Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Ugetsu


UGETSU (Mizoguchi, 1953)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 6, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

For a sample of Kenji Mizoguchi's unique genius, I point you to one brief but memorable scene in the middle of “Ugetsu” (1953).

Tobei (Sakae Ozawa), one of the film's main characters, is a poor villager who dreams of becoming a samurai. In order to do so, he must first secure his own set of armor and weapons. He decides his only hope is to steal this expensive treasure from someone else, and goes out in search of a likely candidate. We have all watched similar scenes in movies before: our hero needs a quick change of clothing so he knocks out some poor faceless nobody (listed as HENCHMAN #1 in the screenplay) to get what he needs. No fuss, no muss. We don’t give the nameless goon another thought.

Mizoguchi adopts a different approach. As Tobei skulks along in the shadows, the film cuts to a conversation between two new characters, a general and one of his samurai. The general has been mortally wounded, and he orders his soldier to behead him to end the suffering. The samurai does as he is told, then turns from his revered master and stumbles away. With tears welling up in his eyes, he is about to sit down to gather his emotions. Just then, Tobei leaps out and stabs the vulnerable warrior to death, claiming the general’s head as his own kill and parlaying it into a short-lived stint as a full-fledged samurai in his own right.

What a startling and powerful scene. How are we supposed to feel about Tobei now? Can we ever forget the samurai and his general, characters glimpsed for a few fleeting moments? This it the special brilliance of Mizoguchi, at least in his best films (which is most of them): the ability to breathe life into every character and to weave a complex web of relationships among them.

We see this sensibility at play again in the central sequence of “Ugetsu.” Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), our main protagonist, is a potter who brings his wares to the big city in hopes of scoring a major sale. There he meets Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo, who also played the woman in “Rashomon”) who asks him to bring his finest crafts to her manor. There he falls madly in love with her; as if in a fever dream, he forgets about his wife and child and agrees to marry the Lady.

Pretty soon we realize that Wakasa is not your typical lady, but rather a ghost (the pale-white make-up is a hint, the disembodied voice of her dead father is a better one). Genjuro languishes helplessly in her clutches until he meets a traveling priest who gives him the power to break free of her spell. But rather than a scene full of spooky howls and flickering candles, Mizoguchi fashions an emotionally resonant confrontation. A tearful Wakasa begs Genjuro to stay with her. Her nurse (also a ghost) explains that Wakasa died young without knowing the love of a man - isn’t she entitled to some happiness even in death? The scene is wrenching. We understand why Genjuro wants to escape; he has a family of his own, after all, and he must remain among the living. But he also promised his love to Wakasa, who returned it tenfold, though perhaps too much for a mere mortal to handle. Everyone is both right and wrong in his or her own way and each of the characters is fully alive (even the dead ones) in this dynamic and complex scene.


“Ugetsu” is more frequently listed as “Ugetsu monogatari” which translates roughly as ‘Tales of Moonlight and Rain”, the title of an 18th-century collection of ghost stories by Akinari Ueda. Ueda’s collection, along with a short story by Guy de Maupassant (“How He Got the Legion of Honor”), provides the inspiration for the film, though Mizoguchi and screenwriters Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda (one of Mizoguchi’s most frequent collaborators) relocate the story to 19th-century Japan.

The story concerns two couples: Genjuro and his wife Miyagi (Mizoguchi regular Kinuyo Tanaka) and Tobei and his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito). Each of the husbands is blinded by ambition (Genjuro for gold, Tobei to become a samurai) and each subjects his wife to terrible hardship as a result of it. As is typical in a Mizoguchi film, the women must make terrible sacrifices due to the selfishness of the men in their lives. Each woman meets a separate bad fate, and both husbands get the opportunity to atone for their sins though each in a very different manner.

Ghosts travel freely among the living. Japan, as depicted in “Ugetsu,” is a country ravaged by civil war, and the violence has so brutally scarred the landscape that the border between this world and the afterlife has blurred beyond recognition. One of the many great pleasures in “Ugetsu” is the naturalistic approach Mizoguchi takes to his various ghosts and spirits. Lady Wakasa walks through the marketplace like any other customer. Ghosts do not jump out of walls screaming “Boo!” but are integrated into the domestic space. One character returns as a ghost only to cook a pot of stew and tidy up. A ghost ship encountered on the lake is both real and not real at the same time, and it is certainly a tangible object.

Like Ozu, Mizoguchi films most of his scenes in long master shots with minimal editing within any single scene. Unlike Ozu, Mizoguchi moves his camera constantly (most of the scenes were shot with the camera on a crane), gliding both horizontally and vertically to create a gentle, lyrical effect. I am tempted to push my interpretation a little too far and claim that the hovering camera haunts the film, but I will resist the urge. “Ugetsu” is a beautiful film even if the people in it are sometimes ugly. Full credit is due to renowned cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa whose black-and-white photography is simply breathtaking.

