Released thirty-five years ago this June, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill follows a housewife named Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) as she meets a stranger at an art museum, enjoys some afternoon delight, and learns she contracted an STI. From here the film, an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, gives way to one suspenseful, bloody set piece after another. Longtime De Palma supporter Pauline Kael deemed the director’s gift for suspense “aphrodisiacal.” Feminist critics, meanwhile, considered De Palma’s depictions of violence against women to be self-evidently misogynistic. In interviews, De Palma played both the gleeful masochist (“I don’t particularly want to chop up women, but it seems to work”) and the well-meaning feminist (“Dressed to Kill is about a woman’s secret erotic life”). The film’s co-star Keith Gordon subsequently defended his director: “If you read the script to that movie, the first part really reads like it’s from [Kate’s] subjective point of view…. It’s clear [De Palma] empathizes with her, that he is not hoping to punish her.”
In last year’s Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin, Connecticut College professor David Greven recast Dressed to Kill as “a feminist revision of Hitchcock.” Where others see misogyny, Greven sees empathy. Of the film’s opening sequence, when Kate fantasizes about being raped in the shower: “What makes this entire sequence so powerful is that not only are we invited to gaze with longing on Kate as the woman to be looked at, but we also look through her eyes, feeling what she feels, feeling, in the end, her powerlessness and her yearning for help.” Of Kate’s realization that she’s contracted VD after sleeping with the stranger: “[It] shows that she continues to be victimized by the varieties of male arrogance and indifference to women’s well-being.”
For me, Dressed to Kill (indeed, most of De Palma’s Hitchcock-inspired work) exemplifies a dilemma we all contend with: reconciling an artwork you find compelling with a message you find infuriating. Few directors move a camera and build suspense like De Palma; few, in turn, reduce women so crudely. I keep returning to Dressed to Kill less for its visual confidence and more with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I fascination. The film makes me confront my own fear of being a male artist who wants to express feminist concerns about patriarchy and oppression but instead reveals my blind spots or, worse, perpetuates the very things I’m trying to condemn. The arguments of Greven, Gordon, and De Palma fail to address that any character written by a man, whether on the page or embodied on the screen, is above all else written by a man. De Palma’s claim that Dressed to Kill is about “a woman’s secret erotic life” is false from its very conceit. It’s not about a woman’s secret erotic life–it’s about a man’s fantasy of a woman’s secret erotic life. We are not, in the film’s controversial opening, looking “through [Kate’s] eyes” like Greven suggests–we are seeing De Palma’s fetishized version of how he imagines a woman sees herself.
Julian Barnes once called writing across gender the “one basic test of competence.” This clearly isn’t basic: look how often movies, Hollywood and art-house alike, consistently fail the Barnes (not to mention the Bechdel) test. Whenever another disappointing, one-dimensional female character waltzes onscreen (from Grace Kelly in Rear Window to Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis), I know the first thing my partner will say afterward: well, that was obviously made by a man. Which is to say: what we just saw wasn’t an authentic person, let alone woman. She can immediately spot the difference between a female character drawn from genuine experience and empathy versus a female character drawn from a male approximation of how women act and what they want. Encountering a poorly rendered female character in novels is its own disappointment, yet onscreen it’s even more painful. In many films by acclaimed male directors, immensely talented actors (Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Color, Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant, Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria) are left with little else to do but pucker, cower, and fret about aging. The vitality and earnestness of their performances become even more impressive as they struggle with the impossible task of closing the gap between themselves and the men behind the camera.
I’m sure there are examples of men who buck this trend, but these days I find myself dwelling on two films that make this gap an integral part of their storytelling. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (reviewed by MQR’s own Eric McDowell last month) centers on nineteen-year-old Jay, who has sex only to learn that she’ll now be stalked by a slow-walking creature that can take the form of anybody, anytime. If it touches her, she dies; if she dies, it will come after whoever passed it on to her; if she has sex again, she can (temporarily) pass it on to somebody else. The film deals in tropes–the sexually active teen, the did-you-hear-that sounds coming from the other room–but uses them to build a nuanced portrait of male culpability. As Movie Mezzanine’s Angelo Muredda observes, “Jay’s moment of exposure, too, is not treated as a punishment for failing to live up to the standards of her scream-queen ancestors but as a sexual assault—the image of her being unceremoniously dumped on the street in front of her home the morning after easily serving as the most discomforting in the film.” Even though they can’t see what’s following her, Jay’s friends stand by her and never shame her. And when (minor spoiler) Jay has sex with her friend Paul, who knows the curse will be imminent, the implication is that, if shame is an unavoidable byproduct of sex, it’s an equal burden for both genders.
Last year’s underrated Under the Skin, meanwhile, literalizes that gap through its protagonist, an alien only known as The Female (Scarlett Johansson). Directed by Jonathan Glazer, the film follows The Female as she picks up men on the street and brings them back to her place, where they sink into a mysterious black liquid and their bodies are promptly sucked away, leaving only their skin behind. Over the course of the film The Female begins to question her actions, as well as discover her body and (through the eyes of men) its implications. Under the Skin brilliantly interrogates the male gaze by making its main character’s femininity literally foreign to her–she, in turn, learns to define it based on the men she encounters.
Actors should not be stuck embodying male fantasies of femininity, nor should audiences be stuck seeing them. (Hopefully the ACLU’s recent cries for state and federal investigations into Hollywood’s biased hiring practices will bring this goal one step closer.) Yet for now, while men still control the camera, I hope to see more continue the precedent of Under the Skin and It Follows. We need the subjectivity and empathy Gordon calls for from our male directors, but, more importantly, we need them to admit the many things they don’t understand.
Image: Still from “Dressed to Kill” (Filmways Pictures, 1980).