Brian De Palma’s Body Double stalks a creepy, voyeuristic story arc that treads the inscrutable ground of an actor’s mental and emotional demons.
Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984) is one of a long line of films which have breached the sometimes icy, sometimes heated, waters of creeping, watching, stalking and voyeurism. But who is doing it and who is the subject of all this creepy activity? Is it the victim, the perpetrator, another stalker, the director of the film, or the viewer themselves? These films leave as many questions as they do answers which is perhaps as it should be when plumbing the dark crevices of the psyche.
The main character in Body Double, Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), is, as the cliche goes, living a nightmare. He is at once the hero and the creep. Whether because of his claustrophobia, his struggling career as a film actor, problems on the set, the possible traumatic witnessing of his girlfriend’s infidelity, or just plain bad dreams, the viewer is left to decide what is real, what is not, and just what in the world is going on here. This is a film, after all, so we know it is not real, but when the fictional life in the film itself, in this case Jake’s, is involved in other films, the viewer almost loses sight of what is real and not so real in Jake’s life.
Thus, when De Palma’s camera leads us through a beautifully shot, immensely fun, and highly choreographed party scene which we think is an adult film set where Jake, with his suddenly new and very greasy persona, has found work, the scene goes on so long and is so much fun, the viewer begins to question just where in the proceedings we are and, indeed, if these are the proceedings we think they really are. Is it real or is it not? When Jake finally encounters his co-star, the aptly named Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), in this film within a film, De Palma suddenly gives us the answer as we are jolted back to reality by a clear shot of the filmmakers filming the scene, camera equipment and all, which is, in a coy nod to the complications of film making, reflected in a mirror. Okay, this is a movie. And a movie within a movie. Or is it all just in Jake’s jangled head?
De Palma toys with the viewer throughout the whole film leaving the viewer unbalanced and questioning reality versus fantasy. I’ve learned over the years to watch all the way through the credits because sometimes directors reward the moviegoer for sticking around through the credits with a very short, often cryptic, additional scene. In Body Double, De Palma humorously messes with the viewer’s head all the way through the rolling credits, basically forcing the viewer to watch the credits, riveted, to the very end which provides one last clue in the final frames of this strange and alluring film.
It is all very Hollywood, this Hollywood film about Hollywood, as it plays with illusion. It begs the question of what is real and what is the fantasy within the context of that which we already know is a creation. And it is all watched by the unblinking eye of the camera. Watching, waiting, filming. Then we have the sub-Hollywood, the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood, featuring Holly Body, adult film actress. In this film of stalking, creeping, and voyeurism, a rich arc is traversed as the story winds from mild curiosity through a telescope, to genuine concern for a victim, to stalking not only that victim, but also her other stalker, all the way to the ne plus ultra of voyeurism, starring in an adult film. Or did he? Either, Jake is a true man of follow-through in the get-it-done school of heroism in his bringing this journey home to its denouement or his mental, emotional, and physical condition, his dreams and dark corners, have tortured him to within an inch of his bitter and ultimate conclusion. Is this the price an actor pays to put down a great performance for eternity? It is all open to speculation at the end.
I’m not so sure that Brian De Palma’s Body Double is all that different than many other films, however. When you really think about it, how many movies address the themes of stalking, creeping, watching, all the way to out and out voyeurism, either as the main context of the film or as a side matter in certain scenes? The answer is so many that, in fact, it is kind of scary. But then, when you think about real life, it is ever present there, too. From a mild and passive keeping an eye on this person and what they are doing, to an active and aggressive intrusion in another person’s personal business, it seems as if it is almost the definition of the human condition. Everyone is watching at least someone and what they are doing, for one reason or another, either professionally or personally. Even if it is just to be judgmental and to gossip. Scary, isn’t it? And real, too. Do you ever feel misjudged or misunderstood? Do you ever feel like you are being watched? Well, at least you’re not in a movie, or two, like Jake.
If you look at De Palma’s own filmography, movies such as Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, Carlito’s Way, and Scarface, to name a few, all come to mind as having had elements of creeping, watching, stalking, and voyeuristic characters. Blow Out featured a movie sound effects man who heard too much of what others were doing and saying and got it on tape. There was plenty of creeping, following, and watching in Dressed to Kill. Remember the museum scene. In Carlito’s Way, the titular character was not immune to watching his love interest from afar or up close. And if you think about it, Scarface was one of the worst creepers ever put on film. From the moment Tony saw Elvira, he could not take his eyes off her. Obsessing over her, he stalked in the back way to visit her at Frank Lopez’s pool while Frank was gone. Once Frank was out of the way, Tony lived a stalker’s dream by literally creeping into Elvira’s bedroom and lifting her from the satin sheets as his trophy. Tony’s obsessive and controlling interest in others was a deadly one that ended up costing the lives of those closest to him. Think about his sister, Gina, and his best friend, Manny.
In Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, Persona, some of these elements seem to be present as well. Okay, call me crazy, but it seems to me that Body Double at least loosely traverses the same general arc and ground of Persona. In Persona, the main protagonist is an an actress who is suffering from some mental and/or emotional issues, eventually retreating into her own little, mute world. Just when you have found yourself irretrievably lost in the inner sanctums of our heroine’s mind, not to mention the desolate Swedish island of her retreat, the director comes swooping down into view, literally crashing down into the film, and upon the viewer, atop a huge camera boom, thereby interjecting the proceedings with a dose of reality. Or is that surreal reality? Whatever the case, it is a sudden jolt and reminder of reality versus fantasy.
In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s below-mentioned trilogy, the subject matter is broached again in varying degrees, meaning varying degrees of creeping, watching, stalking, and voyeurism. These things can measure from mild to acute depending on the perpetrator’s proclivities. Trois couleurs: Blanc follows the demise of a Polish hairdresser’s marriage and his then driven career ambitions. It seems he only wants to watch the reactions of his obsessive love interest to his daring do from a distance.
In Trois couleurs: Bleu, our protagonist is female and perhaps a bit less aggressive in her creeping tendencies. Indeed, her spying is for a benevolent purpose and achieves a positive result.
Finally, in Trois couleurs: Rouge, we have another female creeper, but this one is more overt. The cool reserve of Bleu is traded for the mildly passionate reserve of Rouge. Our heroine here, in a rarely seen twist, is a beautiful Swiss model who watches and stalks a possibly creepy old man who, in turn, is electronically eavesdropping on others. No matter the color, it seems everyone is doing it.
And, if everyone is doing it, then it must be fun, right? Well, these characters , in these films, are not having fun. Instead, they cannot help themselves. Obsession and compulsion are mixed into a complex cocktail, ranging from diluted to straight-up, and the hangover ranges, too, from mild dysfunction to lethal paranoia.
So, if you just want a little taste, or have a hankering for a massive bender, take a calculated dive into this pool. A good place to get your feet wet, in what are very deep and dangerous waters, would be Body Double, at once familiar, but very strange, Hollywood ground.
And when you are done, don’t look over your shoulder. Or anywhere at all. Or do. I don’t care. Or maybe I do. And maybe someone else does, too. Maybe a little too much. What? You feel like somebody is watching you? You feel their eyes on your every move? Oh, that’s creepy! But, relax. You’re overwrought. Everything’s cool. It’s not like someone is filming you.
Are they? ARE THEY?