The standard line about Jean-Luc Godard is that he’s never come close to replicating the string of masterpieces he made in his astonishingly productive 1960s output. The ’70s get the militantly political works that dare you to find a shred of anything resembling “entertainment” while the past few decades are afforded a series of perversely playful essay experiments.
It’s a stretch to call the ’80s and early ’90s a lost era for Godard, but there’s relatively little appreciation for his return to narrative filmmaking as only Godard could imagine it. In upgrading three of the four films from Lionsgate’s DVD box set, Kino offers an excellent way to rediscover three key works of the period. In each, Godard refracts myth and genre, deconstructing ideas about storytelling and ideas about some of his previous films, which Détective and First Name: Carmen seem especially in dialogue with.
First Name: Carmen considers the filmmaker, with Godard starring as a version of himself who’s “all washed up,” annoying the staff at a hospital where he’s staying for no identifiable reason. His niece Carmen (Maruschka Detmers) convinces “Uncle Jean” to lend her the use of his house for a film she’s making, but it’s all a ruse in service of several shakily conceived robbery and kidnapping plots.
In adapting Bizet’s opera, Godard reimagines the tale of passion and doom as one of strictly doom, as Carmen’s affair with a security guard, Joseph (Jacques Bonaffé), is defined by disconnection from the start, even as he ties himself to her in an attempt to prevent her from robbing a bank.
The only real passion here is a string quartet practicing (Beethoven — not Bizet), their music soundtracking a series of mechanically performed violent and sexual encounters. The music frequently gives way to cacophonies of noise, Uncle Jean somewhere behind the scenes fiddling to get the feeling right.
First Name: Carmen is archly meta, Godard puncturing the films’ traditional pleasures — a lovely scene of Joseph mourning, his outstretched hand in front of TV static, dissipates amid one of the soundtrack’s strangest mash-ups. Like many of Godard’s films, it’s challenging to put your finger on just why this works so well, but First Name: Carmen becomes a beguiling tale of loss wrapped in a jokey structure without a hiccup. It’s a great film.
The other two offerings don’t quite achieve the same heights, particularly Détective, which never coheres into more than a tossed-off genre riff in its two-headed story about a pair of detectives (Jean-Pierre Léaud and Laurent Terzieff) attempting to solve a murder and an unscrupulous boxing trainer (Johnny Hallyday) trying to stay ahead of his debts in the same hotel. Less overtly self-reflexive than First Name: Carmen, the film still feels like blatantly artificial, every half-understood plot twist piled up on each other in a personal competition to devise the shaggiest noir story ever.
In Hélas Pour Moi, Godard refashions the Greek myth of Alcmene and Amphitryon into a bleak meditation on what it means to be human. Legend has it that a god came to earth and inhabited the body of Simon (Gérard Depardieu) in order to seduce his wife, Rachel (Laurence Masliah), and experience carnal pleasure for the first time. In scenes full of portent, shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier with a stillness one doesn’t usually associate with Godard, the relationship progresses.
Or does it? After Depardieu quit the film midway through production, Godard fashioned a frame story about a publisher (Bernard Verley) trying to reconstruct the story of Simon and Rachel, if it even happened. Though much of the film is inscrutable, the Simon and Rachel flashbacks have a kind of mystical aura that carries them through. Not so for the scenes set in the publisher’s present, which are very much of the earthly variety, him trudging through a series of baffling anecdotes with little hope of connecting the dots. The dichotomy between heaven and earth is a wide gap, and as the god who visited ultimately decides, it’s not one he’d like to bridge.
All three Kino discs are outfitted with a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, and each represents a big upgrade from the previous DVD set. Clarity and fine detail are stunning in all three transfers, with the heavy-on-natural-light Hélas Pour Moi the standout. In this presentation, it’s tempting to call it Godard’s most beautiful film.
Each transfer offers a film-like appearance, with perfectly rendered grain and pops of color (yellow hotel bathrobes in Carmen; a red and blue neon sign advertising cassettes in Détective). Some light speckling occurs, most noticeably in Carmen, but it’s hard to imagine these films looking better on the format. DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks (mono on Carmen, stereo on the others) are uniformly excellent, offering clean showcases for a variety of aural trickeries.
