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Non-Review Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is incredibly light and fluffy.

In many respects, Kent Jones’ documentary about the eponymous piece of classic film literature plays like something of a late night infomercial populated with nerdiest film endorsements imaginable. Hitchcock/Truffaut is not so much interested in exploring and expanding its source text, instead settling for celebration. Wes Anderson boasts that his copy of the book is so well-used that it is held together by rubber bands; Kiyoshi Kurosawa explains that the only thing holding him back from blatantly stealing from the book is a promise to himself.

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There is not anything particularly wrong with this. There is something quite fun in watching film-makers get evangelical about their craft. All of the talking heads offer some insight into their own work when they expand upon what Alfred Hitchcock means to them. Martin Scorsese’s joy as he journeys shot-by-shot into Psycho is infectious, and it is clear that everybody involved with the project holds Hitchcock in the highest possible regard and embraces him as a cornerstone of modern movie-making.

Hitchcock/Truffaut‘s biggest issue is also its strongest virtue; this is a cheerful and superficial acknowledgement of its subject, one that decides particularly in-depth coverage of the auteur is secondary to rendering the material accessible to neophytes.

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It is hard to figure out the intended audience for Hitchcock/Truffaut. The film’s subject matter is beloved of cinephiles all around the world, and a cornerstone of modern auteur theory. It seems safe to say that a significant proportion of people with a truly deep appreciation of classic cinema would be familiar with the eponymous book. Even those who have never read the book-length interview would be familiar with the basics and its importance in the larger context of contemporary cinema.

However, it should be noted that “people with a truly deep appreciation of classic cinema” counts for a much smaller demographic than most people would like to believe. While viewers with even a casual appreciation of cinema will recognise Hitchcock and point to examples of his work, François Truffaut has a much lower profile among audience members with a passing interest in the art form. Hitchcock/Truffaut is a cult book, as evangelical as that cult might be.

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The biggest issue with Kent Jones’ documentary concerns the target audience. Is Hitchcock/Truffaut intended as an “introduction” to the world of auteur theory or more “advanced” reading on a film studies course? Jones consciously decides that accessibility is paramount. Hitchcock/Truffaut is very careful and very meticulous in mapping out its coverage, presenting its arguments and observations in a way that renders them easily digestible to movie-goers with limited understanding of concepts like framing and composition.

This is certain a defensible position. After all, one of the joys of the original book is that it requires no specialised knowledge to enjoy. Although Hitchcock/Truffaut focuses on directors heavily influenced by the book, the interview reads just as well to potential film critics or even curious cinema patrons. Perhaps owing to the language barrier between the two subjects, or perhaps due to a lack of pretension, the book outlines its arguments and observations in a very clear and straightforward way that makes it accessible to readers with little or no knowledge of the field.

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Kent’s adaptation takes a similar approach. Narrator Bob Balaban gently guides the viewer through the basics, while the interviewed directors consciously avoid getting overly technical in terms of language or criticism. Snippets from the original interview are played back, allowing Kent to bring the material to life in a way that is vibrant and engaging. While the book had to settle for stills breaking down Hitchcock’s scene composition, the documentary can insert actual footage.

There is a feeling of superficiality to all this. It feels like Kent might have been able to expand his material and his interviews out to a series of more in-depth documentaries. There are points at which interview subjects seem on the cusp of a compelling or provocative thesis statement about a certain aspect of Hitchcock, only to back away at the last minute. The film alludes to Hitchcock’s strained relations with his stars, but avoids any unseemly particulars. The movie acknowledges Hitchcock’s fetishes, but never actually engages with them.

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Hitchcock/Truffaut does not just avoid the nuances of its somewhat complicated subject. Towards the end of the film, the interviewed directors talk about Hitchcock’s ability to build suspense and lead the audience along. David Fincher touches on how pop culture and expectations have shifted so that the audience is less likely to follow a film to a climax that arrives ninety minutes into a film, instead demanding immediate set-up and pay-off. However, this thread is left as an innocuous observation rather than something to be explored.

Still, it is hard to complain too much. There is a lot of love and appreciation in how the interviewed directors engage with the material. As usual in documentaries like this, Martin Scorsese’s enthusiasm is infectious, his critical eye quite astute. Although no sane cinephile would sacrifice his contributions to cinema, it is fun to imagine an alternate world where Scorsese might have served as a co-host or regular guest on something like At the Movies, demonstrating his appreciation and understanding of his own craft.

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Indeed, there is something quite telling in what the various directors focus upon in discussing Hitchcock as a visionary. Wes Anderson notes the detail and the craft of Hitchcock’s compositions. David Fincher talks about Hitchcock’s importance in recognising actors as tools or instruments playing in the director’s orchestra. Richard Linklater talks about Hitchcock’s relationship to his audience and his understanding of a broader zeitgeist around it all. Martin Scorsese discusses the technical decisions that Hitchcock made.

In some way, the most telling insights in Hitchcock/Truffaut are buried beneath the surface, as generations of movie directors seem to hone in on Hitchcock’s rather disparate influences on their own work. Hitchcock/Truffaut suggests that there is a single right way to appreciate its subject, which perhaps explains why the documentary never gets too bogged down in a single particularly in-depth exploration of its subject matter. Hitchcock/Truffaut sacrifices depth for accessibility. Its subject might have managed both, but it is still very much a labour of love.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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2 Responses

  1. I remember getting the Hitchcock-Truffaut book back in 2010 at a Borders back whey still existed. It was the book that got me so interested in film and made me want to explore further. I am diasspointed to hear the documentary is superficial, but my hope is that maybe it will encourage people to explore further.

    • It’s a fun and enjoyable documentary. It just feels like it tries to cover a lot of ground rather than covering any of it in particular depth. But it’s hard not to love Scorsese digging into why he loves Psycho.

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