“De Palma” Review: Exploring a Character Through His Movies

Courtesy of A24
Courtesy of A24

The brilliance of De Palma is in its simplicity. Much like My Dinner with Andre (1981) and last year’s Listen to Me Marlon, the concept is so basic that it doesn’t seem like it would work. However, all three of these films manage to succeed greatly, largely in part to the straightforwardness of their concepts.

In 2010, filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow decided to buy a new digital camera. Wanting to test it out, they shot 30 hours of interview footage with their friend, writer-director Brian De Palma. For those unfamiliar, De Palma was part of the new Hollywood movement in the 70s, and directed classic hits such as Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983) and Mission: Impossible (1996). This interview footage sat for a while, until Baumbach and Paltrow decided it could be a commercial release. Editing the 30 hours down to 107 minutes, and overlaying archive photos and movies, the documentary takes a look at De Palma’s career from start to end.

However, what isn’t said in the documentary is much more interesting than what is said. The film focuses very heavily on covering De Palma’s filmography, with De Palma skimming over many personal moments in his life, such as his relationships with the people around him. Now, this could have been a personal decision by De Palma, a lack of broader focus by Baumbach and Paltrow or even just an editing choice, but what’s scary is that De Palma’s life is essentially reduced to the movies he made. Once an aspiring physicist at Columbia University, there’s always a little underlying tension that De Palma gave up quite a bit for his art.

There’s no question that De Palma is a little weird, but he’s also hugely enjoyable to watch on screen. It’s a combination of the intimate setting created by such a small crew, the fast-paced editing and the specificity in his storytelling that makes this a very enthralling watch. Having seen a large portion of De Palma’s movies isn’t even a real requirement here, as the stories hold their own. Even without a big ‘moment’ in the documentary, it’s enjoyable from start to finish, and will probably make you want to watch his entire filmography afterwards.

Because such a large amount of footage was shot, there are a couple spots where there is some noticeable dissonance between audio clips. Yet it never seems to be a big issue, because this movie is much more interesting based on what is being said, rather than how creatively it is captured. De Palma also provides a fascinating portrait on the man, giving the audience a clue as to what kind of person De Palma was, even if it’s only from one perspective. It’s clear that De Palma knows his career is basically over (he turns 76 this fall), and the fact that he has nothing to lose in reflecting upon his career gives the documentary a big boost in authenticity.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the film however is how the camera is suddenly flipped on De Palma. From the clips shown in the film to his complete reverence towards Alfred Hitchcock, it’s clear that De Palma’s movies often deal a lot with voyeurism. Having the camera focused on him, while cutting to the movies that he made creates an interesting sort of shot reverse-shot where De Palma becomes a bit vulnerable. He himself says that part of being a director is being an authoritative figure, while the documentary peels back many of these layers in order to understand the path of his career. The film might be incredibly simple in concept, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t pack a heck of a punch.

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