How do you describe a film that’s part narrative, part documentary and part essay? Video and visual artist Johan Grimonprez’s “Double Take” (released this month) is all those. Following the success of his 2005 video installation Looking for Alfred, “Double Take” is a continuation of Grimonprez’s meditation on the many incarnations of Hitchcock, both those created through his own work and those that remain embedded in our pop culture lexicon as a sort of ghostly afterlife.
As the title suggests, Grimonprez is fascinated by doubling, a major theme both in Hitchcock’s work and cinema in general. Recall the creepy scenes between Farley Granger and Robert Walker in “Strangers on a Train” (1951), the two Kim Novaks in “Vertigo” (1958), or the almost supernatural Norman Bates, who has subsumed his double entirely. In this film, Grimonprez cuts between the real Hitchcock and a professional Hitch impersonator, and that’s just the beginning.
“Double Take” weaves together a fictional account of Hitchcock meeting his own double, a timeline of some of his best-known works (roughly ’57 to ’63), and another less orthodox timeline that explores political and technological events from the advent of television through the Nixon/Kruschev Kitchen Debates. Along the way, Grimonprez draws parallels between Hitchcock’s fear mongering (for entertainment) and the American government’s (for the greater good, ostensibly, during the Cold War).
“The Birds” becomes an allusion to Sputnik, and Kruschev is suggested as a double for JFK. We are treated to a veritable time capsule of postwar paranoia, and, it’s worth noting, the footage Grimonprez has gathered for the film is staggering in both quality and scope.
The deeper you get into this experiment—and the less you try to divine any particular meaning from it—the easier it is to read Hitchcock’s work as a “double” of contemporary world events, thinly cloaked in the illusion of narrative. Those familiar with the myriad psychoanalytic readings of the Hitchcock canon might argue that this is a cheap trick; the films are veritable Rorschach tests of cinema, and can be read successfully in any number of ways.
What makes “Double Take” so fascinating is that Grimonprez shies away from precisely that sort of pontification. He presents these comparisons for our consideration without forcing the point—and indeed, some of the footage he brings to the project doesn’t seem to belong there at all, leaving the viewer adrift in the director’s experiment.
But it’s precisely this lack of feeling anchored in a traditional narrative structure that opens up both Hitchcock’s work and his persona to a whole new set of interpretive possibilities.