“Ugetsu” often places very highly in critical polls, and is usually considered Mizoguchi’s masterpiece. I actually prefer two other Mizoguchi films (also critical favorites): “The Story of the Late (or Last) Chrysanthemums” (1939), and especially “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954), one of the most devastating films I have ever watched. Regardless, “Ugetsu” is one of the defining films not only of Japanese cinema but all of cinema, and your film knowledge is incomplete until you have seen this gem. More than once.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The 2005 Criterion SD release of “Ugetsu” (in 1.33:1) was strong but displayed a considerable amount of damage from the source material, particularly some prominent scratches. This newly-sourced restoration eliminated many, though not all, of the scratches and other signs of damage, though a bit of flicker and the occasional soft shot still crop up. That's a minor complaint for an impressive 1080p transfer which represents a substantial improvement over the old SD in just about every way, even strengthening the already solid black-and-white contrast, and which justifies a double-dip purchase all by itself.

Audio:
The LPCM mono mix is crisp with just the occasional moment of slight dropoff. It sounds fairly hollow throughout, but this is due to the source and actually works quite well for such a haunted film. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:
The 2005 Criterion SD consisted of two DVDs in separate cases both tucked into the cardboard case. This 2017 Blu-ray upgrade imports all of the extras from the prior release but includes them all on a single disc with a fold-out case, inside of which the insert booklet is tucked. The keep case is then placed inside of a cardboard slip case with the same cover art as the 2005 case.

The film is accompanied by a full-length commentary track by critic Tony Rayns which matches his usual level of eloquence and excellence. The disc also includes three interviews. “Two Worlds Intertwined” is a 14-min. interview with director Masahiro Shinoda who describes the impact Ugetsu had when it was released. “Process and Production” is a 20-min. interview with Tokuzo Tanaka, Mizoguchi’s assistant director on “Ugetsu.” Both of these interviews were newly recorded for Criterion in Tokyo in May 2005. A 10-minute interview with “Ugetsu” cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, originally recorded in 1992 for the Criterion laserdisc, rounds out the interviews. We also get Theatrical Trailers

The meatiest extra on the disc, by far, is the lengthy (150 min.) documentary “Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director.” This received its own separate disc in the 2005 SD release. Directed by Kaneto Shindo in 1975, this sprawling two-and-a-half hour documentary provides a font of information about Mizoguchi who passed away in 1956 from leukemia. Unfortunately, the documentary focuses exclusively on a biographical approach with little critical discussion of Mizoguchi’s films or techniques. We are also treated to a loving closeup of an object identified as Mizoguchi’s “favorite urine bottle.”

The thick square-bound insert booklet is a copy of the 2005 booklet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Lopate and three of the short stories which inspired the film: “The House in the Thicket” and “A Serpent's Lust” by Akinari Ueda and “How He Got The Legion of Honor” by Guy de Maupassant.

Final Thoughts:
I've had twelve extra years to reflect on both “Ugetsu” and Mizoguchi since I originally wrote this review, and my appreciation of the film and the filmmaker have only increased with time. I'm pretty sure most film buffs have the same experience with this great master of cinema. It's too facile to proclaim an equal to Ozu and Kurosawa; he is also an equal to Resnais and Welles and Akerman and Apichatpong and Rossellini and Varda and... well, you get the picture. You should also get this impressive Blu-ray release from Criterion.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Marseille Trilogy


MARSEILLE TRILOGY (Pagnol, 1931-1936)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jun 20, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

The appeal of Marcel Pagnol's “Marseille Trilogy” is captured vividly by a sequence from the middle film, “Fanny” (1932). The unmarried Fanny (Orane Demazis) confesses to her mother Honorine (Alida Rouffe) that she is pregnant. Honorine explodes with indignation, ordering Fanny to vacate the premises immediately. When Fanny faints, Honorine transitions into the doting mother offering apologies and unconditional support, and the instant Fanny comes to, she re-launches her splenetic attack against the child who has disgraced her. Meanwhile, Aunt Claudine (Milly Mathis) has Fanny's back all the way... until she notes quite matter-of-factly that Fanny can't be the family slut, because Aunt Zoe's already filling that role.

Like many scenes throughout the trilogy, the sequence unfolds slowly and offers multiple shifts in emotional tone, a roller-coaster experience sold by actors gifted enough to convince the audience they have no idea what's coming next or what to feel about it. They need time to sort through the roiling sea of anger, insecurity, and affection, and Pagnol always gives them ample time to do so. For some viewers, this provides a source of endless pleasure; for others, endless, or at least occasional, exasperation.

Pagnol had only quit his job as an English teacher a few earlier before to pursue a career as a playwright, and was bold enough to adapt his hit 1929 play “Marius” as a film just a few years into the talking picture era, in 1931. The talking part was essential for Pagnol, who once described cinema almost exclusively as an extension of theater, and all three films in the trilogy feature nearly wall-to-wall dialogue in just a handful of locations visited over and over.

Set in the southern port of Marseille (you probably guess that by now), “Marius” (directed by a youngster named Alexander Korda, though Pagnol worked with the actors) sets up the basic melodramatic structure of the entire trilogy. Marius and Fanny are in love, and are finally getting around to admitting it. Wedding bells would ring in the near future but Marius (Pierre Fresnay) hides a terrible, shocking secret: he has a shameful, irresistible attraction to... the ocean. He wants to hop the nearest ship and sail to exotic locations around the world and, really, who doesn't dream of huddling for months on end in a tiny wooden cage with dozens of sweaty men and drinking his own urine? 


