Obsession, that is the domination of one's thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea or desire, is a state deeply suited to the cinema. The sense that we're irrevocably drawn to something is paralleled by our experience when watching a movie, where we're locked in to the filmmaker's viewpoint. Movies have long been home to obsessive behaviour, and those who watch movies have long understood and shared in those feelings. Obsession may often be the realm of the individual, but via cinema it slyly links us; we are all Alfred Hitchcock and we are all obsessed with the transgressions of icy blondes.
See screening schedule below
A new season of weekly screenings in September explores the theme of obsession with four titles – The Page Turner (Wednesday 7 September), The Wave (Wednesday 14 September), Hallam Foe (Wednesday 21 September) and Hidden (Wednesday 28 September) – that examine the ramifications of all-consuming need. Each film revolves around a different facet of obsession, but each comment on the others, and as a body of work this quartet of pictures echoes artist Jenny Holzer's famous slogan: “protect me from what I want”.
Denis Dercourt's The Page Turner (2007) is a compelling psychological study of how obsession both drives and warps those in its thrall. First seen as a young girl just 10-years-old, who is summarily dismissed from a crucial piano exam when a judge, Ariane (Catherine Frot), distracts her by signing an autograph during her performance, Melanie (Deborah Francois) returns as a quiet, precise young woman who re-enters Ariane's life just as she is attempting to the concert stage after surviving a hit and run car accident.
The perpetrator may have been Melanie, but Dercourt never makes her motivations clear, just her steady progression into Ariane's home, first as a nanny to her son and then on stage as her assistant turning the pages of her score. The film speaks in half glances, coolly invasive framing and brief moments of physical contact, and part of Melanie's malignant engagement with Ariane is to allow the older woman to become obsessed with her as a kind of totem of good fortune; if Melanie stands behind her Ariane believes she can play.
Obsession is such a rich, immersive theme because rarely is it genuinely obtainable, let alone satisfactory. Endless quiet brooding tends to warp the perceptions of those experiencing it. The obsession itself is nourishing – Melanie burns with a cold passion when she's entrancing Ariane, but afterwards it's as if she's missing something. In David Mackenzie's Hallam Foe (2007, pictured), the Scottish writer-director portrays obsession as a way of obscuring a truth that can't be addressed. Jamie Bell's teenage protagonist buries himself in voyeurism – an act of pure obsession that reduces the world to the watcher and the watched – to avoid answering deeper questions.
Bell's Hallam, a Scottish teenager living on isolated estate with his father, first spies on his stepmother, Verity (Claire Forlani), who be believes played a role in the death of his mother two years prior. The boy's obsession is with knowledge, not possession – he wants to stay at a distance. He's blackmailed, and seduced, by Verity, and when she and his father (Ciarán Hinds) move him on to Edinburgh to start his own life, he fixates on a hotel manager, Kate (Sophia Myles), who resembles his absent matriarchal figure.
Mackenzie's film carries echoes of both David Lynch's Blue Velvet (sexual encounters provide an outlet for obsessive energy) and Hitchcock's sublime Vertigo (the making of one woman into another to satisfy an obsession). “I like creepy guys,” Sophia tells Hallam, who seems most at home amongst rooftops or sequestered in a watching lair, and her droll acceptance marks the dry black humour that makes the picture more than a textbook study. It's a cheerfully strange coming of age tale.
Tales of obsession distinguish between an acceptable answer and the truth. In Michael Haneke's acclaimed Hidden (2005) Daniel Auteuil's Georges is drawn into his own lurking guilt by the delivery of a series of videotapes that show surveillance footage of the comfortable upper middle-class home he shares with his wife, book editor Anne (Juliette Binoche), and their son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). Georges' investigation, held both in the real world and the subconscious level of his dreams, ties back to Majid (Maurice Benichou), the child who was adopted for a brief time by Georges' parents.
Haneke, a master of uneasy, unanswered provocation, literally traps Georges in small rooms and closed elevators – he's boxed in, but his obsession with getting out and finding an answer doesn't allow for satisfaction. Majid's parents were killed in an infamous 1961 massacre in Paris, when Algerian demonstrators were attacked by police, and the movie suggests that unacknowledged national guilt from that crime has seeped into the lives of not just Georges and Majid, but their respective sons.
With The Wave, German filmmaker Dennis Gansel examines the effects of obsession with the wrongs of a previous generation. The contemporary high school students in the film believe themselves preternaturally wise to the ways of the world, and when they express disbelief that their country could ever again succumb to collective totalitarianism a young teacher, Rainer Wenger (Jurgen Vogel), sets out to show them otherwise. Instigating uniforms, shared codes of conduct and a collective identity – The Wave – he transforms his students into proto-fascists.
This is the mass obsession of social acceptance, a belief that everyone need be involved for the collective good. The few students who opt not to take pat in the class are ostracised, and the group quickly begins to exhibit enmity towards outsiders. This obsession is a long way from the insular traits of the lone protagonists in the other movies; sharing their desire excites and empowers the class body. What doesn't change is the underlying truth: the more these various characters obsess over having something, the more it changes them. They can never go back.
SBS ONE OBSESSIONS SEASON - SCHEDULE
Wednesday September 7, 10:05pm
The Page Turner (2006)
Director: Denis Dercourt
Starring: Catherine Frot, Déborah François
Wednesday September 14, 10:05pm
The Wave (2008)
Director: Dennis Gansel
Starring: Jürgen Vogel, Frederick Lau, Max Riemelt
Wednesday September 21, 10:05pm
Hallam Foe (2007)
Director: David Mackenzie
Starring: Jamie Bell, Claire Forlani, Ciarán Hinds
Wednesday September 28, 10:05pm
Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche