Monday, April 19, 2021

Irma Vep

 


IRMA VEP (Assayas, 1996)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 27, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

I remember first watching “Irma Vep” (1996) in film school. Like many viewers, I was baffled by the film's enigmatic ending and couldn't get those final scratchy, assaulting images out of my mind for weeks. While struggling, like any earnest film studies scholar, to interpret their meaning, I failed, like any earnest film studies scholar, to notice the film's most obvious quality: It's a total hoot!

In his vertiginous portrait of the joys, terrors, chaos, jealousy, and inspiration that form the short-lived desert-bloom culture of a film set, writer-director Olivier Assayas has plenty to say about the perilous yet exciting state of French cinema as it celebrates its centennial and warily eyeballs a new millennium. But whether “Irma Vep” turns out to be a requiem for or a celebration of the seventh art, Assayas and his cast and crew seem determined to have fun along the way.

Actress Maggie Cheung, playing a fictionalized version of herself, arrives on the set of a low-budget French art film in which she will star. She's three days late thanks to her previous project, a big budget Hong Kong action flick that ran over schedule, a reminder that Cheung (both the real one and the film's fictional version) is one of the most famous movie stars in the world, even if some of the members of the tiny, insular French crew are barely aware of her work.

Cheung meets with director Rene Vidal (Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Pierre Leaud) who has made the bold decision to cast the Hong Kong star in his remake of the Louis Feuillade silent film serial “Les vampires” (1915-16). Cheung will play Irma Vep, the daring criminal thief first portrayed by Musidora, an actress hailed at the time by surrealist poets as the very definition of the modern, liberated French woman and who was crowned Paris's Queen of Cinema in 1926. Why cast Maggie Cheung as this most definitively French of French icons? Vidal attributes his choice to Cheung's “grace” and her “mysterious” persona. In other words, he's turned on by her.

Libido is one of the primary engines of creativity, and Cheung's presence on set fuels a great deal of creativity. Costumer designer Zoe (Nathalie Richard), tasked with repairing the slinky but flimsy latex catsuit into which Cheung is poured, both befriends and lusts after the actress. Some crew members gossip about Cheung's alleged sexual exploits while others pigeonhole her in xenophobic fashion as “the Chinese girl.” Cheung, for her part, integrates herself into the film set's culture while retaining a bemused detachment, something necessary to carve out her own identity while being fetishized by her co-workers in this strange, new land.

Assayas served time as a critic before directing his own films, and he's keenly aware that everyone holds their own loopy view of what makes a movie great. A hyperbolic interviewer (Antoine Basler) browbeats Cheung with his unbridled enthusiasm for John Woo (ah, the “ballet” of violence!) and his devotion to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme, true artists who make movies for real people, not the pallid arthouse fare served up by intellectuals for intellectuals. Conversely, two former militant leftist filmmakers screen their old agitprop movie at a late-night cast party, but to minimal enthusiasm. For an on-set accountant (Alex Descas), what matters most is that the film can be projected to amortize at seven percent – now that's a great movie!

Rene, described at one point as a director who “used to be very good,” experiences a violent breakdown and gets replaced on the project as it rapidly spirals out of control. But just when all seems lost, we see the short bit of film that Rene had a chance to edit before his ouster. The grainy black-and-white footage, with its visual and audio scratches, and crude animation seemingly drawn right onto the film, could be seen as evidence of the director's mental turmoil, or perhaps as the promise of a whole new direction in cinema, a merging of the experimental (those two leftists at the party) and the mainstream (John Woo's “ballet”) that has always defined the medium. Perhaps you can still be a radical after all, even after a hundred years of filmmaking and the need to coordinate budgets with a half-dozen international production companies. No wonder Assayas describes “Irma Vep” as his film that has the happiest ending. Of course “Irma Vep” only pulled in a few hundred thousand at the box office on a $1.4 million budget so, y'know, there won't be a sequel.



Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. According to Criterion: “This new 2K digital restoration was undertaken from the 16 mm and 35 mm camera negatives.” Most of the film was shot on super 16 and this 1080p restoration preserves the grainy look with sharp detail throughout.

Audio:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track provides a sense of depth and handle's the film's eclectic soundtrack quite well. Optional English subtitles support the audio which is in French and English.

Extras:

Criterion has packed this release so heavily, they've spread the supplements over two Blu-ray discs.