If the love story was the entirety of the “Marseille Trilogy”, it would be a drag because, to be honest, those two crazy kids are the least compelling characters in the cast, and the viewer simply has to accept on faith that they love each other because the source of the mutual attraction is not readily apparent. This sounds like a fatal flaw, but Pagnol's supporting characters are so rich and textured, so warm and funny and charming, each could be the centerpiece of his or her own film.

Marius's father Cesar, owner of the Bar de la Marine on the docks of Marseille, towers above all. Played by the comic actor Raimu, not well-known before the trilogy but destined to become a beloved French icon because of it, Cesar sputters and smiles, gesticulates hysterically before dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, and enjoys life all the more for complaining constantly about it. Raimu is a shameless scene-stealer in the finest sense of the term, and though only the final film in the trilogy, “Cesar” (1936), is named for his character, he is the heart and soul of the entire project. Fernand Charpin is almost as indelible as M. Panisse, who transforms over the course of the trilogy from feckless con artist to respected friend and husband, and the aforementioned Alida Rouffe more than holds her own as Fanny's proud and confident mother Honorine.

Pagnol grew up in Marseille, and his films are attentive to the specific rhythms of daily life in the sun-drenched port city and its local speech patterns though this is, of course, difficult for non-Francophones to pick up on. The specificity of the location has proven to have a universal appeal, as the films were hits both in France and abroad at the time and continue to draw fans today.

Viewers less enchanted by “filmed theater” might be a bit more resistance to the trilogy's charms, but the scope of the project can't help but impress. Over six-and-a-half hours of film covering twenty years of story (“Fanny” picks up immediately where “Marius” leaves off, but “Cesar” jumps ahead two decades), viewers come to know the characters intimately, and to appreciate both their repeated behaviors and the way they change throughout the films. I imagine 19th century readers of serialized novels like “Middlemarch” developing a similar relationship to the characters, constantly tempted to return by the simplest but most powerful appeal of most drama: wanting to find out what happens to everyone next.


Video:
“Marius” and “Fanny” are presented in their original 1.19:1 aspect ratios, “Cesar” is in 1.37:1.

From the Criterion booklet: “These new digital restorations were created in 4K resolution from the 35 mm original nitrate negatives, 35 mm safety duplicate positives, and 35 mm duplicate negatives at Digimage Classics/Hiventy in Joinville-la-Pont, France. The restorations were undertaken by the Compagnie mediterraneenne de films and the Cinematheque francaise.”

“Fanny” is the weakest of the lot, though it's hard to tell if that has anything to do with the restoration, or rather the filming itself. A few scenes are out of focus, and a few others demonstrate rather soft focus – Pagnol's grandson says that Pagnol was unconcerned with technical qualities, so I don't know. “Marius” and “Cesar” both look much sharper and only marginal signs of damage are visible throughout the trilogy. Though considerable restoration was undertaken, it appears the restorers avoided the urge to buff and polish the image excessively.

Audio:
The LPCM mono track on all three films is fairly consistent in quality with only the occasional drop off. Dialog is clearly mixed and the score only warbles a bit – there's not too much else to the sound design beyond that. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Each film is housed on its own Blu-ray disc which snaps into its own case. The three separate cases, along with the insert booklet, are tucked into the cardboard slip case for the entire trilogy. The overall set gets the Spine Number 881, with the other three films as 882-884. Each disc includes its own extras.

“Marius” kicks off with an introduction (19 min.) by director Bertrand Tavernier, who credits Francois Truffaut with turning him onto Pagnol in the first place.

Nicolas Pagnol, the writer/director's grandson, speaks at length (2017, 30 min.) about his grandfather's work, and discussing Marcel's relationships with his various collaborators. He emphasizes that Pagnol was an independent filmmaker who worked mostly with friends, despite also working for studios like Paramount.

“Pagnol's Poetic Realism” (2017, 30 min.) is a video essay narrated by Brett Bowles, author of the 2012 book “Marcel Pagnol.” Bowles situates Pagnol's work in the poetic realist movement of the '30s and '40s while noting that Pagnol added more comedy and a sense of social optimism to the usually grimmer, more fatalistic movement.

“Fanny” includes two episodes from the six-part series “Marcel Pagnol: Mourceaux choisis.” This 1973 series for French television covered Pagnol's entire career. The disc includes the excerpts applicable to the “Marseille Trilogy” - all of Episode 3 (58 min.) and about half of Episode 4 (27 min.)

“Cesar” collects older interviews with cast members Orane Denazis (1967, 3 min.), Pierre Fresnay (1956, 6 min.), and Robert Vattier (1976, 11 min.) The disc also includes a short documentary (12 min.) about Marseille that Pagnol shot in 1935, perhaps in tandem with the release of “Cesar.” The disc wraps with a 2-minute piece about the digital restoration of the trilogy.

The thick, square-bound booklet includes an essay by critic Michael Atkinson and excerpts of an introduction that Pagnol wrote for the 1964 publication of his Marseille plays and film scripts.

