Swept Away (1974)
Seven Beauties (1975)
Summer Night (1986)
Ferdinando and Carolina (1999)
The great Lina Wertmüller gets a big home video boost from Kino with its latest wave of Blu-ray releases from the Italian director, the first woman to be nominated for a Best Directing Oscar. Kino put out Wertmüller’s successive 1970s comedies The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy and All Screwed Up a few years ago, and this slate includes the two films that immediately came after — her two most popular films — and two lesser-known works.
In all of these films, Wertmüller demonstrates her remarkable facility for visual comedy — she may be the master of the comedic zoom — and her unwavering commitment to stories that feature an inextricable intertwining of sex and politics. Sex is never about just sex in a Wertmüller film, and though her depictions of problematic sexual relationships in ostensibly humorous settings has courted some controversy, the discomforts she foists on audiences are purposeful. Men wield sex like a weapon in these films, but they end up being undercut by their own flailing desires.
In Swept Away, the fabulously wealthy Raffaella (Mariangela Melato) seems to find her greatest pleasure during a Mediterranean vacation needling deckhand Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), an outspoken Communist. His loathing of her is fueled both by her conspicuously lavish consumption and her aggressively rude behavior. But the power structure flips when they’re stranded on a deserted island together, and his survival skills require her to show some deference. His eager exploitation of her needs complicates the story and our sympathies, as do Melato and Giannini’s performances, both unhinged and calculating in almost equal measures.
Seven Beauties amplifies the tonal flexibility, with Giannini starring as the lecherous Pasqualino, a man who domineers yet depends on his seven sisters, and who ends up conscripted into the army after murder and rape. The film that earned Wertmüller her Oscar nomination, Seven Beauties is probably the only successful concentration camp comedy in existence, as Pasqualino blunders himself into one, and then becomes convinced his only chance at survival is seducing Shirley Stoler’s commandant. Unlike Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), which used comedy in a concentration camp as a vehicle for bittersweet uplift, Wertmüller embraces the fundamental grotesquerie of the situation. The film’s hazy, nonlinear structure is braced by a forceful condemnation of bourgeois detachment.
Summer Night is the weakest film of the four, returning to many of the ideas and scenarios in Swept Away, and rehashing them over and over. There are numerous bouts of screaming in this film, and the relentless nature of its repeated jokes tends to outweigh the charms, though they are there, largely thanks to Melato essentially reprising her role as a stuck-up avatar of capitalism. Here, she kidnaps an eco-terrorist (Michele Placido), puts him in bondage gear and brings him to her private island to wait for a ransom payment. Placido grunts and moans like Giannini, but his energy doesn’t escalate with Melato’s the same way, and their sexual attraction feels more perfunctory. (Melato’s obliviousness to the feelings of her co-conspirator, played by Roberto Herlitzka, is more consistently amusing.)
Ferdinando and Carolina refutes any idea that Wertmüller’s talents were confined to her heyday in the 1970s, delivering an effervescent depiction of an 18th Century monarchy and a razor-sharp excoriation of the misogyny of its sexual hierarchy. In Naples, King Ferdinando lies on his deathbed and escapes to his memories of his early days on the throne, when he (Sergio Assisi) wed an Austrian princess, Carolina (Gabriella Pession), in an arranged marriage. Here, sex is transactional, until it’s not. But any feeling of idyllic bliss is fleeting. Wertmüller romps through a catalog of supporting characters and amusing scenarios here, her ever-curious roving camera sometimes only having a few moments to alight on a situation before moving on. But the film never feels overloaded or dense; it’s an airy confection that turns out to be surprisingly substantial.
Though none of these transfers are promoted as being sourced from new restorations, this is an excellent batch of discs, with all of the 1080p transfers looking quite nice, despite some intermittent minor damage and some inherent softness. The brilliant blues of the Mediterranean shine in Swept Away and Summer Night, while fine detail remains solid in the murky hues of Seven Beauties. Images are generally clear and sharp, with unmanipulated grain structures and stable colors. Audio, all in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, is rarely more than adequate, with some age-related harshness in the older films. Overall, these all make for excellent viewing experiences.
Extras are most abundant on the Swept Away disc, which includes an audio commentary by Valerio Ruiz, director of Behind the White Glasses, a Wertmüller doc Kino simultaneously released on DVD. Both Swept Away and Seven Beauties feature an excerpt from that film and an interview with Amy Heckerling. Booklet essays are included with each disc.
