Friday, July 21, 2017

Stalker


STALKER (Tarkovsky, 1979)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 18, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Plot Summary: The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) guides two other men, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) into the Zone, a dangerous and heavily guarded territory left behind by alien visitors (or maybe it was a meteor) some years ago. They infiltrate the Zone in search of the Room, located either a few hundred yards or a million miles from the Zone's outer border, a space where they hope to achieve their deepest desires.

There, now you know precisely nothing about Andrei Tarkovsky's “Stalker” (1979), loosely (and I mean loosely) adapted from the science-fiction novel “Roadside Picnic” by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, at least nothing of much relevance. You're welcome. I'll try to be more a bit more helpful. 


When I think of “Stalker,” I think of skulls. The three men's heads are balding, closely-shaved, and the camera lingers on their oblong craniums from behind, in front, and above, following closely (stalking) while they trudge slowly through the knee-deep water of the industrial wasteland of the Zone or clinging skull-tight as they sit or lie in the undulating grass and shifting sand dunes, contemplating where to move next, or whether there's still any point in moving at all.

When I think of “Stalker,” I think of the pollution. Tarkovsky may well have captured the single most fetid landscape in all of cinema. We might expect the “meatgrinder” sewer pipes to swell with waste, but the surface water teems with glistening oil as well, positively reeking of chemical effluent. No wonder the geography of the Zone shifts constantly, rendering even the seemingly straightest of paths a Mobius strip to nowhere – the Zone writhes in silent, unending torment.

When I think of “Stalker,” I think of how startlingly beautiful the film is despite this most devastated of landscapes. After all, the scenes outside of the Zone are filmed in drab, monochromatic sepia only to explode Oz-like into full color after the men cross an indeterminate barrier – not a Rubicon, they can turn around any time they want, but a definitive break into another realm, nonetheless, perhaps into the uncharted land of their own minds.


Everything about “Stalker” screams for a metaphorical interpretation – naming your characters only Stalker, Writer, and Professor certainly points viewers in that direction. But Tarkovsky said, “The Zone doesn't symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films; the Zone is a zone, it's life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through.” Many directors resist having their work pigeon-holed and it's reasonable to accuse Tarkovsky of playing coy here, but I choose to take him at face value.

Though the Stalker approaches the Zone with faith, as a holy seer of sorts (or at least as an aspirant), he winds up as lost as the Writer and the Professor. They stumble half-blindly through one maze-like section of the Zone after another, sometimes only to wind up back where they started, wasting time on ill-considered detours, yet stubbornly plunging ahead, all to reach a destination that may well prove to be a terrible disappointment. They ask a lot of questions along the way in lengthy, heady philosophical debates that straddle the border between profundity and sophistry, but find few answers, just more Zone to traverse.

All of which sure sounds like life to me. No clear path, no easy answers. Perhaps no destination at all, just the journey itself, made meaningful precisely my making it, and then making of it what you will.

Of course there's much more to the film. Much more than I've grasped yet. I haven't even mentioned the Stalker's wife and daughter, whom a cheeky critic could argue are the actual main characters of the story, though they spend most of it off-screen. Or how gloriously, rapturously slow “Stalker” is. Tarkovsky spoke often about sculpting with time, and his camera holds unwavering on lengthy shots of men walking or not moving at all, on fields of grass rippling in the breeze, yielding boredom in some viewers, hyper-attentive awareness to detail in others, carving out a contemplative space. If you fall into the latter camp, you might find yourself returning obsessively to the Zone, as thousands of other viewers have, searching for... but, no, just focus on the journey itself, and an immersive audiovisual experience like few others. “Stalker” joins “2001: A Space Odyssey” as one of the few films worthy of being considered “the ultimate trip.” 


Video:
“Stalker” recently completed a successful theatrical re-release with a new restoration from Mosfilm Studios, and this high-def transfer from Criterion is sourced from that restoration. “Stalker” mixes sepia-toned monochromatic sequences with naturalistic color ones and employed three cinematographers. With most of the principal filmmakers dead, nobody can confirm how close this restoration matches the original intent, but this 1080p transfer most certainly looks fantastic. Image detail is sharp throughout, the bright colors look rich and subtle, and the sepia that I used to think looked rather wan to a slightly distracting degree now looks better as well. I have no idea if some of the film's fanatical partisans are debating the “authenticity” of this Criterion release, but I've never seen the film looking any better (alas, I didn't get to catch it in a theater over the spring.)

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio (as always, photos in this review are not taken from the Blu-ray). 

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track has an unusually dynamic sound for a monaural track. In “Stalker” the sound design is just as crucial a creative element as the visuals and this lossless mix really makes the distinct sound effects stand out, along with the spare score by Eduard Artemyev. Optional English subtitles support the Russian audio.

Extras:
As exciting as it is to have “Stalker” available with a great new high-def transfer and a sharp audio mix, the relative lack of supplemental features is mildly disappointing. Fans might have expected a film of this stature to arrive packed to the gills both with historical features and scholarly analysis.

Perhaps the heftiest features were tied up in rights controversies, but the only substantial extra included is a new interview (29 min.) with Geoff Dyer, author of “Zona: A Book About A Film About a Journey to a Room.” Dyer really loves “Stalker.” I mean, really, really loves it. A few years ago, in addition to writing his book on the experience of watching the film over and over again, he also wrote “...it's not enough to say that 'Stalker' is a great film – it's the reason cinema was invented.” Dyer takes a half hour to talk about his experiences with the film, from his impatience on his first encounter with this “slow” movie to how easily he gets sucked back into the Zone at each new screening he attends. He begins with the interview with caution about “permanently inhabiting the land of the superlative” regarding the film, but, well, that's just his zone. And he makes it work.

The other extras are all older interviews, with the film's composer Eduard Artemyev (2000, 21 min.), set designed Rashit Safiullin (2000, 14 min.), and cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky (1996, 6 min.), the latter filmed in his hospital room shortly before his death.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Mark Le Fanu.

Final Thoughts:
Final thoughts? How can you have final thoughts on a journey that's just getting started? I'll settle for saying that while Criterion's release doesn't offer the bevy of extra we might have hoped for, the image and sound on this version are immaculate, and that's more than enough to make this a must-own for any Tarkovsky fan.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

L'argent


L'ARGENT (Bresson, 1983)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 11, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

An old man walks down the street while reading a newspaper. He passes by a parked car in which our protagonist, Yvon (Christian Patey), sits quietly and looks straight ahead. Several police cars speed by, sirens blaring. The old man continues walking until he sees three men, presumably police officers, crouching behind their cars, so still they could be sculptures. The old man hurries away. Across the street, another man (who we can't see clearly) walks out of a bank, holding a woman in front of him. One of the crouching men very deliberately aims his gun.

Cut back to Yvon as he sits in his car still staring blankly. A single gunshot rings out off-screen, but if Yvon hears it, he does not react. The robber retreats cautiously back into the bank - who fired at whom and why doesn’t anyone seem to be panicking? Cut back to Yvon once again as a volley of gunshots rattles off-screen. He reaches deliberately for the ignition and starts the car. Hold on an extended closeup of Yvon’s hands (it's always hands with Bresson) on the steering wheel as more sounds play out off-screen: shouts, police whistles, etc. We finally cut to an exterior shot of Yvon’s vehicle as a police car pulls alongside him. Yvon, his expression still blank, shifts the car into drive and peels out.

It’s the strangest, most subdued bank heist you’ve ever seen on film, and it is also a text book example of the idiosyncratic style of the great French director Robert Bresson. At least three quintessentially Bressonian features are on display here. First, there's Bresson’s oft-discussed approach to acting. He employed non-professional actors, whom he described as “models,” and trained them to perform as automatically and mechanically as possible, often using multiple takes to wear them out: the goal was for the models to act without inflection, often resulting in the stoic, passive “Bresson face.” (For more discussion of Bresson’s use of models, please check out my review of “Au hasard Balthazar”.)