Final Thoughts:
With fine digital restorations and a substantial sampling of extra features, this Criterion boxed set provides an impressive release for Marcel Pagnol's best-known work.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project, No. 2

Limite

MARTIN SCORSESE'S WORLD CINEMA PROJECT NO. 2
Criterion Collection, Dual Format, Release Date May 30, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

At least Criterion wasn't just teasing us when they slapped a “No. 1” on their first boxed set of “Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project” back in 2013. It took three-and-a-half years to get to. “No. 2” but it was well worth the wait.

The initial set expanded the scope of the Criterion Collection in a valuable way. Criterion takes its mission to distribute “important classic and contemporary films” very seriously, but that mission has inevitably focused greater attention on a handful of national cinemas, with France, Italy, and Japan being much better represented than most others.

The World Cinema Project, an outgrowth of Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation,also “preserves and restores neglected films from around the world” making them a perfect complement as they cover geographies not always highlighted by Criterion. The first “World Cinema Project” volume included films from Senegal, Mexico, India, Turkey, Morocco, and South Korea, and gave me my first chance to see work by major directors I had only read about before like Djibril Diop Mambety and Ritwik Ghatak (their films “Touki Bouki” and “A River Called Titas” were, in my opinion, the best on the set).

The second volume of the project brings us another film from Turkey, but also makes stops in the Philippines, Thailand, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and Taiwan, and spans a range from 1931 to the very end of the 20th century. 

Insiang

“Insiang” (1976) opens with the graphic depiction of pigs being gutted in on a slaughterhouse floor, and a quick location shift to a slum town built along a river promises a continuation of the blood-letting, at least in figurative terms, though viewers shouldn't be quick to rule out the literal either. Filipina star Hilda Koronel plays the title character, a young woman clinging to innocence and decency under harrowing circumstances. She's saddled with a bitter, vengeful mother (Mona Lisa) who blames Insiang for her father abandoning the family: “Wherever your father is now, I hope he and his girlfriend drop dead!” That's one of mom's more affectionate outpourings. The situation worsens significantly when a hunky young bully (Ruel Vernal) moves in with mom while clearly having his eyes set on the lovely Insiang as well.

Filipino director Lino Brocka was absurdly prolific, shooting over sixty features in just a twenty-year span before his death in a car accident in 1991 at age 52. Like many of his films, “Insiang” was shot quickly (furiously might be a better term), in just seven days with little time for retakes, and the film's lean shooting schedule contributes to its sense of immediacy and authenticity. “Insiang” marries heated melodrama with gritty social realism, grounding the more lurid plot developments in a vividly depicted setting where the options for just everyone from the most vulnerable on up to the aspiring alpha male are severely limited. Sweaty, muscle-bound young men drunk on faux-machismo drive much of the action, but the true core of the film is the mother-daughter love/hate relationship which ultimately transforms into a revenge tale. The accomplished Koronel is always riveting as the thoughtful, resourceful protagonist, but Mona Lisa dives deep into the tormented soul of a spiteful woman who has abandoned all hope and inflicts misery on anyone she perceives as being under her control. She bares her fangs in scene after scene, but the film pulls off a minor miracle by making her a sympathetic figure in the end, if only for a fleeting moment or two.

Mysterious Object

“Mysterious Object at Noon” (2000) is the debut film of the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul who has come to define 21st century art-house cinema as much as any world filmmaker. Apichatpong has sent modern cinephiles swooning with gorgeous, enigmatic films like “Tropical Malady” (2004), “Syndromes and a Century” (2006), and the contemplative Palme d'Or-winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2010). Modern masterpieces all.

Apichatpong is often bundled in with the so-called “slow cinema” directors who have formed a rebellious vanguard against commercial cinema's frenetic, ever-intensifying pace, but the seductive power of his work stems from much more than just the power of the long, languorous take. The ending of “Syndromes and a Century”... oh my, I'm swooning again.

Anyway, it all started (feature-wise, anyway) with strange (yes, mysterious) hybrid movie that appears to blend documentary and fiction elements, though perhaps it's more accurate to say it shuttles back-and-forth between different fictional elements in an amorphous, chimerical structure that ultimately renders such distinctions irrelevant.

Taking its cue from the surrealist “exquisite corpse” game, “Mysterious Object” opens with a woman tearfully recounting the story of how her father sold her for bus fare only to be prompted by a man off -screen (presumably Apichatpong) to tell another story next. Real, make-believe, it doesn't matter. The camera then continues to rove the Thai countryside filming new subjects who each asked to add their own chapter to a constantly-evolving tale that begins as the simple story of a student and his caring teacher Dogfahr (played by multiple actresses) before turning into a science-fiction/horror tale with a touch of “Body Snatchers” about it, but with ample time for a boxing match, a plane crash, medical melodrama, musical interludes, and even fourth-wall busting moments when the cast takes a lunch break and the camera boom droops well into the shot.

