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A Movie a Day, Day 20: Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take

A bit too pleased with its own cleverness, Double Take is a better idea than it is a film.

A Movie a Day, Day 20: Double Take
Photo: Kino International

A bit too pleased with its own cleverness, Double Take is a better idea than it is a film. At least, I think it’s a good idea, but I’m not quite sure what writer-director Johan Grimonprez is getting at, which is part of the problem.

Inspired by a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the movie blends old news footage and ads from the Cold War era with excerpts from Alfred Hitchcock movies and interviews, archival images, and a fictional narrative about the Hitchcock of 1962 encountering the 1980 version of himself. It’s all got something to do with a Hitchcockian take on doubles that’s quoted early and often: “They say that if you meet your double, you should kill him. Or he should kill you…Two of you is one too many.”

But what, exactly, is Grimonprez trying to say? Is he using Hitchcock as a MacGuffin to explore Cold War political doubles (first Eisenhower’s vice president Nixon and Khrushchev, then JFK and Khrushchev) who played a near-fatal game of what the film calls “nuclear poker”? Or is he making a point about Hitchcock’s best work by juxtaposing it with soundbites and images from the era that spawned it?

What matters, of course, is whether a movie works on its own terms, not what its makers intended, and whatever Grimonprez was getting at, this one doesn’t work for me. Hitchcock’s bemused take on the human condition, which he always seemed to observe from a safe distance, animates the sequences starring Hitch himself or his body double or voice double (Ron Burrage and Mark Perry, respectively). The old imp has some still-pithy things to say about television, movies, and human nature in interviews, puckish introductions to and promos for his TV show, and the nicely written fictional part of the movie.

But the Cold War sequences display an un-Hitchockian lack of finesse, their strong images often drowning out weak ideas. A montage of archival film highlights archetypal episodes like the “kitchen debate” between Nixon and Khrushchev, the Bay of Pigs, the Zapruder tape, and the arms race and space race—another set of potentially fatal doubles. There’s no new information here for anyone who lived through that time (though there may be for younger people), but there are plenty of gripping images. Grimonprez generally picks little-seen footage that hits the optic nerve hard, traveling straight to the gut without making a pit stop in the brain. It’s one thing, for instance, to read about the pain inflicted by the bifurcation of Berlin, but quite another to see Germans weeping as the wall goes up, or shot as they try to run through the barbed wire that preceded the bricks. And an oft-repeated close-up of a man falling through the sky, limbs cartwheeling as he goes, may be taken out of context (was this one of the people who jumped from the World Trade Center on September 11?), but it effectively amps up the sense of free-floating dread that’s whipped up by all that Cold War hysteria.

The most revealing of the archival images may be the Folgers ads Grimonprez excerpts. These have a lot to say about the paternalism, corporate manipulation, and maybe even the caffeine that helped American consumers buy into Cold War propaganda, but the more he came back to them, the less impact they had on me. I mean, if you’ve seen one insecure housewife being bullied about her coffee by her patriarchal hubby, you’ve pretty much seen them all. In the end, there’s something off-putting about Double Take, which manages to be too obscure and too obvious at the same time.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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