Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.4: Brian De Palma's Sisters

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 94 (A)

Following the commercial disaster that was Get to Know Your Rabbit, Brian De Palma found himself without a major studio backing his next project. Perhaps it was for the best- De Palma needed to refocus: his past films, while often strong, were loose and often disconnected. He needed to find a project that was both well structured and personal. Who better to turn to for inspiration, then, than the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock? Brian De Palma’s first De Palma Thriller, 1973’s Sisters, has been unfairly dismissed by some (including, at first, myself) as a Hitchcock imitation without the famous director’s emotional gravitas. That’s missing the point: Sisters is a highly personal film that plays less like straight Hitchcock and more like a schizoid version of Hitchcock for the New Hollywood generation.

NOTE: there’s really not much way to discuss Sisters without spoiling at least where the first act goes, so if you’re particularly spoiler-averse, watch the movie first. Otherwise, I’ll try to avoid major giveaways for the ending until the very end.

French-Canadian model Danielle Blanchion (Margot Kidder) has met the handsome Philip (Lisle Wilson) on a game show, and the two decide to go home together. Danielle has some secrets, however: her creepy ex-husband Emil Breton (William Finley) follows her everywhere, and she has a disturbed twin sister, Dominique, who stays with her. When Dominique loses her mind and murders Philip, Danielle’s reporter neighbor Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) witnesses the murder through her window. She cannot prove anything: Danielle and Emil have hid the body and are protecting Dominique, and Grace has a lousy track record with the police, but she and private detective Joseph Larch (Charles Durning) go digging for clues, only to find that the truth is far more twisted than they could have imagined.

De Palma doesn’t hide his Hitchcockian influences- the plot is like a crazed version of Rear Window and Psycho (and just a dash of Rope), with similar twists and turns even (plus he hired Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s preferred composer). De Palma isn’t merely ripping off the master of suspense, but rather tweaking the format of a Hitchcockian plot and thriller to explore his own personal pet themes: voyeurism, violence, helplessness, politics, and, of course, the movies. He does so with assured technical prowess far beyond anything he had shown before. He keeps the eye engaged by putting fleeting hints as to what will happen: when the “game show” camera pans over the audience, Emil is trying his hardest not to look conspicuous watching Danielle; when Danielle wins a set of knives on the game show, the attentive viewer knows these will come into play later; when a set of pills fall into the sink, there’s serious consequences to one of the sisters not taking them. It’s all accomplished visual storytelling.

Better still is De Palma’s use of split-screen, used sparingly in Get to Know Your Rabbit, now used to dispense with exposition and keep the action going all at once, with very little dialogue. When Philip, stabbed and bleeding, crawls to the window to signal for help, we see both him crawling on one side of the screen and Grace slowly seeing him on the other. Then it’s a race to the rescue as Grace tries to get the police to search the house while Danielle and Emil clean up Dominique’s mess, barely getting away with it. When De Palma finally kills the split-screen, he uses the camera to show where the body had been hidden, and how everyone manages to just miss it. It’s a bravura sequence.

The violence in Sisters is far more lurid and graphic than in any of Hitchcock’s films (even if it’s toned down from some of De Palma’s later films), but it’s hardly without reason. The 1970s saw an America that had lived through racial tension, a presidential assassination, fear of nuclear war, and division over a senseless war. The violence in Sisters reflects not just the violence of the times, but also the sexuality. When Dominique stabs Philip (and eventually another character), it’s almost as if she’s asserting herself and penetrating them. If it seems horrific, let’s consider some of the other political implications of Sisters.

The 1970s had also seen radical reform and liberation movements by women, minorities, and young people. These attitudes are reflected in Sisters’ characters: Danielle is very sweet and girlish, but still highly sexual (De Palma wrote this role especially for Kidder, who plays it perfectly). Kidder also acquits herself well as Danielle’s polar opposite, the repressed and disturbed Dominique. Salt’s role was also written especially for her, and she shinesas the brash young reporter with a leftist bent (and no intention to fit into traditional gender roles). Finley’s creepy doctor uses his expertise to exploit both Danielle and Dominique. Wilson’s insurance salesman is hardly an African-American stereotype, but he’s marginalized and racially profiled by other characters. The cops, the private eye, and Grace’s mother all treat the young folks, especially the women, pretty badly.

There’s some creepy domination happening throughout Sisters- Emil tries to control Danielle’s life (and, we find out, he’s manipulated her in even more horrifying ways), the cops, apart from being racists who don’t much care that a black man like Philip has been killed, condescend to Grace both because she’s a left-winger reporter and a woman. Durning’s private eye helps Grace, but he doesn’t much care for her participation. Grace’s traditional mother believes her daughter should drop her “little job” and settle down with her husband; when she mentions that Grace has been sleeping with her editor and popping pills, it’s clear that she think’s it’s indicative of the women’s liberation. Sisters captures a New York brimming with barely concealed racial and sexual tension underneath the inherent romanticism of Staten Island, New York. When Grace is inevitably captured by Emil, he tries to control her in the most horrifying way. When Danielle strikes back, it is to liberate all of them. For someone so frequently (read: wrongfully) labeled as a misogynist, De Palma’s playing with some pretty complicated gender politics here.