The film surprises at every turn, excites even when it becomes, quite frankly, a bit boring, and defies ready description. I had seen it before, though I suspect even many die-hard Apichatpong fans are getting their first opportunity to see it with this release. I'll be interested to learn if they had the same thought that occurred to me on this second viewing: “Mysterious Object” is the rare debut film that may well need to be seen after viewers have watched the rest of the director's work in order to fully appreciate it. “Mysterious Object” contains so much of the Apichatpong-verse that was still waiting to be unpacked over the ensuing years (with, presumably, much more to come) that it feels like you're watching oracular previews of “Syndromes” and “Boonmee” and so forth. In that sense, it reminds me of the early Werner Herzog film “Fata Morgana” (1971), also a weird docu-fiction hybrid that features traces of most ofthe images and motifs that would later come to be known as Herzogian.

What I really mean to say is that I absolutely love this movie.

It's a real head-scratcher, though, no argument there. So is “Limite” (1931), a 1931 Brazilian silent film that has almost no right to exist. First of all, it was made by a 22-year-old aspiring poet from Brazil named Mario Peixoto who had no previous filmmaking experience and was eager to make a movie inspired by a single photograph (pictured at the top) he had seen in a newspaper in Paris. Tough sell there and when he pitched his idea to a few accomplished filmmakers, he was rejected. Undaunted, he somehow managed to make the movie on his own, working with an amateur cast and crew consisting mostly of his friends.

Second of all, the film was a commercial flop and Peixoto would never make another movie though, fortunately, the poetry thing worked out well for him. The movie was admired in certain cinephilic circles, but was seldom screened, and was confiscated in 1966 by the military government. It may well have ceased to exist entirely if not for a heroic restoration effort undertaken in 1975.

“Limite” tells the tale of a man and two women stranded at sea in a tiny boat, but, no, I can see I've already led you astray. It's not really a tale at all, but a series of associative images that may or may not be recounting the story of how each of them wound up on the boat. That's not really important. The young, enthusiastic tyro filmmaker seems much more interested in exploring the formal limits of this new-to-him medium than in constructing a narrative.

I suspect the best way for me to explain is to recount the images that have endured since I watched it a week ago. In one sequence, a woman works intently at a sewing machine, and the film cuts in to extreme closeups of fabric, buttons, and tape measures. In another scene, the camera swoops like a raptor at a man's face over and over again. Peixoto loves closeups that isolate body parts – a hand partially covering an open mouth, gangly legs, overhead shots of a man's parted hair. All with frequent cuts to rolling waves dappled by sunlight.

Does it add up to anything? I don't know that Peixoto cared either way, but I'm sure I can't tell you after a single viewing. I was enraptured by lengthy stretches, but ultimately felt the poetic experience was stretched out too long at just under two hours. On the other hand, I'm also a firm believer that saying a movie is too long is kind of a dopey thing to say, but I'm stuck with it now. Even dopier is the fact that I've yet to mention this silent film's lush score which is just as much of a structuring element as the images. Reconstructed closely from the original score, it consists of classical standards by Debussy, Satie, Prokofiev, and others, and sure sounds great in this restored version.

Revenge

“Revenge” (1989) is a straightforward enough title for a film that is anything but straightforward. Directed by Ermek Shinarbaev with a screenplay by the esteemed writer Anatoli Kim, “Revenge” is considered one of the defining films of the Kazakh(stan) New Wave, a wave I freely admit I was unaware of and which emerged as the Soviet Union was dissolving. The film takes place in Korea and on Sakhalin Island (north of Japan) and begins in the 18th century before jumping ahead to 1915 for a tale that will unfold slowly over several decades. A drunken teacher kills a girl in his charge, prompting her father to hatch a complex revenge plot which involves a long and fruitless pursuit, then turns to siring a child with his new wife and raising the boy to seek vengeance for the half-sister who died before he was born.

The simple title turns out, of course, to be ironic, as the pursuit of vengeance consumes multiple lifetimes and spans half a continent, only to wind up... well, I won't reveal it, but as you're watching the film, I'm sure you can figure out that Shinarbaev and Kim have no plans to present a linear tale with a neat, conclusive finish.

Law of the Border
On one of the set's extras, film producer Mevlut Akkaya compares Turkish writer-actor Yilmaz Guney to Marlon Brando and James Dean. I don't think he intends primarily to compare their acting styles, but rather refers to the iconic status Guney has in Turkish film culture. From what little I've read about Guney, this may understate the case as Guney didn't just play rebels on screen, but was a real-life crusader and outlaw, spending time in jail which didn't stop him from directing films by proxy.

Guney doesn't direct “Law of the Border” (1966) – that honor belongs to veteran Lutfi O. Akad – but he is the star of this frontier Western (by way of rural Turkey, that is) which pits impoverished villagers against government forces. Lean, ruggedly handsome Guney plays Hidir, one of the local leaders in a town where smuggling is effectively the only career option. Said occupation involves the precarious crossing of a border constantly patrolled by the military and protected by mine fields – oh, those poor sheep.

This sleek film (just 76 minutes long) wastes little time, but doesn't indulge in a simple good guy-bad guy dichotomy. Hidir is noble, but also stubborn and impulsive, while a new lieutenant sincerely wants to improve the declining towns under his watch with the help of a teacher eager to build a school to educate the boys (no mention of the girls' prospects, alas) so they have more choices than their fathers. Tradition and pride prove frustratingly resistant to change. Hidir tries his best to be a hero, but it's tough to overcome your social programming.

“Law of the Border” is yet another movie that was almost lost for good when a new military government in 1980 seized many films deemed critical. Only a single and incomplete print of the film survived, making this the perfect salvage operation for the World Cinema Project. 

Taipei Story

I won't go so far as to say this boxed set saves the best for last, but Edward Yang's “Taipei Story” (1985) is pretty tough to beat. Actually, that's not true. I think that Yang's “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991) and “Yi Yi” (2000), both also released by the Criterion Collection, are slightly better, but consider that high praise for Yang, not an indictment of the film.

The stories of “Taipei Story” have, in a sense, lurched to a halt just as the film picks them up. Lung (played by famed director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who also co-wrote the film) and Chin (pop singer Tsai Chin) profess to still have dreams, but it's uncertain if they even still have a life together. They can barely muster any enthusiasm while looking at a new apartment in the opening scene, and their vague plan to “go to America” doesn't convince anyone, including them. Chin's professional plans have been derailed by a corporate takeover which serves as a bitter reminder that personal loyalty has no value on a balance sheet. Lung's only fading pleasure revolves around his (also fading) memories of his youthful days as a baseball star.

Traditional slogans of the Chiang Kai-shek era provide neither comfort nor guidance, but turning to mainland China, Japan, or America for a new direction seems no more promising, the latter being defined as a place where you can shoot someone in your backyard, then drag him in your house and claim self-defense. Freedom!

The study of modern alienation, along with the numerous shots of sterile, imposing city architecture, glass facades reflecting the abyss, inevitably bring to mind comparisons to Antonioni, but Yang's protagonists aren't quite as glamorous in their disaffection. Lung may be wallowing in his own misery, but he's still a down-to-earth guy (Hou looks like like an everyday fellow, not a dashing leading man) who can muster enough energy to try to help both an old friend who's down on his luck and Chin's deadbeat father, providing brief sparks of warmth, or at least the prospect thereof.

“Taipei Story” is immaculately filmed and edited, as are all of Yang's films that I've seen. He was a modern master, and his death in 2006 at age 59 was a devastating loss for the film community. My only disappointment is that this really feels like a movie that should have its own solo release with ample extras, the same treatment Criterion gave to “A Brighter Summer Day” and “Yi Yi.” I hope that having it available (for now) only in this set won't limit its potential viewership.



Video:
“Revenge” and “Taipei Story” both look sharp and mostly damage-free, as you would expect from two of the most recent films on the set.

“Insiang” has a naturally “grubby” look to it, so it doesn't pop as vividly as the other two films just mentioned, but this high-def transfer provides a surprisingly sharp and detailed image with an appropriately subtle color palette.

“Mysterious Object” was shot in black-and-white on 16mm reversal stock and also has its own “grubby” look that is an integral part of the viewing experience. I can't quite say this features the same sharp image detail as other films on the set, but I think it looks just like it's supposed to, so no complaints here.

“Limite” and “Law of the Border” each show considerable damage related to their perilous journeys through life. One extended sequence in “Limite” is missing entirely. Some other shots are badly damaged enough that only the center of the image can be seen in the middle of the decaying edges. In a strange way, this adds to its appeal, though I'm sure everyone involved would prefer pristine, intact prints to work from. The undamaged shots are often quite breathtaking to look at in this high-def transfer. “Law of the Border” has significant scratches and other damage visible in many shots and had to rely on multiple sources, but we're fortunate it exists at all.

Audio:
“Law of the Border” has the tinniest sound, but it's fine, and the other films get treated with Mono mixes for all except “Mysterious Object” which gets a 5.1 surround mix. Optional subtitles are provided for each film.

Extras:
There are three double-sized keepcases tucked into the cardboard case for this box set. Each case includes three discs: a Blu-ray which contains two films, and then also a single DVD with each of the films on it. The first disc has “Insiang” and “Mysterious Object.” The second has “Revenge” and “Limite.” The third: “Law of the Border” and “Taipei Story.”

For each film, we get a two-minute introduction from Martin Scorsese, speaking on behalf of the World Cinema Project, and providing a little information about the filmmakers and the restoration involved.

Each film is also accompanied by a brief interview as the only other extra. For “Insiang” we get an interview with film historian and “man of cinema” Pierre Rissient (14 min.) For “Mysterious Object,” director Apichatpong Weerasethakul holds court (18 min.) On “Limite” filmmaker Walter Salles talks about the challenges in preserving the film (14 min.) For “Revenge” there's an interview with director Ermek Shinarbaev (19 min.) On “Law of the Border” film producer Mevlut Akkaya speaks (17 min.) and for “Taipei Story” we get a conversation between filmmakers Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edmond Wong (18 min.)

A thick, square-bound booklet is also tucked into the cardboard box alongside the three discs and includes individual essays for each film.