In addition to the film itself, Disc One includes a recent interview (2021, 28 min.) with Assayas. The writer-director discusses the film's genesis, which started as a project with filmmaker Claire Denis. He also discusses how he first met Maggie Cheung (to whom he was married from 1998-2001) at Cannes, then writing and shooting “Irma Vep” rather quickly while he was preparing for a much larger project.

Disc One also includes two older supplements previously included on other discs. First is a conversation (2003, 34 min.) between Assayas and critic Charles Tesson. They discuss their shared passion for Asian film, and a 1984 trip they took to Hong Kong, which turned into a major article in “Cahiers du Cinema.” Second is an interview (2003, 17 min.) with actresses Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard regarding their experience on “Irma Vep.”

Disc One also includes thirty minutes of “On the Set” footage from the making of “Irma Vep.”

Disc Two leads off with “Les Vampires: Hypnotic Eyes” (2016, 59 min.), the sixth episode of Louis Feuillade's landmark serial film. I think “Les vampires” is public domain, though I'm not sure how that concept applies in French law, but I know it's not hard to find online. However, this 1080p upgrade of an episode is a pleasure to watch.

The second disc includes perhaps the best supplement in this package, the documentary “Musidora: The Tenth Muse” (2013, 68 min.) Directed by Patrick Cazals, this feature tells the story of the much celebrated French actress who portrayed the sultry Irma Vep, and inflamed the fantasies of a few generations of French film lovers. Musidora (real name Jeanne Roques) was far more than a fetish object. She was one of the first French women to direct films. She also produced and wrote in addition to acting, and hobnobbed with major figures of the time, including her friend Colette. Later, she worked with Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque. This is a fantastic documentary.

In “The State of Cinema 2020” (46 min.), Assayas holds court on what has and hasn't changed in film in the quarter century since he released “Irma Vep.” He has devoted a lot of thought to this and bombards the viewer with his densely-packed arguments, which is fascinating and also might require a few sittings to absorb.

Disc Two wraps up with two short supplements. “Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung” (1997, 5 min.) is a short directed by Assayas, which sort of picks up where those final images of “Irma Vep” left off. We also get 4 minutes of Black-and-White Rushes of Cheung on a rooftop set in her Irma Vep costume.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by writer and film programmer Aliza Ma.

Final Thoughts:

With “Irma Vep,” Olivier Assayas appears to be asking a few major questions about his career and his medium of choice: “What have I been doing?” and “What can I do next?” The answer to the latter appears to be “just about anything.” “Irma Vep” argues, in part, that boundaries between genres and between high and low art are false. Cinema thrives on the confluence of its many historical crosscurrents, and Assayas's portrait of creativity as a gloriously chaotic mess is intoxicating and downright inspiring. Criterion has loaded this two-disc release with a strong array of extras to support this top-notch high-def transfer.


Sunday, February 21, 2021

Chop Shop

 


CHOP SHOP (Bahrani, 2007)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 23, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

In an early scene in director Ramin Bahrani's “Chop Shop” (2007), twelve-year-old Alejandro (called Ale, and played by non-professional actor Alejandro Polanco) and his friend step onto a New York City train with boxes of candy for sale. Young Ale delivers the passengers a brazen, honest pitch: “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, sorry for the interruption. We are not gonna lie to you. We are not here selling no candy for no school basketball team. In fact, I don’t even go to school, and if you want me back in school today, I got candy for you.” There you have the entire film and its protagonist in a nutshell: no nonsense and a whole lot of moxie.

“Chop Shop” takes place in the Willets Point neighborhood of Queens, right in the shadow of Shea Stadium; chants of “Let’s go Mets!” can be heard in the background but they might as well be voices from halfway around the world. Willets Point is its own hermetically-sealed world of garages and body shops where Alejandro busts his ass to scrape out a living among the mechanics (both legit and dubious ones) and the street hustlers. Little Ale gamely flags down drivers who havecruised into the area looking for cheap repairs, guiding them to the shop run by his boss Rob (Rob Sowulski, a real garage owner.) A perpetual motion machine, Ale skips up stairways, races across bridges, and squeezes his tiny body through windows in the relentless pursuit of an extra buck, selling bootleg DVDs, stolen hubcaps, or anything else he can scrounge.