De Palma had explored his obsession with voyeurism in Greetings and Hi, Mom!, but he goes above and beyond here: when we first meet Philip, he’s watching Danielle change her clothes- he acts like a gentleman, but then, he knows he’s being watched. He moderates his behavior when Finley follows him and Danielle, but when no one’s around, the two get to loving. Yet we still feel like we’re seeing things we shouldn’t be- we’re the voyeurs now, and when the two make love, we see a hint that Danielle is hiding something. The camera later spans around the room and gives us an idea of what’s going to happen before the characters figure it out; Hitchcock always said that suspense was putting a bomb under the table, letting the audience on, but not telling the characters rather than having someone just say that there’s a bomb in the room and have it explode. De Palma exemplifies that here- we’re almost complicit it what’s happening, and we have to ward Philip that something horrible is about to happen to him. But we’re helpless. We’re only watching. That helplessness carries over to Philip’s murder when he tries to signal Grace for help- we see Grace’s perspective, and we still can’t help him.

Any of this seem like acknowledgment that we’re watching a movie the whole time? Exactly. De Palma let’s us know where his head is at early on: when Philip is shown watching Danielle undress, it goes from suspenseful to goofy as De Palma pulls the rug under from us and let’s us know they’re on a game show called “Peeping Toms” (named after the Michael Powell film). That these events have taken place on a TV-frame makes sense. De Palma is obsessed with letting us know that it’s artificial in a Brechtian fashion (or Antonionian fashion; is that not a term? Well it is now).

His use of Hitchcockian plotlines (let’s call it “quoting” rather than “stealing”) is particularly indicative of his mindset. Grace sees the murder of an innocent man by her neighbor, like in Rear Window. We know where the body is before anyone else does, like in Rope. There’s a lot of amateur sleuthing, like in Rear Window and Psycho. Philip is introduced as a major character, only to be killed off at the end of the first act, like a certain someone in Psycho (50-year-old you-should-really-know-this spoiler). And like Hitchcock, De Palma uses dubious psychology to explore twisted minds, although where Hitchcock’s obsessions were played fairly straight, De Palma has air quotes over everything and plays this like a black-comedy version of Hitchcock. It’s all very self-consciously a movie, and that’s the point.

The psychology, voyeurism, movie-ness, and politics all carry over to crazy ending of Sisters. Last warning, SPOILERS ahead until last paragraph.

Anyone who’s seen Psycho and who’s paying attention ought to smell something fishy when Danielle first has a conversation with Dominique- we don’t see them on screen together, we just hear two voices. When Dominique emerges and goes mad, we don’t see Danielle anywhere nearby (although Kidder does a great job of distinguishing them by contrasting Dominique’s wild-eyes and unkemptness with Danielle’s sweetness). It’s all a bit like Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates in Psycho, no? We never see the crazy, pathologically jealous, homicidal Mrs. Bates. We learn via offhanded remarks (and a comically morbid psychological profile on the Blanchion twins) that the two were Siamese twins and that Dominique supposedly died when they were separated. But who’s Danielle been talking to?

When Grace tracks Emil and Danielle to a creepy madhouse (framed ominously like the Bates Motel), Emil finds new ways to dominate over a woman by convincing one of the orderlies that Grace is another one of his patients. Grace is sedated. When she awakes, she’s groggy and she’s been hypnotized by Emil, who insists that “there was no body because there was no murder”. We’re seeing Grace’s perspective, and we’re all totally helpless to break from Emil’s trance. We’re voyeurs to our own situation. Emil decides to reveal the horrifying truths to the Danielle-Dominique situation.

De Palma then shifts to a creepy dream sequence that feels closer to Roman Polanski’s  fever dream version of Hitchcock (dream sequence in Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion) than anything the master did himself. Madness isn’t just creepy, it’s absolutely insane. Characters with no direct relation to the Blanchion case show up in Grace’s imagination, and now Grace is Dominique. We learn that the sweet-natured Danielle was exploited and seduced by Emil; when the less-adjusted Dominique learned that her sister was pregnant, she tried to kill the baby. During childbirth, the child died, and Emil had to separate the two to save them. Only Danielle lived.

Here, De Palma makes good use of his knowledge of Catholic guilt (albeit to a less overt effect than his friends Scorsese or Coppola)- Danielle can’t live with herself and “becomes” Dominique whenever she’s sexually aroused (Psycho, anyone?). De Palma also taps into a Catholic feeling of justice and retribution- Emil must pay for the horrors he’s done. When Danielle snaps, becomes Dominique one final time, and kills Emil, she does so by stabbing his crotch (more sexual empowerment imagery here). When it’s over, her knowledge that Dominique is dead has returned, but she’s unaware of how Emil was killed or of her other crimes. She’ll have a difficult life still; even more horrifying, though, is Grace. The cops are finally willing to investigate Philip’s murder, but she insists that “there was no body because there was no murder.” Charles Durning’s private eye has followed the couch Emil hid Philip’s body in- he’s figured out where the man is, and he’s waiting for someone to pick it up, watching what happens. But the chilling final shot implies that he’ll be watching for some time.


With Sisters, De Palma established what truly made a De Palma film by making one of the craziest, most frightening, and most blackly comic thrillers of the decade. Sisters was hardly a major hit, but made $1 million at the box office off a $500,000 budget and earned rave reviews from the likes of Pauline Kael (a lifetime De Palma supporter) and Gene Siskel. This success would allow him to embark on one of his most thrilling experiments: Phantom of the Paradise.

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