Tag Archives: Alain Resnais

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Blu-ray and DVD Review: Films by Alain Resnais, Jia Zhangke, Ken Russell & more!

MurielMuriel, or The Time of Return (1963)
Criterion Collection

The third feature film from Alain Resnais often feels like a continuation of the concerns of his previous two (1959’s Hiroshima mon amour and 1961’sLast Year at Marienbad), dealing with the oppressive and disorienting power of memory. Though the ambiguous elisions of Marienbad are legendary, Muriel is the more challenging (and rewarding) film, despite a narrative that’s ostensibly far more straightforward.

Resnais again employs the talents of Delphine Seyrig, who acts as an emotional anchor in a film that deliberately alienates over and over again. Seyrig stars as Hélène, a widow who’s paid a visit by Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien), her lover more than 20 years ago. Alphonse is accompanied by a woman he calls his niece, Françoise (Nita Klein), while Hélène lives with her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée), who she doesn’t see much after his return from fighting in the Algerian War.

An antique dealer whose showroom is her apartment, Hélène lives among countless objects that aren’t really her own, and the state of her living quarters seems to represent her own mind, cluttered with detritus from other eras. In Resnais’ audacious opening, he prepares us to be challenged, rapidly cutting between many of the objects in a dizzying barrage that spatially disorients while giving us some sense of Hélène’s state of mind.

From that point on, the film’s editing isn’t as obviously aggressive, but after lulling us somewhat with a measured dinner scene with the four principals, the film suddenly slips into a much more elusive form, darting from scene to scene in an order that seems chronological, but with events that feel completely disconnected. (The script by Jean Cayrol specifies the film’s events take place over a two-week period, but the film doesn’t obviously let on to that.)

Muriel is a film that necessitates multiple viewings — not so much to comprehend, as to appreciate the nuances Resnais brings to his depiction of the crushing effect of suddenly dredged-up memories. It doesn’t take multiple viewings to feel the weight of the film’s title, and its central, most horrific memory, when we discover that Muriel isn’t one of Bernard’s girlfriends, but his connection to the trauma of war. Here, a trauma that one perpetrates has a stinging clarity that a trauma one merely experienced does not.

Criterion’s Blu-ray release presents Muriel in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer that markedly improves over the Masters of Cinema DVD release in terms of clarity and detail. There has been some grumbling online about the color timing, and there is a slightly sickly, greenish-tealish-yellowish tinge to the image. How far this diverts from the original color timing, I can’t say; at this point, the clear upgrade in image quality makes this the best home video option available, color issues notwithstanding. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is fairly flat, but doesn’t exhibit any prominent noise issues.

The supplements here are mostly of the archival variety. There are three brief excerpts: Pieces of a 1980 TV documentary on Resnais with contributions from Cayrol, a 1969 TV interview with Seyrig, where she contrasts her characters in Marienbad and Muriel, and a 1963 TV interview with composer Hans Werner Henze, who explains why Resnais helped him feel comfortable composing for film. Newly recorded, and more substantial, is an interview with scholar François Thomas, who discusses the film’s themes and the cultural environment in which it was released. Perhaps most essential is the insert essay by scholar James Quandt, whose efficient yet dense unpacking of a number of the film’s ideas is superb.

Criterion Collection / 1963 / Color / 1.66:1 / 116 min / $39.95

MountainsMountains May Depart (2016)
Kino Lorber

The great Jia Zhangke continues to chronicle the state of contemporary China, and in his latest feature, Mountains May Depart, he does so by looking both backward and forward. A time-hopping triptych that chronicles the breakdown of a family, Mountains May Depart is a moving melodrama that occasionally feels strained as it seeks to correlate the intensely personal with a larger societal malaise.

Jia’s bewitching images, in which the extraordinary can suddenly overtake the mundane, and a richly interior performance from wife and longtime collaborator Zhao Tao help to overcome any feelings that the film’s observations about capitalism are too on-the-nose.

As the film progresses, slick materialism becomes more ubiquitous and more alienating, and the film’s color scheme shifts into cooler and paler tones. The aspect ratios get wider too; Jia uses 1.33:1 for the segment in 1999, 1.85:1 for 2014 and 2.35:1 for 2025.

Mountains May Depart isn’t exactly a paean to the past, but there’s an unmistakable sense of nostalgia that blankets the first segment, if only in the luxuriousness of the imagery. Interspersed with documentary footage Jia shot during roughly the same timeframe, the opening act details a love triangle between Shen Tao (Zhao) and her two suitors, coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong) and the wealthy, callous industrialist Zhang (Zhang Yi).

