Coming two years after the critical and box-office failure of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain (1992) was a brief sojourn to the genre that had brought him fame and notoriety: the thriller. But Raising Cain is also one of De Palma’s most challenging, elliptical and darkly comic films. Because of its refusal to ‘make it easy’ for the audience, it is also the least understood and appreciated film from his ‘red phase’. The key to unlocking the mystery, the intricately multi-layered psychological trap doors of Raising Cain, lies in Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour (1967).

Buñuel’s coolly observed film is an amoral comedy of manners. Bored, bourgeois housewife, Severine (Catherine Deneuve), whiles away her afternoons in a high-class brothel while her husband is at work. Here she encounters a variety of characters, one of whom falls in love with her and pursues her with deadly zeal. Or does he? Allowing us no clear indication of what is real and what is fantasy, Buñuel explores bourgeois hypocrisy and Severine’s inner turbulent life, filled with dreams of debasement and humiliation.

In the near-to-final image, Severine’s previously empowered husband is a cripple totally dependent on his wife, while she stands stoic and triumphant behind him. As the film closes, we are left with the question: did her zealous lover bring on this catastrophe, or are we seeing her secret, inner yearnings?

Similarly, Raising Cain sinuously weaves in and out of dream, nightmare and fantasy states, dropping the startled viewer into the most unexpected situations until the line between real and unreal finally evaporates. But, as in Buñuel, it does not matter whether what De Palma presents for us is real or not.

The fact is both films deliberately blur the nexus between the objective and subjective worlds. The levels of reality depicted, the way in which emotional and moral states fuse and become metaphysical realities, are elements of exploration of the nature of perception – a concept De Palma explores time and again in his films.

The first half-hour of Raising Cain is deliberately confusing and disorienting as it explores the disappearance of a number of children and their mothers. Once things settle down, we discover that happily married Carter (John Lithgow) is in the throes of radical split personality. His evil alter ego, Cain, is stealing children for Father, who is conducting psychological experiments on these children. The stakes are upped when Carter’s wife, played by spunky Lolita Davidovich, begins an affair with an old flame. Cain then kidnaps Carter’s own daughter to hand over to kooky daddy. Frances Sternhagen, playing a cancer-stricken doctor, is brought in to investigate, and the plot spirals towards its startlingly inventive climax. In the final frame, Carter threateningly looms behind his wife and child as Margot, his female alter ego.

It’s as astonishingly open an ending as that of the Buñuel. It is yet another trap door, but this time we cannot travel beyond it. We are denied access, and must circumnavigate back to the beginning of the film if we are to make sense of what has become of Carter. As critic Elliot Stein said in relation to the ending of Belle De Jour, “it fastens the entire film into a writhing subliminal image, that of an admirable circular serpent, forever catching its own tail in its own mouth” (1).

I shan’t labour the point that De Palma lifted the idea for the ending from Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1982). That De Palma is a magpie after shiny things to line his nest is a well-publicised fact. What is less understood, however, is that he often transmutes ideas above and beyond their original form and content to stamp them with his own unique imprint. In Raising Cain he infuses that final, startling image with such comically perverse insinuations that it resonates in ways that Argento’s use of the same image most emphatically does not.

Puzzled viewers have often wondered if there was a plot point to Carter’s metamorphoses into a woman, or if it was just a device to provide a shocking finale. The answer is probably both, but it would not be ‘a De Palma moment’ if the image bypassed the viscera to appeal directly to the intellect. First and foremost, De Palma’s ‘red phase’ films are best understood through an intuitive apprehension of the work, which can then be channeled to the intellectual faculties.

In an essay on Carrie (DePalma, 1976) in Senses of Cinema, February 2000, I said that Raising Cain is “one man’s journey towards self-actualisation as a larger-than-life woman – a kind of steeped-in-blood hermaphrodite rising out of the ashes of a formerly split and uncertain male self”. In Belle De Jour, the journey across the murky borders of gender is metaphorical rather than literal. But, in both cases, the aim is an aggressive form of self-awareness. In the course of her adventures, Buñuel’s Severine transforms from an aimless hostess into the Mona Lisa or sphinx, towering glacially over a helpless husband. In both films a self-contained, inscrutable woman looms into the frame before the inevitable closure.