Each disc includes an audio commentary and a booklet essay, while Carmen also includes Godard’s 1982 short Changer d’image.
The latest film from Joel Potrykus confirms it: The man knows how to create worlds that have a genuine lived-in shittiness. There’s no whiff of artfully arranged faux-squalor. From the fluorescent hell of the mortgage office in Buzzard (2014) to the haunted cabin in the woods of The Alchemist’s Cookbook (2016) to the skin-crawling rot of the apartment in Relaxer, the milieu is always uncomfortably real.
These locations are fertile grounds for Potrykus’ twisted fantasies and their refractions of toxic masculinity. In Relaxer, the decay of the film’s only location acts as a hilariously grotesque salute to end-of-millennium American culture. In this version of 1999, the Y2K apocalypse hastens, and Potrykus greets it with a blast of ’90s anti-nostalgia.
Joshua Burge, who channeled uproarious and troubling levels of impotent rage in Buzzard and Potrykus’ first feature, Ape (2012), delivers his best performance yet as Abbie, a pathologically committed figure, determined to complete any challenge — and weather as much abuse as necessary along the way — from his shithead older brother, Cam (David Dastmalchian). The first one we see involves drinking nearly an entire gallon of milk. The results are predictable. The route there isn’t.
Cam has one more challenge: Beat the nigh-mythical Level 256 on Pac-Man, and don’t leave the couch for any reason until it’s completed. Abbie accepts. Now-disgraced gamer Billy Mitchell’s offer of $100,000 to anyone who can accomplish the feat is a factor, but Abbie’s motivations are ultimately much more personal. He’s not getting up from that couch.
Relaxer feels like the culmination of Potrykus’ films thus far, pushing the slacker ideal to its absolute breaking point and luxuriating in the grotesque like never before. Between spilled sour milk, guzzled cherry Faygo and progressively more disgusting fluids of other varieties, the film has a sticky tactility I might not get over.
Potrykus refashions a bit from Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel as a scatological nightmare and reimagines Chaplin eating his shoe in The Gold Rush as a cringe-inducing grace note. Burge, who bears a striking resemblance to Buster Keaton, essentially transforms into a silent film star by the film’s end, every gesture performed by Abbie’s increasingly atrophied body focused on one quixotic goal. It’s disturbing. It’s funny in ways you never saw coming. It’s the Platonic ideal of a Joel Potrykus film.
Oscilloscope’s Blu-ray offers a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer with exceptional clarity and excellent reproduction of the film’s generally muted look. A stereo DTS-HD Master Audio track is pretty dynamic and lively in parts. Extras include a Potrykus audio commentary, a collection of behind-the-scenes footage split between high-quality digital and camcorder-like footage, rehearsal footage with Potrykus and Burge, promos, and a kind of challenge to the viewer: 2001-era footage of Potrykus and his friends puking at a “milk party.”
The feminist films of Agnès Varda take many shapes, but whether she was working in a mode of documentary realism or sunnily lacerating satire, she never had time for sentimentality. That’s especially apparent in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, which treats both the separation of its main characters and their fight for abortion rights in Europe as perfectly surmountable obstacles. When the women in Varda’s sort-of-musical face a problem — sudden abandonment by romantic partners, friendship-testing distances, political resistance — they simply do what needs to be done to get past it.
That matter-of-factness can make One Sings, the Other Doesn’t resonate somewhat less than more formally playful Varda films, but the film’s depiction of female friendship is undeniably moving.
Teenaged Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) reconnects with Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), an older friend whose pregnancy has put her in dire straits. Pauline helps come up with the money to pay for an abortion, and a loose bond becomes an unbreakable connection, even as circumstances keep the two apart for a decade. When they reunite, each has deepened their involvement in the feminist cause: Pauline now goes by Pomme, and performs with a political all-women band, while Suzanne has opened a family planning clinic.
There’s a fundamental optimism to One Sings, the Other Doesn’t and its affirmation of feminism as liberation for women of all walks of life. Its generosity and openness is wonderful.
Criterion’s 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is sourced from a 2K restoration of the original camera negative. The image occasionally leans into the teal-zone, with some slightly unnatural cold hues as a result, but image clarity, fine detail and grain resolution are excellent. The same restoration is featured on the Artificial Eye Region B Blu-ray set, and the transfers look basically identical.