Shen Tao cares deeply for Liangzi, but she also longs for change (a New Year’s dance to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” reinforcing her yearning) and understands that Zhang offers a much better chance at it. Zhang, who could nearly twirl his mustache despite being clean-shaven, is not a subtly written or performed character, but Zhao’s conflicted performance makes her choices believable. Throughout the film, Zhao’s performance is situated on heartbreak, whether she’s currently experiencing it or merely anticipating it.

As time progresses, the film shifts its attention to Shen Tao’s son, whose anglicized moniker is the not-so-understated Dollar (Dong Zijian), and the film’s final sequence suffers for the relative absence of Zhao. Fortunately, the wonderful Sylvia Chang appears as Dollar’s college professor, and later, his unlikely companion as he faces disillusionment with school and his distant relationships with his parents. Set in a gleaming, sterile Melbourne, this final segment is the least emotionally acute, but the most effective at communicating Jia’s apprehension about unrelenting modernization.

Kino’s Mountains May Depart Blu-ray offers a largely excellent transfer, though the 1.33:1 segment is slightly pictureboxed. Jia’s archival footage, blocky and flat, is readily apparent, but the rest of the film is crisp and detailed, with particularly vibrant colors in the first segment. A 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is mostly subdued, but shows off some dynamic range during a few key moments. Optional English subtitles accompany the first two segments’ Mandarin, but not the largely English dialogue in the final part.

Extras include a lengthy and somewhat dry, but informative Q&A with Jia at the New York Film Festival moderated by Dennis Lim, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by programmer and critic Aliza Ma, who offers a helpful synopsis of Jia’s career and the way his early work dovetails with his recent output.

Kino Lorber / 2016 / Color / 1.33:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 / 126 min / $34.95

StuffStuff and Dough (2001)
Second Run

Though his cachet among cinephiles in the US might be slightly less than Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) or Corneliu Porumboiu (Police, Adjective), Cristi Puiu is still a major figure in the Romanian New Wave, and he beat both of them to the feature-film punch, releasing Stuff and Dough in 2001. Considered by some to be the first major entry in Romania’s then-fledgling movement, the film is now getting some wider exposure thanks to Second Run, whose DVD release represents the first time Stuff and Dough has been available on English-friendly home video.

Stuff and Dough is not an outlier when it comes to much of modern Romanian film. Its narrative is spare, its camerawork straightforward and its tone is dryly, darkly comic before veering into nervy, if low-key, suspense mode. It’s a road movie that takes the road seriously; the majority of the running time is spent with three characters in a van, trekking to Bucharest from their small town on a trip that seems deadly dull.

It’s not, of course; the boredom is sharply punctuated by flurries of violence as it becomes clear the trio is being pursued by some nasty characters. This might come as a shock to them, but it’s deeply expected for the audience, who’s witnessed the none-too-bright Ovidiu (Alexandru Papadopol) agree to transport “medical supplies” for the almost comically shady Ivanov (Razvan Vasilescu) at the beginning of the film.

Ovidiu would like to get out from underneath his parents’ roof, and the money from Ivanov would go a long way toward that goal, but he’s not exactly the most ambitious guy. Puiu’s best scene is an early one in which Ivanov grills Ovidiu about the planned trip, the steps he will take and even his bathroom habits, but no matter how stern Ivanov’s commands get, Ovidiu remains blissfully disconnected from the conversation.

That humor doesn’t really carry over, and the story doesn’t get sketched out much beyond the opening act, so there are few surprises on the drive, though it stays engaging thanks to the naturalistic performances from Papadopol and Dragos Bucur and Ioana Flora as Ovidiu’s friend Vali and Vali’s girlfriend Bety. The film’s ultimate observations about aimless youth scraping by in a depressed economy aren’t earth-shattering, but the film does resonate as a truthful portrait of a particular point in the country’s history.

Second Run’s DVD features a sharp new high-def transfer, approved by Puiu, in 1.85:1. Extras include his 2004 short Cigarettes and Coffee, a seemingly low-stakes naturalistic two-hander that won the Berlin Film Festival’s Best Short award, and a newly filmed interview with Puiu, who discusses his entry into the world of cinema and some of his influences. A booklet with an essay by critic Carmen Gray is also included.

Second Run / 2001 / Color / 1.85:1 / 90 min / £12.99

CrimesCrimes of Passion (1984)
Arrow Video

For many filmmakers, the garish, sleazy and unhinged Crimes of Passion could be the kind of baffling cult item that forever sticks out in their filmography. For Ken Russell, it’s just another movie.