Soon, Ale's teenage sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzalez) arrives from a safe house to live with him in a cramped room above Rob's garage. Without parents, an education, or any kind of social safety net to rely on, the siblings' life seems precarious, but Ale is confident he can surmount any obstacle. He assures Izzy there's nothing to worry about because: “I'm gonna work this shit out.” Even when his faith in the value of all his hard work is sorely tested by jarring revelations that challenge what's left of his youthful naivete, Ale just keeps working shit out.

Like Bahrani's debut feature, “Man Push Cart” (2005), his second film immerses viewers in the working world of marginalized characters, most of whom are persons of color. Likewise, “Chop Shop” is also shot with a hand-held HD camcorder (with Michael Simmonds back as cinematographer) that follows Ale everywhere as he works and sometimes plays in Willets Point. Actor Alejandro Polanco actually worked part-time in Rob Sowulski;s garage for a few months during shooting, and this experience, enhanced by the intimacy of the handheld camerawork, lends the film an authentic feel few filmmakers have ever been able to capture so vividly. Don't mistake it as a pseudo-documentary, however. Bahrani and crew shot dozens of takes for some scenes in pursuit of that convincing illusion.

“Chop Shop” is also a city symphony film. Hundreds of films have been shot in New York City, many of them in Manhattan. Some have focused on other neighborhoods, but Willets Point is a kind of forgotten land, unseen by the hordes of Mets fans congregating right next door at Shea Stadium (at least until Shea was dismantled in 2009). Manhattan is clearly visible across the river, yet plays almost no role in the lives of the denizens of Willets Point. But this neighborhood of cheap side-view mirrors and quickie paint jobs is every bit as much a part of New York as anything “Sex and the City” or Woody Allen have ever depicted.

Alejandro Polanco delivers one of the best performances by a child actor that I've ever seen. Ale is plucky and preternaturally poised but without a hint of precociousness, and Polanco bought into the role completely, going places some adult stars wouldn't dare. In the train scene mentioned above, Polanco went onto a real train and sold candy to real passengers (a few were plants from the cast) who, in typical New York fashion, barely paid any attention to the camera. They just wanted some candy, like Ale just wanted some money. No nonsense. And a whole lot of moxie. What a great movie.



Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 ratio. Like “Man Push Cart” this film was shot on an HD Camcorder, but this high-def transfer looks a bit sharper, especially in motion. Detail is strong, colors are naturalistic. It's a solid improvement from the 2008 DVD released by Koch Lorber with its interlaced transfer, the only other release of this film I've seen.

Audio:

The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio mix. The sound mix provides some separated details (background sound from location shooting) but is mostly spare with clearly-mixed dialogue. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:

Criterion is releasing both of Ramin Bahrani's first two feature films this week, “Man Push Cart” being the other. They've included a similar array of supplements for each film.

The film is accompanied by an old 2006 commentary track featuring Bahrani, Polanco, and cinematographer Michael Simmonds. This is listed as a 2006 commentary even though the film was released in 2007.

“In Search of the American Dream” (2020, 27 min.) is a conversation between Bahrani and scholar Suketu Mehta which touches on a variety of topics, including the influences of Ken Loach and neo-realism on Bahrani's work.

“Making Chop Shop” (2020, 22 min.) is a conversation among Bahrani, Polanco (now grown up), actor Ahmad Razvi (the star of “Man Push Cart” who also has a supporting role in “Chop Shop”), and assistant director Nicholas Elliott. Bahrani talks about first meeting Polanco in school as well as other details about production and even about getting to watch the film in Cannes while seated near Abbas Kiarostami. Viewers will probably be most interested in seeing the adult Polanco, now a successful entrepreneur.

Criterion has also included some Rehearsal Footage from the film, two different sequences that run a total of 33 minutes.

We also get a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Final Thoughts:

I'm certain I'm not qualified to determine what the single best American independent film of the 21st century is. I'm equally certain that “Chop Shop” is on the short list of contenders for that honor. I fell in love with it the moment Ale gave his pitch on the train, and I found it every bit as potent on a rewatch 14 years later. Criterion has given this remarkable the quality high-def release it has long deserved.


