'Hitchcock/Truffaut': Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Catnip for film buffs.

This documentary will be a top draw wherever films about filmmakers are welcome.

The marathon 1962 interview of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut that became one of the seminal books on filmmaking itself becomes the subject of a film in Hitchcock/Truffaut. Something of a film buff’s nirvana — not only because of its two participants, but due to the onscreen presence of David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and other directorial luminaries talking about them — Kent Jones’ latest look at an eminent creative figure has the air of a bunch of extreme film buffs sitting around, talking in depth on a subject about which they’re almost alarmingly obsessive, but that’s a big part of the fun. Graced by the exemplary print condition of the many titles it excerpts, this documentary will be a top draw wherever films about filmmakers are welcome.

The actual eight-day interview between the 30-year-old French film critic turned director and the world-famous 63-year-old British-born director was not filmed and would not have been very photogenic in any event, as it took place in a small, windowless room at Universal Studios. Furthermore, it was a rather laborious affair in that, due to Truffaut’s poor English, both men’s remarks required constant translation, a job dexterously handled by longtime Truffaut colleague Helen Scott, whose role goes a bit underacknowledged here.

Happily, however, the sound quality of the recording is excellent, so one can easily pick up not only the words themselves, but the enthusiasm, humor and precision of expression that marked the conversations.

Working with Scorsese, Jones previously made two outstanding cinephile documentaries: Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows and A Letter to Elia, the latter of which expressed Scorsese’s obsession with the work of Elia Kazan. Here, the subject is the one classical-era Hollywood director whose name remains somewhat familiar to today’s general public, and the film argues that it was Truffaut’s book, far more than anything else, that not only altered the perception of Hitchcock from light entertainer to serious artist but, by extension, legitimized the idea that Hollywood movies could be worthy of the same kind of highbrow critical attention accorded to foreign art films.

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To bolster this case, Jones has assembled something of an all-star team of contemporary directors, mostly eminent Americans — Scorsese, Fincher, Anderson, Richard LinklaterPeter Bogdanovich, James Gray, Paul Schrader — but also, to maintain the Gallic perspective, Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin, as well as one Japanese contributor, Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

Using as much behind-the-scenes and home-movie footage as possible, the film provides quick background on Hitchcock’s early filmmaking experience and British career, as well as background on Truffaut’s rise as a critic and the instant fame his first film, The 400 Blows, brought him in 1959. Referencing the famous anecdote about Hitchcock’s father playing a joke on his son by having him “arrested” and briefly held in jail, which inspired the youngster’s lifelong mortal fear of the police, Jones makes the sly point that, while Hitchcock was a false truant, Truffaut was a real one, only to be taken underwing by a succession of father figures — Andre Bazin, Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini.

Fincher, who's rarely seen in documentaries such as this, gets the lion’s share of screen time among the commentators and impresses with his insights. Hitchcock, both he and others observe, was a “theoretician of space” and a master of compressing, as well as extending, time — a skill that lies at the heart of filmmaking. Truffaut importantly points out that, unlike most other Hollywood filmmakers, Hitchcock never forgot the “lost secret” known to those who started their careers in silent cinema, while Linklater usefully brings up the issue of control, which leads into taped speculation on Hitchcock’s part that perhaps he should have been more open to spontaneity and what actors might have brought on their own.

A bit disconcertingly, in the film's last third, led by Scorsese, the film plunges into deep analysis of Hitchcock’s seminal late films, Vertigo and Psycho — so much so that it partly feels like we’re in a different documentary at this point. Hitchcock’s obsession with the transformation of Kim Novak’s character in the former takes on such a clinical dimension as to become squirm-inducing. As for Psycho, Scorsese makes the convincing point that this film, and the dark shock it provided to the American public, was the first indication of what lay ahead in the 1960s.

In contrast to the percolating thought processes of the interview subjects, the written narration, read by Bob Balaban, sounds dry and academic. But Hitchcock/Truffaut is a resourceful, illuminating and very welcome documentation both of filmmaking and the making of film history.

Production: Artline Films, Cohen Media Group
Cast: David Fincher, Wes Anderson, James Gray, Paul Schrader, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Arnaud Desplechin, Richard Linklater
Narrator: Bob Balaban
Director: Kent Jones
Writers: Kent Jones, Serge Toubiana
Producers: Olivier Mille, Charles S. Cohen
Directors of photography: Nick Bentgen, Daniel Cowen, Eric Gautier, Mihai Malaimare Jr., Lisa Rinzler, Genta Tamaki
Editor: Rachel Reichman
No rating, 80 minutes

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