Tagged Psychology

Brian De Palma’s Sisters is One Hell of a Fractured Psychological Journey

Sisters. 1973. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay by De Palma & Louisa Rose.
Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Barnard Hughes, Mary Davenport, & Dolph Sweet. Pressman-Williams/American International Pictures.
Rated R. 93 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
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Brian De Palma is a quality filmmaker. That quality hasn’t been kicking around much as of late. Doesn’t discount all the great work he’s done in a lifetime of film. He’s spent much of his filmography emulating Alfred Hitchcock, though not in a way that copies or borrows too liberally. No, De Palma has forged his own way through a wonderful career by using that Hitchcockian influence to dust the edges. There are some much lesser efforts out of De Palma than the masterpieces he’s known for – Sisters is not one of them.
This film has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I bought it up as soon as I could because I’d heard of it for years, always wanting to see it. Then once I had the thing, for some unknown reason, the copy sat lonely, unwatched. When I did view Sisters, I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been. Honestly, this is an unheralded classic of psychological horror. Early on in his career De Palma already cemented himself as a natural heir to the Hitchcock throne. The directing, the editing, the Bernard Herrmann score (when he was semi-retired no less), the central performance of Margot Kidder with all its mania and depth; every last piece is like the perfect one for the puzzle. There’s lots of influence here, De Palma clearly emulating his idol in heaps. Rather than feel at all a copy off the Master of Suspense, Sisters was a fresh drop of horror in 1973, tinted with the suspenseful, tension-filled qualities you might have felt from Rear Window or Vertigo. Either way, this is awesome cinema that shouldn’t be overlooked.
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So many great shots. Simple to complex. For instance, there’s a nice shot of shadows on the wall as a door closes that is obviously telling while also chillingly subtle that, along with a bit of score, takes us right into the pure psychological terror De Palma aims for through telling this story. This is just the start.
In a film such as this I have to mention the editing, in combination with the excellent writing. Not long after the shot of the shadows there’s this eerie little moment where the cake is having the names put on it, the icing squeezing out in the names Danielle and Dominique, cut against Danielle having this fit. Just those two names and the way she’s beginning to implode already, these shots perfectly set that up.
Furthermore you’ve got a nice use of split-screen. Certain film fans may not dig that. Others may love it. Personally, I find De Palma uses it appropriately. Because ultimately this is a film that has to do with psychology, fractured identity and perspective, so on. So the split-screen helps give the look a psychological angle all of its own. There’s an overall sense of strangeness that develops, between the various techniques used to tell the story and the story itself, filled with interesting characters and events. I love when the atmosphere of a film matches up so closely with the storytelling, it makes for exciting cinema. Sometimes when a horror, particularly when leaning into the psychological, goes for the grim atmosphere it doesn’t always connect directly to the plot, so much as it’s grim for grim’s sake. Whereas De Palma uses the different techniques to induce a very personal, psychologically driven perspective. In that vein, the story and the filmmaking line up to create an effective cohesiveness. That’s why I find the movie so successful, even as such an early effort by the great director. He showed the film world quickly that his sensibilities as director were well honed already, itching to expand.
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A huge part of what makes the suspenseful moments and the tension work is that juicy, creepy score by none other than Bernard Herrmann; again adding to the Hitchcock influence, the composer having worked on some of his best films. There are absolutely bizarre moments, such as the brutal death of Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) where xylophones and the Moog synthesizer take you to some other plane of existence. Rightfully so. The greatest aspect of Herrmann’s work, as usual, is that it adds a totally whole other character to the film. It is another character. It shapes the atmosphere. These bizarre pieces of music allow De Palma to put us in the headspace of the main character, as she all but literally falls down the rabbit hole of psychological dread.
There’s also a couple genuinely shocking moments. When Philip is stabbed I actually couldn’t believe it. I knew something was coming, and something bad. But this was a really good scene. I’ve seen worse, there’s just something shocking about the moment that strikes so well. Later, the more quiet shock comes in the black-and-white flashback to a time when the Siamese twins are conjoined – or more so it’s a dream on the part of Grace (Jennifer Salt) imagining herself as the twin joined to Danielle (Margot Kidder). A very terrifying moment that doesn’t need to be outright horror to scare. It’s pitch perfect leading into the finale.
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I have to say, Sisters is my personal favourite De Palma film. Hands down. He’s done some other fascinating work. I can’t shake this one. There’s an undeniably unsettling effect to the whole thing. Each moment that pulls you into the psychological viewpoint makes the end of the main plot feel that much more intense. As you draw closer to the finish there’s a sense of impending doom. The suspense De Palma employs, the tension he uses to work his audience over with is brutish at times, in the best sort of sense. In terms of talent you really can’t say that De Palma wasn’t shining nearly right from the get go in his career. Margot Kidder provides an emotional, manic performance as a woman torn apart by the bursting identities instilled in her through the loss of her conjoined twin. She is a great actor and I’ve enjoyed so many movies because of her alone. Not to say she’s the only one, just that her role and performance are the highlight in that arena. You can’t say you love De Palma and not see this one. Seek it out if it hasn’t hit your eyeballs yet. Not sure, after finally watching it awhile back, why I waited so long. This needs to be watched and watched and watched again. There is much to enjoy, much to fear. What an underrated psychological horror is Sisters! Let’s not forget it. Ever.

