Sisters (2006)

You complete me
Douglas Buck
Chloë Sevigny, Lou Doillon, Stephen Rea, Dallas Roberts
The Setup: 
Reporter gets involved with these bizarre mental patients after witnessing a murder.

This is a remake of Brian De Palma’s early film Sisters, and as such I was dying to see it. I had heard about it being made, and eagerly awaited its release, until suddenly discovering that it had been dumped on DVD and released without fanfare. To the top of my list it went!

The credits play over an image of a running river, with images of fetal babies playing beneath that. It’s a good effect, and alludes to the opening credits of De Palma’s version, which took place in the womb. We then see a road with two identically-dressed girls walking away. One might not think anything of this, but it is the image on the disc menu, and it will be revealed later [much later] to have some significance.

So we’re at this country mental institution. There this doctor Phillipe, played by Stephen Rea, is performing a magic show with his lovely assistant, a French woman named Angelique. They are observed by a young doctor with his eye on Angelique, Dylan Wallace, and all of them are observed by Chloe Sevigny as Grace Collier, a reporter who has infiltrated the place dressed as a clown, handing out balloons to the kids. Soon Grace is discovered, and she screams that Wallace was indicted on charges against children. She is ejected from the grounds, and soon Wallace finds Phillipe and Angelique in an intense talk. She wants to get away from him, saying “You study me!” as an experiment. Wallace intervenes, is called “My knight in armor” by Angelique, and he spirits her away in his car. On the ride, he finds out that Angelique and Phillipe used to be married, and that her sister, Annabel, blames Phillipe for their mother’s death. The next day is their birthday.

So Wallace comes to Angelique’s apartment, and they get it on. They are watched, we see, by Phillipe, who has Angelique’s apartment wired with webcams. While Angelique is in the bathroom, Wallace snoops in her fridge and finds a syringe. He is startled and drops it. He’s going to be sorry he did that.

Angelique returns, her hair all closely cropped… or chopped may be more like it. He kisses down her body and finds a huge scar on her side—and starts licking it! Incredibly, a mere 10 years after Cronenberg’s Crash, this comes out and no one says a word. In the morning, he has welts on his side from her, in the same place as hers—creepy. In fact, the whole thing is developing a quiet menace that is fairly effective and keeps one on edge.

Wallace goes out to buy Angelique and Annabel [who he believes is in the apartment] a birthday cake. Meanwhile Grace the reporter has broken into Phillipe’s apartment and is snooping through all these medical papers and such. She finds the webcam and watches Angelique. It’s kind of clever because in the original, we had a classic De Palma split-screen shot showing the reporter watching from a window across the way. Here she watches on the webcam, which organically includes a split-screen effect: nice! Soon, as Grace watches, Wallace returns with the cake.

He finds the woman with chopped hair on the floor with her knitting needles. Is this Annabel? Possibly, but Wallace won’t know for sure, as she stabs him repeatedly with her knitting needles! He makes it to the window and sticks his head out, whereupon Grace sees that he’s in the apartment right across from where she is! This is also a clever twist on the De Palma version, where the reporter is watching from the window all along. Here, we think the webcam has replaced the window, so it’s a big shock to find that it’s all happening RIGHT THERE!

Grace calls the police, but of course she was breaking and entering, so she can’t really say where she saw the murder from and why she was watching. The police come, but are clearly suspicious of Grace more than anyone.

The cops take an immediate suspicion to Grace, which rings sort of irritatingly false—do they often get kooks claiming to have witnessed a murder?—but is handled here with more plausibility than it was in the original. I like how the cops are clearly seduced by Angelique's beauty, and I love how she sizes up the slightly pudgy one and offers him some cake! There's also a knowing nod to fans of the De Palma film in that here director Buck has the cops specifically look in the couch—where the body was in the original—and find nothing. Turns out the body is somewhere else which acts as a corollary to the hiding place in the original.

Grace meets with her male friend, also a journalist, and he alludes to the fact that Grace looks bad [she doesn't, she looks great], and that she "doesn't want to get sick again." He goes to snoop around in Angelique's apartment [where he finds the body] while Grace trails her to a park and interviews her. Grace indicates that she had some of her own dealings with high-and-mighty doctors who play God with their patients, and says she wants to help Angelique. Sense we some foreshadowing when Angelique keeps saying that there's something about Grace that seems so familiar?