Swept Away: Kino Lorber / 1974 / Color / 1.85:1 / 114 min / $29.95
Seven Beauties: Kino Lorber / 1975 / Color / 1.85:1 / 116 min / $29.95
Summer Night: Kino Lorber / 1986 / Color / 1.66:1 / 103 min / $29.95
Ferdinando and Carolina: Kino Lorber / 1999 / Color / 1.85:1 / 107 min / $29.95
Jess Franco films are a lot of things, but scary isn’t usually one of them. On the other hand, there’s Pere Portabella’s Vampir Cuadecuc, a genuinely unnerving piece of abstract art made concurrently with Franco’s Dracula, starring Christopher Lee.
Shot on high-contrast 16mm black-and-white stock — the image sometimes close to being completely obliterated — the film unfolds from alternate angles, with camera equipment sometimes in view. The diegetic world stretches beyond the myth here, with a nonexistent barrier between fiction and nonfiction. Suddenly, Lee will leer into the camera and take a playful swipe, and though he’s goofing around, in this context the effect is the opposite. The vampire has become all the more mysterious and menacing.
The film’s soundtrack — completely absent of diegetic sound, save for Lee reading a passage from Bram Stoker’s novel in the film’s final scene — creates its own eerie atmosphere, veering from lounge-y piano tunes to avant-garde droning. In the film’s penultimate scene, the soundtrack stutters, looping one second over and over and over, directly countering the supposed climax taking place on screen.
As a deconstruction, as a tone poem, as an accompaniment and as a piece of standalone experimental film, Vampir is a fascinating work, and Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray is a stacked release, beginning with a nice 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, which offers a strong showcase for the wildly fluctuating image and its grainy, contrast-heavy look. The elements are in good shape, and in the scenes that allow for it, the image is clear and detailed. Audio is presented in uncompressed 2.0 mono.
Extras are numerous and substantial. A newly filmed interview with Portabella has him discussing the genesis of the idea, his interactions with Franco who expected something far more conventional initially, and his approach to shooting. An interview with BFI curator William Fowler acts as an appreciation of the film’s visual merits and offers some political and social context, particularly in regard to the Franco regime’s disapproval of Portabella’s work.
Two newer Portabella shorts made with composer Carlos Santos are also included: La Tempesta (2003), which makes abstract the interaction of water and the human body, and No al No (2006), which features Santos at the piano, employing an unusual way of playing with a ball in his left hand. Both are in 1080p, and look great. Also included: a booklet with an essay by filmmaker Stanley Schtinter.
Second Run / 1970 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 69 min / £19.99
It was apparent early in her career that Kristen Stewart was an incredibly skilled actor, capable of imbuing small gestures with enormous feeling. As exceptional as she was in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016), Stewart seems to have found her ideal filmmaker match in Olivier Assayas, who’s shown an intuitive sense of how best to use her abilities in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Personal Shopper.
In both films, she plays an assistant — someone whose life is very much not their own on a day-to-day basis. In Personal Shopper, she runs largely inane errands for a largely vapid model (Nora von Waldstätten), while grieving the death of her twin brother from a heart condition she also has. Her character, Maureen, is also a medium, and her brother promised he would contact her from the other side once he was gone. Throughout the film, Maureen receives contacts — some more corporeal than others — but are any of them her brother? And would it matter?
Assayas has made another film about alienation in the modern world, and Stewart is an exceptional portrayer of that existential discomfort. She’s good at her job, but she never seems quite at ease doing it, despite its fundamental banality. And she’s good at attracting spirits, which sees Assayas nearly committing to an honest-to-goodness horror film. But what purpose does that serve for Maureen? The film’s most noted sequence involves an unknown sender toying with her via text message, and Stewart makes us hang on every movement like that blinking iMessage ellipsis. But that connection is tenuous, thin. When she reaches out, will she find anything at all?
Criterion’s 1080p, 2.40:1 transfer is fine. Sourced from a 2K transfer of the original 35mm elements, the Blu-ray transfer is a bit limited by the film’s muted look and not terribly detailed darker scenes, which can come across a touch muddy here. Detail is strong in daylight, with a natural color palette that looks good. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is immersive when called upon, with clean dialogue throughout.
Extras are minimal: A new interview with Assayas is a worthwhile look at the film’s inception and development, while a press conference from Cannes, where it was booed, is less focused. Also included: a trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Glenn Kenny, whose comparison to themes in Vertigo is an interesting and well-supported reading.
Criterion Collection / 2016 / Color / 2.40:1 /105 min / $39.95
Two key transitional works from Jean-Luc Godard come to Blu-ray via Kino, and these have to be up there high on lists of the most essential discs of the year, replacing the lackluster OOP Koch Lorber DVDs with two gorgeous high-def presentations. Made in the midst of Godard’s beginnings with the radical Dziga Vertov Group and his disillusionment with narrative, these two films jettison the notion of plot that still existed in some form in a contemporaneous work like Week End to dive headlong into political probing.
