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thelimitsofcontrol

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Serge Gainsbourg, Kelly Reichardt, Jim Jarmusch & more!

GaudiAntonio Gaudí (1984)
The Criterion Collection

The buildings of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí don’t look constructed. They look evolved. Organically asymmetrical protrusions, supple curving lines, scaly exteriors — all challenging the notion that the human mind and human hands were involved at all in bringing these creations about.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s reverent documentary about Gaudí’s architecture knows its imagery is bracing enough to stand alone sans context or history, and it does for the most part. When Teshigahara does bring in a historian for some detail in the film’s final moments, the interruption of the mostly wordless reverie for this explication feels like the psychiatrist epilogue in Psycho.

Teshigahara’s camera, which alternates between regal wide shots and insatiably curious handheld work, drinks in the strange beauty of Gaudí’s work, whether in residential buildings or in his magnum opus, the Sagrada Família basilica, sitting unfinished in the midst of Barcelona like an alien being, its spires stretching above the urban landscape. The film’s narration mentions Gaudí knew his work would have to be completed by another architect. He may not have expected it wouldn’t be finished until 100 years after his death, as current estimates expect completion in 2026.

Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade of its 2008 DVD release is one of the more left-field choices in recent memory, and there’s no new restoration to explain it. The 1080p, 1.33:1 disc uses the same high-def transfer as the DVD release. Still, this is an enjoyable presentation, despite some density and color fluctuations due to the condition of the source materials. Teshigahara’s edits have a way of taking your breath away in this film, and this transfer helps accentuate that in sudden cuts to vibrant tile work — reds, blues and greens looking especially beautiful in this transfer. The uncompressed mono audio is a little thin, but presents a decent presentation of Tôru Takemitsu’s score and its sudden dips into the avant-garde.

All extras are carried over from the DVD. An interview features architect and friend of the director Arata Isozaki, 16mm footage from 1959 shows Teshigahara’s longstanding interest in Gaudí, and a 1963 short film by Teshigahara shows the sculptures of his artist father, Sofu. Further information on Gaudí is featured in the 2003 documentary God’s Architect: Antoni Gaudí and in Ken Russell’s 1961 BBC program, one of his many short documentaries. A trailer and an expansive booklet with an essay by Dore Ashton and thoughts from the filmmaker are also included.

Je t'aimeJe t’aime moi non plus (1976)
Kino Lorber

In the first of several films he directed, Serge Gainsbourg is quick to dispense with the notion that this is some dilettante-ish dabbling.

To be sure, Je t’aime moi non plus, which shares a name with the far more popular song he wrote and performed with Jane Birkin, isn’t on the surest stylistic footing. Its early moments contain some faintly Godardian smash cuts alongside some goofy camera stunts (an early scene where the camera loopily veers to match the wild driving of a group of miscreants gave me a sinking feeling). Eventually, the film settles into a more staid mode, with some elegant crane shots providing a veneer of respectability.

Dubious style aside, this is a singular film, as Gainsbourg is seemingly determined to create the most upsetting juxtapositions possible between the beauty of his stars and the ugliness of their situations.

Set in some godforsaken corner of France, the film features Warhol star Joe Dallesandro as gay garbage collector Krassky and Birkin as Johnny, the truckstop waitress who’s just androgynous enough for him to maybe fall for, much to the ire of Krassky’s boyfriend Padovan (Hugues Quester). Johnny explains she got that moniker because she has “no tits or ass,” and Krassky’s attention perks up.

The trash dump is among the more romantic places where their lopsided relationship blossoms. It’s not the diner, where her boss is constantly spewing invective. It’s not the local dancehall, where a cadre of leering men curdles the film’s sense of eroticism.

It’s certainly not the series of hotels the couple stays in, thrown out of each one because the proprietors assume rape when they hear Johnny’s cries of pain during anal sex. That Gainsbourg’s camera can so lovingly gaze at the otherworldly beauty of his two stars before cutting to that is jarring, to say the least. The film deploys its cruelty casually, particularly in its conclusion, and it can be difficult to reconcile that tone with the film’s more banal platitudes about love and its jaunty piano theme, also by Gainsbourg.

Kino’s Blu-ray presents the film in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration. This is a beautiful transfer, showing off a rarely seen film in almost perfect form. Images are clean and detailed and colors rich and vibrant among the dusty landscapes. Damage is minimal and the presentation is quite film-like. 2.0 LPCM mono audio is also quite clean.

Extras include a new interview with the rakishly charming Dallesandro, who mentions he was disappointed the film didn’t receive a US release, so all his friends stateside would know he wasn’t dead. Dallesandro also shows up for a Q&A with Birkin, moderated by Dennis Lim after a Lincoln Center screening. A Samm Deighan audio commentary and the theatrical trailer are also included.

