
Ah Yes! Griffith was a Marxist! Luc Moullet
Out of the Mid-Century: History, Memory and Cinema Sylvia Lawson
Dinosaurs, Babies and the Sound of Music Adrian Martin
F.J. Ossang: The Grand Insurrectionary Style Nicole Brenez
Stuck in the Mud: The Visions of Lucrecia Martel James Guida
Think But This ... 36 vues du Pic St-Loup David Phelps
At the End of Cinema, This Thing Called Film Elena Gorfinkel
|To the Passion|
Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin
Basically, we must verify that the cinema enjoys a certain aptitude for the concept, once it has the power to render the certainty of the visible visibly uncertain. - Alain Badiou
Be sure you put that in your piece so you can instruct the other critics. - Brian De Palma
First Time Every Time
At least since The Fury (1978), commentators on the films of Brian De Palma have been keen to catch him in the act of mannerist frenzy: self-quotation, self-summation, self-anthologisation – upon material that is itself, of course, already borrowed as a handy template from previous masters and masterpieces. De Palma’s cinema today, in this view, can only be the end result of an ever-more baroque plunge into spirals of citation and reworking: an intriguing, post-postmodern business to some, mere self-exhaustion and diminishing returns for others.
As with all the best De Palma films, watching Passion (2012) should remind us of a contrary truth: when it comes to the exhilarating thrill, the wallop of cinema that his work gives us,it’s always the first time. Of course, there are broadly similar games with devious plots, POVs, split-screens, identity switches/disguises – play with the five senses and with every kind of media screen – in at least a dozen of his previous movies. But we were not thinking of Dressed to Kill (1980) or Raising Cain (1992) or Femme Fatale (2002) while we were absorbed in Passion: that type of unravelling always comes later. Nor were we trying to construct a hyper-intellectual contraption (in the manner of a recent woeful book) to ‘account for’ or explain away the intense, complicated, visceral pleasure we derive from his films.
When one of the main characters dies at the precise mid-way point, when the dreams and the dreams-within-dreams begin to unfold, when the camera tilts calamitously in a room or tracks in slowly to a face, when the plot lines pile up and converge on a single, catastrophic point … when these events, great and small, happen, we are not immediately flipping through the De Palma back catalogue; we are in the moment, the screen moment. Something that shakes us, that resonates, is happening there – we definitely know this by the final frames – and it is our task as critics to figure out what forces are involved, what has been deftly drawn into the fray. This task has nothing to do with taking the old Pauline Kael line that De Palma’s cinema is all about (and only about) energy, ‘pop vitalism’ and all-American vulgarity: such so-called ‘defence of trash’ too often clogs up the response-pores of even De Palma’s most public devotees.
Passion is not (as we are hearing a lot at the moment) a wilfully ‘ridiculous’ film (it is especially depressing to hear this said as praise!) or a self-consciously trashy one: these kinds of responses always tell more about the person uttering it than about the filmmaker in question. De Palma has gotten to a position in his career that is a little reminiscent of Samuel Fuller in his early-to-mid 1960s prime: his films mix vigorous, generic structures with sincere samplings of culture high and low (from viral YouTube videos to Jerome Robbins’ ballet choreography of Afternoon of a Faun); they meld expressionistic and melodramatic aesthetic patterns with a cold, hard edge of social criticism. And none of his films are so stringently, steely cold as Passion.
Passion offers a stark vision of professional women tearing each other apart in a neo-liberal, neo-corporate world. De Palma reaches back to George Cukor’s The Women (1939) as a handy point of reference, but a closer comparison could be made with the vicious byplay between Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles in The Business of Strangers (writer-director Patrick Stettner, 2001). Like that underrated film (which was largely set in an under-construction airport), De Palma makes full use of his cosmopolitan, Berlin setting: an empire of glass and of easily-penetrated offices, a ‘porous’ space where nothing is private or secure – neither the papers meant to go in the trash bin, nor one’s personal email. He turns the co-production co-ordinates (French/German money, but shot mainly in English) to his advantage: this is a fluid world of multinational capital, in which the office spaces are interchangeable, networked by digital connections and screens.
Also like Stettner’s film, Passion is built on a central power dynamic: boss Christine (Rachel McAdams) and star employee Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) – but what’s different here is that there is no longer any nostalgia for, or even a reminder of, a previous era where women sometimes struggled with choices between marriage/family versus career, sentimental life versus cutthroat workplace obligations. Christine provides a new model for the professional woman, less conflicted or neurotic than even Tilda Swinton as Eve in the law-firm setting of Female Perversions (Susan Streitfeld, 1996): she manages her own down-time perversions (not always easy for her to satisfy with one phone call, it’s true) in relation to her job commitments rather well – and also finds a way to intermingle a very modern kind of love/friendship with office team-work.
The important thing is not that Passion (as has long been the case in De Palma’s cinema) keeps pace with the techno-times of the industrially advanced everyday: so many Mac laptops, mobile phone calls, SMS text messages, video-conferencing, YouTube clips … and not even that this technology is so skilfully interwoven into the moves of the story (Isabelle’s ‘viral video’ success, Dani’s video evidence uploaded to her phone and ready to send to the chief cop with a flick of her finger). Rather, it is that all the processes associated with this audiovisual technology are continuous and interlinked.
Unlike in the movie system of old, with its divisions of labour and outsourcing, Passionpresents a model of production and distribution strongly influenced by our contemporary audiovisual landscape: Isabelle and Dani shoot on their mobile, edit on their laptop, project it at the staff meeting and stick it on YouTube; while Christine (this sequence of actions conveyed more elliptically) spies on everyone at work through surveillance cameras (the ‘eye in the sky’ from Snake Eyes), edits the most incriminating parts together, and screens the end result at the office party … Chillingly, this unbroken strip of digital processes aids in completely sealing up the modern work space: everything (from sexual trysts to nervous breakdowns) is seen, recorded, montaged, processed and recycled in-house; there is no escape from its loop.
