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Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Jean Renoir, Věra Chytilová, Eric Rohmer & more!

The SouthernerThe Southerner
Kino Lorber

Promise and peril are inextricably intertwined in The Southerner (1945), one of Jean Renoir’s films from his brief and unfairly maligned Hollywood period. Based on the George Sessions Perry novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand and featuring uncredited dialogue assistance from none other than William Faulkner, the film stars Zachary Scott as Sam Tucker, a cotton picker who takes his stab at independence by establishing his own farm, with wife Nona (Betty Field), granny (Beulah Bondi) and two kids in tow.

The plot of land Sam chooses hasn’t been farmed in some time, so he’s counting on its fertility, but alongside that benefit comes some harsh reality: a farmhouse dilapidated almost beyond repair and a caved-in well. The film’s literary pedigree is obvious, as it moves from episode to episode — both tragic and comic — with an unsympathetic neighbor (J. Carrol Naish), Sam’s boisterous city friend Tim (Charles Kemper) and a giant catfish that lurks in a nearby lake. Sorrow and joy are intermingled, and the sensitive performances from Scott and Field make us feel the weight of both.

Renoir visually establishes this struggle early on, after the family has just moved in to the farmhouse and their excitement still outweighs their fears. While everyone else is inside, Bondi’s irascible granny sits out on the porch, Renoir framing her and the house against a darkening sky. The house appears adrift in an environment both expansive and intimidating, and the gravity of Sam’s decision to opt for independence becomes acutely felt.

The Southerner exists in a curious middle ground between an excoriation and an embrace of the American Dream, with Renoir delivering an empathetic but unsentimental depiction of rural life.

Kino rescues The Southerner from public domain hell with its 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, sourced from 35mm elements preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The elements are not in great shape, with dropped frames, some significant gashes and several instances of rippling existing alongside the more innocuous, nearly omnipresent speckling. Nevertheless, this is an attractive transfer, with solid levels of fine detail and clarity and a sharpness that’s especially apparent in close-ups. The 2.0 lossless audio is afflicted with a persistent low-level hiss, but dialogue is clean and audible throughout.

Bonus material consists of two short films: Renoir and Garson Kanin’s wartime propaganda piece A Salute to France (1944), starring Burgess Meredith, and Pare Lorentz’s The River (1938), an environmental portrait that influenced the look of The Southerner.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s The Southerner Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2

Kino Lorber / 1945 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 92 min / $29.95

something differentTwo films by Věra Chytilová: Something Different and A Bagful of Fleas
Second Run DVD

Two early works from Czech New Wave master Věra Chytilová, best known for Daisies (1966), are presented together in Second Run’s latest release. Short film A Bagful of Fleas (Pytel blech, 1962) captures Chytilová’s anarchic style in nascent but confident form with a vérité-inflected portrait of young girls working at a textile factory, where they also live together in a dormitory.

Bristling at the expectations imposed on them by both male foremen and female supervisors, the girls casually break rules — sneaking out to meet boys, smoking in the dorm — but their behavior is generally innocuous. Chytilová achieves a tangible directness with a formal gambit that features a new girl, Eva, joining the ranks, and we see much of the film from her point of view, characters directly addressing the camera as they fill her in. Plotless and playful, the film doesn’t strive for overt drama or a strong political statement, but its freewheeling style and jagged editing present an artist who didn’t take long to find her voice.

In her feature debut, Something Different (O něčem jiném, 1963), Chytilová makes the comingling of fictional and documentary styles explicit by interweaving two stories: an invented portrait of a discontented housewife (Věra Uzelacová) and a look at the training process of Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast Eva Bosáková. Both segments are focused on the physical aspects of these women’s lives: Věra washes dishes, serves her husband and son meals, dusts the furniture; Eva leaps in the air, grips the uneven bars, balances on a pommel horse. There’s no explicit link between the two stories, but Chytilová’s film creates one with its inventive, surprising editing, creating rhythms of complementary physical activity as it cuts back and forth.

What emerges are dueling but aligned portraits of female agency and fulfillment denied. Věra, neglected by her husband and exhausted by her son, begins an affair, but there’s little implication that there will be any lasting satisfaction. And though Eva achieves professional success, she only does so by locking herself into a grueling regimen, hounded by her husband and trainers. If the message isn’t totally convincing, the formal approach is never less than thrilling, a propulsive mixture of the true and the imagined.

The new high-definition digital transfer of Something Different is nicely detailed, though it’s afflicted with quite a few scratches and splotches. That’s not the case with A Bagful of Fleas, which is sourced from a new 2K restoration and looks fantastic — clean, sharp and film-like. The mono soundtracks handle the dialogue and the jazz scatting in Something Different nicely. The lone extra is a booklet with an extensive essay on the films and Chytilová’s career by film programmer Peter Hames.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Something Different/A Bagful of Fleas DVD rates:
The Films (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *
Extra Features Overall: *

Second Run / 1962-1963 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 81+43 min / £12.99

PaulinePauline at the Beach
Kino Lorber

Summer is dissipating in Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach (1983), as the lovelorn look to soak up the last of the sun on the beaches of Brittany. As one might expect, Pauline is one of Rohmer’s typically witty and incisive pictures of the foibles of modern romance, with characters who wax philosophically about the meaning of love but make decisions driven by jealousy, impulsiveness or worse. Everyone adopts a carefree attitude — it’s the beach, after all! — but Rohmer teases out their gnawing pits of insecurity, each as desperate to be loved as they are to grasp the waning bits of summer.

