Tacky and tricky, Body Double is director Brian De Palma’s bilious libido unhinged in a startling excoriation of his own cinematic oeuvre wrapped up in an even harsher smack to his critics’ and his audience’s faces, delivered as only the director could have: an audience-mocking follow-up to his proper entry in the A-list with the distended, over-exerted Scarface. Admittedly, that earlier film still exhibits inlaid moments of vigor and self-consciously absurdist, artificial “macho” dialogue designed to mock gangster romanticism. But it is the follow-up Body Double that more dramatically and viciously works out our ability to sympathize with the screen or to even accept it as anything other than curated, controlled meaning. De Palma had already worked with John Travolta and Al Pacino, both ironically on the eve of their declines (one commercial and the other artistic), but it is Body Double that captures the platonic ideal of those two phallus-swinging actors walking down a New Jersey boardwalk like they own the place. Right before De Palma runs up and kicks them in the junk, but that’s the De Palma way: taking your self-confidence and smacking it around self-confidently.
Body Double is one of the director’s final Hitchcock riffs (still to this day the dog that haunts him when viewers who watch his films, but refuse to actually see them, accuse De Palma of unoriginality). It also never once obliges the audience’s desire to relate to a protagonist that even Hitchcock would have at least accepted as heroic on the surface (hiding his insidious social commentary on masculine gaze underneath stealthy imagery). De Palma, not only an aesthetic genius but an enthusiast of aesthetics, brings everything to the forefront, no longer hiding in the murk and mire of subtextual subtlety and, instead, demanding that we see his protagonist as an obsessive fool. His not-anti-but-non-hero, Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), is a workaday B-actor beset by claustrophobia and a male obsessive gaze who discovers a murder when his peeping tendencies get the better of him. The Rear Window comparison you detected there is no mere copycat killer; the version of that film presented here is a willfully overbaked one that De Palma mocks when his film turns the premise loopy, sour, and nonsensical. In the film’s near-final gesture, the fantasy that a woman would be nonchalantly parading around sans clothing with her window open just so a male could happen to witness her is cheerfully ignited into fire for De Palma’s exploration of the absurdity of the male gaze in narrative mechanics altogether.
Subtlety be damned, Body Double is De Palma’s final bow as a torrid critic of social mores and a slasher of the prison of cinematic realism. As a showpiece, this film throws so many stylistic eggs in its basket that they all break, the resulting slime bears the bitter aftertaste of sulfurous surrealism. More than in any film he had yet made, it is nearly impossible to approach Body Double as a buttoned-up, straight-and-narrow object to be taken as literal fact rather than ruse. Sabotage even skulks around the finale when De Palma eventually capitulates to the audience’s desire by throwing another narrative twist on the barbecue, resulting in the expected contortion and narrative premeditation that every under-confident thriller in the world uses to hide its failure as an aesthetic object. We expect the film is hiding a secret because our governing American cinematic philosophies presume that no event in a film can simply be chance. Then, just when De Palma gives in to our assumption that something must be afoot behind the surface chaos of the narrative, he takes the foot and puts it in our mouths until any logic or premeditation in the ending is nothing but our desire to find meaning and reason in a land where rationalism holds no jurisdiction. Our desire for the film to make sense is weaponized against itself, turned back on the audience in a frightfully confident deep-dive into absurdism.
De Palma’s film ultimately emerges as a sacrilegious state of the union address about the thriller genre and De Palma’s career. A frighteningly self-obsessed motion picture, every shot feels like a rib at its own expense and the audiences’. In Dennis Franz’ director character, De Palma even submits himself to his own diegesis. In this profoundly emotionally cold and ugly, audience-disregarding film, the whole Hitch “playing the audience like a piano” deal is unfurled until the strings lash at us, with near-camp shots like a phallic drill literalized in between a man’s legs both giving new meaning to Hitch’s last name and more or less mocking the Freudian sexual psychoanalysis running amok all over Hitch’s filmography.
More than anything though, Body Double is a meta-textual trampling of De Palma’s critics, a ravaging cinematic shock treatment filled with lyrically absurdist dialogue and climaxing with a coitally-framed shot of a man being killed and laid next to his dead sexual partner in a grave. No mere joke though, Body Double also investigates the unstated rules and regulations of Hollywood cinema, and Hollywood-accustomed audiences, that state that a film is primarily its narrative and character content, two things in perilously short supply in this film and in most of De Palma’s catalogue. Rather than a flaw though, De Palma discovers possibility in an aesthetics-first cinema, a work of erotics that dances between the modernist hellscape of the Chemosphere, a famous LA building, and the fleshy wonders of the human form. As a statement about the importance of a film’s look more than its content, Body Double is a film where the look is the content, where the style becomes the commentary on how external appearances are both core to humanity and the most easily perverted manifestations of our souls.
Befitting its fetish for appearances, the overexerted soft focus haze of the cinematography makes any and all signifiers of emotion look like totems to the grossest soap opera histrionics in existence, malignant parodies of humanity’s modern addiction to faux-ceremonies of false-emotion. Or rather, if Jake thinks he’s in love with a woman’s soul, treating her as a mental being and a person, De Palma reveals it for what it is: physical obsession with another woman’s appearance. Rather than a legitimization of desire, De Palma inserts that love is very often a male’s false airs, his excuse to obsess over and dream about a woman he sees, to try to own her.
Even Hitch couldn’t so fully commit to questioning whether the sensitive suit-and-tie man of the modern era is actually better than the bludgeon of the past. In Body Double, rather than oppression mollified, modernity is simply oppression displaced and transmuted to a new form. There’s a shot in Body Double – a kiss invaded by and intercut with another kiss with a dead woman – that visualizes this displacement, perverting the normative romanticism of most respectable cinema, turning it into closeted necrophilia, rendering it toxic and noxiously obsessive. It suggests that Jake is totally and completely committed to an interchangeable image of women rather than exploring the mental personhood of any particular woman. And in De Palma’s world, milquetoast cinema is the cinematic equivalent of these milquetoast men who mistake their desire to own, screw, and control with a gust of real love. In this sense, the bald-faced emotional abuses of Body Double are also violent critiques of cinematic indulgence more widely: for De Palma, dozens of films a year are little more than Body Double dressed up in middlebrow airs. De Palma, self-critically self-deifying, is just the one director who lets it all hang out.