A documentary by Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach. Rated 14A
De Palma, based on the life of Brian, is an instant film-school classic, distilling a whole career into a tidy 107 minutes and offering a crash course to anyone who loves the language of cinema.
The most remarkable thing about this retrospective-minded documentary is its refusal to impose cinematic interpretation on its subject. Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow stick to one approach: keep De Palma talking, in the centre of the frame, and illustrate his thoughts with salient clips from his movies or things that influenced him.
When the now 75-year-old talks about his youth, there are old photos on hand, and this turns out to be essential to his famously cracked art: the Quaker upbringing, the cold mother, the cheating surgeon father often covered in blood. De Palma is mindful of his manias (“I don’t know why I keep casting John Lithgow as villains!”) but not deeply psychological about them. His interrogators, whose voices aren’t heard, don’t call him on the misogyny of Sisters and other splatterfests, or his odious use of murderous transsexuals, in Dressed to Kill and elsewhere, letting the director’s footage do the heavy lifting.
He also makes it clear that personal relationships have always come second to the work. But De Palma is a surprisingly companionable raconteur, dispensing gossip and camera techniques with equal ease. His love for Alfred Hitchcock’s similarly opaque fixations began in his student films (some featuring young Bobby De Niro) and continues to dominate his visual style, although this singularity has limited his commercial outlook, compared with Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorsese, whom he began with. Still, this breezy visit makes it clear that, despite gross missteps like 2012’s Passion, De Palma has never stopped working, and likely won’t—“until my legs go”, he allows.