So Grace goes home and here's we get some crammed-in exposition about her traumatic past. I saw the original a few years ago, and I think that this material is all new, which may be why it's rather jarringly shoehorned into this little crevice here. It seems that Grace was sexually abused, and her mother spent several of her final years in an institution, for which she still owes $123,000 that she cannot afford. She apparently had some sort of breakdown and requires quite a few pills to keep herself under control. So tuck that away!

Grace then visits Exposition General Hospital, where this woman who used to work with Phillipe [and had previously lodged a complaint about him] shows her a bunch of old films that fill in a lot of past history. Turns out that Phillipe took the twins away from their mother immediately after birth, and kept the mother drugged up until she died. The conjoined twin sisters began to develop good and bad personalities, with Angelique being the 'good' one. They were finally separated, and Annabel soon died—there goes that theory about two sisters, one of hem a killer. Turns out Angelique 'absorbed' Annabel's personality and periodically grows maniacally violent—like when she doesn't get her injection. Wow, that's a mouthful of info! It's not much more graceful in the original, either.

So Grace tells her reporter buddy to go out to the mental clinic from the beginning, and she goes out there herself. She is immediately caught, and Phillipe says "She's another one, get her," and she's seized as a mental patient and injected! She goes right to sleep, where she starts hallucinating [and as I'm sure you know, anytime anyone in a movie starts hallucinating, I am WAY on board]. One of the ways you can tell she's hallucinating is the presence of a handlebar-mustached man in a 1900's unitard with tattoos covering his entire body. In her dream, she is the other conjoined twin with Angelique, who, along with Phillipe, considers her the ugly one, a "parasite." He is making love to Angelique [with Grace right there, obviously] while someone—I'm guessing her parents—watch, and then the twins are bloodily sawed in two. Grace wakes—and then Phillipe calls HER Annabel!

Phillippe tells Angelique that Annabel is dead, but she resurrected her in her mind, and now he's going to have to kill her again. Angelique hands Grace the syringe, and she stabs Phillipe like 300 times! Just like the Angelique-as-Annabel stabbed Wallace. Once that's done, the male friend of Grace [never got his name] awakes and comes in, and they BOTH kill him! Then Grace refers to herself as Annabel! Angelique shows Grace her scar, and Grace doesn't have one—so Angelique CUTS one for her! They dress identically and leave the hospital arm in arm… which is a repeat of the same shot that opened the movie. I haven't listened to the commentary yet [and I'm actually interested, whereas usually I couldn't care less], but I'm going to take a guess that this ending was inspired by a very odd narrative technique De Palma used in his version, which was that as the Grace character heard about Angelique's story, she [and the movie] visualize her AS the twin. I would bet you $20 that's what gave him the idea!

I LOVED IT. It's the rare remake that doesn't so much recreate the original as provide a variation on it, but the big quality that earns my devotion is that it responds very cleverly to the original film, having processed the characteristics of the original and giving back something that either tweaks the original, provides a clever variation on it, or makes a clever reversal to nudge fans of the first film. Two examples of this would be the webcam thing and the couch thing. When Gus Van Sant remade Psycho, his justification was that, like a stage play, you could have several different versions of the same work. Unfortunately, what he turned out was THE SAME VERSION. This movie seems like the flowering of that idea: it is a version that retains the shape of the original while modifying it in ways that show that writer/director Buck really responded to the first film and thought it out—and is well aware that many fans of the original will be watching this one. He also does a good job of straightening out lapses in logic that one has to try to forget in the original.

Everyone is good. It's nice to see a whole movie of Sevigny as a main character, and she stands up well. It's also nice to see Rea do something that makes use of his talents, which is rare lately. Some didn't like the performance of Lou Doillon as Angelique, saying she was a bit blank, but I liked exactly that—she has a certain stillness that makes it seem as though she could be genuinely unhinged, and a slight smile that makes it seem as though she might actually be thinking about stabbing you repeatedly in the neck. The cinematography is okay, looking somewhere between film proper and straight-to-video cheapness, including that somewhat generic, boring look that says "This was shot in Canada."

Anyway, a very satisfying watch—IF you've seen the original. If not, I would imagine it would still be an involving if a bit slow-burning thriller, but a viewing of the original enhances this so much I would really recommend that. Mmm, I'm going to have to look into this Douglas Buck fellow quite a bit more.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, but especially if you're a De Palma fan and a fan of the original film.

SISTERS is the De Palma original, and is not his best film, but is still quite interesting, with lots of his classic obsessions and technique. Viewing it will vastly enhance your viewing of this film.