The exception is Pauline (Amanda Langlet), a 15-year-old on vacation with older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle). Marion, recently separated from her husband, draws attention from all over the beach, including from onetime lover Pierre (Pascal Greggory), who would be whining about the friendzone if this movie were made today, and the middle-aged Henri (Féodor Atkine), whose urbane manner may or may not be a façade.

Marion condescends to Pauline about falling in love, but Pauline is wise enough to stay disentangled from the sexual intrigue that roils Marion’s associations with Henri and Pierre, even as Marion tries her best to pull her in. Instead, Pauline opts for a relationship with Sylvain (Simon de La Brosse), which she values for its forthrightness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last, as even he gets caught up in the carousel of deception.

Rohmer’s conception of Pauline sidesteps tired ideas about her losing her innocence (it’s fading just like the summer sun!) and positions her as a uniquely wise voice and a woman clearly aware of her own sexual agency despite her lack of experience. Langlet’s phenomenally nuanced performance — hesitant but resolute — affirms it.

Rightly revered for his conversational, penetrating dialogue, Rohmer also demonstrates his considerable visual chops here, aided by Néstor Almendros’s gorgeous, primary-color heavy cinematography, which looks outstanding on Kino’s Blu-ray release. Presented in 1080p with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the transfer is vibrant, detailed and film-like, with stable grain levels throughout. The elements aren’t in perfect shape, evidenced most clearly by some persistent speckling, but Kino’s disc is an excellent option for those who don’t want to take the plunge on the massive Potemkine box set of Rohmer’s complete filmography. It also features a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track that’s clean and precise — perfect for the dialogue-heavy film.

Extras include an excerpt from a 1996 episode of Cinema de Notre Temps in which Rohmer discusses the making of the film, as well as a trailer and a booklet with an essay by critic Michelle Orange.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino’s Pauline at the Beach Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2

Kino Lorber / 1983 / Color / 1.66:1 / 94 min / $29.95

bitter riceBitter Rice
The Criterion Collection

Neorealism is the obvious backbone of Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice, which sets its story among the laboring class in the rice fields of Northern Italy, but this is a film that boldly flaunts its genre fluidity, moving from labor-focused naturalism to lurid melodrama, sprinkled with stylistic flourishes one might expect in film noir or a musical.

Silvana (Silvana Mangano, in a star-making role) is on her way to work as a planter in the rice fields, a strictly female-dominated job thanks to the dexterity required, when she notices Walter (Vittorio Gassman) and Francesca (Hollywood star Doris Dowling) on the run from the law. The couple has just stolen an expensive necklace, but hot pursuit from the authorities forces them to split up, with Walter disappearing and Francesca attempting to blend in with the planters.

Silvana is alternately suspicious and welcoming of Francesca, her motives not entirely clear, even as she helps convince the bosses that Francesca and other non-permitted workers should get a spot in the fields. While De Santis’s naturalistic portrayal of the communal nature of the laborers’ lives is textbook neorealism, the tangled relationships between Walter, Silvana, Francesca and soldier Marco (Raf Vallone) build to a pulpy, hothouse frenzy.

Mangano’s alluring performance is introduced by the first of several scenes where she dances to her portable phonograph surrounded by onlookers, basically daring anyone to not be attracted to her. She rebuffs Marco, but finds herself drawn to Walter when he arrives back on the scene, scheming to steal all the rice the workers have collected over the previous weeks.

The ultimate confrontation between the four central characters is blunt and garish, a pulpy crime finale plopped down in the midst of a pro-labor drama and a portrait of a character haunted by regret. Here, De Santis makes incongruity one of his film’s greatest strengths.

Criterion’s Bitter Rice Blu-ray offers up a solid, if unspectacular, transfer, sourced from the 35mm original camera negative. The 1080p, 1.33:1 image tends to the softer side of things, with a couple of scenes that appear downright blurry. There’s some black crush in darker scenes, but grayscale separation is mostly good. Otherwise, fine detail is decent and images are sharp and clean when the source allows for it. The uncompressed mono audio is quite crisp and clean.

This is one of Criterion’s increasingly rare lower-price-point titles, so even though there are only a couple of extras, it’s a fairly substantial package by that standard. Screenwriter Carlo Lizzanni’s 2008 documentary on De Santis is nearly an hour long and presents a nice overview of the director’s career, while a brief archival interview with Lizzanni details his involvement with Bitter Rice. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Pasquale Iannone are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Bitter Rice Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **

Criterion Collection / 1949 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 109 min / $29.95

fantomasLouis Feuillade’s Fantômas
Kino Lorber

Whether you approach them as artifacts of a developing art form, prototypes of suspense classics or self-contained, gleefully entertaining crime yarns, Louis Feuillade’s five Fantômas (1913-1914) films are more than worthwhile. Insanely prolific, Feuillade was also the master of the espionage serial in the early silent film era, following up Fantômas with Les Vampires and Judex.

