Brian De Palma’s trickiest and most ambitious movies often earn the harshest reactions from audiences and critics. Many of the filmmaker’s most sophisticated acts of cinematic gamesmanship are seen by much of the populace, assuming they’re seen at all, as operating on an aesthetic plane that’s roughly equivalent to a fitfully amusing midnight Skinamax entry. Body Double, Femme Fatale’s cynical older cousin, weathered many of the usual accusations of the director’s unoriginality and misogyny.
To be fair to general audiences, Body Double is pitched chiefly at De Palma’s fans without apology; it’s for folks who’re familiar with the director’s symbolism and who’ve grown to keenly anticipate the level of active detection that will be required of them (there’s a visual gag in a transparent mall elevator, for example, that greatly depends on your familiarity with a murder sequence in Dressed to Kill). Body Double’s consciously derivative thriller plot is as dense with meta-text as any film in De Palma’s career; the searing personal material, which has been buried underneath the film’s superficial happenings with precision and élan, must be discovered with the eyes. The script’s pared and often poetically obscene dialogue is but a grace note; the meat is in the visuals.
The hero is Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), a mediocre film actor stuck clinging to the lower rungs of the Hollywood ladder. In the opening, he’s kicked off of a low-budget vampire film (by a director made to resemble De Palma) because he’s claustrophobic and unable to perform a scene in a simulation of a coffin. Arriving home early, Jake soon discovers that his girlfriend is screwing around, and his shitty day leads to an emotional crisis that’s exasperated by his already iron-clad self-loathing and professional obscurity. Jake falls off the wagon, seeking refuge in the mechanized fantasies of voyeurism and porn, which eventually leads to his active participation in an adult film with actress Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), who bears quite a physical resemblance to the woman he’s been watching from the window of the bizarre new home he’s temporarily occupying.
Body Double isn’t any more or less absurd or derivative than generally respected De Palma films like Dressed to Kill or Blow Out, but there’s a key difference: Those movies are emotionally inviting. You’re able to explicitly empathize with those films’ heroes and take their quests more or less at face value. Body Double is a cold, hard jewel of a film that takes stock of the depersonalization of 1980s American culture as manifested in porn, architecture, films, music videos, and commerce. But the film isn’t a polemic (it would’ve gotten better reviews if it were), as De Palma suggests that the only way to survive the loss of identity and specificity of the 1980s is to adapt and find new ways to be turned on by that very detachment.
So it’s logical, then, that Body Double keeps us at an emotional remove. Jake’s established as a schmuck from the start, and Wasson’s underrated performance rarely encourages us to deepen that impression. He’s a lost man who’s taken in by surfaces, but that’s not his crime (so is De Palma, after all). Jake’s true offense is that he insists on cheapening the purity of his love of surfaces with phony harlequin romantic rationalization, which parallels a movie audience’s eagerness to consume the often baldly false sentiment that’s used to justify a film’s primal aesthetic draws.
Body Double is another of De Palma’s deconstructions of male impotency, an affliction that the filmmaker clearly ascribes to desire that’s suppressed beneath false, coy sentiment. De Palma parodies misplaced sentiment time and again in Body Double. When we first see the apartment of Jake’s soon-to-be ex, there’s a light in the shape of a heart with the couple’s names in the center. It’s a tasteless and juvenile bit of décor, and it’s hard to believe that any adult couple would have it, and that’s precisely the point. This light is a cheap meaningless object dressed up in phony pretense. The film abounds in these images, particularly in the marvelous film-within-a-film-that’s-possibly-within-yet-another-film sequences.
One of the best and riskiest sequences is conventionally moving anyway, by the sheer force and intensity of De Palma’s craftsmanship. Jake kisses Holly while playing a hapless nerd in a porno film, a role that ironically reveals an incarnation of Jake that’s truer to the fear and neediness he really feels than the role of the valiant savior he’s attempting to play in his “real” life. The savior guise also inspires yet another role that Jake assumes as a macho film producer, which is also his subliminal parody of the absurdity of his savior quest. The self-reflexivity is nearly endless, but De Palma undermines you again just as you’ve confidently gained your bearings as a distanced spectator of the despairing quixotic meaninglessness of this man’s endeavors: When Jake kisses Holly as he hungrily squeezes her ass, De Palma cuts to the prolonged kiss he shared earlier with the woman whose murder he’s currently trying to avenge, and suddenly we’re directly plugged into the enormity of this man’s cluelessness and torment.
And then De Palma pulls the entire rug out from underneath the film’s reality and turns everything we’ve just seen into a prolonged Brechtian shaggy-dog joke, only to then pull the rug out from under that joke and halfheartedly reaffirm the film’s reality as a mystery-thriller. By the end of this masterpiece, one of the great and most uniquely American films of the 1980s, we only trust surfaces, which are as fleeting and illusory as anything else.