TrappedTrapped (1949)
Flicker Alley

Another welcome rescue job by the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Trapped has the pedigree to get a deluxe home video release: long-thought-lost status, big-name director, early performances from a popular actor and a cult favorite actress. That the film ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts isn’t particularly surprising — a formulaic, stolid script like the one for Trapped is part of the B-noir model.

Still, there are many pleasures to be had. Director Richard Fleischer, who made plenty of noirs before becoming a big-budget studio helmer, gives the film a distinct sense of polish despite its obvious budgetary limitations. (An elegant camera-tilt-and-cut move to show our antiheroes being bugged by the Feds is just one of the smart flourishes he offers.) Lloyd Bridges, who stars as a counterfeiter freed from jail to help assist a sting operation, is an ideal avatar for the L.A. noir: sunny-looking, but vicious. Barbara Payton makes her sexpot girlfriend substantial with an undercurrent of knowing menace of her own as she seduces John Hoyt’s undercover cop.

The telegraphed double-crosses and the dearth of interesting supporting characters aren’t a dealbreaker by any means, but the film can’t help but fizzle when it sidelines Bridges for its climax, an otherwise reasonably exciting train yard chase. In the extras, noir expert Eddie Muller mentions that Bridges was rumored to have fallen ill near the end of production and speculates that producer Bryan Foy would’ve never waited around for him to finish the film. That shoestring approach can lend to a lot of charm of these B-noirs, but it’s a nearly fatal blow here.

Of course, Flicker Alley’s package will inevitably contribute to one’s appreciation for the film, and the 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a private collector’s 35mm acetate print, is impressive in its consistency and a massive upgrade over whatever PD garbage was out there. Naturally, the image has inherent softness, but image stability and clarity is good. Damage is mostly limited to stray marks. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is pretty clean as well. The combo set also includes a DVD copy.

Extras include a featurette on the film’s history and of its stars, including Payton’s tragic life that was frequent tabloid fodder in those days. Also included: a piece on Fleischer’s career, featuring an interview with his son, Mark, and a commentary track with Alan K. Rode and Julie Kirgo. A booklet includes production and promotional art and notes by Muller.

Old JoyOld Joy (2006)
The Criterion Collection

I’ll take any chance to proclaim Kelly Reichardt as the greatest living American filmmaker, and here, in a review of her breakout film, the sentiment must be repeated.

More than a decade after her debut feature, River of Grass (1994), Reichardt followed it up with something you might be tempted to label as a template for her subsequent films, at least on the surface. All of Reichardt’s films from this point on have an ineffable quality; once you think you’ve gotten the parameters defined with a description, they’ve long since wriggled free, unconstrained by their seemingly simple particularities.

That’s especially the case with Old Joy, which like many of her other films, features the Pacific Northwest setting, the feelings of displacement and isolation, and the serenity/terror inherent in man’s relationship with nature. It’s a film that can be summed up in a sentence — two old friends reconnect on a spontaneous camping trip — and its 73 minutes elapse like a blip, dewdrops on morning grass that are suddenly gone. Once its over, the preciousness of every one of those minutes comes into striking view.

Based on Jonathan Raymond’s short story, Old Joy is about Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), now two opposites who at some point in their past, weren’t. Mark, played with the barest hint of permanent unease by London, has hit the ostensible milestones of accomplishment — wife, house, baby on the way — while Kurt, played by Oldham with a charisma you know is accompanied by pitfalls, has drifted back into Portland.

An impromptu invitation from Kurt sends them into the woods in search of hot springs, with Mark’s dog Lucy (Reichardt’s dog plays herself) in the back seat of the Volvo. It’s a road trip that’s alternately soothing and tension-filled, just like the contours of the friends’ relationship, at once comfortably informed by a long history and full of terrifying unknowns.

Old Joy thrives on these paradoxes, though none of them are obvious or overindulged. It’s a road movie defined by its stillness, a movie about friendship defined by its silences. It’s the first masterpiece in a career full of subsequent ones, and hopefully, many more to come.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration of a 35mm digital negative, is a gorgeous showcase for the film’s 16mm photography, with perfectly rendered grain, rich and natural colors (the film’s evergreens seem realer than real) and excellent clarity. This is an exceptionally film-like transfer, and a massive upgrade over the previous Kino DVD release. The lossless PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack reveals plenty of subtle natural sound, while Yo La Tengo’s judiciously applied score sounds great.

Extras are mostly of the interview variety, but all are worth a watch. Reichardt details her interest in the story and the small crew that made the production happen. Cinematographer Peter Sillen offers a more technically focused interview, while Raymond, who’s since gone on to co-write or write most of Reichardt’s films, offers thoughts on their collaboration. London and Oldham reunite for the first time in a while, and their conversation has some of the same hesitant but vulnerable energy that the film does.

Also included: a booklet with an essay by Ed Halter and Raymond’s short story.

