Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963)
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
Mountains May Depart (2016)
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
Stuff and Dough (2001)
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
Crimes of Passion (1984)
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
Cemetery of Splendor (2016)
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  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.