Review: De Palma (2016)


The great surprise of the documentary De Palma is that it serves as an insightful document for advocating that a genre filmmaker can be an auteur. The picture simply shows the famed director Brain De Palma sitting down and talking about his life, the movies he made and the various cinematic techniques that have become synonymous with his name. The last aspect particularly fascinates because of the meticulous detail and effect that the stylistic flourishes have on the audience.

Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow wonderfully make this potentially troublesome issue work by allowing the footage from the discussed film to play for a considerable amount of time. Then De Palma’s follow-up commentary is played over a small section of the moving images. With this approach, the viewer can passively admire the technique in its entirety before the famed director provides context for its use.

This aspect is evident when De Palma is talking about the utilisation of split screen for the prom massacre sequence in the third act of Carrie. Initially, he shot the entire scene with the technique. Though, he later realised that is was not visually appealing due to not being suitable for action.

The documentary is at its best when De Palma’s personal recollections from his past harmonies with deft cinematic craft. In one scene, the veteran filmmaker speaks of a time in his youth when he used to take photographs of his adulterous father for his mother. While this is being told, footage from Dressed to Kill is shown, which depicts the main character taking pictures of a woman and looking at them developing in his studio.

The moment serves as a crucial touchstone moment for the director and his much-maligned portrayal of women in his films. The story can be inferred as a dichotomy that on the one hand shows women as indisputable pillars of moral virtue that command absolute loyalty and curiosities that represent temptation and sin. De Palma further defends his portrait of the fairer sex by stating that he has been indulging in staples of the genre that have existed since the beginning of the cinema.

With this in mind, one could look at the director as an legitimate Neo Hitchcockian whose fascination with women were equally murky and wholly captivating. Or perhaps the current reading is a red herring, and a crucial point that De Palma makes at the beginning of the film is fundamental in understanding the thesis of his entire oeuvre. He states that the director creates romantic illusions and in turn makes the audience fall in love with them before demonstrably dispelling them.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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