LimitsThe Limits of Control (2009)
Arrow Academy

The back half of Jim Jarmusch’s career has seen him take on numerous genre deconstructions, from the western (Dead Man, 1995) to the vampire film (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013) to the zombie apocalypse (last year’s unfairly dismissed The Dead Don’t Die). In molding the hit man thriller to his own peculiarities in The Limits of Control, Jarmusch offers perhaps his most sublimated take of his career, stripping the mood piece down to the genre’s barest essentials, and then stripping some more.

This is an opaque film, as an unnamed operative known as The Lone Man, played by Isaach De Bankolé, traverses Spain, meeting a series of contacts as he puts together the pieces of his assignment. Alex Descas gets the journey started. John Hurt and Gael García Bernal offer oblique guidance. Paz de la Huerta wonders why The Lone Man won’t fuck her. There will be no fucking or killing in this film. Not on screen anyway. Tilda Swinton shows up in a cowboy hat and exults about Tarkovsky in a scene that explains how to watch this film if you haven’t caught on yet.

With the droning guitars of Japanese band Boris as a guide, the film invites you into a trance. With its dramatic landscapes and persistent air of intrigue, the film suggests there’s an action movie in here somewhere — if only in your imagination. Like any individual plot point, trying to reach out and grasp it will only result in its disintegration.

Arrow’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer was provided by Universal, and it’s a pleasing experience, if slightly flatter and less crisp than one might hope for. Color reproduction is excellent, fine detail is adequate and grain structure is well supported. It’s an easy upgrade over the previous DVD release. 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are provided, offering a strong showcase for the Boris score and clean dialogue throughout.

Arrow provides two new scholarly extras: Geoff Andrews’ interview and Amy Simmons video essay. Both look at Jarmusch’s career as a whole, and there are some interesting points, but both have a tendency to repeatedly note Jarmusch’s unconventionality without digging deeper. Carried over from the previous DVD are a lengthy making-of and a short featurette on the film’s locations. A trailer is also included.

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Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Agnès Varda, Jacques Rivette, Guy Maddin & more!

Losing GroundLosing Ground
Milestone Films 

Milestone Films aims its expert curatorial eye on a landmark of African-American cinema with Losing Ground (1982), the second and final feature from Kathleen Collins, whose career was cut short by cancer in 1988. Collins’ first feature, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), included here among the copious extras, is often considered the first American feature film made by a black woman.

Naturally, the historical interest of this set might be its primary draw for some, especially because both of Collins’ films essentially went unreleased and haven’t exactly been easy to see since. But Losing Ground is more than a mere curiosity, constructing a nuanced portrait of marital fatigue with a texture that’s reminiscent at times of an Eric Rohmer film. The film looks like the work of an artist still finding her footing — the editing is especially slapdash at points — but there’s a lot to admire here.

Seret Scott stars as Sara Rogers, a philosophy professor embarking on a study of the aesthetic qualities of ecstasy, her intellectual pursuit of an emotional response indicative of her perhaps too serious-minded approach to life. Many of the men around her, including her students, aren’t shy about their attraction to her, but her responses border on obliviousness.

That’s quite the contrast to her husband, Victor (Bill Gunn), a painter who views carnal indulgence as a necessary part of the artistic process. He moves the couple to an upstate retreat, and in a bid to shift away from abstract work, employs several young, attractive women as models, all the while barely bothering to conceal his extracurricular motives.

Meanwhile, Sara finds some liberation by agreeing to star in a student film project helmed by the hyper-enthusiastic George (Gary Bolling), a tale of misbegotten passion between her and Duke (Duane Jones). The film-within-a-film — mostly shots of obviously metaphorical dancing — is goofy, but Scott’s performance is convincingly transformative, her reconciling of her intellectual and emotional selves playing out in deeply conflicted fashion on her face. Losing Ground is a bit schematic in its set-up, contrasting Sara and Victor’s approaches to life, but Scott and Gunn make them feel like real people.

Milestone’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer does the 16mm-shot film justice, its hazy images looking reasonably detailed and film-like. There’s a pervasive soft, slightly washed-out look to the image, inherent to the source no doubt, but the digital transfer is stable, consistent and clean. An uncompressed mono track handles dialogue cleanly, if a bit on the quiet side.

The two-disc Blu-ray set features the aforementioned debut feature The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, as well as 1976 student film Transmagnifican Dambamuality from cinematographer Ronald K. Gray. There are extensive new interviews with Scott, Gray and Collins’ daughter Nina Lorez Collins, as well as a commentary track from Professors LaMonda Horton-Stallings and Terri Francis. We also hear from Kathleen Collins herself in an archival interview from 1982. A trailer for the 2015 re-release rounds out the extras.

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

Milestone Films / 1982 / Color / 1.33:1 / 86 min / $39.95

agnes vardaJane B. Par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!: 2 Films by Agnès Varda
Cinelicious Pics

A double-feature of new restorations of rarely-seen work from one of the greatest living filmmakers is a damn good way to introduce yourself. This Agnès Varda twofer is one the first home video releases from L.A. distributor Cinelicious Pics, and it’s an auspicious early move for a company that also put one of my favorite 2015 theatrical releases, John Magary’s The Mend.