In the aesthetically ecstatic La Chinoise, Godard depicts a group of students (including Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliet Berto and Godard’s soon-to-be wife Anne Wiazemsky) holed up in a Paris apartment, discussing their rejection of bourgeois values and their attraction to Maoist ideals. Their conversations are discursive and often one-sided, with one character monologuing for minutes on end. The ever-present question about Godard’s opinion of these people is never really answered. Are they meant to be revered or ridiculed? Their ideas about eschewing middle-class comforts and embracing the need for violent change are somewhat contradicted by their actions, which see them remaining in their apartment and only play-acting revolutionary actions. While the specificity of the subject matter requires extratextual knowledge (and this disc has it), Raoul Coutard’s stunning images, replete with pops of primary color — including, famously, hundreds of copies of Mao’s Little Red Book — speak for themselves.
In Le Gai Savoir, Godard hones his focus considerably, with a visual economy to match, as nearly the entire film takes place on a darkened soundstage. There, Léaud and Berto meet, and discuss the limits of language and of images, which Godard intercuts with images of political upheaval, pop culture and everyday Parisian life. The film is a compelling essay that advocates a “return to zero” in image-making, and the implications are both political and artistic. Godard longs for a new way of seeing and a new way of hearing, and here, as in most of his films, he discovers new ways to force audiences to do just that.
The 1080p, 1.37:1 transfers on these discs are superb, with every red and blue a blast of vibrant color, and beautiful levels of filmic fine detail throughout. There’s no loss of that detail in the essentially omnipresent shadowed scenes in Le Gai Savoir, which feature perfectly inky black levels. Any slight fluctuation of image density is due to the condition of the elements, but such moments are very minor. These films look phenomenal. The uncompressed 2.0 mono tracks have some intentional harshness due to the films’ unconventional sound designs.
Extras are also a major selling point, including audio commentaries from two of the best in the biz: James Quandt on La Chinoise and Adrian Martin on Le Gai Savoir. Both tracks are packed with helpful contextual information and analyses of Godard’ political and visual aims. La Chinoise also features five interview pieces with cast, crew and film historian Antoine de Baecque, while Le Gai Savoir has a brief video piece from Godard collaborator Fabrice Aragno. Trailers and booklets with essays by Richard Hell (on both), Amy Taubin (La Chinoise) and Adam Nayman (Le Gai Savoir) are also included.
La Chinoise: Kino Lorber / 1967 / Color / 1.37:1 / 96 min / $29.95
Le Gai Savoir: Kino Lorber / 1969 / Color / 1.37:1 / 92 min / $29.95
Though often described as a horror-comedy, James Whale’s pre-code The Old Dark House strikes me as more of a hangout film, in which we get the pleasure of spending time with Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart’s witty married couple, Charles Laughton’s self-deprecating sad-sack and Melvyn Douglas’ charming flirt, who woos Lilian Bond’s chorus girl.
When a vicious storm reroutes all of their paths to the expansive Femm estate, where the hosts (Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore) aren’t terribly hospitable and a mute butler (Boris Karloff) works, the menacing implications are clear. And sure, some of those foreboding events do come to pass, but like most Gothic horror, this is a film all about mood, and the mood is ultimately kind of carefree.
Sure, there’s a demented relative locked somewhere in the house, and yes, Karloff’s alcoholism is accompanied by freakish strength, and why exactly is the host so insistent on that potato being eaten? Ah, who cares. Pull yourself up by the fire, have another swig of whiskey and all of this won’t look so scary in the morning.
Cohen’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer that’s sourced from a new 4K restoration, and the overall look is excellent, with a healthy grain structure, stable image and nice levels of detail and clarity. Imperfections and fluctuations are minor, and grayscale separation is pretty good, even if black levels can look just a touch washed out at points. An uncompressed 2.0 mono track betrays the film’s age with some rough edges and slight hiss, but is serviceable.
Extras are mostly ported over from a previous release, including two commentary tracks with Stuart and Whale scholar James Curtis. A vintage featurette features director Curtis Harrington detailing his love for the film and his efforts to rescue it after it had fallen into obscurity and elements weren’t known to survive in good condition. New to this release is an interview with Sara Karloff, Boris Karloff’s daughter, which features her appreciation for her dad’s prolific career and the great lengths that went on behind the scenes to outfit him in some of his most iconic looks. A trailer and an insert with an interview with Harrington are also included.
Cohen Film Collection / 1932 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 72 min / $25.99
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.