Man Push Cart

 


MAN PUSH CART (Bahrani, 2005)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 23, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

In a dimly-lit warehouse, silhouetted men lift boxes, pry open metal doors, and haul heavy equipment, all to prepare for another day of work on the streets. In his feature debut, director Ramin Bahrani immediately immerses viewers in the milieu of New York City food cart vendors, and the daily routine of protagonist Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) as he attaches a propane tank to the back of his cart; he'll lug that tank with him everywhere he goes, unable to risk abandoning the only frayed lifeline still tethering him to the elusive American Dream.

Ahmad drags his bulky cart behind him, huffing and sweating his way to his assigned corner so he can sell doughnuts and coffee (in cups reading “We Are Happy To Serve You”) to yuppie office workers. In one harrowing sequence, he loses control of the cart and nearly tumbles into the path of merciless NYC traffic. The accident really happened and Razvi, an amateur actor who actually ran a food cart for a year, picked himself back up and heaved the cart as far as he could, hoping that the camera picked up the shot.

“Man Push Cart” (2005) largely defines Ahmad by his work at first, and we only gradually learn a few selected facts about him. A fairly recent immigrant from Pakistan, he is estranged from his young son, and his wife is dead for reasons unspecified though her parents blame Ahmad for it. At one point, Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a Pakistani-American businessman, recognizes him as a successful pop singer from back home - the “Bono of Lahore” as Mohammad puts it.

Mohammad tries to give “Bono” a career boost, but Ahmad struggles to complete most tasks, whether they involve repainting windows, working a shift at a concert, or taking care of a kitten he finds in the street. Ahmad even watches passively as Mohammad vies for the affections of Noemi (Leticia Dolera), a Spanish food cart vendor with whom Ahmed has forged a modest connection.

Slump-shouldered, eyes downcast, voice hesitant, Ahmad may be suffering from depression, but it's fair to speculate if he might simply be exhausted. Bahrani and cinematographer Michael Simmonds, filming primarily with a handheld HD camcorder, stalk alongside Ahmad as he laboriously tows that cart along the same streets every day to the same corner to sell the same fifty-cent bagels - an extra ten cents for butter, fifty for cream cheese - all for the privilege of repeating the process the next day (yes, Bahrani cites Camus' “The Myth of Sisyphus” as an inspiration.) The camera clings closer still as Ahmad uses his totemic propane tank as a stepladder to hop a wall so he can eavesdrop on his in-laws, just to feel close to his son.

Every day demands hard labor made harder still in the aftermath of 9/11 and the shadow of the fallen Twin Towers. Ahmad and his fellow immigrants, the bulk of the NYC food cart workforce, live and work in a city where they can be targeted as “terrorists” at any moment, something that actually happened to Bahrani and his crew while shooting the film. If you wonder why Ahmad doesn't seize all his opportunities like the hungry dog he's expected to be, just imagine how tired he must be.

Bahrani researched this project for years, getting to know real food cart workers and learning about their work days. Working with a non-professional cast, a small budget, and an even smaller crew, Bahrani produced a true American independent film of the old-school DIY variety, one devoid of cloying indie quirk but heavy on respectful, empathetic observation. “Man Push Cart” captures a New York City seldom presented on film, a remarkable feat the director would pull of again with his second feature, “Chop Shop”(2007), also released on Blu-ray this week by Criterion.


Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The movie was shot on an HD camcorder, and it looks a bit washed out and not always sharp in motion, even in this new 1080p transfer. Darker scenes don't reveal a lot of detail at times. However, it all works well for the authentic feel of a low-budget film shot on the streets – a glossy, flawless look wouldn't be appropriate for the material. The handheld photography in this film is sensational at times, and this transfer does justice to the whole production.

Audio:

The film is presented with a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio sound mix. Location sounds (traffic, etc.) are well-mixed here and the unobtrusive score by Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian is well treated. Optional English SDH subtitles support the mostly English audio (with some Urdu).

Extras:

Criterion is releasing two Bahrani films this week, “Chop Shop” being the other. They've included a similar array of supplements for each film.

The film is accompanied by an old 2005 commentary track featuring Bahrani, actor Ahmad Razvi, cinematographer Michael Simmonds, and assistant director Nicholas Elliott.

Criterion has also included “Backgammon” (1998, 12 min.), a short film by Bahrani about an Iranian-American family and a little girl who just wants to play backgammon with her grandfather. Clearly inspired by the works of Abbas Kiarostami, it even includes a direct and very sweet reference to Kiarostami's “Where Is the Friend's House?”

