Netflix's Fleeting 'Obsession' is Only Worth a Glance

Charlie Murphy and Richard Armitage in the 'Obsession' Key Art

Charlie Murphy and Richard Armitage in the 'Obsession' Key Art


In case you forgot that Brian De Palma doesn’t make movies anymore, Netflix has produced an erotic thriller called Obsession, and it ranks somewhere above 365 Days and somewhere below – well, maybe nothing; erotic thrillers aren’t exactly Netflix’s specialty. The psycho-sexual adultery tale unfolds in four brief installments, tracking a wealthy, successful but ennui’d surgeon’s fall from comfortable family life into uncontrollable devotion to a complicated redhead seductress – who happens to be dating his son.

It’s the kind of delightful trash with a softcore visual style that the 90s were known for, and while Obsession never rises above being disposable lust programming for the Netflix crowd, the miniseries’ attempted commentary on the Body Doubles, Fatal Attractions, and Basic Instincts of yore makes it an object of legitimate, if fleeting, curiosity.

William (Richard Armitage) barely has a moment to decompress from life-saving conjoined twin separation surgery before he locks eyes with Anna (Charlie Murphy), and he’s soon fixated on her breathy, gaspy demeanor. Armitage’s version of romantic obsession seems remarkably similar to how he played Thorin’s madness in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies; Murphy fares a lot better thanks to some well-observed and pronounced eye, lip, and neck acting.

Richard Armitage and Charlie Murphy as William and Anna in 'Obsession'

Richard Armitage and Charlie Murphy as William and Anna in 'Obsession'

Ana Blumenkron/Netflix; 

Individual performances aside, they have a certain chemistry. You sense a visible charge between them in their stolen eye contact and swallowed desires; the way the camera zeros in on hands clasping wrists and bodies interlocked helps convey how fused these two characters are to one another in sex. Anna lays down strict instructions and rules for how she wants William to dominate her in bed. (There is no bed, of course, they exclusively have sex on uncarpeted flooring.) It’s an attempt to contain and channel the wildness William unleashes from his compacted, stultifying home life. 

But the eroticism still feels like it’s held at a certain remove. The soft, blown-out visual texture and calculated framing may be attractive, but it's unclear if the effort was put into the look of the show or if the cinematographic approach is merely aped from better-written prestige dramas. And it doesn’t capture the tactile sultriness we’ve seen in legitimate dominatrix stories. Not to mention the depiction of BDSM summons the worst traits of 90s erotic cinema. It is colored as aggressive and controlling, the behaviors of damaged people who need it to express something repressed and messed up – rather than just an expression of ordinary sexual desires.

The problem with the central tryst is how much room it takes up in the story. William’s family is woefully thinly sketched, residing mainly in that one-dimension plane all characters ignorant to an affair inhabit in erotic drama. The very talented Indira Varma is wasted as William’s wife, Ingrid – after an early suspicion her husband might be cheating, she spends the next few episodes utterly blind to the fact that William has transformed into a completely different person. Their daughter Sally (Sonera Angel) gets one instance to shine where she finds incriminating evidence, and the way Anna convinces her otherwise highlights how manipulative concealing an affair is for everyone affected by it.

Rish Shah, Indira Varma, and Sonera Angel as Jay, Ingrid, and Sally in 'Obsession'

Rish Shah, Indira Varma, and Sonera Angel as Jay, Ingrid, and Sally in 'Obsession'

Ana Blumenkron/Netflix

But the worst affected by this is William’s son and Anna’s boyfriend, Jay (Rish Shah). It feels strange asking television to be more Freudian, but Jay’s relationship with Anna is supposedly the foundation for the story’s drama, the centerpiece of tension, and we hardly get an opportunity to see Jay as a fully-fleshed, independent human being. William and Jay spend maybe one to two minutes of screentime showing warmth and compassion towards each other; the rest of the time, William regards his son with guarded suspicion and/or jealousy. Efforts to plumb William’s messed-up psychology due to cuckolding his son are severely lacking; Obsession uses its premise as an attention-grabbing entry point rather than focusing on how actual human beings would think and feel about its consequences.

What about Anna? How does the show depict a woman who freely pursues her boyfriend’s married father? Give Obsession some credit: there is an attempt to address how the erotic thrillers it emulates were steeped in misogyny. When the show shifts to favoring her perspective, you get the sense she’s exhausted from being trapped by how abuse, sex, and taboo have influenced how people see, judge, and value her. At a stretch, one could even interpret her actions as a self-destructive succumb to the behaviors people expect of her.

But even though the final scenes get kudos for finding a non-cliche resolution to her story, Obsession does way more replicating sexist archetypes than interrogating them. It aims for an emotional payoff it has not earned the right to – this is no subversive Hitchcockian or Lynchian work, and Anna is no Laura Palmer. It is possible to be both prestige programming and watchable trash simultaneously, but Obsession isn’t memorable or shocking enough to be either. It’s all buzz, no bite.

All four episodes of Obsession are streaming on Netflix.

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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