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The Review/ Feature/

Brian De Palma Likes to Watch

All you need is a guy, a girl and a big fat drill

Jul 14, 2016

Film is perverse, and filmmakers are a special kind of pervert. They’re often presumed to be Peeping Toms, voyeurs with hard-ons for dark theatres and unnoticed gazes, but I’ve never known a filmmaker who likes action without their direction. They’re freaks for control, their preferred kink the crafting of an entire world that resembles a much better (or more fuckable) version of reality. They know what real life looks like — with its meandering plots and maddeningly open-ended storylines — and have chosen, instead, to find pleasure within celluloid correctives.

Filmgoers, on the other hand: we’re the ordinary perverts. We like to watch in the dark, and we like being told what to like. Our preferences guide us to the ticket counter, but part of the point of those darkened theatres, with their insulated walls and cushioned seats, is to get the privacy we need to find something new for our wants, our needs, our boners.

Brian De Palma, whose films are playing as part of a retrospective this summer at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, doesn’t find the new erotic. He likes old — old ideas, old references, his ideas about sex, violence and gender worn in like a vintage leather glove on our sweaty palms. De Palma’s films like Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Body Double and Passion, are his most frequently invoked erotic thrillers, although many of his other films, which span genres like crime (Scarface), horror (Carrie) or psychological thriller (Raising Cain) include elements of the erotic, even when not intended to be explicitly so.

The movies, De Palma knows, are all sex. It’s the sluttiest medium. In her essay “The Decay of Cinema,” Susan Sontag eulogized what she saw as the inevitable death of film and cinephilia, saying that, “No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals — erotic, ruminative — of the darkened theater.” Perhaps not, but sorrow can be kind of hot. Mourning, in its most naked form, is an ache for something you’ve lost, and what’s more erotic than wanting what you can’t have?

In his interview with Chris Dumas, the author of Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible, Adam Nayman wrote of De Palma’s obsession with failure, both personal and political. “De Palma empathizes with characters (typically, men) whose inability to act, despite their moral certainty that they should, results in collateral damage,” wrote Nayman. “It’s typically embodied by a woman that will haunt them after the final fade out.”

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Failure as loss is the dominant aesthetic in De Palma’s films, even more so than, say, blood with the colour and flow of a drugstore nail polish. He has his favorite themes, favorite ideas, favorite characters: a woman in peril paired with a woman on a mission, a good if somewhat spineless man paired with a man who represents the banal evil of authority (cops, doctors, politicians). He likes twins and other doppelgangers, and he likes psychological turmoil as a prop. He prefers his sexual deviancy with a definition of “deviant” that leaves much to be desired. He loves mirrors, he loves split-screens and he loves to reference the sensual properties of filmmaking. (Think of his repeated use of Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho and many other Alfred Hitchcock references.) But more than anything, his movies reliably assign to us, his audience, that same yearning for what we have lost, or will eventually lose through the old one-two punch of sex and death.

In Sisters (1973), Danielle (Margot Kidder) is, like all great perverts, from Quebec. She’s a French-Canadian model/​actress first introduced as the bait on a reality television show called “Peeping Tom.” Hidden cameras show her pretending to be a blind woman in the wrong change room, about to undress in front of a man. The game waits to see if he’ll stop her or watch her. It’s an idea that has all the subtlety of a Paddy Chayefsky rant, combined with Bachelor host Chris Harrison dispensing roses.

But our contestant is a gentleman, and does the right thing, finding himself rewarded with a gift certificate to a nice restaurant. He is then manipulated into spending it on dinner with Danielle. There’s an overly elaborate plot to evade her ex-husband, who interrupts them. There’s some passable first-date sex. There’s the reveal, in the form of an off-camera conversation that Danielle’s twin sister Dominique is also in the apartment, and that today is their birthday. There’s an agonizingly slow scene of a cake being decorated, and finally, mercifully, there is a murder.

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Grace (Jennifer Salt), a journalist who lives in the neighboring apartment, has the Rear Window vantage point to witness the whole thing. In stilted, overwrought dialogue, we learn that the police officers don’t or won’t trust her frantic reports because she recently wrote about police brutality and corruption. She uses all her reporting skills to over-explain her personal investigation, eventually learning the truth: Danielle and Dominique were conjoined twins, and Dominique, the “bad” twin (one twin is always bad in De Palma’s world), died after a botched operation, which Danielle wanted so she could fuck their doctor without her sister lying by her side. After the operation, Danielle seems to have absorbed Dominique’s bad qualities, becoming violently triggered by her own sexuality.

