Tuesday, May 24, 2016


It takes a lot of confidence to begin a movie with a clip from perhaps the most famous film noir of all time, as Brian De Palma does in the first scene of his 2002 erotic thriller Femme Fatale. That film’s opening scene, which unfolds via a virtuoso long take in which we're introduced to the lead character and major themes of the film without a cut, begins with an image from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity on a television and ends with a hotel room curtain being pulled aside to reveal the Cannes Film Festival red carpet. Inviting comparison with Wilder and referencing the most prestigious film festival on earth makes a bold statement right off the bat, but De Palma doesn’t merely invite the comparisons he’s making – he earns them, and then goes beyond Wilder’s influence to create a film that is both a superb example of the film noir form and a commentary on it, as well as an evolutionary step forward in terms of the tradition’s approach to women. While it would be a stretch to call Femme Fatale a feminist manifesto, in its own sly way it answers the charges of misogyny often leveled against film noir by setting in motion a gleefully complicated puzzle of a plot in which one commanding man after another finds his sense of order disrupted by the female jewel thief at the movie’s center. It’s not just that Laure (Rebecca Romjin) undermines the guys and their world; De Palma himself subverts a century of established cinematic “rules” to place the audience in the position of the bewildered men stripped of their power – and he does it with so much pizzazz that we’re grateful to have the rug pulled out from under us. 

Femme Fatale, one of seven De Palma classics screening at the Aero Theatre as part of a week-long tribute to the director, is as great a film as De Palma ever made – which means it’s as great a film as anybody ever made. To date, De Palma has directed 29 feature films, at least half of which are flat-out masterpieces by any standard – and unlike Hitchcock, the director to which he is most often compared, his filmography is as broad as it is deep. Like Hitchcock, De Palma has created a series of films so distinctive that they practically comprise their own genre. Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, Raising Cain, Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale and several others all share in common a collection of cinematic tropes (split screens and diopters, complex flashback structures, elaborately choreographed long takes) and thematic fixations (the pitfalls of certainty and the impossibility of absolute truth, the fragility of identity, the potential for sex to instill both power and vulnerability in equal measures, etc.) that make them instantly recognizable as De Palma thrillers just as Rear Window and Vertigo were clearly identifiable as Hitchcock’s creations. 

Yet – let’s just say it – De Palma is better than Hitchcock. He’s more fearless in his willingness to dig deep into sexual neuroses (both his own and his audience’s), and his vision is more expansive, both in terms of his interests and his ability to stretch his creative muscles beyond the thriller genre. While De Palma’s detractors like to dismiss him as a mere Hitchcock imitator, even if one were to completely eliminate the suspense pictures from his filmography one would be left with a collection of achievements any director would envy. Consider Casualties of War, a harrowing Vietnam film in which De Palma strips the genre bare of heroic glamour to prove Sam Fuller wrong in his thesis that there’s no such thing as a true anti-war movie. Pauline Kael favorably compared Casualties to Renoir’s Grand Illusion, and it isn’t even the most powerful war film De Palma made – that would come later, with his devastating and formally revolutionary Redacted, an anti-Iraq screed so searing it inspired death threats against the director and his distributor. 

Casualties of War and Redacted are epic howls of anguish, yet De Palma is just as adept at treating the same subject matter with comedy in his early gem Hi, Mom!, in which his satiric voice anticipates the television work of Jon Stewart by about forty years. There’s more trenchant political satire twenty years later in the unjustly maligned The Bonfire of the Vanities, a film both more empathetic and more damning than its Tom Wolfe-penned source material thanks to De Palma’s ability to merge an ensemble structure with his typically precise – and typically layered – point-of-view shots. An even more savage – and more enduring – riff on the hypocrisies of capitalism can be found in De Palma’s 1983 remake of Howard Hawks’ Scarface, a movie that, like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, so accurately skewered its subject that it became a film beloved by the same greedy consumers it was satirizing. (Stone also wrote the screenplay for Scarface, making that film a collaboration between the two greatest political filmmakers the Hollywood cinema has ever seen.) 

Scarface was a movie of its moment that was nevertheless timeless enough to become iconic, and even more iconic images were to come in De Palma’s subsequent gangster film, 1987’s The Untouchables. Yet in keeping with the director’s penchant for topping not only himself but everyone else, the best was yet to come when De Palma reunited with his Scarface star Al Pacino for Carlito’s Way in 1993. That movie, named the best film of the 1990s by the critics at Cahiers du Cinema, stands alongside Coppola’s The Godfather and Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Casino as one of the essential movies about organized crime in America, and plays like a male doppelganger to the female-driven Femme Fatale; both films are about characters deciding whether or not to change the course of their lives, with results as different as the structural and visual approaches De Palma takes to each story. 

I haven’t even mentioned the fact that De Palma directed a rock musical that has become a cult classic (Phantom of the Paradise), or one of the finest horror movies of all time (Carrie), or…well, you get the idea. Taken together, these films comprise a bitterly corrosive commentary on America in the fifty years after JFK, a country haunted by assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the subject matter and the mastery of technique are consistent, the tone is wildly varied; De Palma is as comfortable with satire as he is with tragedy, and is at his best – as in the case of the brilliantly original Blow Out – when he combines both in the same film. And yet those who try to pigeonhole the director as a misanthrope or cynic have likely never seen his gently sweet and hilarious buddy comedy Wise Guys, or given themselves over to the pure and genuine sense of wonder that permeates Mission to Mars. There’s an endlessly probing, curious quality to De Palma’s mind and eye that makes it impossible to pin him down, no matter how hard his critics might try. 

De Palma’s career is all the more remarkable for his ability to adapt to changing circumstances – both his own and those of the film industry at large. Regardless of the size of his canvas, the potency of his vision is undiluted, whether he’s working in the low-budget experimental realm (as in Redacted or early apprentice efforts like Murder a la Mod and Dionysus in ’69) or on the kinds of big-budget tent-poles that stifle less robust personalities. When De Palma takes a studio assignment on a film like The Untouchables or Mission: Impossible, he fuses his own preoccupations with the demands of the material in a way that serves both; his stylistic and thematic obsessions expand to broader dimensions thanks to their expression in a new form, and the films’ escapist set-pieces are more entertaining and charged with energy because of the artistic drives motivating them. There’s never any sense of De Palma following the old “one for me, one for them” (them being the studio) formula in his career – they’re all for him, and they’re all for us. It’s hard to think of a director whose work yields more rewards on repeat viewings, or whose dense visual representations and allusions gain more from being experienced on the big screen –making the Cinematheque’s retrospective one of the essential repertory events of 2016 thus far. 

Jim Hemphill interviewed Brian De Palma as well as DePalma documentarians, (co-directors of De Palma Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow), on June 1st. Read the interview here.

Hemphill is an award-winning screenwriter and director whose latest film is The Trouble with the Truth. His writings on cinema have appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer, and Film Quarterly, and he is the author of a regular column on directing for Filmmaker Magazine.