Second, this scene offers an instructional lesson on Bresson’s revolutionary approach to sound. For Bresson, sound and image are often redundant, and if the two work together they do not necessarily reinforce each other but sometimes cancel each other out. If a sound conveys the essential meaning of the scene, there is simply no need to show a similar image as well. Therefore, when we hear the volley of gunshots and the whistles, we do not see the police shooting at the robbers, but rather Yvon’s hands as they rest limply on the steering wheel as if awaiting further instructions from their master. As for what precisely occurs at the bank, we are left to wonder - in Bresson’s view, the ear is more imaginative than the eye, and sound is not merely the bastard child of image.

Third, Bresson’s emphasis on economy and precision (“L’Argent” runs at just 81 minutes) is evident in this scene. Bresson ruthlessly stripped away all extraneous elements from his films, until he was left with only the essential elements required to tell the story. After Yvon speeds away, we see a brief car chase which Bresson conveys by two primary images: Yvon’s feet as they switch from the accelerator to the brake, and a shot of the police cruiser as seen in the side mirror of Yvon’s car. Cut back and forth between these two shots a few times and… there’s your car chase. It is also worth noting that this is not merely economical from an artistic point of view but from a pragmatic perspective as well - Bresson seldom worked with big budgets.


These three elements (among others) defined Bresson’s films for the bulk of his career and combined to produced one of the most distinct, hermetic, and endlessly fascinating bodies of work in all of cinema. If Bresson had not perfected these techniques (how is such a thing possible?), he had finely tuned them by the time he directed “L’Argent” (“Money”) in 1983 at the age of 82, and it was the last film the French master would ever make. Bresson, who died in 1999, intended to continue directing, but was unable to secure financing for his long-planned adaptation of the Book of Genesis, and he unofficially retired by the end of the 1980s. Fortunately, Bresson’s final film is also one of his greatest.

“L’Argent” is loosely based on Tolstoy's short story “The Counterfeit Note” which also translates as “The Forged Note” or “The False Coupon.” The film adaptation, updated to contemporary France, begins with two young men who pass off counterfeit bills to a local photography shop. The store owners discover that the bills are forged, but don’t want to get stuck with the loss so they, in turn, pass them on to Yvon Targe, the young man who delivers heating oil to their store. After Yvon is caught with the counterfeit money, he returns to the store with the police in order to prove his innocence, but the owners pretend not to recognize him. From this point, Yvon’s fate is sealed and his situation degenerates from bad to worse to unspeakable.

“L’Argent” traces the spread of evil (flowing by the same route as capital) from its first flowering to its final violent explosion. As the counterfeit notes change hands, they leave destruction in their wake and nobody escapes fully unscathed. In the opening scene, a young man asks for a handout from his father; in the climactic scene a homicidal Yvon has only one question to ask: “Where’s the money?” 


Bresson believed in predestination (or maybe not – it's a thing critics have often written but it's a lot more complex than that) and Yvon is an innocent victim fated to be laid low by circumstances beyond his control. He is not merely falsely imprisoned but is actually transformed by the system; once released from jail, he decides he might as well become the monster everyone thinks he is.

Bresson’s films are often considered to be pessimistic and grim, but “L’Argent” ramps that dark vision up to a new level. In many of Bresson’s films, the characters achieve a kind of grace or even redemption by way of their suffering, but there is little, if any, sense of redemption in “L’Argent,” the ending of which is one of the bleakest notes in cinema. Except maybe in “Au hasard Balthazar.” Here you can choose from two Bresson quotes: one in which he described himself as a “jolly pessimist” and another in which he rejected the dourness ascribed to his vision: “You are confusing pessimism with lucidity.”