In the fifth minute of Passion, only three shots are sufficient to announce the logic that will preside over the entire film. In the first, Isabelle, in bed, falls asleep while typing on her Mac laptop; the second is a brief sex episode between blindfolded Christine and her masked lover, Dirk (Paul Anderson); in the third, Isabelle wakes with a bright idea for the advertising campaign they are working on, and calls Dani (Karoline Herfurth), her assistant, to get it happening. This sequence of shots allows De Palma to signal, in a wonderfully concise and effective way, the position that each character occupies in the chain of power, as well as the parallelisms, transferences and displacements that will occur all along this hierarchy (the sexual domination game that Christine exercises over Dirk, for instance, finds its double in the euphoric affirmation with which Dani answers Isabelle’s nocturnal command: ‘You’re the boss’.) The alternation between these three shots, however, reveals something deeper: in the connection between Isabelle and Christine that occurs in the interval between the dreaming and then waking of the former, the film already indicates, in a subterranean way, the specific structure and poetic system it is adopting: namely, a constant displacement between reality and dream that works not by opposition, but by confluence.
Dreams (usually in the form of nightmares) figure prominently in many De Palma films: either as a dramatic device that allows the expression of characters’ fears, desires or guilt feelings; or as a mechanism that provides the possibility of complicating the narration and unfolding an allegorical and meta-fictional mise en scène (such is the case in Dressed to Kill, for example). The second half of Passion is built – so it seems – upon a structure of dreams-within-dreams; but these dreams are treated like no others in the director’s previous filmography. Up until now, waking up was always a relief in De Palma’s movies, because it put a brake on fantasy’s excesses – either putting everything back in its proper place, or prefiguring a reality that could be modified, thus finally giving the protagonists a second chance (as in Femme Fatale). In Passion, however, each new waking plunges Isabelle into a level of reality that is more sordid and hostile than the one before – a vast improvement on, and far less reassuring than, the film that provided some measure of inspiration for De Palma on this occasion, namely Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010).
By the 50th minute of the film, De Palma has arranged everything (pills on the bedside table, Isabelle’s closing eyes …) to plunge us into what would seem to be a dream sequence. The long section that follows adopts a look and tone (blue filters giving the image an unreal aspect, lines of light and shadow streaking the walls as in an Expressionist film, acute angles, tilted shots, dark and liquid reflections) totally different from the film’s first half. However, when Isabelle wakes, drenched in sweat, we discover, after the initial moment of relief, that what De Palma has presented as a dream is, in fact, real (and this whole operation, furthermore, will happen again with Isabelle in her cell). What can be the rationale for these aesthetic choices by De Palma in constructing his scenes? Is it just a trick, a caprice, a red herring?
In fact, the director’s decision is doubly justified by the film’s logic. First, because nothing permits us to disallow the possibility that these things are also happening in Isabelle’s dreams; and second, because Passion fuses with Isabelle to such an extent that that the film ends up somatising the imaginary condition of this protagonist, and transforming itself into a projection of the fiction that she has internalised in order to elaborate her alibi.
While, on the one hand, De Palma manages to embroil the spectator in this uncertainty and confusion concerning levels of reality in the film (watching Passion is like emerging from a particularly intense dream and being unable, momentarily, to distinguish what is real from what has been imagined), on the other hand, he indeed warns us that, under the dreamlike surface of these scenes, there lies certain events that have definitely happened.
This clever work by De Palma on the spectator’s regime of belief leads to the deliberately jam-packed final climax, for which the entire film has been preparing us. Here, however, the dream does not involve those atmospheric co-ordinates with which cinema has usually approached the depiction of such sequences. De Palma lets this dream unwind according to its own, intrinsic properties: possessing a series of elements (Christine’s twin, the platform shoes, flowers, the telephone hidden behind a drawer, a scarf stained with blood …) that interact via condensation, displacement and metaphor. It hardly matters that this is the only real dream in the film; the seed has been planted, our intuition has deceived us twice before, and so now we are ready to fervently believe in the terrible reality of anything we are shown.
Seeing the Unreliable
The most remarkable section of Passion hinges on the decline and seeming fall of Isabelle after her public humiliation at the hands of surveillance-master Christine. In a superbly directed moment, Isabelle wakes up from the nightmare of having been arrested and thrown in jail (after confessing under police duress) – but then realises that her dream is actual, and she really is in jail. As we will learn later, Isabelle is faking, and covering up, a great deal here. All the stuff including her pill-popping problem – complete with heavy subjective POV effects of wandering, fuzzy attention – is an elaborate ruse. De Palma rightly pegs her (in the interview quoted at the start of this piece) as what narrative theory calls the unreliable narrator.
‘You're seeing the unreliable narrator’, says De Palma. But what does it mean to see an unreliable narration unfolding? What actually happens in Passion is more complex than in literary fiction: it is not only the character performing, but also the film itself! And far beyond any deception that is strictly necessary in plotting terms, i.e., inside the diegesis where Isabelle needs to fool everyone – because De Palma, in making us see this unreliable narrator/narration, in projecting or somatising it the way he does, aims to completely fool or mislead the spectator (at least for a while). If this is what some spoilsports call cheating, it is a sweet cheat, indeed. De Palma takes the ruse a long way: when Isabelle sits in jail, apparently even her internal memory (of various lawful things said to her) is still in the process of performing. De Palma is a reliably unreliable narrator.
Triangles and Turning Points
What we have just described is an exaggerated model of what is, in a sense, always going on in De Palma’s films. There is a gradual process of focusing upon a character, and his or her subjectivity (what s/he sees, hears, notices, deduces, acts upon), while also shuffling another character into the background – another character who, in turn, will eventually emerge to eclipse the former player and take over the driving seat of the narrative. What is terrific in De Palma is that this whole process can happen as many times as required by an extravagant plot (and draw upon as many diverse characters as is needed for the trick), and that it can happen at any moment – even near the very end of a film, as it does with Dani in Passion.
The knotty, triangular construction of Passion – the way it rotates through Christine, Isabelle and Dani – is a marvel to behold and study. It is also one of the many, crucial inventions that De Palma added to his source material, Alain Corneau’s now unwatchably bland and flat Crime d’amour (2010). Substituting redheaded Dani for the tepid male character in Corneau, De Palma not only gains a compact women’s-film, but also injects into his version a completely different dynamic. Passion transforms the traditional two-hander conflict into a disturbing, serial chain: here the competitiveness never ends, it only ever perpetuates itself, expanding and renewing with each new turn of the screw.
