Sisters (1973)

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*. This is still early De Palma, and he was a director who started off taking a lot of baby steps.
*. He had some real help with this one, including Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt being well cast in the leading roles and Bernard Hermann going crazy with the score. And yet it still doesn’t quite add up.
*. Hermann had to remind De Palma that he (De Palma) wasn’t Hitchcock, but this admonishment only came after the film was in the can. I don’t mind De Palma’s obvious debt to Hitch — the voyeurism, black comedy, and structural perversities — but I can’t help thinking he would have been better off not trying to follow so closely in his master’s footsteps when it came to the actual process of filmmaking. This is primitive Hitchcock, and it makes starkly clear a lot of Hitch’s biggest faults.
*. What I mean, mainly, is a near total indifference to story. De Palma wanted to make “pure cinema,” but I don’t think that works with a concept this muddled and in need of explication. What we’re left with here are a bunch of pieces that don’t cohere into a story — does that sound familiar? — leaving us with a movie that doesn’t involve us very much.
*. I suppose De Palma was nodding to Psycho in killing off a likeable figure that the audience has come to identify with, but it’s pretty shocking how disposable Philip Woode is (that’s the name of the man Danielle brings home). He disappears but nobody seems to notice. You’d think the police would have heard something about a missing person, and connected the dots to his appearance on the TV show with Danielle just the night before, but they seem totally uninterested in Grace’s story about Danielle killing a black man in her apartment the night he disappeared.

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*. The mental hospital out in the boonies feels like pure Cronenberg. Also like Cronenberg is the feeling you get that the idea for the movie is more interesting in the abstract than it is on screen. On the one hand, the Siamese-twin back story is kind of obvious, but then it’s made confused by the mysterious way it’s related: by way of Grace’s hallucinatory hypnosis session. I had the odd feeling that somehow everyone was attached to everyone else at the end.
*. I also had to think of Cronenberg in the scene where Kidder is writhing on the floor of her bathroom because she’s out of meds. Was Cronenberg thinking of this scene when he made Rabid? There’s a very similar scene in that film with Marilyn Chambers going through the same withdrawal symptoms.
*. As far as the Hitchcock goes, there’s one shock moment (that isn’t very well done) and one extended suspense sequence. They seem so deliberately constructed that you notice the intricacy of the construction instead of being absorbed into the moment. The split-screen technique is very well utilized, but it sort of demands that you look at it as technique.
*. Then there’s the ending. Now this I really did like. The man on the pole. The cow. Even the couch that seems to be waiting for someone, if only to sit on it.
*. There’s a name for art that foregrounds (or flaunts) abnormal psychology, visual trickery, and its own knowingness and artificiality. But even without all of this the ending would still make me think of surrealism, if only because there’s nothing more surreal than a Holstein cow. And it’s really this species of lunacy that most differentiates De Palma from Hitch. I mean, could you ever take Bill Finley seriously? He’s just too odd.
*. As I started out by saying, De Palma began his career with a lot of baby steps. This movie is one of them. It’s interesting but not really accomplished on a technical level. I don’t think it’s much more than an inspired student film that ultimately falls apart. However it does have its moments and you can see that De Palma was too darn smart not to make something really good eventually.

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