Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Brian De Palma: Sisters

After the quickly buried and forgotten Get to Know Your Rabbit, Brian De Palma must have felt vindicated for all the pithy anti-commercial sentiment displayed in his earlier films, small consolation that it is. Reasoning that he fared just as poorly with major distribution as he did with independent filmmaking, De Palma returned to being his own boss, deciding to avoid profit-driven executives if the results would not differ with their involvement.

The result, Sisters, is not only the film of De Palma's early career that looks most clearly ahead to the director's future but the one that finally broke him to a healthy audience. Made for only $500,000, Sisters grossed several times its budget and set the stage for De Palma's true arrival, Carrie. In fact, Sisters prefigures Carrie not simply in financial terms but thematic ones: if Carrie is a warped take on the pitfalls of female puberty, Sisters bridges the gap between this focus on sexual identity and the director's previous dabbling in sociopolitical matters. Sisters, the story of two mentally unstable Siamese twins separated by surgery, uses its deranged characters to paint a scathing and suspenseful, yet darkly satiric, portrait of women attempting to come into their own in the wake of Women's Lib.

Originally billed as a horror movie, Sisters today identifies as a suspense picture, an appropriate reclassification given the heavy influence of Alfred Hitchcock, cleverly mashing up the voyeurism of Rear Window, the mad slasher of Psycho and the obsession-fueled alignment of personalities found in Vertigo. Even Hitch's favorite composer, Bernard Hermmann, came out of semi-retirement to score the picture. His presence is key, using his screeching style to add a dimension of discomfort to the the opening credits, played over images of fetal development that show how conjoined twins form in the womb. Using the same sort of questionable psychology that informed Hitchcock's slasher movie, De Palma explains away the mental instability of Danielle (Margot Kidder) and her unseen, separated twin Dominique with the suggestion that their delicate physical connection also linked them mentally, despite the two being conjoined at the hip. Separate, even the supposedly normal twin, Danielle, exhibits increasingly erratic and terrifying behavior.

However, Sisters, like De Palma's other features to that point, is at heart a comedy. Danielle first appears on a fake game show, cheekily titled "Peeping Toms," recalling Michael Powell's film, the character Jon Rubin from De Palma's Greetings and Hi, Mom! and really De Palma's entire aesthetic outlook. Danielle plays a blind woman for one of the taped segments, tempting a "contestant," a black man named Philip Woode. For being on the show, Danielle receives a knife set that will never be used for cooking, and Philip receives, to his Stoic bemusement, a complimentary dinner for two at the racially insensitive restaurant the African Room. In short order, Sisters begins not as a thriller but the latest mad comedy from the most scattershot satirist of late-'60s cinema.

De Palma cannot help but lighten the mood even after Danielle -- or is it Dominique? -- stabs Philip to death after neglecting to take her medication. As Philip claws at the apartment window, a woman across the way, arch-left columnist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), sees the man die and calls the police. De Palma splits the screen between shots of Grace alerting the authorities and attempting to get into the room to save the dying man and Emil entering to help Danielle hide the evidence. The brilliant use of split-screen heightens the suspense, but De Palma also hides gags in both sides that you might miss if concentrating on just one scene. Grace meets a detective outside and urgently asks him to go up to Danielle's apartment, but the cop knows of her scathing anti-police articles and uses the moment to punish her even though she's trying to intervene on behalf of a stranger. Meanwhile, Emil rushes to clean up, only to slip and fall face-first like a silent comedian. Both sides of the frame contain their own kind of humor, physical slapstick on the left and dark verbal irony on the right, and both types further the suspense of whether the police will discover the body even as they paradoxically lighten the mood.

That consistent juggling of genuinely pulse-pounding tension with the high comedy of De Palma's earlier works makes Sisters a clear bridge in styles, though the presence of similar cheek in his later films suggests that De Palma never could play it entirely straight. After the cops and Grace comb Danielle's apartment and find nothing, Grace stumbles across the birthday cake Philip had prepared with both Danielle and Dominique's names on it and triumphantly brings it to the snotty detective, only to trip and drop the cake, ruining the icing. Through De Palma, the latent slapstick of Hitchcock's work, only allowed full exposure in The Trouble With Harry, bubbles to the surface, working with the suspense even as it undermines some of the visceral immediacy.

De Palma also ventures into the sexual territory of Hitch's films, albeit in a post-feminist way. Underneath the faux-medical diagnosis of Danielle's madness, De Palma shows Danielle as partially the product of the condescending ex-husband, Emil, who patronizes her even after divorce. He orders her around upon slipping into her apartment and finding Philip's body, to the point that he literally picks her up like another object in the apartment to rearrange and sets her aside before getting to cleaning. Later, we see how his obsessive dominance of Danielle is as damaging as the emotional fallout from her separation from her sister. Even the nature of Danielle's violence contains a psychosexual element: when Danielle/Dominique stabs Philip, the blade first enters his upper thigh near his crotch, and De Palma shows deep coital scratches on Philip's back before offing the character.

Grace, too, must deal with patronizing males, first the berating detective who resents her feminism, then a gruff private eye who vociferates tersely on his masculine, hard-knocks learnin' of his trade. Amusingly, Grace becomes so frustrated by the deliberate inaction of the detective that she stoops to the sort of behavior she criticized the police for doing: illegal searches, accusations without hard evidence and spying. The cop takes particular pleasure in this, crowing about her loose morals when actually tested.