If you add together the overlapping moves of this triangular structure with the dream/reality game already outlined, you get … absolutely nothing resembling a conventional three-act or four-part or x-y (insert your own preferred model) plot, of the kind preached in any of the scriptwriting manuals. The beats and the turning points just do not fall where convention decrees; the film creates its own necessities, its own shifts, its own complex system.
For instance, the strong shift, at the 40-minute point, to Isabelle as the victim-centre of the piece ties and prefigures many elements and levels in the film. It hinges on everyday communications technology: a cruel Skype trick played by Christine on Isabelle. It reinforces the techno-bubble: Christine’s broadcast includes the sex-file made by Dirk in London. (With a deft pan of the Skype-eye, Christine also demonstrates her ‘possession’ or domination of Dirk in the flesh, as well.) Above all, it performs a two-step, an unusual deformation of shot/reverse shot, that begins the more Expressionist stylisations to come: from the embedded screen vision of Christine on Skype looking directly into the camera-eye, we cut to a sudden frontal view of Isabelle that is not exactly what Christine sees (it’s not her Skype screen), but rather what we are cued to see and feel: Isabelle’s sudden recognition of having been caught out, her entrapment in the situation. The entire somatic nightmare around Isabelle, and the way it is presented, begins here …
Domination, humiliation and frustration are the building blocks of an unstoppable chain of transferences – a constantly rotating sequence that works by switching the three women’s roles and strengthening the parallelisms between them. Thus, Passion’s opening scene – with Isabelle and Christine working on the Mac – finds its double in the final section, except that now Isabelle occupies (literally as well as metaphorically) the place of Christine, and Dani takes Isabelle’s former spot. At another moment, De Palma presents the intersubjective diagram of his film using a fluid, parallel montage rising to a crescendo: observe how Christine and Isabelle, each in their own space, deal with the frustration provoked by rejection from their respective lovers.
Contrary to Crime d'amour, whose reassuring denouement softens the import of Isabelle’s actions by suggesting that they are in response to an unrequited love, Passion seeks no such sentimental alibi to redeem its characters. In this sense, the film’s title seems like the ultimate, black joke on its director’s part – yet another piece in an elaborate mechanism engineered to disorient the spectator and sabotage his or her expectations. The passion to which this title alludes has nothing to do with amorous rapture (not even its purely physical, carnal side); rather, it involves the intensity aroused by everything we know as the base passions.
From the cruelty with which Christine and Isabelle snigger at a model’s unfortunate fall on the catwalk, to the incessant, multiple power games enacted by the feminine trio: everything in the movie turns upon this type of excited seizure which is experienced by all the characters in relation to a smorgasbord of diabolical perversions and morally reprehensible emotions. In the savage, competitive world of Passion, even the kisses – symbol par excellence of love – are turned into a weapon that all the women wield, at some stage of the film, to coerce and manipulate each other.
Split screen is not only one of the cornerstones and hallmarks of De Palma’s cinema; it is also, frequently, what prompts some of his most spectacular, sophisticated and climactic set pieces. In Passion, the split screen dispositif attains a remarkable level of complexity. Debussy’s composition Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (based on a Mallarmé poem that, intriguingly, displays a similar dreamlike theme and structure to De Palma’s film) plays on the soundtrack before the splitting of the screen takes effect: an establishing shot shows us Isabelle entering the theatre, and then we see Christine farewelling her dinner party guests. While Isabelle tries to get rid of the troublesome Dirk, a close-up of Isabelle’s eyes appears on the left of the screen and starts to slide towards the centre, until we reach a 50/50 division.
In brief, what the two screens show is this: on the left, the ballet choreographed by Jerome Robbins, interspersed with several shots of Isabelle’s face; on the right, Christine discovering a note containing precise instructions, and then preparing for yet another sexual encounter. When Debussy’s music is interrupted by Pino Donaggio’s theme (with its audible allusion to his previous score for Dressed to Kill), the brutal murder of Christine puts an abrupt end to the split screen deployment.
When De Palma first shows Isabelle at the start of this sequence, he emphasises her status as spectator: the camera begins in a position behind her head, then racks focus from her to the stage, and begins to slowly move towards it. When, later, the director alternates shots of the spectacle with Isabelle’s eyes, we naturally assume that this shot/reverse shot volley confirms that the character is watching the ballet. Near the film’s end, Dani’s digital video recording lets us re-see the reverse shot of Isabelle, and that is when we discover exactly how we have been deceived. It is not the first time that De Palma has used this type of operation – returning to an image and working through it – in order to reveal the genuinely elusive nature of supposedly crystal-clear, classical cinematographic syntax. The function of the split screen is thus revealed as another of the strategies of unreliable narration used in Passion, a fruit of its interpretative mode: the way in which it assimilates, sustains and confirms Isabelle’s alibi.
The brilliance of this scene, however, goes beyond its narrative function – resting upon the beauty of its echoes and resonances, its movements of forms and colours, its dance of rhythms and temporal structures. While the ballet unfolds in continuous ‘real time’ on the left screen (although there is a disguised narrative ellipse here, as well, excluding most of the male dancer’s initial solo), on the right screen the action jumps forward elliptically. The dancers’ movements on one side, and the easy movements of De Palma’s camera on the other side, create a floating, shared choreography across the image-strips. The colour design of the sequence keeps uncovering intermittent correspondences between the two screen zones: the white on the stage fits with the walls of Christine’s house; the blue doors and windows on the left match the blue elements of décor and costume on the right. The amorous ecstasy of the ballerina coincides with the sensual exaltation of Christine under the shower; and the wide-open eyes of both of them trigger the sequence’s overwhelming climax. At some moments, one of the two screens moves to take full possession of the cinema rectangle (in what could be taken as a visual pun mimicking the volatile power dynamic between the characters); at other moments, the exact opposite happens: the two screen areas fit together in such a way that the line dividing them seems natural, and they are part of the same, continuous space.
In Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), a character refers to the triangle (composed of three people) as the ‘fundamentally vulgar figure’ – and many fine filmmakers have explored the infinite perversities of that character arrangement. Hitchcock went further, insinuating the triangular relationship even into the most intimate moment of a couple kissing inNotorious (1946): ‘I also felt that the public, represented by the camera, was the third party to this embrace. The public was being given the great privilege of embracing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together. It was a kind of temporary ménage à trois’. In Passion, De Palma – tracking the profound vulgarity of our new age – outdoes all previous cinematic triangles.
