Thursday, 29 July 2010

Sisters (1973)

Sisters is an early Brian de Palma effort, released in 1973, but the characteristic de Palma obsessions are already well in place. This is classic de Palma black comedy.

We open with an odd scene of a black man watching a young blind woman undressing but in fact it’s part of a reality TV show called Peeping Toms. After the show the black man and the blind girl head off to a night-club called The African Room (his payment for his appearance in the show was dinner for two at this club). She’s a French-Canadian named Danielle. They go back to her place and make love but the lights are off and he doesn’t see what the audience sees - a huge scar on her side. There’s also the slightly disturbing fact that Danielle’ ex-husband likes to park outside her apartment and watch her, constantly.

Early next morning he hears her arguing with someone. She tells him it’s her twin sister and that it’s their birthday. Being a nice guy he decides to buy them a cake but when he shows Danielle the cake her reaction is not quite what he expected - she reaches for a very large carving knife only it’s not the cake she’s going to cut.

The knifing is witnessed by an spiring journalist neighbour, Grace Collier. Grace calls the cops but she’s in their bad books after writing several articles about police racism and brutality so they’re inclined to regard her story with scepticism. The absence of any obvious evidence in Danielle’s apartment appears to confirm their suspicion that Grace is making up stories. But once again the audience knows a lot more than the protagonists, a typical Hitchcock technique that de Palma uses with great skill.

We soon discover that Danielle is indeed a twin, a siamese twin. But what’s the story with her sister Dominique? We are told the answer to that question in ingenious ways. It turns out that these siamese twins were Canada’s first and Grace views a TV documentary about them. Later we will find out more in a series of hallucinatory flashbacks. Grace enlists the help of a rather amateurish private eye. They’re particularly interested in Danielle’s ex-husband who may not be what he seems to be.

While it’s essentially a black comedy, and a very good one, de Palma is able to explore his various cinematic obsessions in considerable depth. Everyone seems to be watching someone else, and we the audience are not only the biggest voyeurs we’re also the most privileged ones since we get to see everything. And while the characters are being voyeurs they’re more often than not misled about what they’re actually seeing. Identity is misleading as well.

Of course there are numerous Hitchcock references but the accusation frequently made of de Palma that he merely recycles Hitchcock is very wide of the mark. He uses Hitchcockian techniques for his own ends. He’s not an imitator, he’s an artist building on the work of another artist.

Margot Kidder is very good as the mysterious twins. The other actors are at least adequate.

Bernard Herrmann’s score is as effective as any he did for Hitchcock himself.

A particular highlight is de Palma’s use of split-screen techniques. This can so easily come off as gimmicky but de Palma shows how it should be done. It’s probably the best use I’ve ever seen of this technique.

The Region 2 DVD from Pathe is reasonably good.

This is vintage de Palma. It hasn't displaced Body Double as my favourite de Palma film but it’s certainly up there in the top three or four.

1 comment:

Shaun Anderson said...

A brilliant film - probably my favourite De Palma movie - good to see this reviewed!