Varda’s intertwined works both star Jane Birkin, and they crisscross in what must be one of the most fascinating cinematic universes ever created. As Varda puts it, Jane B. Par Agnès V. (1988) is like a fictional portrait of a real person, while Kung-Fu Master! (1988, released briefly in the U.S. as Le petit amour) is a real portrait of a fictional person. Jane B. upends the biopic form, casting Birkin and Varda as themselves in a feminist essay film that gleefully traipses from genre to genre, from overstuffed costume drama to silent comedy and back again, a portrait of an actress unable to be contained by the real world.

A snippet of an idea — a woman who falls in love with her daughter’s classmate — is glimpsed in Jane B. and fleshed out in Kung-Fu Master!, a film that approaches its taboo subject matter matter-of-factly to deliver an honest, deeply felt study of loneliness.

In this film, Birkin plays Mary-Jane, a divorced 40-year-old who feels herself inexorably drawn to the 15-year-old Julien (Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son with Jacques Demy), who’s a bit of an annoyance to her own teenage daughter, Lucy. Lucy is played by Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg in one of her first film roles, while younger daughter Lou is played by Lou Doillon — who is, you guessed it, also Birkin’s daughter. Later in the film, her mother Judy Campbell, father David Birkin and brother Andrew Birkin also appear.

While Mary-Jane finds herself growing more and more attached to Julien, he never displays any precocities that might lend to the typical whimsy of a May-December romance film. His one true love is the titular arcade game, which Mary-Jane uses as a point of bonding. Though it never moralizes, there’s an unavoidable melancholy that blankets the film, as if Mary-Jane recognizes her self-destructive tendencies but can’t help tumbling headlong toward them anyway.

Each film is granted its own disc and given a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from new 2K restorations of the 35mm original camera negative. These are lovely transfers, looking remarkably like film and capturing Varda’s slightly gauzy photography very well. Detail is exceptional, colors are a touch muted but quite rich and consistent, and damage is basically nonexistent. The uncompressed mono tracks are both crystal clear.

Each film is accompanied by a new interview with Varda, who offers her wry, reflective observations. A booklet features an extensive essay from scholar Sandy Flitterman-Lewis and another interview with Varda, conducted here by filmmaker Miranda July.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinelicious Pics’ 2 Films by Agnès Varda Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **

Cinelicious Pics / 1988 / Color and Black and white / 1.66:1 / 177 min / $39.99

l'inhumaineL’Inhumaine
Flicker Alley 

A smorgasbord of avant-garde design, Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (1924) is a film that’s determined to pack as many art deco and cubist flourishes as possible into every scene. The crew was a who’s-who of modernist artists, from Paul Poiret’s costumes to Robert Mallet-Stevens’ set design to Fernand Léger’s intertitles.

One might expect an aesthetically fussy or incoherent end product from what is essentially an avant-garde super-group, but the film feels remarkably cohesive, luxuriating in its stunning designs but also pushed forward by L’Herbier’s confident camera work (those whip-pans!) and its propulsive editing (certain moments seem to anticipate Eisensteinian montage).

Opera singer Georgette Leblanc co-financed the film and also stars as Claire Lescot, the titular “inhuman woman” whose performances and beauty cause rapturous receptions that she remains coolly aloof to. Two of her paramours include a wealthy maharajah (Philippe Hériat) and a young scientist, Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain), who kills himself when she rebuffs his affections and announces her intentions to travel the world.

The apparent suicide momentarily turns Claire’s audiences against her, in a legendary scene inside the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that included Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie and James Joyce (unseen) among the throng of extras. But when Claire discovers the truth about Einar, it ignites a romantic melodrama that threatens to turn deadly.

While its first half stuns with its depictions of communal interior spaces, the second embraces a winking futurism, burgeoning technology possessing the power not only to allow communication across far-flung spaces, but also to harness life itself. Many of the sequences inside Einar’s workshop play like a proto-Metropolis, and L’Inhumaine also foresees the ultimate corniness of Lang’s “head and heart” mantra with its own conclusion.

Corny or not, L’Inhumaine is a visually stunning piece of work, and it’s given a transfer that allows its beauty to shine on Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray, sourced from the recent 4K restoration by Lobster Films. The images have great depth and detail, with surprising sharpness and clarity in a number of close-ups, aside from Leblanc’s, which are almost exclusively in soft-focus. Color tints, including blue, green, red and sepia tones, are rich and vibrant, while damage has been greatly minimized, most of the scratches and specks easily ignorable.

Two newly recorded scores are offered, both presented as crystal-clear 2.0 LPCM tracks. Aidje Tafial’s percussive, sometimes aggressively atonal score works in counterpoint to the imagery occasionally, its own avant-garde flourishes making it an excellent accompaniment to the film. The Alloy Orchestra’s offering is more of a typical silent-film score, though it’s peppered with a few modern embellishments of its own.

