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Review: De Palma

June 17, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

De Palma PosterBrian De Palma sits in front of a fireplace in a medium closeup, discussing his filmmaking career, as clips from his films and other influences are interspersed between.

This is the simple visual conceit behind De Palma, an extremely engaging documentary portrait that allows the director to talk candidly about his work, sharing invaluable behind the scenes stories from his iconic classics like Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981) and Scarface (1983).

We are taken through his entire filmography in chronological order, from his early indies inspired by the French New Wave to the later career indulgences that he’s been making in Europe, after growing disillusioned with the American studio system following a string of blockbusters including the first Mission: Impossible (1996), Snake Eyes (1998) and Mission to Mars (2000).

Although the director has been accused of creating trashy pulp throughout his career, De Palma allows us to look deeper at the craft behind even his most sensationalistic work, showing him as a purveyor of pure cinema, heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and always at the forefront of experimenting with split screens and quick cuts.  The director also touches on the controversy that has often plagued his work, due to the way many of his films depict masculine ego and violence against women, pushing the boundaries of the rating system in their depictions of nudity and violence.

Brian De Palma’s body of work has always shown him to have a strong command of visual flair, and De Palma presents him as an equally great verbal storyteller, as he reveals some of the moments and films he’s most proud of, and reflects on notorious flops like The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990).  We hear about his experience as a young director working with a particularly uncooperative Orson Welles on Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), and how time constraints forced many of the over the top impact shots in the famous Scarface shootout to be filmed without Al Pacino even being on set.

Another memorable aside is his coy defence that the length of the gruesomely used drill bit in Body Double (1984) was not intended as phallic symbolism, but rather just needed to be long enough to go through both a woman’s body and the floor beneath her.  But we also learn that the graphic violence in his films is challenged by the fact that he’s also staunchly anti-war, as evidenced in Casualties of War (1989) and Redacted (2007).  Although there are no dissenting opinions to offer criticism of his weakest films, the chance to hear a filmmaker defend even his most widely derided work is part of what makes De Palma so fascinating to watch.

Even though it won’t likely change your opinion of some of his films, this is an invaluable opportunity to hear an incredibly articulate filmmaker take us through every step of his career, while making a case for himself as an under appreciated artist.  Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, who stay purely behind the camera and let their single subject do all the talking, De Palma is a feature length interview that has been masterfully edited together with video clips to become a film that is incredibly entertaining to watch in its own right.  This is a must see for anyone who loves movies.

De Palma is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.  The release is coinciding with Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma, a retrospective of the director’s work that will be screening 25 of his films over the summer.  Please come back for more thoughts on that tomorrow.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 19, 2016 1:50 am

    Not a DePalma fan but really interested in this film (I feel like I probably ought to see/rewatch the films in question before seeing this one though). I agree that it might be interesting to hear some critical or at least neutral commentary as well, but I always enjoy hearing someone like DePalma explain and debunk his choices. Not sure if you’re a listener, but the DGA has a great series of interviews in its podcast:
    Certainly not as comprehensive but good for recent films nonetheless.


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