Grace learns this in a surreal and genuinely scary scene where she is sedated and restrained in an inpatient home for the mentally ill. For a split second, captured in those De Palma split-screens, Grace starts to believe that she is Dominique. Lying beside Danielle, she has a psychic vision of their life as conjoined twins, and the surgery that ended it. She fears that she has become Danielle’s double without even realizing it — that Danielle’s need for symmetry, wanting who she’s lost — could replace Grace’s own identity.*

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Sisters is the erotic thriller that established De Palma’s preferred expressions of sex and sexuality. His version of sex favors machinations, not mechanics. It is fucking made of subtext: all sublimation and very little stimulation. Dressed To Kill (1980) is 104 minutes of armchair diagnosis straight from the Norman Bates School of Sexual Pseudo-Psychology. Dr. Elliot (Michael Caine, so good) is treating Kate (Angie Dickinson, even better), a sexually frustrated housewife. We know this because we see how she’s so over her husband’s inept fucking, having rape fantasies in her shower and coming on to Dr. Elliot in a serious breach of doctor-patient etiquette. After one such session, she picks up a mystery man at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who beckons her into a cab with the glove she dropped. However, Kate is punished twice for what she wants: first, when she stumbles upon medical proof that her afternoon delight was recently diagnosed with venereal disease, and then again, in the pick-up’s elevator, when she’s brutally murdered with a razor by a female figure in a blonde wig.

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Liz (Nancy Allen, the best of all) is a sex worker leaving a client’s apartment and stumbles on the murder in progress: she’s Kate’s double, a blonde who is not dumb but perhaps not always thinking with total clarity. Her best scene comes when she’s speaking on two rotary telephones at once, booking an appointment with a client while she talks to her broker about liquidating stocks on the other. Liz teams up with Kate’s mourning teenage son — he understands computers, you see — and together they do what the inept cops can’t, catch the real killer. This is slowly revealed by carefully placed mirrors and other reflective surfaces. Without giving too much away, our killer always looks at themselves before making their kills, their external appearance an impetus for violence. In true Psycho-style, the last few minutes include a long explanation as to why said killer’s confused relationship to their gender identity was the source of their murderous impulses all along.

In her book The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema, author Linda Ruth Williams spoke about the charges of misogyny Dressed to Kill inspired and have followed throughout De Palma’s career, such as a protest led by Women Against Pornography, saying that “his female deaths look rather like punishments for sexual appetite: the question [being] whether he simple dramatizes or positively relishes the uneasy position of women in sexual culture... De Palma understood the cinematic potency of dangerous fucking, perhaps earlier than his feminist detractors.”

I agree, although that doesn’t mean I don’t find these ideas lazy at best, repulsive at worst. De Palma is showing reflections of ideas that already exist in life, reinforced by better outfits and bad dialogue. Here, women on the prowl will find themselves prey, and monsters will come not from under the bed, but out of the closet. Rather than asking these films to satisfy a utopian vision of our dominant moral and political values, they are just another split-screen to the dull ideals we have to suffer through in real life. It’s the kind of insidious belief that continues to creep through pop culture, enforcing our norms by pathologizing our others, only so effective because — as we’ve established — every filmgoer and maker knows that they’re a pervert too.

Many of those ideas came to a head (ha) in Body Double (1984), the De Palma film that should have been my favourite. The story is a combination of Rear Window and Vertigo, but about porn stars and B-movie actors — so, a perfect premise. Jake (Craig Wasson) is that particular form of actor born to be a supporting character. His face, fine in every conventional respect, is just a little bit to the left of handsome. He’s supposed to be playing a vampire in a bad horror movie but gets fired after his claustrophobia prevents him from filming inside a coffin. Because he’s dismissed early, he catches his girlfriend fucking someone else in their apartment and his distress is understandable, if overwrought.

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At an acting class, another second-rate bit player Sam (Gregg Henry), introduces himself and offers to solve his living solution by asking if he’ll house-sit a glass bachelor pad right in the Hollywood Hills. Sam points out both the telescope (for boring people, who like to peep at stars) and the glass house on the other side of the hill, where a very hot woman undresses and dances at the same time every night (for boring perverts, who like to peep at neighbours). Jake takes the bait and, of course, witnesses her terrible, bloody, unrelentingly phallic murder courtesy of a mysterious character with a very big drill. (In a 1984 interview with People, De Palma weakly protested the sexualization of this scene by explaining he simply needed a murder weapon big enough to be seen from Jake’s viewpoint, which, sure).

