Review: DE PALMA



SHOCK reviews the stunning stem-to-stern documentary about director Brian De Palma.

If you clicked on this link to read this review, chances are you are a fan of master stylist and mass-worshiped filmmaker Brian De Palma.  Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow are fans too. Huge fans. And their definitive documentary DE PALMA (which has its Canadian premiere tonight in Toronto as part of the Hot Docs Film Festival) was born out of that passion. Their simple, elegant and unpretentious feature isn’t a bid to dig deep into the director’s personal life looking for dirt, nor does it particularly care to make believers out of the unconvinced. It’s just De Palma on De Palma, one of the greatest helmers of dark, psychosexual thrillers and fluid moviemaking in history, sitting down and re-capping his near 50 years in the film industry, picture by picture, triumphs and tragedies, hits and misses.

It’s a rapturous gift to the hardcore De Palma admirer, of which this writer is one, loud and proud. In fact, so smitten was I by this picture, I watched it 3 times in succession. It’s a master class. The first and last word on the man and his work.

Sometime back in 2010 I would say (the film ends with clips from De Palma’s final picture, PASSION, but the director doesn’t speak on the movie itself, rather he climaxes his chat with 2007’s REDACTED), Baumbach and Paltrow aimed the camera at their hero down and simply interviewed him, reportedly over the span of several days. Here, we find De Palma relaxed and engaged and simply talking and talking and talking at great length about every inch of his career; the early days experimenting with split screen and arch comedy, his affection for Hitchcock and the birth of his Hitch-riffing in SISTERS, his misery at the commercial flop of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, how he became attached to CARRIE, the problems with actor Cliff Robertson on the set of OBSESSION, the bliss of DRESSED TO KILL’s success, how he fucked the MPAA with SCARFACE and so much more.

It’s a remarkable interview. And a remarkable film.

Remarkable not just because of its edifying look at an important body of cinema, but remarkable because of just how much the duo get out of the De Palma. I’ve interviewed De Palma, twice. There’s a science to it. He’s guarded. It takes the right questions, the right amalgam of word and gesture to get him to open up; one misstep and he closes down just as quickly. So to see De Palma so light and excited, speaking so freely and candidly is a joy to behold. The man is damn near jovial!


Mind you, DE PALMA is masterfully edited, cutting between the chatty director and a flurry of incredible clips from the films themselves (there goes the budget!) and behind the scenes stuff from De Palma’s vaults (love the 8MM footage of Steven Spielberg, De Palma’s former best friend and the director’s ex-wife, actress Nancy Allen, sending love out to their colleague; a beautiful snapshot of a time and place that exists only in myth). So, who knows how hard Baumbach and Paltrow worked to get their mentor into his comfort zone. Either way, they did and it’s amazing.

DE PALMA will be an orgasmic experience for the faithful. But it is also required viewing for every aspiring director who dreams of making commercially successful product, while still maintaining the pure vision of an artist. Truly, it’s difficult to think of another Hollywood filmmaker who has so deftly managed to make such personal work on such a grand scale.

Inspiring stuff…