The brilliant British director continually pushed his films to the limits of good taste and beyond, so there’s nothing particularly shocking about the film’s luridness, even if it’s notably more explicit than his string of outrageous period pieces in the 1970s. Barry Sandler’s script whiplashes from campy sex crime thriller to leaden suburban satire, but Russell’s steady directorial hand balances the tonal jackknifing. There’s no question that the film’s domestic subplot compares poorly to the film’s main thrust, but Russell credibly ties it all together.

The second Hollywood film Russell made after the contentious Altered States (1980), Crimes of Passion stars then-megastar Kathleen Turner as China Blue, a prostitute with a flair for the theatrical who lives a double life as a prominent fashion designer by day. In the film’s opening scene, China Blue’s encounter with a john is filmed as if she’s performing for the film’s viewers, her boudoir an invisible proscenium, and that performative, exaggerated style continues throughout her fascinating, completely exposed turn.

Compared to Turner, no one is going to really match up, though Anthony Perkins’ nitrate-sniffing, sexually frenzied priest — like a less religious Hazel Motes — certainly comes close. Less up to the task is John Laughlin as Bobby Grady, a milquetoast stuck in a sexless marriage who becomes tangled up in China Blue’s world of fantasy when he’s hired to tail her real-world alter ego.

The film tends to grind to a halt whenever Bobby and his wife Amy (Annie Potts) are onscreen, the script’s obvious broadsides against the emptiness of middle-class values not livened by their whiny performances. (A more potent barb is the music video the couple watches on TV of Rick Wakeman’s “It’s a Lovely Life,” the lyrics not so much sung as shrieked by Maggie Bell.)

Arrow Video’s excellent Blu-ray release presents the film in a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer sourced from a new 2K restoration. Both the uncut theatrical release and a slightly extended director’s cut are included; the extended cut features additional scenes from a lesser source, though the quality drop-off is less drastic than expected. Arrow’s transfer is a knockout, perfectly showcasing the film’s electric blues and pinks and displaying exceptional clarity, sharpness and damage clean-up. Audio is a reasonably dynamic uncompressed mono track.

On-disc extras include newly filmed interviews with screenwriter Sandler and composer Wakeman, both of whom enthusiastically recount their participation, along with an archival commentary track with Russell and Sandler, 20 minutes of rough-looking deleted and extended scenes with optional Sandler commentary, an MTV music video of “It’s a Lovely Life” and the theatrical trailer.

Arrow Video / 1984 / Color / 1.85:1 / 107 min / $39.95

CemeteryCemetery of Splendor (2016)
Strand Releasing

In the latest film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the characters are stuck between the past and the present, between sleeping and waking and between a higher plane and one stubbornly still of this mortal coil. So no, it’s not a major departure for the Thai filmmaker, but it’s still a welcome return from Joe, who hadn’t released a proper feature since 2010’s hallucinatory Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. (The hour-long doodle Mekong Hotel [2012] doesn’t quite count, though it’s a welcome bonus feature on Strand’s well-appointed Blu-ray.)

Cemetery of Splendor rarely shifts out of that gently dreamlike mode that Weerasethakul has perfected, ambling through patient shots of his hometown Khon Kaen and its many green spaces, canopies of trees stretching out across the frame.

There’s a thin membrane here between the real and the extra-real, as is quickly discovered by Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) when she goes to tend to soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness. Set up in hospital beds in the building that used to be Jen’s school as a child, the seemingly comatose soldiers are being treated with color therapy. The film’s first scene showing tubes of colored light being activated is the closest Weerasethakul gets to dramatically flipping the switch between worlds, the greenery and natural light of the village being suddenly shut out and replaced with glowing, otherworldly cylinders.

Most of the transitions are more casual; Jen watches over Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who occasionally wakes from his dead-to-the-world sleep with little fuss. Jen learns more about the soldiers’ condition from Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), who claims to be a medium, and a pair of goddesses who’ve shed their heavenly accouterments. It becomes apparent that the school turned hospital is built on an ancient burial ground; time has somehow compressed and associated the soldiers’ fates with that of long-passed kings.

Naturally, Cemetery of Splendor is a beguiling film, but one of its chief pleasures is the way its characters embrace simple delights. The film’s trappings are heady, but its pleasures feel earthly, whether it’s the straightforward humor of a dick joke (sleeping sickness doesn’t prevent erections, apparently) or the way Jen justifies her love for fried bananas or Itt savors a meal from a market food stand.

