Brian De Palma’s debut feature. Describing this Möbius strip of a film will prove tricky. Spoilers follow.
The film documents a few afternoon hours where a young woman named Karen meets up with her friend Tracy. They visit a boutique, then split while Tracy goes to the bank. Karen then spies her director boyfriend Chris on the street and follows him into his studio. She later leaves, finds a note from Tracy, and re-enters the studio, never to return.
The film then jumps back an hour and picks up Tracy at the bank. We follow her out, watch her leave the note, then go to retrieve a dress. Tracy just misses Karen enter the studio but soon sees a strange man emerge wheeling a large trunk. A tuft of Karen’s dress sprouts from said trunk. Tracy follows the man to a cemetery where he assaults her with an ice-pick.
Jump back again. This time we follow Otto, the trunk-wheeling man, who proves to be a deranged—albeit harmless—prankster. I needn’t spoil what he does but suffice it to say we learn his assault on Tracy was harmless, but Chris turns up in the cemetery and assaults Otto with an ice-pick.
Final jump back. This time to the film’s beginning. Now we follow Chris, who tails Karen and Tracy to the boutique and engineers Karen’s espying him on the street. We learn everything we believe about him might be untrue, leaving us to question whether we’re watching a movie or a movie within a movie.
Compounding this, De Palma precedes the film with footage—shot by Chris—of women auditioning for the “role” of Karen.
What did we just watch?
My take? De Palma’s crafted a stylized bit of exploitation wrapped in a clever meta-context. Chris is a psychopath preying on young girls. The film opens with his most recent murder—a young woman he conned just as he conned Karen. He feigns anguish over filming low-grade sleaze to raise money to divorce his wife. In reality, he has no wife and feels no such compunction over his work. But the women respond to this artificial vulnerability and fall for him. Once they sleep with him, something in Chris snaps and he murders them. Chris hates Otto, whose chaotic escapades threaten Chris’s plans and sense of control. As for the audition tapes, I believe they’re Chris’s way of rehearsing his con.
Murder à la Mod has its share of problems. But one could argue the stiff performances, shallow characterization, and head-scratching plot are intentional choices. Or, it’s style over substance. Regardless, a film that compels this much reflection proves worth a look.