Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973), although his fifth feature, nevertheless announced with a vengeance the director’s predilection for Hitchcockian stylistic tropes and his ability as a pastiche artist – someone who can mix and match things he likes from all over the map of cinema history, toss them into a blender, and let ‘er rip.
Although the plot of Sisters bears more than a striking resemblance in theme to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) in its depiction of suspicion of a murder from across the way, and to Psycho (1960) in its depiction of someone with multiple personalities (a key feature of De Palma’s pulpier work), the film begins with a Cronenbergian opening credits sequence (at about the same time he would’ve been doing such things before becoming “respectable” with things like A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis) resembling some kind of sci-fi/horror film. Because the opening credit sequence in Sisters was something of an afterthought, one can’t help but feel that it does little to betray, as someone in class said, the “mundane” reality of the film (Roger Ebert’s review states: “The opening is pure Hitchcock. The movie begins with events so commonplace they’re almost trivial, and the horror of the situation is revealed only gradually.”) until about the half-hour mark when Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt, now a staff writer and co-producer on FX’s American Horror Story – another piece of pop entertainment about strange occurrences and lack of belief) notices the murder across from her apartment window.
Despite all of these rather obvious references, I couldn’t help but notice something else upon this viewing. In the introduction section of Brian De Palma Interviews, it is noted that De Palma began first with French New Wave co-founder Jean-Luc Godard as a key influence. This sense of political rabble-rousing and satire can be seen in Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), two of De Palma’s earliest works. However, upon this viewing I noticed something very indicative of a Godardian stylistic influence. Once Collier and her police “chums” go through Danielle’s (Margot Kidder) apartment, looking for the ill-fated African-American game show contestant’s corpse, they walk again and again past the fold out couch (in which the body is hidden), despite a reddish-purple stain on the back of it. Noticing this detail upon this viewing, having seen much of Godard’s work, I couldn’t help but think of a scene in his relatively early yet seminal crime parody, Pierrot le Fou (1965) in which Anna Karina has, I believe, killed someone with the help of Jean-Paul Belmondo and they proceed to walk around the apartment while the corpse lies there on the bed, never making reference to it and with the transition into the scene being so sharp and disorienting that we feel like we missed something.
Certainly, if Sisters has anything in common with anything Godard did besides this specific allusion (whether intentional or not), it is De Palma’s general sensibility – to “gussy up” horrific and exploitative material through cinematic techniques and styles, drawing attention all but completely away from how truly hollow the work actually is. What, if anything, can be gained from a film like Sisters other than appreciation or ire at De Palma’s skill as a pastiche artist? Indeed, this is a question that haunts De Palma through much of his career even today: You either appreciate his films for what they are, or you don’t. You either accept them as stylistically interesting bits of pop exploitation, full of sound and fury and (perhaps) in the end, signifying nothing, or you dismiss them as such.
One thing is for certain: De Palma managed to finagle an entire career out of this kind of work and he was quite skilled at doing it, so whatever you think of him, at least he knew he could do what he wanted to do the way he wanted to do it and seldom succumbed to public scrutiny or disdain for his efforts. He is, in his way, a true original and his own filmmaker and nobody can take that away from him.