Extras include Katja Raganelli’s on-set documentary and two Varda shorts: Réponse de femmes and Plaisir d’amour en Iran, which briefly expounds on an underdeveloped thread in One Sings. Also included: a trailer, an insert with an essay by Amy Taubin and notes from Varda, and a separate booklet that recreates sections of the 1977 press book.
The last film Czech director Pavel Juráček would make in his sadly abbreviated career, A Case for a Rookie Hangman reads like a handbook for how to anger an authoritarian regime. And it did, as the film went basically unreleased and Juráček was blackballed from the industry for the rest of his life.
Loosely adapting a segment of the third part of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Juráček uses the setting of the kingdom of Balnibarbi and the island of Laputa floating above to plunge a far-from-heroic Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) into a series of intractable conflicts. The government is incomprehensibly rigid, the people are ready to coalesce into an angry mob at a moment’s notice and Gulliver can’t convince anyone he’s not Oscar, the owner of a pocket watch he acquired shortly before being plunged into this mess. Oscar is, naturally, a rabbit in clothing (an obvious nod to Carroll) that Gulliver ran over in his car.
The slipperiness of Juráček’s free-floating storytelling is mitigated somewhat by chapter headings that delineate the episodic tumbling some. A perhaps sturdier guidepost is the emotional state of Gulliver, who keeps seeing flashes of the young woman he once loved who drowned. Kostelka communicates a dazed anguish in his performance, and Juráček visualizes the disorientation with a number of clever shots — most notably one in which a house’s floorboards suddenly turn elastic.
Second Run’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer sourced from the Czech Film Archive’s 4K restoration. This is a very pleasing transfer, with healthy levels of fine detail, solid grayscale separation and impressively mitigated damage, with reel change marks left intentionally intact. The 2.0 LPCM mono track is quite clean.
Second Run’s extras nearly turn this into a “Complete Directed Works of Juráček” set, with only his debut feature, Every Young Man (1966) absent. (Juráček’s career as a writer produced more well-known works, with films like Daises and Ikarie XB 1 — also available from Second Run.) Here, we get two shorts, Cars Without a Home and Black and White Sylva, along with short feature Josef Kilián (1963), an absurdist piece about a man’s struggle to return a cat to the location he borrowed it from. An episode of the Projection Booth podcast discussing Juráček’s career is offered as a kind of audio commentary, while the booklet essay by Michael Brooke does a deep dive into the film and its place in Juráček’s brief career.
Films about youth don’t come much more honest than Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou, in which teenagers’ unvarnished exuberance and surprising capacity for cruelty collide. As a document of the early Internet age, the film taps into the way obsessions became communally turbocharged, with the film’s characters coalescing around their love for singer Lily Chou-Chou. Visualizing an online forum, the film shows breathless comments and usernames flying across the screen, many exalting Lily and the “Ether,” the creative aura fans have ascribed to her art.
In the offline world, Iwai maintains a similar feel, his weightless camera work and Lily’s ethereal music (provided by Takeshi Kobayashi and Salyu) contributing to the dreamlike state. But the realities are much darker here, as friends Shūsuke (Shugo Oshinari) and Yūichi (Hayato Ichihara) have a falling out that involves the formation of a gang and a prostitution ring. The violence and brutality that follow are shocking, but the film never abandons the dreaminess.
Frequently, Iwai returns to a grassy field where a character listening on headphones drifts away on Lily’s music. Music is a genuine balm — but it has its limits, as does a community based around a common interest, as the film’s gut-punch of a final sequence makes clear.
The 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer on Film Movement’s Blu-ray is limited by the source, shot primarily on the Sony HDW-F900 digital camera, then brand-new technology. The film’s vibrant colors are mostly true, and detail is solid when the light allows for it. Expected macroblocking isn’t too bad, apart from several moments during the film’s midway excursion to Okinawa where a switch in viewpoint (and camera) results in totally smeared, degraded images. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is dynamic and offers an excellent showcase for the music.
Extras include an oddly described “making-of featurette” — actually an 86-minute documentary on the online origins and the production of the film. The included booklet features a director’s statement and an essay by Stephen Cremin.