Extras are ported over from the Lobster Films French Blu-ray, and include featurettes on the making of the film and Tafial’s score. A booklet also includes notes on the film and L’Herbier’s career.

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

Flicker Alley / 1924 / Black and white/Color tints / 1.33:1 / 122 min / $39.95

forbidden roomThe Forbidden Room
Kino Lorber

Probably my favorite film of 2015, The Forbidden Room will inevitably only serve to further divide Guy Maddin partisans on both sides of the aisle. Most Maddin films are love-it-or-hate-it affairs, and The Forbidden Room sees the Canadian filmmaker going off the deep end in his love for archaic film technique and weird cinematic miscellanea.

If I have one complaint about the film, it’s that it’s so densely packed with bizarre visual and narrative ideas, there’s an embarrassment of riches situation going on. I’m tempted to watch in 20 minute chunks in future rewatches just to stave off the exhaustion that comes with a film so relentlessly restless and inventive.

Like a cobbled-together collection of lost reels from instructional films, submarine thrillers, jungle epics, strange sex comedies and creepy body horror, the film is a series of constantly shifting images and scenarios, with a permeable membrane between each segment that allows characters to glide from one universe to the next, the proceedings governed by a demented sense of cinematic logic.

The closest comparison I can think of is Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002), which melded actual archival footage to deeply disquieting ends, the deterioration inherent in the images an analogue to our own inevitable destruction. The Forbidden Room strikes the opposite tone — it’s positively ecstatic in its collection of images of an invented past. The decay is an invention too, and the omnipresent effects work is so crucial to the film’s success, post-production supervisor and co-writer Evan Johnson gets a co-director credit.

While the film’s standout moment is probably a song by art-rock duo Sparks, in which Udo Kier finds his obsession with asses to be his downfall, there are at least half a dozen other moments as funny as “The Final Derriere.” Cataloguing all of them — and all of the cinematic reference points and all of the mind-blowing faux-analog creations — would be as happily tiring as watching the film itself.

Critiquing Kino’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer would be a fool’s errand, thanks to the litany of intentional image fluctuations, but suffice to say, the disc presents a bold, colorful transfer that serves the two-strip-Technicolor-style well. An immersive, fairly dynamic 5.1 DTS-HD track is offered alongside a 2.0 track.

Extras include several additional looks at the techniques used in the film. “Endless Ectoloops” is a parade of shifting, distorted images, while “Living Posters” uses that technique to create a number of unique moving one-sheets. Short film Once a Chicken is presented as a “séance” with Hungarian painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy. Maddin and Johnson contribute a commentary track, and the disc also includes a theatrical trailer. A substantial booklet features essays by Maddin and critic Hillary Weston.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s The Forbidden Room 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 / 2015 / Color / 1.78:1 / 119 min / $34.95

ParisParis Belongs to Us
The Criterion Collection 

It’s officially the year of Jacques Rivette on home video. Arrow Video’s monumental Region B release is the crown jewel, collecting five of his films, including cinephile grail Out 1 (1971) in both its original 13-hour and shortened versions (Carlotta Films released Out 1 in the US), but don’t forget about Criterion’s first foray into the French New Wave master’s oeuvre.

Rivette’s feature-length debut, Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient, 1961) would have been one of the first nouvelle vague films released if it hadn’t gotten hung up in post-production. On its surface, Paris Belongs to Us is less stylistically radical than many of the films that were being made by Rivette’s peers, and compared to his subsequent films, it’s unmistakably an incubatory work. Though it’s less structurally diffuse than later films, the fascination with modes of theatrical performance and lingering paranoia are fundamental here. Rivette was the master of cultivating genuine mystery, a skill already established in his first film, even if its schematic plotting occasionally breaks the spell.

Betty Schneider stars as Anne, a Parisian literature student introduced to a group of intellectuals via her brother, Pierre (François Maistre). They’re mourning the loss of one of their friends, a Spanish composer who apparently committed suicide. Not everyone is convinced though, including brash, blacklisted American journalist Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), who warns of mysterious forces that he’s never able to explicate. The film never bothers to explicate them either, and it feels like Rivette is torn between developing a thick fog of nonspecific dread and a propulsive, plotty genre thriller.

The film’s other main thread involves a low-budget production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged Pericles, directed with great ambition and little organization by Gerard (Giani Esposito). With actors constantly dropping out or not showing up to rehearsal, Anne lands a part, but she also begins to worry that Gerard himself may be the next target of the mounting conspiracy.

