Saturday, December 03, 2005

Film: Body Double

Brian de Palma is particularly clever director. He had to be: with his plotting style and some directing techniques, he indirectly proclaimed himself Hitchcock’s successor and Hitchcock was clever as well; in later years, with string of biting comedies and gangster films, De Palma managed to build the image of a director with various interests. His name, though, remains mostly related to thrillers, most of all "Blow out", "Carrey", "Sisters", etc.
Consider "Dressed to kill", for instance; it's form is so clever that we are able to forget that it is partially lifted from “Psycho”: film follows the woman for a good chunk of time, until she is unexpectedly killed and the rest of film is dedicated to finding the murderer whose one of Victims she was; the same trick of lulling a viewer into one story only to brutally end it with another. But the whole process of lifting Hitchcock’s invention is cynical enough to be considered an invention on it's own.
"Body double" is, perhaps, even better example; it's a film that plays like an ordinary thriller/"who did it" crime story until in it's final scene, as the credits roll by, it rises several questions that linger over such story; perhaps these questions are contained in the whole story but our concentration on plot doesn't allow us to see it? Or perhaps de Palma is just toying with us by giving us a standard story but letting us draw more from it than it contains? In any case, his approach is as playful as Hitchcock’s was. But let's start from the plot.
Craig Wasson plays Jake, an unsuccessful actor - as Hitchcock said: "unordinary things that happen to an ordinary man" and a loser like Jake is more a prototype of ordinary than a well-paid colleague of his would be. Jake gets "suspended" from his job as the vampire in a low budget horror, because he's claustrophobic. You can’t lie in a coffin long enough if you’re claustrophobic.
Now, there are a few clichés, hundred times seen plot twists that you'll see coming miles ahead. Some people aren't bothered by those; they'll even go as far as to consider them precious. My opinion is that such clichés will lull you into the familiarity, taking away the need to think about them more: situations are so familiar that you can take them for granted and proceed further without stopping by. In films like de Palma’s, I think that lulling a viewer at the beginning is not a good thing, it's holding up films like this one. Regardless of said wit, de Palma absorbed a whole lot of Hollywood’s common places. Thus:
Right here at the place where I stopped telling the plot, we can be certain of two things: 1. At some point in the film, Jake will be forced to overcome his great fear (claustrophobia) and it will be a matter of life and death; 2. After losing a job, Jake will return home to find his wife in bed with another man.
This situation - lost job, cheating wife - is too often used to present a character with blank slate. In representative manner, the situation is seen not as loss, but as freedom from responsibilities. Such optimists, those Hollywood directors.
Anyway, on one audition, desperate Jake meets a colleague Sam (Gregg Henry) who offers him to stay in a luxury house that's been given to him for keeping an eye on. Jake looks forward to unexpected opportunity to spend some time in luxury villa, especially because he has a daily chance of glancing the erotic dance of a woman living in the next door villa. Jake is clueless enough never to ask himself, why she performs this dance with time-ticking precision when there’s no one around. This eventually makes him a witness of a brutal murder of the neighbour Gloria (Deborah Shelton) as he reacts too late to help her.
This is recognized as a common place of de Palma’s work: failure to save the woman. Nancy Allen is “Blow out”, Angie Dickinson in “Dressed to kill”, Genevieve Bujold in “Obsession”, even Emmanuelle Beard in “Mission: Impossible”; Critics who are too bluntly literal interpret this as covered misogyny by de Palma; However, it’s obviously not that: To De Palma a woman is an object of desire whose death comes mostly as a result of inadequacy of male character. Thus de Palma sets an anti-macho image in which male characters are so obsessed with proving themselves that they fail to deliver the most important; It is not too hasty to say that de Palma makes an allusion at sexual inadequacy (the most touchy subject for an average male), with John Travolta from “Blow out” too obsessed with his own crime investigation to manage to make a defined relationship with Nancy Allen, or, of course, Jake in “Body double”, choosing a voyeuristic over active role. It is de Palma’s tendency to caricature everyday relations that makes these inadequacies result of a murder. De Palma’s approach to this subject is completely different from what we usually have in thrillers and action films, where macho image is preserved and guilt is something specifically preserved for bad guys.
Hopefully that was the last digression in my retelling the plot. Now goes the twist: Jake, after slipping as a witness to an unsolved murder, spends some depressive days in the villa, when, watching porn clips on TV, he recognizes an erotic dance that he used to look at in the next house. Instantly, he realizes that he was set up. After meeting Holly (Melanie Griffith), dancer and porn star, things became clearer: She was the person Jake watched dancing. Someone hired her to do her trademark dance when Gloria, owner of the house, isn’t at home, ensuring that Jake would be watching when the murder of Gloria happens. Who else but Sam, far from struggling actor, a professional rich man and Gloria’s husband. From there on, what’s left it a few tense scenes where Jake has to save Holly (if he couldn’t save Gloria) and convince police in what really happened.
Melanie Griffith from this film is Melanie from the beginning of the career, before proving that she was a worthy actress capable of surprising transformations on screen and a good successor of Marilyn Monroe’s “dumb blond” image. Though looking back from her later roles we can see that she was brilliant in role of dumb Holly, at this moment she was still cast for her sexy body. De Palma no doubt had a good time casting a daughter of Tippi Hedren, Hitchcock’s Melanie from “Birds” and Marnie from, well, “Marnie” (some say Hitchcock’s secret love too).
Last scene of the film shows scenes of making of a cheap horror flick; particularly, Jake’s shower scene with the attractive lead actress. As the credits roll, actress is replaces with a stunt with larger breasts, to shoot torso shots. From that point on, we see the face or the actress intercut with the chest of the double; the effect that they belong to one person is, of course, seamless. Thus, de Palma raises the question of unreliability of human sight. We realizes that what is going on in the last scene is the same thing that happened to Jake: Concentrated on body, he never got past to looking at the face. He was a subject of the same trickery that magicians will use on stage when they draw attention to irrelevant things which is, in return, similar to the trickery that a film director makes in editing room. Short sublimation of the basic idea of the film in the last scene, underlines what the film’s real subject is: Not a claustrophobia, a failed actor, a husband who wants to kill his wife or whatever thrillers are often about, but the fragile nature of the impression that we have about the world, it’s fallible connection with reality. By laying it at the very end, de Palma urges us to think about it rather than making any conclusions or points on his own.


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