When Lithgow is revealed as Margot in that final scene, he is literally standing inside his wife’s outline or silhouette. Davidovich kneels to pick up her daughter Amy, and there in her shadow stands her husband dressed as a dark-haired woman in pristine white. Whereas in Belle De Jour a woman rises above her husband, in Raising Cain a man steps out of the shadow of his implacable wife. Shock, horror, Donaggio’s music builds to a crescendo and the film abruptly ends. De Palma has pulled off yet another jump-out-of-your-seat moment. But how, if at all, is he advancing his schizophrenic plot?

Seen rationally, the sequence is impossible. It makes no sense at all. In retrospect we ask ourselves: How did Margot get so close without being seen or heard? But, as De Palma directs us deeper and deeper into that final sequence, a careful observer would have noticed that we have been inexorably moving out of conventional reality, space and time. There are signs that the dictates of a rational narrative are about to be disrupted.

As Davidovich follows her young daughter into the depths of the park, the playground sounds dissolve too quickly, the air becomes still, redolent with expectation; the vegetation grows denser, greener, and more mysterious. The park becomes a bower of fecundity. (Indeed, this is where Davidovich and her lover enjoyed their initial clandestine tryst.) A soft-focus hue drifts around the trees and undergrowth, the light becomes diffuse, the shadows deepen. We are no longer in a communal park in the middle of a busy metropolis, but a primal forest out of the Brothers Grimm, with a touch of Renaissance painting. Alluring and dangerous, it¹s a world where anything can happen.

The initial fright of seeing Carter as Margot is peppered with a comic, send-up tone. John Lithgow’s woman in white not only recalls his six-and-a-half foot, ex-pro footballer transsexual role in The World According to Garp (George Roy Hill, 1982), but also Sally Field’s performance in Sybil (Daniel Petrie, 1977). In true self-reflexive style, De Palma also brings to mind his own transsexual killer, Bobbi, from Dressed To Kill (1980).

But Margot symbolises something that Bobbi’s deranged killer was never meant to. Who or what is she then, this Margot? Has she come to harm Carter’s wife and child?

The answer lies in Sternhagen’s interrogation of her multiple-personality patient. Under hypnosis, Carter becomes Josh, a frightened little boy who speaks with fear and caution of another personality; someone called Margot. Just prior to Margot’s first appearance, the little boy reveals that she ‘looks after the children’. (This is proven to be abundantly true during the film’s tense climax.)

It would seem that, split by guilt, Carter created Margot to save the kidnapped children. So, although her sudden appearance in the grotto gives cause for alarm, Margot’s intentions are as pure as the white of her garments. From her posture (preternaturally still, a serene, almost arrogant, smile on her lips, and with hands clasped before her), she looks like a Roman Catholic plaster-cast saint with real hair on her head.

I think it’s safe to deduce that she is a mater dolorosa come to offer succor and blessing to Carter’s daughter, Amy (2). Put crudely, she is Carter’s maternal side. Nothing to be feared – unless, of course, you threaten her brood. Then, and only then, will she become a ferocious she-wolf who will stop at nothing to protect her cubs. It’s also significant that no sooner do we register this image, than Davidovich rises, with Amy in her arms, to block out the vision of Margot as though it never existed. That’s because we’ve just caught a glimpse of the dark, often unacknowledged, face of motherhood.

It’s pointless to ponder if the ending of Raising Cain represents another shift into fantasy. As in Belle De Jour, the ambiguity is built into the film. Rather, De Palma appears to be contemplating the archaic nature of motherhood. On the one hand, she is nurturing and brimming with love, and on the other primal and fearsome. A constant shape-shifter, she is capable of great sacrifice and stormy retribution. Melding the masculine with the feminine, she is the Mother of all Mothers and Medea fused into one powerful force existing beyond the rational order.


  1. Elliot Stein, Belle De Jour, Modern Film Scripts, Lorimer Publishing, London, 1971.
  2. Literally, this term means ‘mother of tears’, or the sorrowing mother, used in relation to the sorrowing Virgin Mary.

About The Author

Dmetri Kakmi is an essayist and a critic. He works for Penguin Books Australia as an editor.

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