Let’s talk for a moment about two of my favourite movies: “Vertigo” and “Obsession”.
“Vertigo” by Alfred Hitchcock, was produced in 1958 while “Obsession”, by Brian de Palma, was produced – in tribute to Vertigo – in 1976.
Even if the narrative arcs of the two films are different, their underlying message is exactly the same: the myth of Eurydice – the myth of the disappearance of the beloved woman, disappearance caused by the man in love, who never recovers.
As a reminder, Eurydice, who is the wife of Orpheus the talented lyre player, dies of a snake bite. Orpheus, desperate, decides to snatch her from the kingdom of the dead. Thanks to his music, he manages to put Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog that guards the entrance to Hell, to sleep. Finding himself before Hades, the master of the dead, and his wife Persephone, Orpheus shows so much musical talent and so much bravery that Hades grants him permission to go and find Eurydice. He is allowed to guide her with the music of his lyre through the Underworld, on condition of never turning towards her before having returned to the world of the living. Alas, seeing the light of day breaking and no longer hearing the steps of his beloved wife behind him, Orpheus does not resist, turns around, and loses her forever. Orpheus returns to the living world, inconsolable.
“Vertigo” masterfully takes up this myth. Scottie – subtly played by James Stewart – is a freewheeling ex-police officer, depressed and suffering from severe vertigo.
An ex-colleague, Gavin, asked him to follow his wife Madeleine, who had a morbid obsession with his maternal great-grandmother, Carlotta, who died by suicide.
Scottie agrees to watch over Madeleine – played by Kim Novak – and falls in love with her – fatally. Madeleine’s morbid obsession with Carlotta is very real, as is her depressive and suicidal state. Scottie manages to stop her from drowning herself, a first suicide attempt, but cannot prevent Madeleine from jumping from the top of a church steeple, petrified by his vertigo. Guilty and inconsolable, he thinks he sees Madeleine everywhere.
Until one day when he comes across Judy, who looks exactly like Madeleine. They start an affair but Scottie keeps transforming Judy into Madeleine. The day Judy decides, innocently, to wear one of her necklaces, adorned with red stones, appearances explode, giving way to a dark and machiavellian reality.
The atmosphere is heavy, the sense of fictitious happiness and uneasiness are prevalent. Scottie hold no characteristics of an alpha male, he has a fragility on the surface that resonates strangely with the indecipherable attitude of Madeleine and Judy, to which Kim Novak voluntarily lends a closed and sad face as well as a strong and monolithic silhouette. There is nothing showing in the archetype of the couple carried by a manly and responsible man and a slender and fragile woman. Hitch brilliantly chose his actors, and the magic of the film comes from their strange alchemy.
This will please French readers, “Vertigo” is taken from Boileau-Narcejac’s novel, “D’Entre les Morts”.
Kim Novak lovers will be less happy: Hitchcock asked her to take the plunge and simulate drowning even though he knew she couldn’t swim.
In the same way, “Obsession” masterfully takes up the myth of Eurydice. Is it even more twisted than “Vertigo”? ABSOLUTELY. Is it even more tragic than “Vertigo”? TOTALLY.
Michael, played by Cliff Robertson, is a wealthy New Orleans based real estate developer in the late 1960s. Fortunately, he is associated with Bob in a thriving business. He is just as happily married to Elizabeth, played by Geneviève Bujold, with whom he has a 9-year-old daughter, Amy.
Elizabeth and Amy are kidnapped and a large ransom is demanded to free them. Listening to the police’s advice, Michael hands the kidnappers a briefcase full of shredded paper in lieu of money. Elizabeth and Amy are never released, and the car in which they are held hostage with their captors falls in the Mississippi. No bodies are found and Michael sinks into an endless depression, caused by deep guilt.
Until the day when 16 years later – on a business trip to Florence with his partner Bob, he comes across Sandra, an Italian young woman who looks just like Elizabeth.
Michael and Sandra fall in love, travel to New Orleans and decide to marry there. But Sandra disappears on the eve of the wedding and Michael sees both an awful repetition of the past and a second chance to save her beloved who, in his troubled mind, is called either Elizabeth or Sandra. He requests the amount of the ransom from his partner Bob, in order to pay the amount demanded again.
And then everything derails. The masks are falling; no one is who they say they are. The reality is dark, frightening, Machiavellian and poignant.
Unlike “Vertigo”, Michael is – at the start of the film and above all drama – the archetype of the dominant alpha male, virile, responsible, married to a slender Elizabeth, to which Geneviève Bujold lends her delicate features.
De Palma, who has never hidden his admiration for Hitchcock, called on Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the music for “Vertigo”. For “Obsession”, Herrmann excelled with music with tragic overtones carried by a church choir. The scores of the two films correspond perfectly.
The atmospheres of the two films respond just as perfectly. The atmosphere is spooky, but more like a nightmare than a dream. The characters flirt dangerously with madness and neurosis, and the set indeed has everything of a Greek tragedy. Scottie and Michael, like Orpheus, are haunted men.
To illustrate this article, I was inspired by this wonderful white coat worn by Kim Novak in “Vertigo”, masterfully crafted by the queen of the costume, Edith Head – to whom I have boundless admiration. Edith Head, who has worked on the majority of Hitch’s films and countless other films, received 8 Oscars for Best Costume Design.
Vintage coat, gloves and scarf – Roland Mouret dress – Dior vintage handbag – Gucci heels – Miu Miu sunglasses