In the split screen sequence, De Palma seizes directly upon the central, scenographic idea of Robbins’ choreography for Afternoon of a Faun: the dancers look directly out – at the theatre audience, at Isabelle, at us, and at the camera – because they are miming the act of gazing at themselves in a wall-length rehearsal mirror. What a concept, in De Palma’s hands: the transparent fourth wall of the cubic stage becomes a cinematic two-way mirror! And in none of the many documented renditions of this dance on YouTube (including the 1950s TV clip that De Palma himself consulted) does anyone ever dare put the camera right there, where it should most logically be, ‘in’ or as the mirror. Merrily risking (and not the for the first time) the discomfort of the spectator, De Palma in Passioninsists that every clinch is just another triangle – a fundamentally vulgar triangle, in which we are always implicated.
An Apotheosis of the Imaginary
Roland Barthes defines the imaginary as the ‘total assumption of the image’. (1) Here is, undoubtedly, one of the scenes from film history that best fits this definition:
|1. Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard), Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), p. 105.|
There has already been a great deal of commentary on the moment in this scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) when Scottie (James Stewart) excitedly waits for Judy’s (Kim Novak’s) ultimate surrender (dyeing her hair ‘Madeleine blond’), and sees her emerge from the background, like a ghostly apparition. What has been less analysed is the brutality of the movement from this assumption of the image (Judy’s reality finally conforms perfectly to Madeleine’s image) to the most trivial reality. Between the first and second part of this clip, there is a black hole where the film makes a vertiginous fall from grace to gravity, from the ethereal, disembodied sublime of the imaginary to conjugal triviality. When we see them, ready to go out for the evening, after the fade to black on the image of Eurydice coming back to life, we get the impression that twenty-five years of marriage have flown by: ‘Oh no, you’ll muss me! Where shall we go for dinner?’ Judy’s body has become the worn-out body that Hitchcock feared when reluctantly agreeing to give Novak the part.
Our memory of the film can be deceiving: the deflation of the imaginary is not the consequence of the discovery of the jewelry that betrays Judy/Madeleine’s double dealing. It is prior to this discovery. When Scottie realises how he has been manipulated, the damage has already been done. The abandonment has already taken place when Scottie finds a good reason for it in the necklace. I am inclined to say, rather, that this verifiessomething: he who wants to kill the object of his imaginary projection accuses it of betrayal.
In Traversée des ombres (Across the Shadows), Jean-Bertrand Pontalis talks about one of his patients, Hugues, who has lost the woman he loved and sometimes finds her, alive, in his sleep. In one of his dreams, he encounters a young woman in the street. He is stronglyattracted to her, follows her, and tells his analyst during a session: ‘Believe me, it was her – same hair, same eyes, same walk. It was more than a resemblance, it was the same person who reappeared’. (2)
This is what happens for Michael (Cliff Robertson) in Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976), at the end of the first scene in San Miniato where he has just come upon the doppelgänger of his dead wife (Geneviève Bujold), at the exact same spot where he had met her for the first time. Michael finds the most economical exquisite formula for the return of the same. To the question ‘How was it?’ posed by his partner – whom he asks to stay outside for this pilgrimage – Michael laconically responds, in a daze: ‘The same’.
2. Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, Traversée des ombres (Paris : Éditions Gallimard, 2003), p. 36.
|These dreams [of the dead] are what remain for us of the belief in resurrection. But, if they make our dead visible and sometimes conversant with us, they do not allow us to touch them. The images, however luminous and intense they may be, remain impalpable. They do not have the power for reincarnation. (3)||3. Ibid., p. 30.|
This is exactly what happens to Scottie: he obsessively reconstructs the dead creature, laboriously managing to bring her back to life – but when he wants to touch her, she instantly transforms into a trivial ‘missus’, graceless, tired flesh, too real, that he can no longer even bring himself to kiss without obvious disgust.
The major difference between Scottie in Vertigo and Michael in Obsession is that Michael is in a deeper sleep than Scottie. He wants to believe in the reality of his waking dream with a deep and naïve conviction. The whole film is an obstinate refusal to wake up, to leave the bliss of the imaginary. He rushes like a bull towards the first illusion that is offered to him – this woman who is the reincarnation of his dead wife.
Now we come to the scene in Obsession that I call ‘haste to get married’. It describes the most important thing about the relationship to Michael’s waking dream, a waking dream that is also De Palma’s film. In this scene, we find a feeling of already having experienced something, déjà-vécu, a feeling we are all familiar with from dreams. It is the moment when we are at the height of pleasure because the dream gratifies us with the instantaneous realisation of all kinds of desires: that a dead person is still alive; that a woman goes out with us without any of the manoeuvres or laborious stages of seduction that are necessary in cruel reality; that we are effortlessly transported to a magical place where we are certain that we are going to be happy (in this film, the church of San Miniato). But something sticks out in this state of fulfillment that is too good to be true, the very diffuse sensation – still germinating but threatening, and that we are forced to chase away while knowing very well that it is going to gain ground – that none of this is going to last, that it is a dream, that the dead do not really come back to life, that this woman who could fill in all that is missing does not exist, that this place where we should finally and fully feel at home is not real, that we are going to have to wake up. Credit must be given to De Palma for giving us the most just cinematic translation of this moment of unease and panic for the dreamer – who does not want to be chased from his dream by a return to waking reality.
Michael is stricken with a mad sense of urgency, pressuring Sandra to marry him as quickly as possible, in private – even though he had been dreaming of a big, fancy wedding to proclaim his love for her to everyone he knows. In this scene, threatening reality assumes the form of a ‘medical body’ in the strict sense: the obscene presence of the psychologist’s face, in close-up on the edge of the frame, in a mode of figuration entirely unique in the film. The secretary’s face, during a telephone call, is also filmed in the same, very crude manner. These two figures come onto the stage of the dream to demand that the dreamer come out of his dream. Michael violently, and without warning, ejects the shrink because he absolutely does not want to be cured of his madness; on the contrary, he wants to remain at all costs in this world where everything responds to his desires. He manages to protect his waking dream from the characters that represent a return of (and to) reality.
In his urgency to marry, Michael sacrifices a fantasy of the collective imagination (the big wedding with two hundred guests) in order to preserve his state of waking dreamer at all costs. He is exactly in the position of a filmmaker who sacrifices a scene that is too expensive, agreeing to shoot it with four extras instead of two hundred in order to still make his film, while negotiating a compromised solution with his producer (and the reality principle he embodies). Michael is ready to completely relinquish his fantasy in order to maintain the illusion of the imaginary.
In Rear Window (1954), there was already a sinister representative of reality, a disrupter of the fantasy, the private detective (Wendell Corey), always boringly realistic, whom the reality of the story ends up proving wrong, to the viewer’s great pleasure. In Vertigo, an element of the fictional universe, the necklace, is also there to ‘represent’ the threat of a close return of (to) reality, and provoke the deflation of the imaginary. The major difference between Scottie and Michael is that one wakes up, the other does not. Scottie wakes up the moment that his desire is realised (the rebirth of Madeleine’s image). Michael keeps himself in a regime of thought and belief that is resolutely out of touch with reality, entirely dominated by the imaginary. Obsession is a film that only functions in the imaginary and in the crude Symbolism of the dollar value of people and things. It is also a film without any moment of reality and, of course, without any point of reality, where everything plays along with the imaginary of the characters, where everything glides along as though covered in grease – without the rough, necessary aspect of reality ever having the slightest chance of putting the film’s regime in danger, of extracting the character and the viewer from their waking dream.
For Simone Weil, in Gravity and Grace, ‘a test of what is real is that it is hard and rough. Joys are found in it, not pleasure. What is pleasant belongs to dreams’. (4) Obsession is above all ‘pleasant’ in this sense, being a film imposing the supremacy of waking dreams over reality, contrary to Vertigo where fiction has the final say. De Palma draws us into the story of a man who is ready to do anything so that he may be left to dream of incest without guilt, of the negation of time by the resurrection of a body, and even to kill the one who wants to ‘awaken’ him and bring him back to reality: his manipulative partner, Robert LaSalle (John Lithgow).
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4. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace(New York : Routledge Classics, 2003), p. 53.
De Palma never shies away from any means at his disposal, as a self-conscious, virtuosic filmmaker, to give himself a chance of gently enveloping the viewer in the warm quilt of the imaginary. Obsession imposes, from the start, and by every cinematic means, a belief in the imaginary as the coalescence of the sign, as the ‘similitude of signifier and signified’, as Barthes would put it. (5)
1. By narrative processes
Speech is enough to actualise, in the image, the corresponding reality: the boat, Florence, the key to the bedroom. It is enough to state that we are going somewhere, in order to already be there. To imagine, to recount what we want to do, is enough to render it instantaneously real. In Obsession, we often see a scene take place in the present over the sound of the voice (from a previous scene) that is projecting it. To conceive, to desire, is enough to make the thing real.
5. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, p. 44.
2. By the general tonality of the image
Obsession’s images are, throughout, cottony, almost foggy, as if to keep us in a semi-dream state by blurring, even denying, the rough ‘reality of reality’. Light becomes translucent matter: things are no longer lit by an external light source; light seems to emanate from them. The world is enveloped in a sfumato that eliminates precise details, preventing any resistance of reality – like in David Hamilton’s photographs, or the worst American soap operas – in order to make us believe that the image is really there to ‘substitute the real world with a world that accords’ with our dream. (6) The images of the present are permanently bathed in diffused light – which Hitchcock, in Vertigo, used especially for the amorous tailing – that does not fall within the traditional indexical connotation of the past. The cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, says that in
6. Translator’s note: Bergala is paraphrasing the quote attributed (incorrectly) to André Bazin at the beginning of Contempt: ‘The cinema substitutes for the real world one that accords more closely with our desires’.
3. By obsessive camera movements
A slow zoom-in draws the viewer into the bottomless pit of the imaginary. In Samuel Blumenfeld and Laurent Vachaud’s book of interviews (7), De Palma talks about the Kubrick of Barry Lyndon (1975), of the slowness of that film, of ‘the impression that everything was happening in slow motion: the movements of the camera and the actors. You really got the feeling of perceiving time in a different way, as if we had actually returned to the 18th century’. In the same interview, he claims, regarding the zooms that are used systematically in that film, that he would be bored, personally, to repeat the same technique throughout an entire film. And yet this is what he does tirelessly in Obsession, where he multiplies the long, fluid shots of the undulating imaginary.
7. Samuel Blumenfeld and Laurent Vachaud, Brian De Palma (Paris : Calmann-Lévy, 2001).
I will focus on two particular shots – De Palma being, by all evidence, a filmmaker who loves shots one by one, and never shies away from the temptation of virtuosity – as little as the script might lend itself to it. The first is the 360 degree circular shot at the site of the memorial that (with a discreet cross-fade) allows us to pass, in the same enveloping movement, from the period of the death of his wife in 1959 to the film’s present in 1975, where he finds her double ‘at the same age’ – a flagrant confirmation that time does not exist for the unconscious person.
In this shot, as in the bath scene in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952) – whose beautiful paradox Godard picked up on in his day – space ‘zaps’ time. We find the same process of the negation of time by space again, in another circular panning shot, the one where Sandra enters the forbidden bedroom (see next clip).
My second example is the metronome-shot between Michael and his partner in the café overlooking the piazza of the Palazzo Vecchio, in the rain, before the big scene of the return of the Same.
What is this shot’s function? It is clearly the hypnotic balance of a pendulum, preparing us – by putting us to sleep – for the scene of the lure that follows. It is also, plainly, a reprise of the shot of the lamp on the table in the couple’s Roman apartment in Godard’sContempt (1963). De Palma knows that film by heart. He talks, notably, about Georges Delerue’s music, who he says is the greatest French composer of movie scores. Early on, we know, he wanted to be Godard or nothing.
4. By the sound treatment
The music covers the images in folds, without the slightest restraint, in order to bring us to a gentle, emotional participation that often anticipates the actual scene itself; this is the case at San Miniato. This music had been written once the film was edited, but Bernard Herrmann, according to the filmmaker, conducted the orchestra too slowly, posing him problems of synchronisation with the rhythm of the images. Herrmann was very happy with this music, which he proclaims was inspired: ‘Coming out of the screening, I heard the music’. One night, he got the idea that a choir was needed: ‘I don’t remember writing that music’.