Yet De Palma saves the most brilliant gender commentary for the last act, which takes place at the Lynton Clinic, the institution that previously housed Danielle. Grace heads there to tell officials of Danielle's crime and to get more information. What follows is De Palma unleashed, filling the madhouse with horrific/funny caricatures like a man with a threatening pair of hedge clippers and a woman with a paralyzing fear of telephones. Most disturbingly, she finds Emil, who works there as a doctor. Before Grace can prove her identity, Emil has his subordinates commit her, leading to a warped hypnotherapy session in which the ex-husband eradicates memories of the murder from the pesky voyeur's mind.

Then, everything takes a turn, the sort of hard left that only De Palma could dream up, much less pull off. Emil brings in Danielle, revealed to be the true killer acting through split personalities, in an attempt to use Grace as an avatar for Dominique's personality. Through black-and-white irises, De Palma relates the troubled history of Danielle and Dominique, manipulated by institute doctors, one who used them as a path to fame, another (Emil) who fell in love with Danielle and pushed her to separation with Dominique so he could have his lover all to himself. In this sequence, Grace takes the role of Dominique, receiving the personality of Danielle's dead sister being transferred from the tormented killer. Here, De Palma fashions Grace into one of the titular sisters, and suddenly the split-screen used so masterfully earlier takes on an even greater significance, realigning the technique into a visualization of Danielle's fractured POV. Emil's mental transference makes Scottie's obsessive behavior regarding Judy/Madeleine in Vertigo seem like chivalrous courtship in comparison.

The most brilliant thing De Palma had done to that point beside the "Be Black, Baby" segment of Hi, Mom!, the madhouse sequence of Sisters combines the dark comedy, chilling suspense and sexual dynamics of the entire film into one magnificent smorgasbord. Emil's hypnosis ends with Danielle, in one final move before expelling her sister, stabbing Emil (also hitting him first in the crotch), and the doctor's final actions of grabbing Danielle from behind as if to mount her before collapsing on top of her in the missionary position as the woman strokes his hair lovingly with a hand covered in his blood, free Danielle from her torment even as they revert her back into a docile female. When police arrive, she is cured, but timid and placid, while Grace is now paranoid and incapable of pursuing the murder any further, that portion of her brain shut down by Emil.

This resolution reveals a humanity to De Palma not previously witnessed in his pitch-black comedies: heretofore concerned with masculine characters and masculine ideas of sex -- accusations of misogyny had yet to come -- De Palma makes a film about women distorted by their inability to act as society would like them. Made in the aftermath of Women's Lib, Sisters shows how even seemingly progressive men still condescend and ignore women, who are undergoing a turbulent social shift that messes with patriarchal programming, leading to the exaggerated explosion of Danielle. For all the anti-hippie/leftist gags -- which may be self-directed as De Palma saw firsthand the failure of the Love Generation -- Sisters is the first of the director's films to look on its characters with some measure of sympathy.

That is not to say that Sisters lacks the usual amount of sly, Brechtian technique in De Palma's films. His long, elegant tracking shots are so pristine that they are inhuman, calling attention to themselves even as they set the atmosphere along with Hermmann's score; they guide us to what we know will be an unsettling sight because the shots in themselves are creepy. The use of French subtitles in Danielle's off-screen conversations with "Dominique" paradoxically highlight the artifice of film even as the use of Danielle's Quebecois ethnicity adds verisimilitude. Elsewhere, the use of irises continues to emphasize the director's fascination with voyeurism; when Emil first attempts to win back Danielle, he attempts to avoid embarrassment by her vocal refusal by hissing, "We do not want to discuss our very private problems in front of strangers." Oh, you poor, dumb son of a bitch; you're in the wrong movie.

With Sisters, De Palma forms an intriguing contrast with the other great Hitchcock heir, Roman Polanski, whose own breakout was a Hitchcockian film about a psychotic woman pushed around by men until she reached the breaking point. Both Sisters and Repulsion were significant breakthroughs for their respective directors, and both turned Hitch's misogyny against itself to paint women in far more tragic a light, products of a harsh male system so strong it can even swallow up the ghastly actions committed by the deranged protagonists, leaving only a faint memory of women who went mad by trying to break out.

Yet where Polanski, informed by his traumatic youth and, a bit later, the death of his wife and subsequent mental instability, always searched for the bleak and the nihilistic, De Palma always ascribed to the "make 'em laugh" theory, though one would imagine that Donald O'Connor had this sort of thing in mind. It's why De Palma, after staging an ingenious thriller and resolving every important element of the story, decides to end on the private eye, who long ago disappeared from the movie, having followed the couch containing Philip's body to Quebec. He sits perched on a telephone pole, watching the couch through binoculars and waiting for someone to come pick it up. No one ever does or ever will, and De Palma ends Sisters on the deadpan of a farmer coming to collect the cow that keeps nudging the couch. Is it strange that this is as good a shot as any to announce the belated arrival of a true talent?


  1. Oooh, I'm intrigued. The last de Palma film I saw was "Black Dahlia," which left a bad taste in my mouth. If this one is even the slighest bit Hitchcockian, I'm going to give it a go.

  2. I remember when I saw Sisters after having only seen a handful of De Palma's films, and was certain that I'd seen the best De Palma movie ever made. But since then I've devoured almost his entire filmography and I don't know if it would even make the top five. Regardless, an awesome movie.

    See Phantom of the Paradise!

  3. Wow, fantastic review. Thoroughly impressed at the depth of your analysis.

    I also enjoyed SISTERS when I watched it several weeks ago, much more than I typically do with De Palma (who's not a favorite of mine). The dark humor certainly helps, but it also feels like his Hitchcock homages are less overt at this point (I'm looking at you, BODY DOUBLE) and that adds to the fun of the proceedings. The split screen, as well as the ending flashback show that De Palma definitely had a knack for stylistic touches.

    Great point near the end there on the Polanski/De Palma comparison and their relationship with the themes of Hitchcock.