Stories shift, depending on their art-form. Luchino Visconti transformed James M. Cain’s twitchy crime thriller “The Postman Always Rings Twice” into a classy black and white romance-noir in his 1943 film “Ossessione.” Now Belgian director Ivo van Hove has turned it into a latter-day Greek tragedy. Motored by artful, physical performances from Jude Law and Halina Reijn as lovers-turned-killers, this tale of two car crashes becomes a slow-motion collision onstage. If it doesn’t all work – too many inventions backfire – “Obsession” nonetheless exerts a quiet power, bit by bit — at once entirely faithful to its source and a compete renewal.
Having exposed the Aristotelean roots beneath Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” Van Hove does the same with Visconti’s film, albeit to lesser effect. Designer Jan Versweyveld provides a similarly bare stage, throwing focus on the forces between individual characters. Right from the start, a slab of raw meat on one side of the stage echoing the rusted red motor on the other, you feel fate reeling these characters in. “Obsession” is a story of double binds: a drifter who can’t bear to be tied down falls in love with a married woman who won’t move on. These two attractive strangers, fueled by mutual desire, fill up with disgust as familiarity sets in. Passion leads them to murder her husband, only for guilt to spoil what they had. Those binds only tighten, inextricably, as Van Hove’s production moves slowly and steadily to its inexorable end. It works like a winch – well, mostly.
Here, “Obsession” becomes, in part, a story about time, and how we chose to spend our lives. Law’s Gino drifts, place to place, moment to moment, as he pleases. He idles onto the stage and into a roadside restaurant, playing a lazy tune on the harmonica. The proprietor Joseph (Gijs Scholten Van Aschat) is forever at work, trying to mend his motor or to “build something to leave behind,” while his young wife Hanna (Halina Reijn) slaves away in the kitchen, prisoner to a marriage of convenience and repulsed by her boorish, controlling husband. Gino’s arrival, out of the blue, provides an antidote. Their attraction is immediate; sexual tension thickens the air like a storm cloud.
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Sex, when it breaks, cuts through time completely, and throughout Van Hove brings flesh to the fore. Law strolls around shirtless; Reijn saunters barefoot in a short, summery slip. To Visconti’s knowing, longing looks (the film was made in 1943), the director adds silent physical encounters: two bodies gasping for each other, but never quite coming together. Kisses are missed, heads turned away. Hands hover over skin. Tal Yarden’s video design throws close-ups of the pair around walls of Versweyveld’s vast empty stage, as if, in those intimate moments, the whole world becomes flesh. Two bodies multiply. They get lost in each other. It’s sexy, but it’s about sex too. Passion becomes kaleidoscopic and hallucinatory. It tears open time.
Work, on the other hand, grinds it emptily away – a point Van Hove makes musically. Joseph’s motor drowns out the world. His gunshots crack like sonic booms. Hanna and Gino sing and hum, making music of their own. Eric Eleichim and Tom Gibbons’ score is at once a soundtrack, holding the sparse dialogue together, and a symbol. When Joseph enters an opera contest, for instance – a throwaway scene in the film – Gibbons layers crowd sounds over the top, as if competition corrupts the beauty of music. Likewise when Hanna plays music to attract customers, Versweyveld has an automated accordion – as much a machine as Joseph’s motor – play a tinny track of its own accord. Art, like sex, should exist for its own sake.
First and foremost, though, this is a thriller played out in slow-motion; a head-on collision at three miles an hour. Van Aschat makes Joseph unbearable – not just gross but vile. Having failed to flee – Law and Reijn pounding on a concealed treadmill, only for her to turn back – Gino and Hanna take advantage of an opportunity, strangling Joseph after a car crash. Oil splatters down on three writhing bodies, staining them in like black blood. The struggle goes on for ages, as difficult physically as it is mentally. Sawing strings sear it into the memory.
Mostly, Van Hove works with anticipation. He coaxes articulate physical performances from his leads. Law brilliantly combines a dangerous, masculine power with a blank, harmless naivety. Sometimes his body braces for a fight – and gets one, thrashing and bullish – but elsewhere, it hangs limp as a ragdoll. Reijn, too, clenches with frustration at her husband, then relaxes into her lover like a warm bath. The charge between them is, at times, electric.
The tension doesn’t always hold, however, and several of Van Hove’s devices derail it. The oil that spills down looks stupidly like a kids’ TV prop, and, while the final litter-strewn stage ties the couple’s guilt to our environmental impact, it takes a ludicrously overblown, bin-throwing argument to get it there. One or two scenes are still baggy and, on a stage this vast, at such a slow pace, “Obsession” simply can’t afford any slack. Too often, it stalls.
That’s a shame, because it’s so close to coming off: a theatrical rejuvenation that sticks to the original film. Jan Peter Gerrits’ adaptation, in an English version by Simon Stephens, hews faithfully to the screenplay, and if the dialogue seems clipped as a result, it’s self-consciously so, a constant reminder of what we’re watching – not life, but a story; not people, but characters, even archetypes. Without changing a word, however, Van Hove and Versweyveld transform the whole. They flood it with feeling – the baking heat of Versweyveld’s lights, Eleichim’s breezy score, Gibbons’ roaring soundscape – and tease out its themes. Mostly, they make its mechanics clear and, with its patterns exposed, all echoes and opposites, Visconti’s story starts to look positively classical. Tragic, even.