“Formation of a Filmmaker” (2020, 19 min.) is a conversation between Bahrani and scholar Hamid Dabashi, a former professor of Bahrani's at Columbia. They discuss some of Bahrani's influences, including Persian literature. Bahrani also talks a bit about his early production methods, including rewriting his script to suit his actors and also how he shot “Man Push Cart” with virtually no coverage, leaving little wiggle room in the editing bay.

The disc also includes a “Making Of” piece (2020, 25 min.), a discussion among Bahrani, Razvi, and Nicholas Elliott. Bahrani talks about first meeting Razvi as a server in his family's sweetshop. They also talk about other incidents during production, including being contacted by the FBI after a racist apparently placed a call claiming they were engaged in suspicious activities.

We also get a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri.

Final Thoughts:

Bahrani's first feature film played at Venice and Sundance, and helped provide the breakthrough for a career that has continued for nearly twenty years now, with his most recent release, “The White Tiger” (2020), debuting on Netflix. Criterion has provided a solid release for the debut film of one of the best American independent filmmakers of his generation.




Sunday, February 14, 2021

Mandabi

 


MANDABI (Sembene, 1968)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 16, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene's first feature, “Black Girl” (1966), may not have instantly earned him the title of “father of African cinema” that now defines the author and filmmaker's legacy, but its international success enabled him to assume greater control over his work. Sembene could only secure funding for “Black Girl” by filming in French, the colonial language in which he also wrote his earliest novels, but he was able to shoot his next feature, “Mandabi” (1968), in Wolof, making it the first West African film shot in an African language. This was crucial for an artist who wanted to speak directly to Africans. As Sembene once said, “Africa is my audience; the West and all the rest are just markets.”

Adapted from Sembene's own short story, the title “Mandabi” refers to a money order that arrives unexpectedly in a working-class section of Dakar, Senegal. A young man working as a street sweeper in Paris has sent the money back home to his uncle, Ibrahima Dieng (Makuredia Guey), for safekeeping and to help pay the bills. This windfall would seem to be a godsend for the unemployed Dieng and his two hard-working wives, Mety (Yunus Ndiay) and Aram (Isseu Niang) but in Sembene's tale misery soon follows, albeit by an often-comedic route.

To cash the money order, Dieng must first scrounge up enough change for the bus ride to the downtown post office. There the illiterate Dieng needs to pay a man (played by Sembene) to read him the letter accompanying the money order. The postal clerk then informs Dieng he can't cash the money order without a birth certificate. For which he'll have to pay for a photograph – a nearby photographer is eager to take his money, less willing to deliver the actual picture. Every neighbor and relative holds a hand out too, each with a story of legitimate need. Each step demands a piece of flesh, which eventually leaves nothing behind but a skeleton picked clean.

While much of the cast was non-professional, Guey was an accomplished stage actor and his physical performance is a source of both the film's humor and its tragedy. After a healthy repast served dutifully by his wives, Dieng belches his satisfaction and can barely drag his portly body into bed to sleep it off. He constantly fidgets, running his hand over his bald head or picking at his brilliantly colored clothing while he wanders the city on his doomed quest to complete what should be the simplest of tasks. By the end, his head droops under the weight of a bureaucracy designed to crush him, even nearly a decade after Senegalese independence.

All is not lost, though. Just as “Black Girl” ended with the promise of revolution in the form of a boy wearing a traditional African mask, so “Mandabi” climaxes with a cry for activism. Reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's direct address to the audience in “The Great Dictator,” the postman who originally brought the cursed money order into Dieng's life exhorts the harried man and his wives to change the country themselves, not to wait for someone else to do it. Rise up! Sembene always had sympathy for his oppressed protagonists, but sometimes also expressed frustration with their passivity.

“Mandabi” was Sembene's first color film, and the contrast between the dazzling multi-hued clothing of the proletarian characters with the plain monochromatic suits of the bureaucratic predators is quite striking. Sembene may have emphasized the political over the aesthetic, but “Mandabi” showcases the vitality of life in the working-class neighborhood, from our hero's first hearty burp to the stylish tailoring of both the men and women.