Based on the novellas by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Feuillade’s films chronicle the exploits of the titular assassin (René Navarre), a shape-shifting, skulking presence always one step ahead of his pursuers, Inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon) and journalist Fandor (Georges Melchior). In all but one of the five feature-length segments, Feuillade introduces him the same way: an ordinary enough medium shot of Navarre that takes on menacing undertones as the image dissolves, showcasing the variety of disguises he’ll don in that episode.

That sudden, unexplainable menace is part of what makes the Fantômas films so consistently engaging. For the most part, these are not formally adventurous films, the camera sitting back observing in master-shot mode for minutes on end, action developing slowly or not at all. But things have a tendency to take an abrupt turn to the surreal, whether it’s the revelation that crimes have been committed by a man wearing gloves made of skin or the macabre discovery of a corpse after a wall begins bleeding. These visual surprises are opposed by narratives that are sturdily, resolutely familiar, as each near capture by Juve and Fandor is thwarted by one last (ludicrous, improbably entertaining) trick up Fantômas’s sleeve.

The first four films, in which Fantômas frames an actor for his crimes, orchestrates a train heist, poses as a dead man and pretends to be an American detective, among numerous other schemes, don’t vary greatly, but in the fifth, The False Magistrate (1914), Feuillade takes a big leap forward. Suddenly, there is editing within scenes, cutting on action and a stunt-heavy sequence in a bell tower that’s more dynamic that anything that’s come before. There’s inherent interest in this pulpy material, but it’s Feuillade’s evolving style that makes Fantômas so fascinating.

Kino’s two-disc set presents the five films in 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers that have to be seen to be believed. Based on 4K restorations by Gaumont and Le Centre national du cinema, each transfer is stunningly detailed, sharp and remarkably free of damage. Grain is rendered beautifully, and images are consistently film-like throughout. I don’t think I’ve seen a more impressive home video transfer of a film more than 100 years old. Audio is unfortunately a lossy 2.0 track, but there aren’t any apparent issues.

Extras are ported over from Kino’s 2010 DVD release, and include commentary tracks on the first two films from (the incisive and insightful, as always) David Kalat, a short doc on Feuillade’s career, an image gallery and two Feuillade shorts, The Nativity (1910) and The Dwarf (1912).

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Fantômas Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ***

Kino Lorber / 1913-1914 / Black and white with color tints / 1.33:1 / 355 min / $49.95

Adopt Films

The one-take film is becoming something of a formal cliché these days, and whether it’s just an imitation of the technique, like in Birdman (2014), or a film that literally contains no edits, it’s an exercise that generally draws more attention to its own difficulty than enhancing the actual content (not to mention the form) of the film.

The latest — but undoubtedly not the last — example is Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015), perhaps the most impressive single-shot film yet made if we’re judging solely by degree of difficulty. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s camera follows a group of people all over several Berlin neighborhoods, with numerous location changes. One certainly marvels at the logistical feat, but the film is predicated completely on its sense of urgency, which the lack of cutting detracts from about as much as it adds to. This is a film that feels like it consists of 60 percent transitional scenes, characters simply moving from place to place. There’s a reason continuity editing was invented.

The real problem with Victoria is that its premise and its characters just aren’t that interesting, despite a lively lead performance from Laia Costa as Victoria, a young Spanish woman who falls in with a group of Berliners after a late night out at a club. There’s a near-instant attraction between her and Sonne (Frederick Lau), but her connection with the group escalates quickly and improbably, as she agrees to act as their getaway driver during a bank robbery — an act mandated by a gangster with ties to the group.

The film’s early scenes of friends drunkenly chatting and ambling around the city in the middle of the night have a kind of shaggy appeal, even if the repetition becomes enervating, but the big action setpieces are mostly a disaster — frantic flurries of movement, but nothing resembling a lucid moment. Victoria aims for controlled chaos, but with every resource seemingly aimed at just keeping the shot going, there’s little of interest in the way these scenes are blocked or performed. Those are deficiencies that the supposed inherent intensity of a single take can’t make up for.

Adopt Films’ Blu-ray offers a 1080p, 2.40:1 image that’s limited by the production background. The digital images are decently detailed, but don’t expect to be blown away by anything, as the mostly low-light shooting environments make for a rather murky, hazy image much of the time. The lossy 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack packs some punch during the noisy club scenes, but is quite muddled during the numerous exchanges of dialogue, necessitating some remote riding throughout.

With a single-take film, the production background stands a good chance of being more interesting than the film itself. Sadly, you won’t get any information on that here, as the Blu-ray disc is completely barebones.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Adopt Films’ Victoria Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): *1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **
Video Transfer: **1/2
Audio: **
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: N/A

Adopt Films / 2015 / Color / 2.40:1 / 138 min / $34.95


Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.