Strand Releasing doesn’t put out very many of its releases on Blu-ray, but when it does, it tends to do it right. Cemetery of Splendor is granted a luminous 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer that nicely renders the film’s naturalistic color palette. Images are detailed and crisp, with no apparent digital tampering issues to speak of. The 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is subtly immersive, and cleanly presents dialogue and music.

Extras include the aforementioned Mekong Hotel in 1080p, a making-of featurette with interviews with Weerasethakul and Widner, a handful of deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.

Strand Releasing / 2016 / Color / 1.78:1 / 122 min / $32.99

 

 

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.

 

Providence Featured

DVD Review: “Providence” (1977)

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Alain Resnais was going strong when he passed away on the first of March. Not long before, at the age of 91, he released a new movie. The great director’s filmography is ripe with fascinating and original work, from his groundbreaking poetic document of Auschwitz Night and Fog to his studies in romance and remembrance, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. Frequently slighted as a maker of incomprehensible art pictures, Resnais is anything but — Marienbad is an exacting study of the nature of memory that takes a cinematically unique and wholly appropriate form.

Much more conventionally accessible is one of Resnais’ best middle-career efforts, 1977′s Providence. A superb cast takes part in a Borges-like narrative spun from the imagination of a bitter author in failing health. Expressing a thought process that allows whatever creative associations come to mind, the movie seems to send out connection-feelers in all directions. The screenplay by David Mercer (Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment) functions like the thought process of a writer at work. And what at first might seem a cynical exercise eventually becomes an emotionally positive statement about universal anxieties.

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Alain Resnais filmed his picture in English, with an anglophone cast. Although a modest hit in the United States (many pictures of its year were overshadowed by the very different Star Wars), Providence has not yet seen a worthy video release. Columbia Home Video gave it a nice release on VHS and Beta back in the very early days of home video and Tartan Video had a limited window in the UK for a while. This new disc from the French video company Jupiter Films is a PAL DVD limited to Region 2 exhibition.

Refusing to check into a clinic, famous author Clive Langham (John Gielgud) remains in his large country estate called Providence. At night he drinks heavily to distract himself from severe pains in his lower abdomen, while inventing characters and dramatic situations in his head. He uses the members of his own family, casting them and re-casting them in different roles and with extreme, invented personalities. He sees his son Claude (Dirk Bogarde) as an offensively pompous and hyper-rational attorney, as he prosecutes Kevin Woodford, a longhaired nonconformist. Imagined in the form of Clive’s other son Kevin (David Warner), Woodford’s murder defense is that the man he killed was a werewolf begging for a merciful death. Moved by Woodford’s sincerity, Clive’s bitter wife Sonia (Ellen Burstyn) invites the newly exonerated defendant home, and teases Clive with the notion that she might take him as her lover. Reeling in pain and cursing his poor health, Clive reveals himself to be a festering knot of resentments and regrets. Unsatisfied with his ‘fictional’ characters, he reconfigures them into a pattern closer to his ‘real’ family. Helen Weiner (Elaine Stritch) is first seen as Claude’s long-time extramarital lover, who happens to strongly resemble Clive’s dead, lamented wife, who committed suicide. But later she switches identities to simply be Mrs. Langham. Clive decides that Kevin Woodford should actually be Kevin Langham, Claude’s brother. That leaves ‘Woodford’s’ brother Dave (Denis Lawson), a famous footballer, without a fixed role to play, although he still wanders in and out of scenes. Clive maintains a heightened sexual tension at the heart of his story. Claude attempts to murder his brother/Woodford out in the forest, the same place where Woodford was arrested for killing the werewolf.

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Providence is a cinematic construction that will seem awkward in any verbal synopsis. As directed and edited by Alain Resnais the pattern of the puzzle is almost immediately clear and surprisingly easy to follow: what we witness are free-flowing ideas from writer Clive Langham’s mind. Clive is ‘directing’ his invented storyline and the movie we see is the result of his direction. At several points the fussy Clive backtracks for an immediate do-over of part of a scene. Dialogue is repeated in a different tone or in a different setting.

The drunken, suffering Clive keeps doubling over in pain from a sensation that he describes as a hot poker being stuck up his rear end. So it’s no surprise that his play-narrative has many undigested elements, detours and dead ends. The setting is a city apparently under the authority of a repressive government. We see people arrested on the street and herded into holding pens. That and the likewise unexplained “werewolf” theme seem a metaphor for something else, perhaps the alienation and forced isolation of people near death. Introduced and then dropped, the werewolf idea later returns to bring Claude’s story to an ironic impasse. Like a rough draft, Clive’s tale isn’t quite hitting the right notes. The most extraneous interruptions are two unflinching cutaways to an autopsy in progress. Clive is certainly musing about his own mortality, and reaching for the ultimate image.

