Jacques Rivette’s engrossing La Belle Noiseuse, surely one of the swiftest four-hour films ever made, at once affirms the quasi-mystical draw of the creative process and punctures the mythos of the artist-muse relationship.
Erstwhile painting great Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) is enlivened by meeting Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart), the girlfriend of a younger artist who idolizes Frenhofer. He resurrects an old project with Marianne as his nude model, and he quite literally controls the physical boundaries of their relationship, repositioning her with a utilitarian brusqueness that only amplifies her vulnerability.
Outside of the studio, the emotional repercussions are less violent but more complicated, given the histories between Frenhofer and his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), and Marianne and her boyfriend, Nicolas (David Bursztein). Liz was once her husband’s model and Nicolas’s idolization of Frenhofer prodded Marianne into agreeing to model. But feelings have a way of changing.
Rivette, a great chronicler of the minutiae of the artistic process, devotes languorous but orderly scenes to Frenhofer’s work, moving from rough sketches, the scraping of the pen on paper acting as an evocative soundtrack, to the fits and starts of moving to a larger scale. Piccoli’s performance has a focused detachment that makes his sudden emotional shifts feel all the more capricious. Béart defiantly asserts Marianne’s boundaries with a fire in her eyes, a counterpoint to the more knotted feelings that emerge when she truly discovers the power imbalance in this partnership. These knots don’t unravel easily in La Belle Noiseuse, and in fact get more tangled the longer the film goes on.
Cohen’s Blu-ray release, sourced from a new 4K restoration, presents a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer of the film, split over two discs. (The film has an intermission built in.) Largely, this is a fantastic presentation, with perfectly managed grain, beautiful levels of fine detail and exceptional clarity throughout. This is easily the best the film has ever looked on home video. Unfortunately, there is a teal-ish hue to the film’s color palette that wasn’t there on previous home video versions. While it’s possible this was the original theatrical look, it does seem to fall in line with a fairly common trend in new restorations. This is far from the worst offender; scenes in natural light appear mostly normal and colder-hued scenes appear to just be pushed a little further blue. The 2.0 PCM mono track is excellent: clear, crisp and free from distraction.
Extras include a new audio commentary by film historian Richard Suchenski and archival interviews with Rivette and screenwriters Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, ported from previous DVDs.
Cohen Media Group / 1991 / Color / 1.37:1 / 238 min / $34.99
If not exactly dismissed outright, Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice, doesn’t quite have the cachet of most of his other films, which range from mere masterpiece to staggering works of sublime, life-changing art. Made while he was exiled from the Soviet Union and dying of cancer, The Sacrifice is ponderous, ungainly, gorgeous and sometimes pointedly nonsensical. It’s an odd, misshapen thing, capable of inspiring awe and dismissiveness. As Robert Bird notes in his essay for Kino’s new re-release, the film is caught between sparseness and theatricality; large, sometimes ridiculous gestures play out on a palette unmoored from narrative structure. But make no mistake: the stakes couldn’t be higher.
In some ways, the irreconcilable peculiarities of The Sacrifice are the only logical response to the madness of nuclear war, which invades the life of a Swedish family living on a remote Baltic island and the birthday celebrations for its patriarch, Alexander (Erland Josephson).
The film opens as he plants a withered tree with his beloved son, Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist). He relates a story about a dead tree unerringly tended to that came to life and asserts that a single action performed with conviction can have far-reaching consequences.
Later, the family gathers in their home, where Alexander is surrounded by his wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), his older daughter Marta (Filippa Franzén) and mercurial mailman Otto (Allan Edwall), among others. The celebration is cut short by a TV report declaring World War III to be imminent, sending everyone, particularly Adelaide, into an emotional tailspin.
Alexander’s grasps wildly for a self-flagellating solution. He’ll get rid of all his possessions. He’ll have sex with a woman who’s an alleged witch. Why would these actions avert nuclear war? That’s almost as crazy as the very notion of a nuclear weapon itself.
Kino’s new Blu-ray release, sourced from a new 4K restoration, features a 1080p, 1.66:1 image that is largely an upgrade over its previous Blu-ray, which looks particularly muddy in its drained-of-color middle section now. The new image is tighter, with a better defined grain structure, better clarity and much better shadow delineation. Detail isn’t lost in low-light scenes. The one area of potential complaint? Surprise, surprise: It’s the color, which leans in a distinct greenish direction. (Hey, it’s not teal.) This is a pretty big departure from the previous look, though taken by itself, the pleasing aspects of the transfer outweigh this slightly off hue. Audio is a nice 2.0 uncompressed mono track.
This edition has also received a bump in the extras department. A new audio commentary features Layla Alexander-Garrett, Tarkovsky’s on-set translator, and the booklet features excerpts from the filmmaker’s diaries alongside Bird’s essay. Like the previous release, a second DVD disc has feature-length making-of doc Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
Kino Lorber / 1986 / Color / 1.66:1 / 146 min / $39.95
The Criterion Collection
One of my least favorite storytelling crutches is the kind of overt psychologizing that explicates a character’s action by tying it directly to an event from their past. This is essentially the beginning of Moonrise, one of Frank Borzage’s last films, as young Danny is tormented by his father’s execution for murder, and shortly commits one himself once the film catches up to the present.