From the first shot, inside the house, De Palma mixes the sound in a totally arbitrary manner, in order to eliminate any ‘effect of the real’ (Barthes’ term) on the aural level. Sounds are most often muffled, the shots frequently de-realised and ‘emphatised’ by the music that freely takes over the entire soundtrack.
5. By multipliers of the imaginary
Obsession is, from end to end, a great ‘evoker of imaginaries’. De Palma takes profit from everything he can: not content with the imaginary of his own fiction, he garnishes his film with all kinds of imaginary-evokers derived from elsewhere: from literature (Dante and Beatrice in La Vita Nuova), from fairy tales (Bluebeard, Donkey Skin), from the tradition of imaginary high places (the forbidden bedroom, the church), from Italian Renaissance painting and from mythology (Orpheus-Michael lets the one who has returned from the land of shadows disappear for a second time: ‘I missed my second chance to prove I loved her’).
It is also the case that, in our cinema-spectator imaginary, time does not exist: a film can trigger in us a rush of memories of a movie posterior to the one we are seeing. De Palma belongs to the generation of cinephilic American filmmakers, admirers of the Nouvelle Vague and its way of infusing creation with cinephile culture. Obsession constantly evokes memories of very different films and cinematic universes; it matters little, for the imaginary path of the film, whether they were conscious (as with Hitchcock’s films) or not.
The fiction begins at the end of the War, in Italy, where the hero meets his first wife in the
Michael’s dream of marriage evokes the dream at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona(1966) – ‘I am Elisabet’ – and the passage from young adult woman to the little girl she once was, in the airport sequence, irresistibly evokes Lena Olin’s transformations in the same director’s After the Rehearsal (1984). Sandra calls out ‘Mummy’ with her little girl’s voice, like Marnie (in Hitchcock’s 1964 film) rediscovering her childhood voice in the final sequence, where she accesses an instantly liberating, traumatic memory. Hitchcock is omnipresent in this film, the idea of which was planted in De Palma after a screening of a new print of Vertigo in the company of Paul Schrader – who would go on to write the script with him, using Hitchcock’s film as the avowed model. But Obsession is connected just as much to Rebecca (1940), Marnie and even Dial M for Murder (1954), from which it borrows (following Godard) scissors as a murder weapon.
When they first meet, Sandra tells Michael how she left her boring life, working under the orders of petty bosses (the Law), for the gentle tranquility of this church where she does menial labour but feels happy. She does not measure herself against the social scale but against a purely imaginary ‘well-being’ outside of reality, of history – under the sign of the Virgin, in the warm, soft light of the church candles. This is one of numerous movies that play with titillating the desire or dream of being somewhere else, in a mythic place, in another life than one’s own. In Camera Lucida, Barthes talks about this feeling – ‘It is quite simply there that I should like to live’ – before a photograph of the
8. Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard), Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982), p. 38.
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Last names in this film impose, sometimes with a certain American candour (the name D’Annunzio, for example), a perfect ‘similitude of signifier and signified’. Amy/Sandra. Amy:Am I? What am I worth to my father? This value can only come from a Symbolic order: how much am I worth in dollars? Sandra: she who rises from the ashes of the first woman, burned alive in the car explosion.
In most of De Palma’s films there is a somewhat dubious primal scene that he himself has described and analysed many times: to avenge his mother for a supposed betrayal by his father. Here, this is again Sandra’s apparent situation: to avenge her dead mother for her father who let her die. But, strangely, the father’s confession – ‘I killed her!’ – in the Dante and Beatrice setting touches her: she realises that this man, who feels guilty for the death of her mother, is anything but cynical. Even if the unconscious situation, we shall see, is entirely different: by killing her mother, he made it possible to realise her desire of marrying her father. She is, then, debating with her own guilt, more than with her father’s supposed mistake. This joins up to De Palma’s autobiography. He claims to have felt guilty, once he was an adult, for having suspected, hunted and condemned his father too hastily.
Maria Virginia Portinari: she is the Virgin Mary, she who had no need of a man to procreate. She is the figure of the denial of incest: instead of being the mother who would make incest with the father impossible, she asks for it on her death bed. Her daughter will not, then, be able to shy away from it. She solemnly promises to do it at this fateful moment. From summation to consummation: a dying mother (even a false mother) seals the possibility of consummating the incest by a summation from which her daughter cannot escape.
Michael Courtland has a funny name for a builder who prefers natural parks over construction projects.
Robert LaSalle. The name LaSalle name is morphologically constructed like De Palma (9): he is undoubtedly motivated by the same urge to act upon the lives of others, to retroactively act upon the primal scene. Contrary to the manipulator in Vertigo who barely exists as a character and wants one simple thing (to rid himself of his wife by the perfect murder), the character of LaSalle is much more difficult to grasp: what exactly does he want out of this whole story? The apparent stakes are purely the lure of what is to be gained: the domain of Pontchartrain. Bob disapproves of the fact that Michael does not want to make this terrain – which he has turned into a sanctuary – bear fruit. But it is clear that this is a matter of something else: LaSalle being visibly richer than Michael, as witnessed by his megalomaniac’s house. His deranged engagement in the destruction of Michael’s family obeys more troubled, jealous urges, probably of a homosexual nature (ruin, destroy the image of this too-perfect, too-happy family that he himself will never create), with a point of masochism at the end of the film when he hysterically screams at Michael – with whom he is undoubtedly, unconsciously in love – ‘Kill me!’ All the evidence points to there being more invested psychologically than purely financially in his determination to destroy the attraction between father and daughter. It is an attraction whose force he sees clearly, that he will never know, and that he does not know how to buy. It is with far too much visible jubilation that he says to Sandra: ‘Your father never gives money, you aren’t worth anything to him!’
9. Bergala mistakenly assumes here that the filmmaker ‘always writes his family name connected like this’, i.e., DePalma, which is how he renders it throughout the French text.