A Dangerous Method: The Unbearable Burden of Knowing Freud and Jung

A Dangerous Method. 2011. Directed by David Cronenberg. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his play The Talking Cure.
Starring Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Gadon, & Vincent Cassel. Telefilm Canada/Ontario Media Development Corporation/Corus Entertainment/eOne Films.
Rated 14A. 99 minutes.
Biography/Drama

★★★★
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I’ll say it loud and proud ’till the day I die: I am one of David Cronenberg’s biggest fans.
His films are incredible slices of human life twisted around the innovations of everything from technology to media to psychology, as well as all sorts of other themes and topics. While his earlier work is dominated mostly by the physiological, over the past decade or so Cronenberg has kept his eeriness as he’s moved towards examining aspects of the mind. Cronenberg first moved slightly from body horror in 2002 with the Ralph Fiennes-starring Spider, which examined the fractured mind of the titular character through years of psychological torment. Then came A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both taking a look at the fluid identities of dangerous men involved in the world of organized crime.
But if the second act of Cronenberg’s career has shifted focus more towards psychology then the granddaddy of them all is A Dangerous Method.
Via screenplay written by Christopher Hampton – based on his own play The Talking Cure, which is also based on the book A Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein –  the audience is transported into the relationship between groundbreaking psychiatrists Drs. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, along with the presence of Sabina Spielrein, who went on to become one of the world’s first female psychoanalysts. The style Cronenberg brings here is his typically great eye for framing and an overall gift of storytelling. But more than that he takes his talents in the arena of body horror and manages to make the psychologically uneasy aspects of this story all the more affecting.
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A few reviews I remember seeing when this was first released accused Knightley’s performance of being hammy, over-the-top, among other suggested negatives. There’s no way I can agree. In the initial scenes you can grasp the incredible emotional trauma of Sabina, as Knightley dives directly into this woman’s skin. It is a fearless performance from the top. Sabina was a hysteric, and that is how many of them are prone to behaving. Although her accent doesn’t always hit the perfect mark, her overall performance is solid. Her energy as an actress has always been good. Never more formidable than here.
The chemistry between Knightley and Fassbender is fiery, too. For his part, he brings Jung to the screen with an odd charm, one which slowly evaporates over the course of the film. At first he seems a proper man whose interests lie solely in psychiatry, unearthing new practices and honing old ones to modern methodologies and more modern issues/illnesses. Partway through there’s a gradual realization Jung is as repressed, if not more so in some ways, than some of the patients he treats. Through Fassbender we find Jung’s human side and also his hideous one. He seeps talent in every film in which he stars, this is no exception.
Finally, it’s the even more amazing chemistry between Fassbender and Mortensen that makes this film so engaging. Mortensen has a good look for Freud, as well as the fact he captures the air of the men well, right down to little details such as the constant cigar smoking, the pensive and animated conversation, his calm demeanour and way of speaking. He and Fassbender play well off one another – the former with a highly serious tone and set of mannerisms, the other a slightly more loose and freewheeling type. Together, as the tension rises from one conversation to the next, their performances reel us into a psychoanalytic world of ego, jealousy, competition. And their subtle touches as actors, along with the well written screenplay, gives them the ability to work without melodrama. These two together offer nothing but the best.
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Jung: “Only the wounded physician can hope to heal

Part of Jung’s resentment of Freud is that the latter seems to have no problem with sex. Maybe he’s not a ladies man either, yet he willingly dives headlong into sexuality as the root of just about every problem we as humans experience. Meanwhile, it is clear Jung had hangups, which emerged vividly in his relationship with Sabina. So Jung likely thought Freud’s preoccupation and fixation on sex was ill conceived simply because of his own desire to break free sexually, a.k.a cheat on his wife.
One major reason I love A Dangerous Method is because it takes a long, hard, raw look at people who are widely regarded as geniuses in the field of psychiatry. Of course anyone in the know realized Freud was into cocaine, as well as other bits and pieces of both his and Jung’s life. However, exposing the darkness underneath all the masterful work is something intriguing. In that way, Cronenberg further digs into the mind: the collective mind. As we try to believe doctors and other figures of such authority are often better than ourselves, we often forget they are simply human.
The conversations between Freud and Jung are wonderful, in acting and writing. Tension mounts as their opposing views bump up against one another, rubbing each other raw. Every conversation seems to get a little more anxious, each one has more attitude – often from Freud – and the relationship between these two great thinkers deteriorates, almost invisible to their own eyes as it’s happening. Then all of a sudden they’ve grown miles apart during the interim. The progression and downfall of their relationship is certainly precipitated by the affair Jung engages in with Sabina. But the inflated egos of both Freud and Jung lay the foundation for a breeding ground of contempt between them, an inescapable and unavoidable rift.
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There are absolutely some flaws to this movie. The fact remains A Dangerous Method is a complex and interesting piece of cinema facilitated by the prodding mind of David Cronenberg. Without a focus on body horror, he puts a tight lens on the horrors of psychology. The dangerous method in question lays waste to the mental capacities and thought processes of Carl Jung, as it also taints Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein. The famous Talking Cure is of course a great thing, one that’s given birth to what we know today as therapy, couples counselling, and so much more.
At the same time, the Talking Cure can lead to dangerous things if not taken by the reins. Someone like Jung, particularly in his affair and resulting mess involving Sabina, talked too much, and perhaps needed his own therapy while falling under the influence of first Freud, then Sabina in her own way, even Otto Gross and his ruminations on the uselessness of monogamy
This true story about the burgeoning days of modern psychiatry and psychoanalysis is a 4-star film with a trio of fabulous performances, the ultimate driving force behind its impact. Great directing, great acting, and a solid screenplay. If you have an interest in the topics at hand, check this out, but either way it is still a nice, interesting work of historical drama that gives us insight into the towering figures of Freud and Jung now that the past few decades have pulled further back the curtain on their personalities and personal lives.