These lives and these places were seldom represented on film before Sembene, certainly not so vibrantly or with such an eye for detail. As Sembene said, “If Africans do not tell their own stories, Africa will soon disappear.” “Mandabi” is a tale told by an African about Africans in their own language, marking it as another major development both in Sembene's singular career and for all of world cinema.


Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This 4k digital restoration was undertaken by STUDIOCANAL at VDM... from a 35 mm interpositive.” The color palette is bright with blues and reds that pop off the screen. Image detail is sharp and looks great both with close-ups of faces and in longer shots of downtown Dakar.

Audio:

The film is presented with an LPCM mono audio mix. The percussion-heavy musical score sounds great and there's no evidence of distortion from this remastered audio. Optional English subtitles support the Wolof dialogue.

Extras:

Criterion has included several supplemental features with this Blu-ray release.

Film scholar Aboubakar Sanogo provides an introduction (30 min.) covering a range of topics concerning the film's background as well as relevant political and social context . This touches on Sembene's political beliefs, details about the film's production, and an array of other topics.

A conversation (19 min.) between author Boubacar Boris Diop and feminist activist Marie Angelique Savane gives the perspective of people who lived through political upheaval in Senegal in the 1960s, helping to provide more context for the significance of the release of “Mandabi.” As Savane says, “For the first time, a movie was speaking to us directly.”

“Praise Song: Remembering Sembene” (15 min.) consists of outtakes from the 2015 documentary “Sembene!” and includes several snippets of interviews.

Criterion has also included “Taux” (1970, 27 min.), a short film by Sembene, adapted from his own short story. Related to “Mandabi,” it tells of a young Senegalese man's struggle to find a job, including having to pay for a ticket just for the privilege of entering the workplace. It doesn't have the satirical bent of “Mandabi” focusing primarily on the outrages the characters must endure.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by scholar Tiana Reid as well an excerpt from a 1969 interview of Sembene conducted by film critic Guy Hennebelle.

And perhaps the best extra of all is Criterion's inclusion of a separate booklet which reprints Sembene's short story from which he adapted the film “Mandabi.” Translated from the French by Clive Wake, the story runs just over 60 pages in this format.

Final Thoughts:

With a strong high-def transfer and several extras, this release does justice to one of Sembene's major works. “Mandabi” becomes the second Sembene film in The Criterion Collection. Djibril Diop Mambety's “Touki Bouki” (1973) will also be getting a stand-alone Criterion release next month. Here's hoping this is the start of many African films set to join the collection.



Monday, January 25, 2021

The Ascent

 


THE ASCENT (Shepitko, 1977)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 26, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

Larisa Shepitko scored fame and success early in her career, first as a prize-winning student at Moscow's film school (where she was a disciple of the legendary director Alexander Dovzhenko), then with the film “Wings” (1967), released when she was just 28. In the film, an ace jet pilot struggles to find a sense of purpose after the war, finding life as a mother and a schoolteacher less than fulfilling. What's the use of being a war hero if hardly anybody remembers you? “Wings” generated controversy in the Soviet press and also showcased Shepitko's ability to express her characters' spiritual struggles with sensitivity and insight.

In “The Ascent” (1977), adapted from a novella by Vasil Bykov, Shepitko turns her focus to the inner torment of two Soviet partisans in Nazi-occupied Belarus. Tasked with braving the icy winter to scavenge supplies for their beleaguered unit, the contemplative teacher Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and the peasant-class soldier Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) are quite obviously doomed from the start, and the story centers on the very different ways in which they choose to face their inevitable fate.

“The Ascent” outchills “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” as perhaps the snowiest film ever made, with vast snowy landscapes blinding both its characters and the viewer in stark black-and-white. In a virtuoso sequence, our two protagonists face off against a group of Nazis. Shot in the leg, Sotnikov can barely prop himself up in the snow as he fires into the whiteness at a tiny dark figure in the distance. Has he hit somebody? There's no way to tell. For a moment the battle appears to be over, but another return volley rings out. He fires again at a hazy silhouette, ready to die rather than be captured by the Huns. Rybak, not as eager to embrace martyrdom, flees through the woods at a gruelingly slow pace as he can only trudge through knee-deep snow, but eventually returns to drag his wounded friend away from the fight.