Though its treatment of both plot threads isn’t totally satisfying, Paris Belongs to Us is still a rewarding experience, particularly in its subtle formal playfulness. The way Rivette shoots and edits interior spaces, especially Anne’s apartment building, is a potent early example of his ability to keep viewers on their toes.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K restoration, and looks superb, with a clean, film-like image that displays great depth and detail all the way through. Only a few stray flecks and hairs mar the image. The uncompressed mono audio, recorded post-sync, is a bit hollow, but has no major issues.

There aren’t a ton of extras here, but they’re all worthwhile. Rivette’s 1956 short Le coup du berger is a comic tale with cameos from Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, while an interview with French New Wave scholar Richard Neupert offers an excellent primer on Rivette’s career and Paris. An insert with an essay by Luc Sante is also included.

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

Criterion Collection / 1961 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 141 min / $39.95

AHPAmerican Horror Project Volume 1
Arrow Video

Even before their expansion into the US market, but especially since, Arrow Video has earned a reputation as one of the most conscientious, thorough labels to handle both bona fide classics — genre as well as arthouse — and titles probably no one else would lavish such deluxe treatment on.

Featuring three admirable 2K restorations, American Horror Project Vol. 1 certainly belongs in the latter category. Presented as an alternative history of 1970s American horror films, the set collects three films that even ardent horror fans may not have seen — and maybe for good reason. None of them is a certifiable lost classic, and the set doesn’t exactly convince that they represent some kind of alternate canon. Nevertheless, each film is sure to find its passionate defenders, and the supplementary material makes a case for each one as an entertaining — and possibly vital — work of independent filmmaking.

First up is Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973), a borderline-incompetent acid trip that accumulates a kind of hypnotizing effect by virtue of its bizarre camera work and winningly low-rent props and locations. The Norris family takes jobs at a dilapidated rural Pennsylvania carnival, hoping to find the son who disappeared there. After a quick tour of the premises from Jerome Dempsey’s Mr. Blood (the name seems like a giveaway), things quickly descend into a queasy mélange of bloodletting, cannibalism and a sinister Hervé Villechaize as daughter Vena (Janine Carazo in her only film role) tries to survive.

Malatesta sports a strong 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that’s littered with scratches, tram lines and speckling, but is nonetheless quite sharp and detailed. The film-like presentation is accompanied by a lossless mono track that’s limited by the production quality, but sounds OK despite its flatness. Extras include an introduction by historian Stephen Thrower (who gives a passionate, erudite intro to all three films), audio commentary from Richard Harland Smith, a few outtakes and interviews with writer Werner Liepolt, production designers Richard Spange and Alan Johnson and director Christopher Speeth, who speaks with clear-eyed affection for the film, his only feature directorial effort.

After Malatesta, the other two films can feel a bit more rote, each displaying at least a bit of the sheen of studio respectability. In The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976), director Matt Cimber makes some interesting formal choices as the barrier between fantasy and reality gets blurred to dangerous effect for Molly (Millie Perkins), and Perkins’ performance grounds the whole thing with a haunting portrait of gut-deep personal horror, even if it never really comes together as a cogent psychological portrait. Notorious for its inclusion on the UK’s video nasty list, Witch uses its sexual and violent content for purposes more disquieting than titillating.

Witch is presented in a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that displays a persistent softness/haziness, though it shows some impressive moments of fine detail. Damage is mostly minor, and the uncompressed mono audio is fairly clean. Extras include an audio commentary with Cimber, Perkins and the great cinematographer Dean Cundey, as well as new and archival interviews with the three.

In The Premonition (1976), nods to horror are mostly limited to carnival scenes featuring clown Jude (Richard Lynch) and his companion Andrea (Ellen Barber), who are obsessed with a little girl, Janie (Danielle Brisebois). Eventually, it’s revealed that the girl is Andrea’s daughter, and the two plot to kidnap her from her foster mother (Sharon Farrell). Janie’s psychic abilities lend some supernatural flavor to the chase thriller that emerges, but much of this feels pedestrian.

The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer for The Premonition is the strongest of the three, displaying a sharp, clean image with rich, consistent colors and well-resolved, film-like grain. The extras here are also the most extensive, including three short films from director Robert Allen Schnitzer (Vernal Equinox, Terminal Point and A Rumbling in the Land) alongside a commentary track from Schnitzer and a number of cast and crew interviews.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Arrow Video’s American Horror Project Vol. 1 Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: ***1/2
Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

Arrow Video / 1973, 1976 / Color / 1.85:1, 2.35:1 / 251 min / $99.95

 

 

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.

 

 

Rivette Featured

No Love for Jacques Rivette

Jacques Rivette is my favorite director, and Criterion hates him.

Actually, I have no idea how the folks at Criterion feel about Rivette. But the 85 year-old filmmaker may now be the only acknowledged master who remains completely unrepresented in the Criterion Collection as it inches toward 1,000 titles (counting the titles in its Eclipse offshoot).  Of course, rights and consumer demand are the major factors behind what movies get released, even for a home video label that has cannily branded itself as a synonym for quality and staked a claim towards defining the canon. For much of the DVD era, a few other notable omissions kept pace. But after Criterion finally released its first selections by Satyajit Ray and Rivette’s French New Wave compatriot Claude Chabrol (both in 2011), it was Rivette who stood alone out in the cold.

