LOLA home                        HOME        CURRENT ISSUE 

Time Denied:
An Apotheosis of the Imaginary   

Alain Bergala


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 verifies something: 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 strongly attracted 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’.


Pontalis continues:




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).


* * *


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 Florence , he and De Palma decided to only shoot during times of day and in atmospheres where the light is very special: night, evening, morning, fog. Never in the realistic crudity of sunlight in the middle of the day.





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’s Contempt (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 church of San Miniato – meaning, the moment of the beginning of the Roman episode in Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (1946). Then it moves on to Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953): a man witnesses the death of his wife, burned alive by the explosion of her car. The scene in the San Miniato church – with its frescoes from the past and its atmosphere favorable to an escape from time and the ordinary world – rhymes with the opening sequence of De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) and the beginning of Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), three scenes that can lead to a décollage of the imaginary: a plunge into a city, museum or church, bearers of very significant artistic, architectural and symbolic pasts. This is where we meet Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1954).


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 Alhambra house in Grenada. (8) Cinema is capable of instantly provoking, with other means than literature, this particular nostalgia: this place that I see exists somewhere in the world and I am separated from it, while I could be happy there; it would be good to live there in order to (in my imagination) flee reality.






8. Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard), Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982), p. 38.

Florence is presented in Obsession as the real city, but also as a city of vaults, labyrinths and archways – which it is not in reality. It is filmed like Venice; the desire to draw the viewer into a visual spiral favorable to the imaginary takes precedence over its real architecture.


* * *


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.






* * *

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 sais bien, mais quand-même.







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 is already 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 Italy . For the first time, Michael seems at the mercy of the most ordinary and trivial reality: there are no more planes until the next day to take him back to Sandra – who is just in the middle of writing him from above the Atlantic –when he is told that the plane she is in has turned around. He literally disappears from the reality of the counter like the Roadrunner in a cartoon. He quickly leaves behind reality to rejoin his imaginary universe, where everything conforms to his desires – even the TWA, who help him realise his desire of finding his daughter more quickly.


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.


* * *


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 in Vertigo.


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 20th century’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.


* * *


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.


from Issue 4: Walks


© Original French text Alain Bergala 2004; English translation Ted Fendt and LOLA 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.