Inconstant selves in Brian De Palma’s Sisters
DISCLAIMER: THIS ESSAY INCLUDES SPOILERS. MANY OF THEM. NOTE THE CAPS.
In Brian De Palma’s Sisters, the titular siblings are French-Canadian Siamese twins surgically separated as adults. Danielle is gentle and lovely, and Dominique gloomy and anguished. This dynamic is complicated by the fact that the former needs the latter to develop her persona. Without Dominique, Danielle has no identity. To weave the fiction of her socially acceptable behavior, she must have Dominique bear the burden of her most disturbing desires. Yet the film, oddly enough, is not about Danielle or Dominique, but about the journalist Grace Collier. As Dominique recedes into the background, Danielle and Grace become the main antagonistic pair, a transition that culminates in an intense climax, a hypnosis dream, that imagines them as conjoined twins. As we learn, Dominique has been dead from the outset, and Danielle has transformed into her in moments of sexual and emotional excitement.
Significantly, the introduction of Grace coincides with a memorable use of split-screen, which allows viewers to track Danielle and Grace simultaneously during a dramatic juncture. They are also opposed in other ways, not just compositionally. Released in 1973, the film riffs on contemporary sexual politics, contrasting Danielle’s traditional femininity to Grace’s brashness. Independent and self-sufficient, Grace seems indifferent to matrimony and children, and when her mother babbles on about the subject, she pays no attention. Danielle is more conservative. In one of her opening lines, she stresses that she is not one of those “liberated American women” who spend “their whole lives hating men,” an example of which might be Grace, notorious for her coverage of police brutality, obviously carried out by men. The joke is that, for all her coyness, Danielle is actually far more dangerous to the opposite sex. Grace constitutes a threat to Danielle, not only as an investigator, since she probes Danielle’s crimes, but also as a woman.
Yet, like Dominique, Grace is a necessary and distorted reflection of Danielle. Although the circumstances setting them on a collision course are fortuitous, Danielle needs Grace. Without her, Danielle can never face her past or remove Dominique from her psyche. We might draw a connection to David Lynch’s films, like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, and even Marc Forster’s forgotten Stay. In all these cases, the protagonists, in order to negotiate barriers of guilt, concoct fictional characters and narratives and cast themselves as twisted versions of themselves, through which they can process their trauma either by avoiding it via wish-fulfillment or disentangling it by inspecting the traumatic event from a fresh perspective. To analyze their actions, they must adopt the role of someone else and inquire from a simulated distance or use their fictions to escape into a blameless dreamland.
Danielle is not behind the existence of Grace, but their relationship implies such a symbiosis. Danielle uses Grace to deal with her personal pain, and Grace uses Danielle to further her professional career. They are made for each other. Yes, the idea of Danielle taking advantage of Grace is odd, since she more accurately escapes, or tries to escape, from the latter. But the more she runs, the more she is forced upon Grace, until both merge in a nightmarish rite of passage. For a journalist, this is the ultimate victory. Grace immerses herself as deeply into her subject as possible. Yet she also enters dangerous territory, an imaginary continent where recording devices and objectivity are irrelevant. Her itinerary through this underworld leaves her a tragically unreliable witness, incapable of accurately reporting what she has seen or fulfilling her calling as a journalist. Nevertheless, she saves Danielle, who is finally able to rid herself of Dominique. And she does this by embodying Dominique, symbolically devouring her from inside.
The body is a battlefield. In following her leads, Grace abandons herself to another identity. Only by transforming into Dominique, under hypnosis, can she get to the bottom of her story. Similarly, to resolve her relationship to Dominique, Danielle requires the services of a third party, and it is only through Grace that she can arrive at inner peace. Yet Grace and Danielle are reluctant participants in their mutual adventure. Grace is hypnotized against her will, while Danielle actively attempts to frustrate Grace’s inquiries, to no avail. But their failures translate into successes. As if some cosmic force were at play, they unwittingly find what they desire. Danielle unravels her problems through the intrusion of a foreign body, or Grace, and Grace enters the final stage of her investigation by shifting into a new body, or Dominique. Through these body transfers, both women achieve their goals.
But this is an optimistic reading. Grace, as we said, is diminished by her journey, later unable to remember important details about it. And Danielle comes to terms with Dominique but not with her own murders, still failing to realize how, for a time, Dominque existed inside her as an alternate – and lethal – personality. Grace and Danielle are, also, manipulated by Emil Breton, Danielle’s ex-husband, who conducts the hypnosis session and commits what amounts to rape, as Emil penetrates into the minds of both women, tinkering with their innermost thoughts, while liberally groping Danielle, who obviously cannot consent in her feverish state. He is equally guilty of other body crimes: he was in charge of the sloppy surgery that separated Danielle and Dominique, which led to the latter’s demise, provoking Danielle to psychologically revive Dominique, with lamentable consequences.
Emil cheats both women out of understanding their respective pasts, taking specific measures, during hypnosis, to blot out strategic portions of both women’s recollections. Thus, Grace and Danielle, far from being unwittingly successful, as argued before, might rather be unfortunate victims, and their apparent victories might be illusory. After all, Danielle still has to cope with Dominique, except now as a missing piece in her autobiography, while Grace is no longer the owner of her private memory, unable to help the police clinch the case her own efforts initiated. Both are scarred by Emil’s forced intrusion. Danielle manages to stab him, turning into Dominique one last time, but the wounds he inflicted remain untended. Sisters is, finally, about the fragility and inconstancy of identity, about how it often needs to analyze itself from a distance, using the gaze of another to probe its unconfessed depths, and also (or rather) about how identity can splinter or become confused when it is damaged by an invading force or tested in a search for truth.
The Making of Brian De Palma’s Sisters
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 28, 2014