The bulk of the first half of the film pits Sotnikov and Rybak against the implacable elements, but they face even more remorseless foes once the action moves indoors. Along with a hapless mother (Lyudmila Polyakova, in a breakout role) who tried to provide them refuge, they are arrested, interrogated, and taunted with their impending “liquidation.” Faced with torture, Sotnikov and Rybak, previously colleagues united against a common foe, respond very differently.

This was the crux of the “neo-parable” for Shepitko, the trying of men's souls in the ultimate crucible. It's easy to speak of selflessness, but idealism can be burned away by the sting of a hot poker on vulnerable flesh. Who will protect his fellow soldiers and who will save his own ass? The film's gallery of tight close-ups of faces both old and young, some crusted in ice, some wracked with pain, others contemplating eternity, pull us ever closer to these internal landscapes, the chilliest regions of all, and the spaces Shepitko is most interested in exploring.

The grim final act is drawn out to an almost unbearable length, made all the more grueling as viewers can't possibly be deluded enough to expect a happy ending or a last-minute cavalry rescue. Even the most heroic character may not be able to maintain his resolve as he is forced to take one step after another through crusted snow to the gallows.

"The Ascent” was hailed as Shepitko's greatest achievement to date and won the Golden Bear at the 1977 Berlin Film Festival. In 1979, Shepitko, aged 41, died in a car accident along with several of her crew members during production of a film that would later be completed and release by her husband, director Elem Klimov.



Video:

“The Ascent” was originally released in 2008 by Criterion in their old no-frills Eclipse line as part of a two-disc set along with Shepitko's “Wings.” The old DVD transfer was fairly strong, but this new 1080p transfer, “created in 4K resolution from the 35 mm original camera negative and restored by Mosfilm,” represents a substantial improvement. Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, this high-def transfer provides the sharp black-and-white contrast needed to see detail in the many washed-out snowy scenes. The extra detail visible in the numerous closeups is a major improvement as well.

Audio:

The film is presented with a LPCM mono audio track. The sounds of wind whipping, of gunshots ringing out, of feet crunching through thick snow are isolated quite clearly on this crisp audio mix. The score by Alfred Schnittke gets a strong presentation as well. Optional English subtitles support the Russian audio.

Extras:

The old Eclipse release had no features. By contrast, Criterion has packed this new Blu-ray release with a vast array of extras.

Criterion hasn't provided many commentary tracks in the past few years. For this release, they've included a selected-scene commentary by film scholar Daniel Bird. The commentary covers eight scenes and runs about 33 minutes, with a focus on comparing film scenes to the original Bykov novella, along with other topics.

An Introduction (17 min.) by Anton Klimov, son of Shepitko and Elem Klimov, discusses his parents' artistic collaboration and touches on some of the challenges Shepitko faced from Soviet censors concerned that her film bordered on being a Christian parable.

Lyudmila Polyakova's interview (2020, 22 min.) allows the actress a chance to talk about her somewhat unlikely path to an acting career – even when young, she was quite tall and stocky and even her family doubted she had a future on stage. She also expresses her great fondness for Shepitko, who became a friend as well as her director.

Criterion has included “The Homeland of Electricity” (1967, 39 min.), a short film Shepitko directed as part of the omnibus film “Beginnings of an Unknown Era.” It was shelved by Soviet censors and not released until 1987, after much promotion by her husband.

If there's a specific theme in the features included on this disc, it's an emphasis on the love between Shepitko and Klimov. “Larisa” (20 min.) is a short documentary by Klimov, featuring footage of his wife and closing with the last images she filmed before the accident that killed her. It's quite moving. “More Than Love” (39 min.) is a documentary that aired on Russian TV in 2012, and highlights the personal and working relationship between Shepitko and Klimov.

“A Talk With Larisa” (52) aired on Russian TV in 1999. It begins with an introduction by Elem Klimov then shows a lengthy 1978 interview of Shepitko conducted by the German critic Felicia von Nostitz. Shepitko had won at Berlin the year before for “The Ascent” and was invited back to Berlin in 1978 to serve on the jury – this interview occurred during the festival.

The final extra is “Islands” (2012, 40 min.), another documentary which aired on Russian TV in 2012, and includes interviews with Shepitko's sister, son, and other friends and colleagues.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by poet Fanny Howe.

Final Thoughts:

I miss the old Eclipse line with its modest packaging and bare bones releases of previously hard-to-find films (at least in North America), but Criterion's Blu-ray upgrade provides not only a newly restored high-def transfer, but a passel of extras that put Shepitko's tragically short career into better context. Perhaps Criterion can give the same treatment to “Wings” in the near future.