Like most of Bresson’s films, “L’Argent” accumulates its remarkable affective power through its puritanical restraint. Yvon remains an opaque figure with a blank expression even as he transforms from an innocent working class man into a remorseless killer. We could easily imagine the Hollywood version of the same story with a classically-trained method actor raving and gibbering and chewing the scenery with dramatic music to underscore the transition, but Bresson does not pursue that route. Nor does he linger on any of the typical gory elements. As he does in the car chase, Bresson simply picks a few objective details and deploys them to convey an entire scene. Bresson’s tendency to elide the main action is so pronounced in “L’Argent” that even an attentive viewer might miss altogether the fact that, in one sequence, Yvon murders two hotel owners. The ending is all the more potent and unnerving because of the sense of clinical detachment cultivated by Bresson; we are all invited to consider the proceedings with the dispassionate eye of a coroner rather than as a sympathetic and involved viewer.

We do not quite know why Yvon does what he does or why he selects his victims. Bresson’s cinema is one of surfaces, not psychology – which is to say it's grown-up cinema. Character is revealed only through behavior, not through exposition or analysis. There are no “character moments” offered as a sop to the audience, and Yvon’s sudden decision to cross the line into violence comes as a shock as we have not been prepared for it as we might expect. Bresson provides the what - the viewer, if he or she simply must, provides the why.


Video:
“L'argent” was released on DVD by New Yorker back in 2005 and as much as I love and miss that dearly departed label, this Criterion 1080p upgrade puts the old transfer to shame, and then some. The difference is considerable that I've decided to post the Criterion release as a separate review instead of just adding sections to my old New Yorker review.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. “This new 2K restoration was undertaken from the 35 mm original camera negative” and the improvement in the high-def image reveals much more detail while also providing warmer, more naturalistic colors. It's hard to imagine the film ever looking any better than this on home release.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track is crisp and a very welcome upgrade that highlights Bresson's meticulous sound design, from the loud snaps of clothespins to the whining of a dog. Just as Bresson suggested sound could be more important than image, this audio upgrade may be more important than the sharper picture. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Kent Jones's commentary track on the old New Yorker DVD may be my favorite commentary of all time, and it's a great disappointment Criterion didn't include it here. Perhaps there were licensing rights. Jones's commentary is so exceptional I would still recommend the New Yorker release, even with its inferior transfer, solely for his contribution.

However, as sorely as Jones's commentary is missed (and not replaced by any other commentary track), Criterion has included what may be their best extra of the year, a 50-minute visual analysis by critic James Quandt. In “L'argent, A to Z,” Quandt covers an astonishing array of topics while somehow managing not to skimp on anything, providing an essential primer on Bresson's unique working style and philosophy, touching on Bresson's emphasis on sound (silence) and his various artistic influences, and so very much more. If you're looking for an informative and accessible introduction to Bresson, Quandt's essay is your go-to choice.

The disc also includes a May 16, 1983 press conference (30 min.) at the Cannes Film Festival, including Bresson and most of his cast. He is typically elusive and absolutely magnificent. The only other feature is a very short (26 sec.) trailer.

The insert booklet includes a new essay by critic Adrian Martin and a transcript of a 1983 interview with Bresson conducted by critic Michel Ciment.

Final Thoughts:
Twelve years ago, I asked if “L'argent” was the greatest final film by an esteemed director. I suppose “Eyes Wide Shut” is a serious contender, but there's no need to choose. I had some vague concerns when I screen “L'argent” for a film class a few years ago, but my students were blown away, which affirms both their taste and Bresson's accomplishment. How much do I love Bresson? Sometimes I think both that “L'argent” is my favorite film and yet not even my favorite Bresson. Yes, he's so great he generates his own paradoxical field. And he's even greater than that. This Criterion release is a bit light on extras, but the Quandt essay is sensational and the high-def transfer a thing of beauty.

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.