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Body-swapping movies

Prelude to a Kiss is not only a body-swapping movie, but one of the stranger relics of ‘90s nostalgia. Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

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It's Three Easy Pieces, where I look at a piece of pop culture from its birth to today. This month, I've chosen body-swapping movies, and I'll freely admit that this topic has backed me into a corner. While I thought I'd write about movies where characters literally swap consciousnesses into each other's bodies, I forgot to take into consideration the other films that could fit into this category: a person magically aging into a different body, a celestial being inhabiting a stranger's body, a doppelgänger swapping places with its double, or a cult deciding to take over John Malkovich's body. With so many options, and so few months in the year, I've decided to mix all of these together to see who comes out on top. Don't worry, though - Freaky Friday will be well-represented.

BIRTH: Turnabout (1940)

Honorable mention: Freaky Friday (1976), All of Me, Heaven Can Wait

Turnabout was way ahead of the curve, when it came to body-swapping movies. The 1940 comedy practically codified the body-swapping trope (two characters wishing they could be each other, a magical relic making this happen, be careful what you wish for, etc.) more than 30 years before Freaky Friday would become the cinematic touchstone. The stakes are a little lower, though: husband and wife Tim and Sally (John Hubbard and Carole Landis), after having another one of their fights, make a wish to become each other. A mystical idol obliges them, and hilarity ensues!

The retrograde sexism of Turnabout is a little quaint, with Tim wishing to have the leisure time of a housewife, and Sally just wishing to leave her home every once in a while, but it's mostly inoffensive fluff. And unlike modern body-swapping movies, everything is turned back to normal after just one chaotic day. If Turnabout had been made a few decades later, Tim and Sally would stay swapped for weeks until they'd learned their lesson.

DEVELOPMENT: Prelude to a Kiss (1992)

Honorable mention: Freaky Friday (1995), Wish Upon a Star, Big, Face/Off

This is precisely the type of mainstream movie that doesn't get made anymore. I mean, maybe it's for good reason? This is a deeply weird, high concept romantic comedy that relies on a then-big star like Meg Ryan swapping bodies with an old man (Sydney Walker), and then trying to woo Alec Baldwin.

In form, it's as old-fashioned as it gets, but in practice, it's one of the stranger nostalgia flicks to come out of the ‘90s. The inciting incident comes from that old man barging in on a wedding and kissing Ryan, which leads to their mystical body-swap. Ryan does well as the old man, but you haven't seen acting until you see Walker getting romantic with a befuddled Baldwin.

It's eventually learned that this man chose Ryan so that he could remain eternal in a younger body -- it is also here where you can speculate that Charlie Kaufman stole the premise for Being John Malkovich from Prelude to a Kiss. I wouldn't blame you for thinking that, and I'd also applaud you for having watched both these films and put so much thought into them. Invite me over for white wine and a movie night?

TODAY: Enemy (2013)

Honorable mention: Freaky Friday (2003 and 2018), The Change-Up, 13 Going on 30, 17 Again

Getting to the heart of what everyone fears, when it comes to body-swapping movies, we have Enemy. This Kafkaesque movie by celebrated director Denis Villeneuve spends its time exploring how you would handle having your lookalike take over your life -- as well as the temptation to take over theirs. Jake Gyllenhaal plays your everyday schlub who finds himself increasingly unnerved in dealing with a doppelgänger who he's started noticing around town. The differences between the two are subtle, but significant: one's a confident, philandering actor with a pregnant wife; the other is a timid professor just barely clinging to a relationship with a disinterested girlfriend.

Enemy flirts with being exactly the kind of thriller you expect it to be, but it ultimately has greater themes on its mind than the existential terror of being usurped. Villeneuve fetishes the brutalist architecture of the Toronto skyline, creating an otherworldly, claustrophobic aura. He also, fair warning, heavily utilizes imagery of grotesque spiders, for metaphorical reasons that are rewarding to chew on in post-film discussions. I've seen Enemy three times, and what first felt like a combatively inscrutable film, now feels to me almost achingly sad. The final shot will stay with both you and your twin.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Hangout Movies.

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