Based on the film by Luchino Visconti: Obsession, Toneelgroep Amsterdam / Barbican Centre, London / Wiener Festwochen (Director: Ivo van Hove)
By Sascha Krieger
Emptiness. A bare, somewhat modernist room filled with nothingness. Cool, functional, lifeless. Two people, far apart. If there is a relationship, it’s one of power. The distance is palpable. In the middle of Jan Versweyveld’s stage, there is an old large engine hanging from the ceiling. It stutters then goes out. A young man enters the stage, wistfully playing the harmonica. He will get the engine started – in more than one way. Luchino Visconti’s debut film Ossessione is a tale of unbridled passion and its destructiveness. The juxtaposition of a cold, power-based marriage and the heat of an obsessive affair leads to disaster. There is no middle ground, no gray among the black and the white. In Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation, the sweltering heat of the film is replaced by a chilling coolness. Spaces are wide, distances large, bodies tense. When Gino, the young drifter, and Hanna, the oppressed, wife finally get together, a suspended accordion is playing. The bodies dance a ballet of constricted, obsessive passion. The climax is signalled by long-held dissonant chord. Closeness is achieved, the distance overcome. Nothing is good.
The engine, of course, symbolizes the emotional coldness and paralysis between the older husband and the younger wife as well as the re-ignition of life once Gino enters the picture. But it is far from a positive metaphor: It also invokes the mechanical, the obsessive, the forced nature of human relationships. As oppressive as the cold marriage is as much so becomes the „passionate“ love that is built on despair, a vague desire to escape and the obsessive clinging to whoever might be a saviour. Multi-perspective video close-ups pop up in moments of emotional intensity and crisis, accentuating and questioning their truth in equal measures. Running away is not an option. Whenever Gino tries he ends up exhausting himself on a treadmill hidden in the stage floor. There is no escape from the destructiveness of human relationships when they’re built on power, no matter whether they are oppressive and possessive in nature or born from a rejection of those. The foundation is always the same, the mechanics remain, the circle never broken.
Van Hove’s take on Viconti’s tale is an analytical one, distant in its anti-septic, almost scientifically experimental setting. His stage is a laboratory of human failure, of the rules and constraints we allow relationships to follow. Patriarchy and possessiveness are bad, passion good, they say. And yet they are two sides of the same exact coin. He reads Hanna and Gino’s relationship as based on Hanna’s failed one with Josef. Their freedom, therefore, is and must be an illusion, a case of obvious self-deception. When this one-sided „passion“ rules, things get dirty, literally so. The only love possible within these walls is a tainted one. Jude Law is a virile, yet melancholic Gino, torn apart by growing despair, a muscular harbinger of freedom who finds himself as tightly bound up by convention as everyone else. The tension between his muscular confidence and the physical tenseness of his constricted state are delivered with remarkable subtlety. Halina Reijn is an equally nuanced Hanna, sarcastic, bitter, vulnerable, charming, with a hint of quiet brutality. A more knowing and more desperate figure. Gijs Scholten van Aschat plays Josef – not as a monster but a surprisingly likeable man. When he becomes fond of Gino after first rejecting him, it is the one emotion, the audience is inclined to believe, the one true feeling that might break the vicious circle.
Which makes Gino and Hanna’s rebellion even more ambivalent and destructive. Here, it is them, not Josef, who really conserve the status quo, the oppressive outset from which they cannot escape. When in the end, the floor rises and turns into a black and white panorama of the sea. Waves are rolling, yet freedom is far. A dream unfolds, ending the same way reality did earlier. The story is over, the actors matter-of-factly step to the edge of the stage, there is nothing left to say. Some critics have cited the production’s coldness, contrasting with the heat of the film and the passionate nature of the subject matter, as its weakness. However, it could well be its strengths. The clear, distant, precise perspective it brings to the story, allows the audience to look closer, to question what they see, to wonder about romantic and modern concepts of love, what it means and what it should look like. The matter examined in this lab is dead and has always been. That may not be a pleasant thought or a pretty sight. The ghosts rise again as they always have. Who is there to break the circle?