Final Thoughts:
Back when I reviewed the first volume of the World Cinema Project, I guessed that “Mysterious Object” and “A Brighter Summer Day” would be part of the next set, so I'm going to give myself one-and-a-half points for that. How about “Memories of Underdevelopment” and “Soleil O” for the next set? (Yes, I'm just scrolling through the titles listed at the World Cinema Project site) Considering how strong the first two sets have been, we can reasonably trust the selection process for the next one. Let's just hope it arrives a little quicker this time around.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles


JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (Akerman, 1975)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date August 25, 2009
Blu-ray Released on May 9, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

(This review of Chantal Akerman's masterpiece was written for the 2009 DVD release by the Criterion Collection. Sections below have been updated to discuss the 2017 Blu-ray re-release of the film.)

I have to dispel the rumor that Chantal Akerman's brilliant "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" (1975) consists of three hours of a woman doing housework. That's nonsense. It's three hours and twenty minutes. And she also goes shopping.

Each room in Jeanne's cramped Belgian apartment is filmed from one or two fixed camera set-ups, always the same ones (at least for the first half of the movie; it opens up a bit later on). The camera, placed about waist high, never moves and the action in each shot is filmed in real time with no analytical editing. When Jeanne prepares dinner, we watch the entire process from when she spreads flour on the table, whips the eggs, breads the cutlets and so on.

In some ways, “Jeanne Dielman” feels like the first spycam movie ever made. Usually Jeanne is in the shot but sometimes she wanders in and out as she completes her chores. The camera doesn't budge. It's almost as if the cameras in each room are rolling 24/7 and simply waiting for Jeanne to enter their field of vision, and for viewers to switch channels to watch the next room. When Jeanne's not there, we stare at the sink or the tureen on the dining room table or the bedroom closet. The film provides an uncomfortably intimate exploration of this tiny, titular space that almost completely defines Jeanne Dielman's claustrophobic world.


"Jeanne Dielman" traces three days in the life of its title character, a widow and homemaker who receives male “clients" once a day to pay the bills. Each day is rigidly segmented, a series of domestic tasks and rituals performed at the same time every day, a comfortable tedium which protects Jeanne from the horror of having free time to contemplate her life. At least until something goes wrong on the second day and disrupts her delicate, hard-earned stasis. Then she leaves the lid off the tureen, fumbles with the silverware, overcooks the potatoes, and wakes up a little earlier than usual. Chaos theory style, these minor variations eventually lead to major consequences, and the potential energy built up by three-plus hours of this rigorously structured study of a body (often not) in motion erupts into an unexpectedly kinetic final sequence.

Chantal Akerman was only 25 when she made "Jeanne Dielman." It's hard to believe someone so young could have such a clear and unique vision and the ability to realize it so well, but it's best not to fall into the trap of lauding her as a solitary genius. She had many collaborators on this film, crewed mostly by women, chief among them cinematographer Babette Mangolte and leading actress Delphine Seyrig.

Mangolte teamed up with Akerman to produce this "spycam" film, adapting a shooting style to fit the restricted space of the real apartment the film was shot in (some scenes were re-staged in a studio, but this footage wasn't used). Unable to knock out walls or remove ceilings, Mangolte and Akerman devised a way to cover each room with just a few set-ups and still create an asphyxiating immediacy.


Delphine Seyrig was a huge star by the time she agreed to work with this young and relatively unknown director. There was little chance for money or glory in the role, but she believed in the project. Jeanne Dielman in her dowdy sweaters is almost the polar opposite of the glamorous fashion icon Seyrig played in "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961), but in both films Seyrig is asked to "behave" more than she is to act. In "Marienbad" she was mostly a shape situated in her environment. Jeanne Dielman is a relatively expressionless woman, a robo-mom who performs her chores mechanically and, at least on the first go round, with total efficiency. It's hard to imagine that Seyrig had much fun with the role (and we see evidence of this on one of the DVD features) but she inhabits the body of Jeanne Dielman with a stolid blankness that would be anathema to many actresses. By gradual accumulation and uncomfortably close observation, Jeanne becomes one of the most tangible presences the cinema has ever witnessed. For my money, she's the greatest film character of all-time.

"Jeanne Dielman" is a transfixing experience that inspires a kind of solemn awe on an initial viewing, but upon reflection it also yields its fair share of humor. There's that painfully awkward scene where Jeanne wanders around the apartment with her pot of overcooked potatoes and winds up in the bathroom for some reason. And her wimpy, dependent son (Jan Decorte) who barely speaks and never once says thank you, the little bastard, when mom clears off each course. And the most enduring image of all, both creepy and funny, is that of the frugal Jeanne obsessively clicking the lights on and off as she exits one room and enters another. Has anyone counted the number of times we see her flick a light switch? Dozens for sure, possibly in the hundreds.

Did I mention the baby scene? No? Well let's just say it's not funny at all. In fact it's one of the saddest, most gut-wrenching scenes ever put on film. Just another of many remarkable moments from a remarkable film.

