Johan Grimonprez

Johan Grimonprez’s new project Looking for Alfred, which centers on Alfred Hitchcock, is a work in progress. What was shown at Bozar—the quasi-hip new name of the Palais des Beaux-Arts or Paleis voor Schone Kunsten, whose only redeeming feature is that it is the same in French and Flemish—was a six-minute video, dated 2004–2005, accompanied by footage and photos of casting sessions as well as storyboards. The casting sessions show the artist looking for the perfect Hitchcock look-alike and sound-alike; video footage of the sessions is overlaid with a Hitchcockian voice telling a version of the famous McGuffin anecdote. The first bit of the actual film, shot in the Palais des Beaux-Arts itself, is very different in style from the casting footage, and it takes a while to get used to its idiom: Hitchcock meets Magritte.

Grimonprez justifies his somewhat counterintuitive combination of artists by pointing to the influence of de Chirico on both Magritte and Hitchcock, to the latter’s interest in Surrealism in general, and to the supposed similarity between the archetypal Hitchcock image and Magritte’s men in bowler hats. There are, however, fundamental differences: Magritte’s men are anonymous figures, often Rückenfiguren, whereas Hitchcock was, in spite of conventional attire, anything but neutral—an immediately recognizable profile. Perhaps more important, Magritte’s increasingly cerebral visual conundrums are worlds apart from Hitchcock playing the spectator’s emotions like an organ.

But gradually, against all odds, the shotgun marriage begins to work. A parade of Hitchcock doubles walks through, sits, or sleeps in the Palais des Beaux-Arts, amid Hitchcockian/Magrittean motifs like birds, bowler hats, and water glasses on umbrellas. The film contains some Bernard Herrmann music that generates instant suspense, but Grimonprez’s montage frustrates any linear building-up of tension; he appears to be interested less in Hitchcockian suspense than in Hitchcock as a brand or logo, comparable to all-too-familiar Magrittean motifs. In what is perhaps the most stunning sequence, a Japanese Hitchcock double meets a blonde à la Tippi Hedren in The Birds. But the Hitchcock blonde suddenly becomes the Surrealist predatory woman of Magritte’s 1927 painting Jeune fille mangeant un oiseau (Young Girl Eating a Bird). Her mouth smeared with blood, she holds a dove in her hand; the bird manages to fly away, but after a reverse shot of the Japanese Hitch, whose face is exposed to a strong wind, the bird is again in the women’s hands, apparently lifeless. Here, Grimonprez’s use of clichés results in an image that is both familiar and unprecedented. The grafting of one received image onto another leads to a mutation; the copy becomes something that momentarily interrupts the recycling of stereotypes.

While the editing gives a contemporary pace to Grimonprez’s aesthetic, it is in many ways deliberately anachronistic. Not only are the sets and costumes antiquated, but there are no apparent digital effects. The importance given to casting sessions is typical of the project: This is not a world of digital copies or of actual clones but of all too human look-alikes. One, at least, is a professional Hitchcock double in the business of copying an “original” and thus tightening the grip of the cliché on culture. Yet even the best look-alike is still an approximation and Grimonprez’s focus on—sometimes small, sometimes grotesquely obvious—differences in the realm of spectacular clichés turns his project into a subtle revenge on sameness. Looking for Alfred fights repetition with repetition.

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