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A script’s belated revelations have never prevented a viewer from continuing to believe in what was pleasing during the scenes that were gratifying to the imaginary. This is valid as much for Vertigo as it is for Obsession. The script’s return to reality does not stop us from believing in what we have seen, and what we wanted to believe. The imaginary is the triumph of ‘but still’ over ‘I know’ (10), of primary processes (images and sounds) over secondary processes (the script’s believability). De Palma multiplies the clues about the script and the signifiers’ complaisance in comforting the imaginary coherence of this waking dream.
1. The scene of the first dialogue in the San Miniato church is sprinkled with complaisant signifiers. Sandra is working on the restoration of Daddi’s Virgin (Daddy, obviously) and asks Michael if he loves the Virgin – meaning, it is clear, the little girl that she was. Incidentally, there is no work by Bernardo Daddi in San Miniato; what we do find there, however, are works by Gaddi. There is only a step from Gaddi to Daddi, but this step makes a ‘Daddy’s Virgin’, on which Sandra is working, appear, obviously, a signifier of her. When she asks him the question: was it necessary to restore Daddi’s Virgin or sacrifice it for the older, rediscovered fresco at the moment of restoration? – he responds that they must keep Daddi’s ‘covering’ image, meaning the New Virgin hiding the first, the daughter who is hiding the mother. A few scenes later, in regards to Dante and Beatrice, she tells him the story of the Lady of the Screen whom Dante pretended to love, in order to be able to look at Beatrice without bothering her: his dead wife was undoubtedly this Lady of the Screen allowing him to love his daughter, without confronting society and the underlying incest taboo.
10. Bergala is alluding to the famous formula for defining fetishism proposed by philosopher-psychoanalyst Dominique-Octave Mannoni: je
2. As in Vertigo, there is the re-encounter of a woman. But where Scottie has to work, convince, intimidate and use force to make Judy accept becoming the copy that conforms to Madeleine, Michael, for his part, need make no effort for the second woman to perfectly conform to his fantasy. She opposes him with neither physical resistance (her body isalready and exactly the same), nor mental resistance (since her own desire is the same). This is the reason he traverses the entire re-encounter with a tired, sleepwalker’s air, a hypnotised gaze. He is laid back, and this is not one of the least sources of pleasure (of imaginary coaxing) that the film produces: reality bends to his desire practically without resistance, realises it without hesitation, almost instantaneously, canceling time and death. It is a film that believes in the resurrection and reincarnation that were buttresses to Vertigo. In the very beautiful scene of Sandra ‘from behind’, where she walks like her mother with smooth steps, weightlessly, she does it without the suffering that represents for Judy, in Vertigo, the conformance to Madeleine’s image. The ‘walk’ scene that brings back the image of a vanished woman inevitably evokes Wilhelm Jensen’s novel Gradiva(1902): reality is complaisant to the fantasy and brings back to life, ‘on a stage’, an image that comes from another time.
3. The false mother intervenes like a pseudo-instance of reality. With her providential illness, she prevents a tender evening alone together – but all the better to push them in the direction of their marriage fantasy. Besides, she will not bother them for long, since soon – after having accomplished her symbolic mission – the script discreetly kills her.
4. The scripted reality’s greatest complaisance to desire and the imaginary is the U-turn made by the plane bringing Sandra to
5. The final scene is the apotheosis of the two protagonists’ fierce desire to drown in the imaginary. They physically replay the film’s very subject, like in a Minnellian dance: two beings rushing into incest, with nothing able to introduce the slightest obstacle to their irresistible movement towards imaginary fusion – materialised in the airport corridor by the first circular tracking shot in De Palma’s work. (This filmmaking figure that, of course comes from Hitchcock and Vertigo, will become a stylistic signature in De Palma). The coincidence of their fantasies is too strong for reality to resist. This scene has a beautiful pulsating effect (as Dominique Païni would say), from the beating of the neon lights filmed in slow motion – an on-set accident accepted by the filmmaker and, ultimately, entirely welcome.
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The only thing the father and daughter must succeed in getting rid of is the guilt involved in fleeing from reality and crossing the bounds of the incest taboo. Reality is not threatening, but the gnawing guilt of the awakened dreamer is: do I have the right to impudently live in the delights of the imaginary? Neither one is psychotic. Like the brother and sister in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), they are well aware that there is another reality than the one of their fantasy – even if they do not want to go back to it. This guilt takes the unoccupied place of the real world in the fiction, but, ultimately, does not weigh heavily on them.
The memorial monument is truly a tomb for the guilt that, for Michael, should be linked to Elizabeth’s death (‘I killed her’). A massive, sealed tomb. We find it again in miniature overlooking the wedding cake, signifying that the secret of the incest is well sealed at the very moment when this incest is accomplished within the legitimacy of marriage. Michael sacrificed a lot of money there that would have been easy to keep. But this sanctuary (constructed on the grounds of Pontchartrain) is obviously what will cause the return of what has been deliberately barred, via the character of LaSalle who cannot stand the maintaining of this land as a private sanctuary.
The overpowering guilt about the temptation towards incest is clearly signified in the first scene of the film – a scene that is meant to celebrate the success of a perfect couple. From the first shot of this scene, however, the house is filmed like the house where the crime is committed in Halloween (1978) or Blow Out (1981): seen at night, from afar, the windows lit intermittently (because of what – as we do not at first know – are film slides of the happy marriage). Something is threatening in the first, exterior views of the house, contrasting with the exhibition of happiness taking place inside.
This house will rapidly become the site of a murder where a secret is buried with its ‘Bluebeard bedroom’. But all of the returns of guilt will be swept away by the desire shared between the two protagonists (father and daughter) to deny reality and Law, and to remain in the imaginary of their desire for incestuous fusion.
Rebecca is clearly the model for this scene in which the couple arrives, after a long trip, in the man’s house, where the memory of the dead, mythic first wife reigns. But De Palma mixes this scene with a scene from another Hitchcock: the assumption of the imaginary inVertigo.
The placement of the camera in the shot of their taxi’s arrival is manifestly that of the dead woman who awaits them.
When they penetrate into the house, De Palma mimics the shot of the assumption of the imaginary from our first Vertigo clip: the shot with the green light that seems to emerge from the character who moves forward like a ghost towards the desiring subject. But here, the schema of Vertigo is reversed: it is him seen by her, as though to mark the inversion of the two scripts in regards to the desire directing the film.