Criterion’s lack of Rivette love has become a grumpy running joke at cinephile hangouts like the (unaffiliated) Criterion Forum – as well as an ongoing meme on Criterion’s Facebook page, where, in 2009, the label innocently asked whether anyone would be interested in a release of Rivette’s legendary, little-seen masterpiece Out 1: Spectre (1971). Criterion hasn’t spoken of it since, and it’s still unclear whether that post was meant to genuinely gauge interest, or tweak the noses of the Rivettean faithful. But in a way it’s appropriate that Rivette should remain a persistent outsider, both because he was one of the few French New Wave directors to gain little commercial traction in the U.S., and because secrecy and paranoia are one of the key themes in Rivette’s filmography. Of course, that’s little consolation to region-locked Americans, who must content themselves with adequate home video versions of only a half-dozen of Rivette’s more recent films.

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But as for me, I’ve just imported what may be my most cherished disc release of last year: Masters of Cinema’s UK Blu-ray of Le Pont du Nord (1981). It marks the film’s English-language home video bow, and Rivette’s high-definition debut. Le Pont du Nord is one of Rivette’s most accomplished works, and also a good entry point for a director whom some find daunting. Like most of Rivette’s films, it combines several recurring obsessions: female relationships; games; the city of Paris; and (perhaps the motif that has the most resonance in post-September 11) the assumption of vast, barely-glimpsed conspiracies that operate underneath the events on-screen in a Lovecraftian way. The film’s two heroines, played by real-life mother and daughter Bulle and Pascale Ogier, are strangers who meet near the Lion de Delfort and spend a few days in each other’s company. Both are outsiders, exiled to the streets by circumstances that they gradually share with each other (and also by Rivette’s limited budget, and attraction to the simplicity of what he called a “reportage” style). Marie (Bulle) is just out of prison and, as a consequence, too claustrophobic to venture indoors; Baptiste (Pascale) is a sort of street punk who fancies herself as a modern-day knight, defending the city against unseen enemies. She appoints herself as a bemused Marie’s protector.

Although Baptiste remains something of a cipher until the very end, Rivette fills in Marie’s backstory fairly early in the film. She is a former revolutionary, alternately pursuing and pursued by a former lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), and a mysterious man in black (Jean-François Stévenin) who may be a cop or a secret agent. A plot, of sorts, involves a dossier and a map stolen from Julien’s briefcase. The documents are a Macguffin that connect the film explicitly to specific events during the Giscard government; the map, on the other hand, becomes a springboard for Marie and Baptiste’s quixotic journey across Paris (from the center to the outskirts), as Baptiste hatches the idea of deciphering its uncertain meaning by “playing” it as a chutes-and-ladders game.

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The use of the adjective “quixotic” is no accident; Quixote and Sancho Panza provided the inspiration for Rivette’s heroines. Like Cervantes’s novel, Le Pont du Nord can be taken as either a tragedy or, if not quite a comedy, then a beguiling, fantastical adventure. The ominous, Langian scenario grounds the film in a harsh external reality. But it’s the magical realist touches, and the quick throwaway gags (reminiscent of early Truffaut and Godard, during a period of the New Wave that Rivette mostly sat out), more than the looming bummer, that provide Le Pont du Nord’s most thrilling moments. The tone is elastic enough to permit a moment in which Marie and Baptiste, who have slept outside due to Marie’s phobia, notice a movie marquee for Les Grands Espaces (The Great Outdoors); with a shrug, they spend the night contently inside the theater. (It ruins the pun to note that this is actually William Wyler’s The Big Country, under its French title.) There’s also the wonderful moment where Baptiste “kills” her damaged, loudly whirring motorbike by cutting a hose with her switchblade, like a cowboy shooting his wounded horse – one of many ways in which Rivette, a film buff’s film buff, inscribes Le Pont du Nord as a disguised western.

Rivette is careful to provide a realistic explanation for Baptiste’s mania, a moment at which the “normal” Marie realizes with horror that her companion is a genuine schizophrenic. Yet the film doesn’t insist upon dispelling of all its myths and ruining the fun of its games. Le Pont du Nord has two climaxes – one a tragedy, the other an absurd, adorable showdown between Baptiste and a modernist metal dragon (which some sources describe as a children’s slide, although if so it’s a rather steep and terrifying one; and it also breathes fire) – and an enigmatic epilogue, an impromptu karate lesson that corrupts any strictly literal interpretation of the preceding events. The symbolic and structural function of this, one of my favorite movie endings, reappears in a better-known film: it is reinscribed as the explosive breakdance that ends Beau travail (2000),  directed by Claire Denis, who was an informal student of Rivette’s during the seventies.