The tragedy of her death is, to Jake, even worse than the tragedy of never getting the chance to fuck her. In his traumatized state, he gets sucked into watching late-night soft-core porn ads and catches Holly (Melanie Griffith, good in her own right and good for fellow film pervs, who will appreciate her relation to The Birds’ Tippi Hedren), doing the exact same dance his neighbour used to do in the nights before she was murdered. The film then veers into Vertigo, rather than remain another Rear Window homage. Claustrophobia, instead of heights, does seem like the right phobia for Los Angeles, although the other fears fall flat. Sam, revealed to be the murderer behind a grotesque set of prosthetic teeth and putty nose, has all the menacing qualities of a Scooby-Doo villain, even saying some modified version of how he would’ve gotten away with it all if it wasn’t for Jake’s meddling.

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Jake is somewhat motivated by recreating Holly in the image of his murdered neighbor, but also suspects that she can lead him to the truth. (Female deception is just another form of foreplay for Hitchcock and his ilk.) Unlike Vertigo, which saw Kim Novak performing two different versions of male-directed identities (first hired by a wealthy man to impersonate his wife, and then as a manifestation of Jimmy Stewart’s worst fears made real), Holly is herself the entire way through. Her monologue about what she will and won’t do is, firstly, amazing. (“I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M or any variations of that particular bent; no water sports, either. I will not shave my pussy, no fistfucking, and absolutely no coming on my face. I get $2,000 a day and I do not work without a contract.”) It also parallels Debbie Allen’s call girl in Dressed to Kill, women who know they want to get paid on their own terms.

Williams called De Palma’s constant return to Hitchcockian references “Rear Window revisited as pornography,” slash fiction but for filmmaking. But what director doesn’t dream of creating something with the power of Vertigo? Hitchcock’s work is De Palma’s perfect parallel — the blood, the duplicates, the saturated colours and the dark recesses of the male mind, just a few of the themes he shares — and his erotic thrillers the perfect place for Hitchcock’s gaze. Ultimately both directors are two perverts who know what they like: blondes, boobs, blades. Rear Window is the scariest film for filmmakers because it’s about the horror of watching the story unfold without having any control over the action. Vertigo, too, knows that terror is being a supporting character in someone else’s story, stumbling into the lead role without knowing your lines.

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The De Palma erotic thriller that is my favorite is Passion (2012), the most recent addition to his personal sub-canon. It’s a dreamy and nonsensical story about Christine (Rachel McAdams, completely perfect in the strangest film wardrobe I’ve ever seen: jewel-toned skintight turtlenecks with wide silk trousers, red brocade dresses and matching lip gloss), an insatiable advertising executive with a hot boyfriend and an even hotter junior associate, Isabelle. (Noomi Rapace, her black bangs cut with the same precision as her tailored black suits). Isabelle is fucking Christine’s boyfriend, Dirk. Christine is trying to fuck Isabelle, both literally and professionally: she steals one of Isabelle’s ideas before a big meeting, which is hot in only the way subtly aggro, overtly passive displays of female dominance can be hot. Those same principles apply to the scene when Christine makes Isabelle wear the same shade of red lipstick to a work function.

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When Christine is murdered — another female lead down Janet Leigh’s shower drain — Isabelle becomes the suspect. Stealing another woman’s man and stealing her idea seem to be morally equivalent, providing a motive. Before the murder, Dirk tells Isabelle that Christine is, in bed, exactly as she is in real life, one rare moment where De Palma diverts from his expected modus operandi. Previously, his erotic thrillers were about characters who, in bed, were the people they wanted but couldn’t be in real life. Motive is its own kink in Passion, each character unsure of which jealousy prompted which violent crime: do Isabelle and Christine want each other, or just want to be each other?

Maybe De Palma thinks we’ll intuitively know how to answer that. His films are simple only in a Freudian sense, another favorite reference for filmmakers. In his erotic thrillers, the unknowable is the unfuckable. What his characters don’t understand, or can’t face, about their own identities, is what turns them into murderers. What his characters can’t see or find out about their own lives is what might make them victims. That’s why they’re given twins, or mirrored surfaces, or outfit changes to play opposite their personas. That’s why they’re watched, stalked and analyzed both in the film and by the audience. That’s what De Palma wants for us, the one experience neither filmmaker nor filmgoer will ever achieve despite our best efforts or best homages. In De Palma’s world, the best possible kink is the one just out of reach: to go fuck ourselves.

*Sisters also has an ending that makes the most ominous use of a Canadian flag blowing in the wind ever, which I enjoyed very much.