As might an experimental play about “characters in search of a theme”, Providence poses difficult acting problems for its stars. All come through brilliantly, embodying Clive’s exaggerated emotions. Claude expresses Clive’s withering disdain for ‘inferior’ people, along with a yearning for a lost purity. A jumble of frustrated emotions grasping for an outlet, Sonia outrages her husband just to shake him up. David Warner perfectly suits the somewhat passive Kevin (or Kevin #2), yet quickly learns how to parry Claude’s insults and provoke him in retaliation.

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This is of course the surface of Providence. Critics, essayists and cinema analysts have had a field day working over legitimate allusions and constructing elaborate theories about its form. For instance, different areas of Clive’s house have been aligned with parts of his psyche, as Leo Marks seems to have done in his screenplay of Peeping Tom.

The big shock in Providence occurs outside of Clive’s invented fictional narrative. As he drinks and suffers, sometimes sinking to the floor when the pain becomes too strong, Clive savagely criticizes his grown children and even finds cruel words for his beloved lost wife. These people are coming to celebrate his birthday, and he seems intent on preparing himself for a terrible scene. The birthday get-together does indeed finally occur … and is nothing like what we expect.

To some degree the Clive Langham character is modeled after John Gielgud, as both are opinionated, contrary and caustic personalities. Dirk Bogarde introduced Resnais and author John Mercer to the actor for just that purpose. Sir John Gielgud typically had little good to say about his film work, But he’s on record as considering Providence one of his top two pictures, that he thinks actually amount to something meaningful. Like an X-Ray machine, his tour-de-force performance shows us the man, the fantasies he acknowledges and those of which he’s unaware.

No less impressive is Dirk Bogarde. We’re accustomed to seeing the star playing insecure and conflicted Englishmen for Joseph Losey. Here Bogarde must convey several versions of the ‘unfinished’ character Claude. As Claude is Clive’s mouthpiece, one of the ‘Claudes’ exhibits Clive’s articulate speech and cruel hauteur. The other characters are even more plastic. Ellen Burstyn’s Sonia is the most consistent, which oddly makes her the least interesting. David Warner and Elaine Stritch’s multiple characters are probes into possibilities, as Clive is still working out the relationships. The only thing Clive seems sure of is that he likes drama boiling with anger, frustration and sexual aggression.

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Providence was a big picture for Alain Resnais. Three years had passed since his previous film Stavisky, a gap of time sufficient to derail any directing career. Stavisky’s designer Jacques Saulnier returned to put together this film’s handsome interiors. One setting with a view of the ocean uses static painted backdrops. In this film they seem wholly appropriate, as if Clive Langham’s mind was too occupied by his characters to construct a full setting, like the brain-generated ‘realities’ of Philip K.Dick’s novel UBIK. Even more impressive is the film’s romantic music score, composed by the legendary Miklos Rozsa. Providence really needs a quality Blu-ray release, in all regions.


Jupiter Communications’ Region 2 PAL DVD of Providence is an acceptable presentation that isn’t quite up to present standards of quality. Apparently Jupiter acquired the rights, recovered the negative from the lab and performed a 2K scan restoration. The director of photography then supervised the timing so that it matched the release prints and early video masters. The colors are good but the image still looks soft, especially in a large screen home theater situation.

Much of the dialogue is post-synched, which adds a strange quality to the dream scenes. Odd reverberation has been added to lines of dialogue, and even partial lines of dialogue, that indicate Clive’s intervention in the character’s action. Decoding the sense of this obviously requires multiple viewings. It’s much like Synecdoche N.Y., a picture that owes a lot to the film.

Jupiter does make a good effort to be thorough with its extras. Their disc contains video interviews with cameraman Ricardo Aronovitch, actor Pierre Arditi and the designer Jacques Saulnier, and an audio interview with Alain Resnais. American viewers will be happy to know that the disc is encoded with its original English track and a dubbed French track, and a choice of either French or English subtitles.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Providence

Region 2 PAL DVD

Jupiter (Fr.)

1977 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 99 min.

Starring Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud, David Warner, Elaine Stritch, Cyril Luckham, Dennis Lawson.

Cinematography Ricardo Aronovich

Production Design Jacques Saulnier

Original Music Miklos Rozsa

Written by David Mercer

Produced by Yves Gasser, Klaus Hellwig, Yves Peyrot

Directed by Alain Resnais

Supplements: Interviews video and audio (see above)

Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English, French

Packaging: Keep case