In Vertigo, poor Judy’s desire is literally blocked by Scottie’s mad urge to recreate a vanished creature out of her. The strong, obsessive, blind desire belongs to the man. Judy never really manages to express her own desire. Here, to the contrary of the model film, there is another desiring subject, Amy/Sandra. Because Obsession’s script is also – I want to say especially – about a girl who wants to sleep with her complaisant father, a script about a fulfilled and ultimately happy Oedipus. The major difference with Vertigo is that here it is a matter of incest – meaning blind adhesion to the Imaginary – leaving the Law off-screen. De Palma even wrote and shot the scene where Michael actually sleeps with his daughter, placing it beyond doubt for the spectator – but the distributors got scared, and De Palma was obliged to mask the wedding night sequence as a hard-to-read dream, in ‘undulating’ images signifying the presence of a dream ... in this film that is already, in its normal regime, a dream.
As in Vertigo, the lured man does not know that another man (his partner) is the cause of the staging of the return of the same, and that the returning person is manipulated by a third party to signal the singularity of his desire. But in reality, contrary to Vertigo this time, the true motor (and manipulator) of the whole story is the nine-year-old girl’s desire to marry her father, the film realising this innocent incestuous fantasy to the letter. The film’s first scene is very clear in this regard. It is the evening of the apotheosis of this successful couple that everyone envies: ten years of marriage, social success, an adorable little girl – and still desire and love between them, like on the first day. But coming between this ideal couple exhibiting their bourgeois perfection is the little girl’s desire to dance with her father; his initiation of a dance à trois – father-mother-daughter – is very quickly abandoned to the benefit of the father-daughter couple alone. The daughter manages, without the least difficulty, to move the mother away and take her place, realising her and her father’s desire without any opposition. This scene is in some ways the happy, positive side of the devastating opening scene of Rossellini’s Europa ’51 (1952), where the boy desires to turn his mother’s attention to him and away from worldly things that are preventing any filial bonding with her – like young Proust at the beginning of In Search of Lost Time. But the little boy dies, whereas everything (even her mother and rival) bends to the desire of the little girl in Obsession.
The little girl’s story is articulated around the initial question: What am I worth? If her father gives bundles of white paper rather than real bills to her kidnappers, it means that, in his eyes, she is worthless. She must, then, escape from the system of exchange value, from the symbolic order, in which she is worthless in her father’s eyes, in order to take refuge in another order, that of the imaginary. Here, value has no general equivalent, and bonding with her father, outside the authority of the Law, overcomes any scale of value – the only thing that counts, to these indistinct subjects, is the perfect symmetry of their desires. And she manages this, as the true manipulator of the film’s scenario of unconsciousnesses. It is her, and not LaSalle, who is the true stage-manager of this story.
There are, however, two characters who pay for this father-daughter bond with their life: the mother – who they ultimately both wanted dead so as to be able to wed in peace – and the third party who is both manipulative and bothersome, LaSalle. Michael kills the person who comes to take them out of their dream, out of the imaginary father-daughter bond, allowing them to return to this shared dream. Everything happens like in Ada or Ardor, where Nabokov plunges us into the delights of the imaginary, of the landscape of Ardis, of innocent sexuality, of a guilt-free insolence and joyousness – because in this novel, too, incest is accepted by the brother and sister, and almost by their real father. A third party, Lucette – the sublime younger sister character – also pays in reality for the other two’s denial of the incest taboo, by committing suicide at the very moment her sister’s image unexpectedly appears on a movie screen. The past innocence of the two sublime lovers’ happiness has a price to pay in reality: this death is among the 20thcentury’s most beautiful passages of writing. But in Ada or Ardor, as in Obsession – and for the same reason – these deaths elicit no remorse; death does not exist in the imaginary.
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In this film, Brian De Palma – as we have seen at length – puts all his cinematic eggs in the sole basket of the imaginary, without rough reality arriving to stop us for any significant amount of time from dreaming of this happy incest, and returning to it at the film’s end.Obsession is all pleasant, dreamy, suave emotion created through music, cottony images, complaisant signifiers and a docile script. Do we have a right to like this kind of cinema at face value, without a cultural alibi (De Palma is an auteur) or an analytic one (it is useful to analyse every object)? Is this an unworthy pleasure?
Rossellini, Godard, Pialat, Kiarostami, a fortiori Straub and Huillet – in short, our major filmmakers of choice – fiercely refuse this almost ontological complaisance of cinema to the imaginary, to fantasy, to dreams. For them (for us?), a film cannot exist in the register of the imaginary alone. They would find this unworthy of cinema, too easy, a bit nauseating: what was possible in the great Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and ‘40s, and what they are able to admire in Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli or George Cukor, is no longer so, after the radical loss of innocence brought about by the war and the reality of the camps. It is not for nothing that late Fellini, despite its obvious genius, has always posed a problem to those for whom cinema must operate on the encounter of the imaginary (a world that is supremely in accordance with our desires) and reality in its roughest form (a resistant world).
Gilles Deleuze, always wary of the concept of the imaginary (11), once spoke of Godard’s lack of complaisance or sympathy for fantasies: ‘He drains fantasy images of any imaginary dreams and renders them flat and trivial’. Because, after all, the gentle, enveloping warmth of the imaginary is also what readers of romance novels are looking for. Their goal is, in the end, the same as that of the cultivated cinephile who plunges with delight into Obsession. When and how does a film functioning in the pure imaginary go back to being a possible good object, worthy of our love for cinema? Can we today enjoy a film that only functions in the imaginary, without mixing with the roughness of reality? Is this not what cultivated people – to whom we belong – find naïve and alienating for ‘innocent’ viewers, who say they go to the movies to forget the roughness of life, to dream of another world where nothing would get in the way of their dreams?
Must we be ashamed, then, of loving Obsession?
|11. See Gilles Deleuze,Negotiations, 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).|
First appeared in Jacques Aumont (ed.), Les voyages du spectateur. De l’imaginaire au cinéma (Paris: Léo Scheer/Cinémathèque française, 2004), the proceedings of the Conférences du Collège d’Histoire de l’Art Cinématographique 2003-4. Translated from the French by Ted Fendt. Reprinted with permission of the author.