But Borzage — one of the great atmosphere conjurers of the silent era — suffuses this prologue with a nightmarish dread that can’t help but spill over into the main events of the film. Danny (Dane Hawkins) is basically stuck in an awful dream he can’t escape from, and a series of reckless decisions involving self-destructive violence don’t break the spell. Borzage uses ultra-thick noirish shadowing; everything and everyone seemingly coated in an extra layer of darkness. Hawkins, his face often conveying an amoral blankness, plays Danny less like a tortured soul and more like a man who knows his actions don’t matter.
Danny’s stupor is partially broken by alluring schoolteacher Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), who just so happens to be the fiancée of the man Danny killed, and his moral compass gets recalibrated thanks to the advice of swamp-dwelling Mose (Rex Ingram, who deepens his clichéd wise black man role). The plotting of Moonrise, which was based on a now-obscure novel, is stock, but Borzage’s filmmaking elevates the material. Even an old noir standby — the carnival scene — gets a new look with a Ferris wheel scene where matched head-on shots of Danny and his pursuer heighten the panic and pin him further inside his own head.
Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K restoration, and it handles the film’s darkness very well, maintaining healthy levels of detail and avoiding any issues with crush or artifacting. The image has some intentional softness and a few isolated instances of damage are visible, but this is a strong example of this kind of black-and-white filmmaking on the format. Uncompressed mono audio is reasonably clean.
Aside from a booklet essay from Philip Kemp, the only extra is a new conversation between film historians Peter Cowie and Hervé Dumont.
Criterion Collection / 1948 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 90 min / $39.95
Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvětlení)
There’s a scene in Ivan Passer’s impeccably observed Intimate Lighting around a dinner table, where pieces of a roast chicken get passed around, everyone trying to defer to one another and making the whole affair much more complicated in the process. This is one of the more action-packed scenes in Passer’s film, which is a wisp — but a delightful wisp.
This scene — and all of the scenes in this episodic slice of life — unassumingly lays out the underlying expectations of its characters. A moderately successful musician, Petr (Zdeněk Bezušek) has returned to the small town where he grew up, and in visiting old pal Bambas (Karel Blažek), there’s that little tinge of benign tension that can occur between friends who haven’t seen each other in some time.
Calling Intimate Lighting a comedy of manners would probably be overstating things, but Passer is very interested in the gentle peculiarities of human interaction, and he lets them play out in scenes of a string quartet struggling to perform Mozart or a late-night rendezvous in an unfamiliar house or a toast that doesn’t quite go according to plan. The films’ charms are as elusive as its plot is simple.
Passer, like his Czech New Wave collaborator Miloš Forman, found his greatest success in the US. But this debut film is a unique jewel that displays some of the wryness of his films he co-wrote with Forman, but without the sharper satirical edge. That it feels so effortless as it occupies this tonal balance is part of what makes the film so enchanting.
Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray release features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer sourced from a new 4K restoration by the Czech National Film Archive. This is a nice-looking disc, with solid levels of clarity and detail. Grain is handled well, and the appearance is convincingly film-like throughout. 2.0 uncompressed mono audio is very clean.
Extras include Passer’s debut short film, A Boring Afternoon (1964), an interview with Passer and a booklet featuring essays from Trevor Johnston and Phillip Bergson.
Second Run / 1965 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 74 min / £19.99
Derek Jarman’s adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan play is a study in contradictions. Pulsing with sensual imagery, yet affecting a cool, removed manner, the film is both formally austere and tonally nimble. One can feel a chill in the air from the stage-like environs of the unadorned castle the film was shot in, but each tableau is impeccably designed, whether it’s a sexually charged bedroom scene, an anachronistic gay-rights protest or a headlong leap into pop fantasy when Annie Lennox materializes, singing Cole Porter.
Jarman extracts and expands on the homoerotic undertones of Marlowe’s play, in which new king Edward II (Steven Waddington) exercises his newfound authority to bring back his lover, Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan), from exile. Gaveston is historically known as Edward’s “favourite,” a term that couldn’t much more transparently imply a sexual relationship, but in Jarman’s telling, there’s no need for such a euphemism. The pair flaunts their relationship in front of an increasingly irritated Queen Isabella (Tilda Swinton) and her lover, Mortimer (Nigel Terry), prompting plans for a coup.
Most complaints about the film have to do with a lack of cohesion or simplistic renderings of Marlowe’s dense play and complex characters, but Edward II is one of those films where the greatness of the parts makes up for a whole that might not exactly come together. These complaints aren’t totally off-base, and there’s a haphazardness to the modernizing that’s reminiscent of many current stagings of hundreds-year-old plays, but Jarman’s eye for arresting production design and interesting compositions — not to mention his righteous political anger — make for a bracing experience where every image has a renewing effect on the viewer’s attention.
Film Movement’s new Blu-ray presents the film in 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that’s a big improvement over the previous DVD release, which I remember as a murky, frustrating mess. Billed as coming from a “new digital restoration,” this transfer has a bit of a hazy look, with some fluctuating image density. Small flecks are common, though they’re mostly unobtrusive. Grain appears to be in good shape, and fine detail is acceptable, given the shadowy look of the film. It’s not a stunning transfer, but it’s quite watchable. Audio is an excellent 2.0 LPCM stereo track.
Extras include an interview with producer Antony Root and a booklet with an appreciation from Swinton and an essay by filmmaker Bruce LaBruce.
Film Movement / 1991 / Color / 1.85:1 / 90 min / $39.95
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.