Spycams indulge voyeuristic impulses, of course. "Jeanne Dielman" is certainly not intended to appeal to prurient interests. Even a scene in which Jeanne bathes (waist-level camera unmoving, of course) isn't the least bit erotic. But the film does provide viewers the opportunity to see images (or "images between the images" in Akerman's terms) that they would not otherwise get a chance to see. More specifically, the film provides images of the domestic space previously deemed unfit for cinematic treatment, at least in such detail and clarity. Akerman relocates the traditional epic to the kitchen, the bedroom, and the dining room, turning the camera on a world known to hundreds of millions of women throughout the world but seldom the subject of cinema. I'd say that's the greatest accomplishment of "Jeanne Dielman," but there's a long list of accomplishments to choose from.

"Jeanne Dielman" is on the short list of films that changed the way I understood film. Every bit as much as Kubrick's “2001,” this domestic odyssey is the ultimate trip.


Video:
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 widescreen (anamorphic) ratio. The progressive transfer was digitally restored under Akerman's supervision. The grainy, textured image looks great. Sharp contrast, everything you expect from Criterion. Except that it's not high-def. But maybe someday soon...

Update for 2017 Blu-ray release: ...and maybe eight years isn't soon, but now it's here in glorious Blu-ray. Sure, sure, the jokes are easy. Man, you can really see Jeanne work that veal cutlet now! Watch those potatoes boil! But one of the greatest films ever made deserves the best presentation possible, and this high-def upgrade from Criterion renders 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in vivid detail. From the Criterion booklet, this 1080p transfer is sourced from a “new 2K digital restoration” and was “supervised by director Chantal Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte.” In addition to the improved detail evident throughout, the colors look a bit warmer overall than the prior SD transfer. The frame also shows more a bit more information around the edges – more of the room is visible on each side of the frame. You see just a smidge more of the cabinets overhead, etc. All in all, it looks pretty great.


Audio:
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Update for 2017 Blu-ray release: I sure wasn't too wordy when I wrote this before. That's because the sound design on "Jeanne Dielman" is pretty spare and straightforward. This linear PCM mono track is still a welcome improvement even if said improvement isn't particularly noticeable.

Extras:
This two-disc package is absolutely loaded.

Update for 2017 Blu-ray release: Criterion has imported all of the extras, including the insert booklet, from the 2009 release. The only difference is that they are now rendered in high-def, and are all included on a single Blu-ray rather than on the two discs from before.

"Autour de ‘Jeanne Dielman'" (69 min.) is the best on-set feature I have ever seen. Filmed by actor Sami Frey, this feature shows Chantal Akerman and Delphine Seyrig at work on set, and demonstrates the degree to which collaboration can also be a battle of wills. Seyrig struggles to understand what Akerman wants while Akerman strives to communicate as little as possible. Just enough to give the actress what she needs but not so much that she runs the risk of introducing too much psychology into the project. The back-and-forth conversations between them are fascinating. Seyrig is frustrated but always cordial. Akerman obviously has a crystal clear vision in her mind of what she wants, but some difficulty (and reluctance) in verbalizing it. It's an amazing feature, and deserves to be a staple on film school curricula.

"Saute ma ville" (1968) is Akerman's first short film. The 18-year-old Akerman stars as (does this sound familiar?) a woman in a kitchen who tends to a few chores and quickly falls apart. This is much more playful than "Jeanne Dielman" and has a lovely soundtrack which consists of (I presume) Akerman humming. It's wonderful to have an opportunity to see the first film by such a great director.

"Chantal Akerman on Filmmaking" is excerpted from a 1997 episode of "Cinéma, de notre temps" in which Akerman directs an episode about herself. It is basically a monologue in which she shares some fairly personal reflections on her craft.

The collection includes several interviews: Chantal Akerman (20 min, recorded in April 2009 for Criterion), cinematographer Babette Mangolte (23 min, April 2009), and a 2007 interview in which Akerman interrogates her mother Natalia (28 min.)

A brief interview with Akerman and Seyrig is excerpted from the February 15, 1976 episode of "Les rendez-vous du dimanche" (7 min.)

The insert booklet features an essay by Ivone Margulies, author of "Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman's Hyperrealist Everyday."

Final Thoughts:
Chantal Akerman is a much celebrated figure in cinephilic and academic circles, but largely unknown even to many fans of Francophone cinema. Criterion's release of "Jeanne Dielman" will, I hope, begin to remedy the situation. "Jeanne Dielman" is indisputably one of the greatest and most important films of the past half century. Though it is probably Akerman's greatest achievement, it's hardly the only highlight on her resume. "Je, tu, il, elle" (1974) is an intensely personal film that can be just as harrowing as "Jeanne Dielman." "News From Home" (1977) and "From The East" (1993) are exceptional as well. And “La chambre” (1972). And “Hotel Monterey” (1972). Well, you get the picture.

Update for 2017 Blu-ray release: And now Chantal Akerman is gone, and her loss still stings nearly two years later. I wrote "probably" before just to emphasize that Akerman made many great films, but I am confident that "Jeanne Dielman" is her masterpiece, as well as one of the masterpieces of world cinema. In fact, I wouldn't argue too strongly with anyone who claimed it was the greatest film ever made. And that makes this Blu-ray update, even without any new features, one of the most significant and welcome home theater releases of 2017.