Published on March 1st, 2021 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Why Body Double is a Meta Masterpiece
Brian De Palma’s 1984 cult film is his most outrageously unrestrained. Through his meta playfulness, he makes a clever statement on voyeurism and cinema’s perverseness.
Spoilers ahead for the film Body Double.
What makes Brian De Palma’s films so suspenseful? What is the recipe for his unique brand of seductive violence, coupled with the obvious love of film form’s unique manipulations? De Palma uses voyeurism like no other director, topping even his idol, Alfred Hitchcock, in this category. But how does he make something that can and very much has been criticized as toxic and misogynistic like voyeurism and twist it into a message on film form’s unique perverseness? I posit that De Palma is triggering audiences into ruminating on this film-mind interplay. Instead of simply arousing his audiences in a pornographic sense, he adds layers to his auteurship that coat his filmography with a self-reflexive hue.
Body Double is his most self-aware film, made up of a strange coterie of influences ranging from Vertigo to Rear Window. It’s essentially about obsession, and about the ways in which that obsession is visually constructed. Jake Scully is sucked into the disaster that befalls him because he succumbs to the allure of the lens, the basic principle of filmmaking itself. De Palma makes it his goal to drill (wink, wink) into his audience that it is precisely through the power of the lens that we are smitten into submission. And just like the often criticized violence and sexual intrusion serves as powerful bait in tricking Scully into submission, we as viewers are also shackled together watching the shadows on the rock go by. De Palma’s tricks in the film work wonders to illustrate the way perversion so easily finds its way into cinema’s lens.
There is a scene in the film that I want to quickly highlight. I’ll cut to the chase because there’s no real way words could capture the sharp texture of this movie’s suspense. Our protagonist, Jake Scully, is peeping on a beautiful woman through his telescope, he sees a man enter her home. He hides behind her bed and Jake decides to call her. But we as an audience can see that as she walks to her room to answer the phone, she’s walking into a trap. It’s that split second, that eureka moment that this film finds within its premise, that is uniquely exhilarating. Body Double reaches suspenseful heights that many films could only dream of achieving; but what makes it so special? The answer lies within its deeply self-reflexive roots.
We’ve all at least heard of Rear Window, if not had to watch it multiple times in film school, so it should come as no surprise that the obvious point I’m about to make is obvious…Yes, this film takes its cues from Hitchcock’s masterpiece, utilizing the same base formula for that sweet, sweet suspense. And while it’s true that Rear Window is an influence, what Body Double has over it is its connection with the victim. We get to come even closer to the victim, peer at her from multiple vantage points. This movie sets off a seething sense of toxic voyeurism throughout its first half that its impossible not to objectify the woman, both sexually and as a inevitable lamb to the slaughter. And while it all seems so pornographic, De Palma is building up the sexual objectification in order to bring it to its knees. He soaks in the insatiable appetite of the male gaze and then leaves it with blue balls.
A few scenes before that fateful moment, we get the infamous strip tease, in which Jake Scully gets to be the oh-so-lucky guy who is privy to just the right vantage point. His friend shows off his treasure before he gives the keys to Scully. And Scully, just like the viewer, is immediately sucked in to the image, that circular frame imitating the lens of a telescope in such a way that it forces the viewer’s attention—it dares them to see something forbidden. This use of film form, the direct-to-lens POV that engulfs the frame, it simulates what few films can—that perverse nature of film form itself, explored through a holding and withholding of voyeuristic tension.
De Palma has utilized this technique in other classic thrillers. Blow Out comes to mind, the opening scene in which a famous trashy movie-within-a-movie is explored in a shockingly intimate way. The poor girls of a sorority are helplessly picked off after frolicking nude in some sort of performative disposition. And the camera remains glued to the killer’s POV, forcing us into his sadistic standpoint. The film then cuts back to a recording studio, the producer yelling for the lights. De Palma tricks you in the opening scene in order to alert you to his thesis statement, this unique perspective of the film lens…its power over everything it touches—women, politicians, doctors.
In Dressed to Kill, Peter Miller is placed in a situation that audiences (well, male ones at least) would describe as conflicting. After his mother’s untimely murder, Peter, being the well-established nerd of the film, sets up a plan with Nancy Allen’s prostitute/witness character. She seduces the therapist (Michael Caine) and Peter watches with his super high-tech binoculars. De Palma’s camera leans on the same technique as Blow Out and Body Double. First he uses that binoculars POV to seduce the audience, then he uses it as a source of tension when the scene goes from ‘erotic’ to ‘thriller’.
Is De Palma telling us something with these Peeping Tom shots, especially as it stands as a kind of formula for suspense? Is the objectification of women a meaningful ploy or just a simple perversion? The answer may be both. De Palma has been quoted as saying, “I love to photograph women…I love to watch the way they move.” So while De Palma has shown an interest in voyeuristically viewing women, I believe that his primary focus is on how the camera itself tricks us into submission.
The answer to all this may lie in Body Double’s ending. Or should I say, it’s beginning-climax dichotomy; one that adds up to the most meta sucker punch De Palma has ever delivered. The film opens with a phony vampire set, a coffin underground. The actor, Scully, is supposed to scream out maniacally. One problem; he freezes. The medical team comes rushing out; people don’t know how to respond. Scully comes to eventually and insists he’s fine.
Cut to: the ending sequence of the film. Scully and Holly Body, a porn actor who was, in fact, the titular “Body Double,” are about to be buried alive. Scully feels the dirt as its shoveled over his face. He freezes. Suddenly someone yells, “Cut!” He is escorted out of the coffin set and we see an almost mirror imitation of the opening scene. One difference: this time Scully refuses to give up and gets inside the coffin to give it another go. When he does this, we’re suddenly transported back to the diegetic situation, in which the killer is attacked by his own dog accidentally, sending them tumbling off a cliff in most ridiculous fashion.
What does all this mean? This bizarre meta moment that stops the film’s climax in its tracks? It’s a well known fact that De Palma was sick and tired of all the criticism and just said “fuck it.” Is that all this is? Or is there a deeper meaning? It can’t be said for sure, but let me make this assertion: there is an ongoing subtext of deep self-reflexivity throughout Body Double that paints its entire preserve misgivings in an entirely new light.
The meta ending reveals that the film is all about that moment of action, that decision of whether voyeurism shall win out over taking control. The seductive qualities of inaction, of watching a woman change, or witnessing her death…the same qualities that entertained you when watching the flick…are the same things that are the forbidden fruits of voyeurism in effect. De Palma uses voyeurism as a kind of sick joke, forcing his viewers into a position that they’d hate to admit is sensational. And while that gives his films a great amount of entertainment value, it also paves the way for a running subtext of subversion, a one of a kind self-critique that puts the spotlight on the audience.