I first viewed Le Pont du Nord on December 2, 2006, as part of an essential theatrical revival of Rivette’s films that toured the U.S. Also that day, I saw Love on the Ground (L’amour par terre, 1984), the director’s second-best film of the eighties – but in a shortened, two-hour version that is generally regarded as inferior to Rivette’s original, 176-minute cut. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when the bare-bones 2008 DVD of Love on the Ground, from a relatively minor UK label called Bluebell Films, turned out to contain the long version.

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If Le Pont du Nord can function as Rivette for beginners, Love on the Ground is a post-graduate exercise. Like Le Pont du Nord, it centers upon a female duo: a pair of actresses, in this case linked not by blood relation but by a shared foreignness, thanks to Rivette’s ingenious casting of two of the most prominent English-speaking actresses in Europe, Jane Birkin and Geraldine Chaplin. Love on the Ground’s other primary subject is the theater, a major Rivette trope that’s absent, in the literal sense, from Le Pont du Nord. Birkin and Chaplin first appear in an avant-garde (but terrible) performance of a play in a real flat, where the spectators follow the performers around from room to room. When the author (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) shows up he’s intrigued by both the approach and, more importantly, the actresses, whom he invites to rehearse in a new, unfinished play to be staged in his own country home. As the play develops, so do romances between the women, the playwright, and his friend Paul (André Dussolier), a magician and a key to the film’s relatively minor strand of overt fantasy. The amusing – or perhaps infuriating – result of the “theater at home” conceit, in which domestic and performance space overlap completely, is that it’s often impossible to be certain, at the beginning of each scene or at the end of any line, whether we’re witnessing a rehearsal or “real” life.

Unfortunately, as I watched the DVD, I couldn’t really remember what sections of the longer cut were missing from the print I saw seven years ago. The material of Love on the Ground feels a bit thin to fill three hours, although, as Rivette devotee Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, the short version perversely retains most of the play-within-a-movie material and excises the richer relationship subplots. The extended length struck me as lending a better sense of balance and pace to the disorienting, circular story, and it also led me to think of Love on the Ground as something of a companion piece to Rivette’s best-known film, Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline and Julie vont en bateau, 1974). Celine and Julie has a similar duration, and also positions its paired heroines within a cloistered mansion where the division between reality and fantasy is blurred.

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Duration is one of the things for which Rivette is famed. Céline and Julie and Love on the Ground are both a tad on the short side, actually. Out 1, made for but rejected by French television, is thirteen hours long. Noli me tangere (1971), the alternate “short” version of Out 1, is four hours long; L’amour fou (1969), another early masterpiece, is four and a half. The length issue is part of a widespread characterization of Rivette as too difficult or obscure to succeed in the kind of mainstream spotlight that, say, a series of Criterion Blu-rays would throw. (Rosenbaum, as far back as 1983, described the phenomenon of encountering lonely Rivette fanatics all over the world – exactly the sort of secret society that you’d find in a Rivette film, of course.)

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I always argue the point when it comes up, and I think I’m right: Nothing signed by Rivette is any more daunting than, for instance, any of the Godard films that have received U.S. distribution during the past thirty years. How could anyone not fall for Duelle and Noroît (both 1976), Rivette’s colorful, plucky diptych from the late seventies? Noroît stars Bernadette Lafont and Geraldine Chaplin as pirates, for heaven’s sake. Pirates! But I guess accessibility is relative. If you’re on a filmmaker’s wavelength, you can step into his universe with ease, and find it perplexing when others can’t. Rivette’s wry paranoia –  just like the somber alienation of Antonioni, who also remains something of a hard sell even to serious movie fans – mirror the way that I look at the world. I lap up every minute.

For the same reason that I carefully qualify my enthusiasm for Love on the Ground, Rosenbaum frets about the particular perils of recommending a lesser entry in Rivette’s unusually insular body of work, and perhaps alienating a potential convert. Sadly, that’s almost unavoidable in the case of Rivette, where the ready availability of the films tends to operate in an inverse ratio to their quality. In the U.S., the rights to most of his films have accrued to cost-over-quality labels like Koch Lorber, Facets, and especially the financially challenged New Yorker, which spent a decade promising a Céline and Julie Go Boating DVD and never delivered. Brits have things a bit better, with worthy BFI editions of Céline and Julie and Rivette’s astounding first feature, Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient, 1960), although I hesitate to recommend them since those two seem a bit likelier to get a Blu-ray upgrade than any of Rivette’s other films. But Le Pont du Nord is a must-have for any movie fan who’s multi-region capable (and it is, alas, one of Masters of Cinema’s few Region B-locked releases), and likely the most comprehensive edition of the film we’ll ever get. Except, maybe not, because it isn’t quite complete: the voluminous liner notes begin with an apology for MOC’s inability to license Paris s’en va (1981), a short film with the same actors that served as a sort of sketch for Le Pont du Nord. The curse of Rivette persists.