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Three Films By Luis Bunuel

 

The Phantom of Liberty

THREE FILMS BY LUIS BUNUEL (1972-1977, Bunuel)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 5, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

You know how annoying it is when you see a character in a movie suddenly jolt awake and you realize the scene you've been watching was really just a dream? Director Luis Bunuel certainly knew, which at least partly explains why this exasperating trick plays out multiple times in “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie” (1972). The radical who first shocked audiences by slicing an eyeball in “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) still hadn't tired of his assault on complacency nearly half a century later.

I don't mean that Bunuel was just trying to yank the chains of his viewers, no matter how bourgeois his film festival audiences were likely to be, but rather that the septuagenarian artist hadn't let success blind him to the fundamental absurdities and inequities of a society he'd spent his professional life mocking. Dream logic hardly seems more absurd than a social structure which grants respectability to its worst people for the flimsiest of reasons. Call yourself an ambassador and you can smuggle cocaine while still being hailed as a gentleman. Wear a priest's cassock and you can get literally get away with murder. Master the courtly manners that help you negotiate a fancy dinner with grace and everyone scrambles to serve you with a smile, no matter how much contempt you have for them.

In “Discreet Charm,” that fancy dinner never quite happens. Bunuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (who collaborated with Bunuel on most of his later films, including all three in this Criterion box set) force the same set of rich snobs to show up for a dinner that is constantly deferred for various reasons. At first, they arrive at their hosts' home on the wrong night which prompts them to dash out for a quick bite at a nearby inn where they find that the owner has just died. In fact, his dead body is on display for mourners in an alcove just off the dining room. And then things start to get weird.

One party is spoiled because the host couple (Stephane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel) sneaks off for a bit of afternoon delight in the bushes, leaving their unattended guests bored and offended. One dinner transforms into an impromptu stage play with the diners unwitting actors. A duel brings a lavish buffet to a bloody end. The local bishop (Julien Bertheau) drops by because he wants to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a gardener. And, of course, the vengeful spirit of a murderous policeman returns from the grave to enact justice on our very hungry protagonists.

The film only gradually fleshes out the relationships among the upper-crust characters. Francois (Paul Frankeur) and Simone (Delphine Seyrig) are married, but Simone is also shacking up with the ambassador (Fernando Rey). There's little to the players save their venality or outright corruption, and Bunuel enjoys tormenting them by constantly delaying any substantive gratification beyond a few sips of booze.

Which parts are real, and which parts are dreams? All of them, of course. Bunuel doesn't distinguish in such literal terms, and it hardly matters. A society that would reward these vapid cretins with wealth and prestige is too ludicrous to be believed (or respected) anyway.

At a few points in “Discreet Charm,” a minor character suddenly claims center stage. For example, a sad-eyed lieutenant interrupts the ladies' lunch (where they can't even get tea or coffee) to tell his tale of a woeful childhood. Bunuel and Carriere would expand on this discursive storytelling approach in their next collaboration, the absolutely bonkers “The Phantom of Liberty” (1974).

“Phantom” fractures its narrative into multiple vignettes with no main plot or lead actor. Each segment is connected, however tenuously, to the previous one, but the film frequently abandons a story just as it builds to a climax, often following a minor character who then becomes the protagonist of the next story. And so on.

As unconventional as the narrative structure is, “Phantom” is still a quintessential Bunuel film, relying on the twin engines of sacrilege and fetishism to propel the action. Sacrilege: French troops with a bad case of the munchies ransack a church and chow down on holy wafers. Horny monks play poker with religious medals: “I'll open with a virgin.” Fetish: A young man spirits his much older aunt off to a hotel for a weekend tryst. A traveling businessman in the same hotel invites the poker-playing monks to watch his dominatrix secretary whip him into an orgiastic frenzy - as the guests flee in horror, the businessman cries: “At least let the monks stay!”

It's futile to relay the protean plot in greater detail. But a focus on one segment provides a reminder that surrealism is, etymologically, built “on reality.” In one section, the mother of a young girl is called to school because her daughter has gone missing. As the teacher explains what happened, the young girl in question tugs her mother's arm. Mom tells her to keep quiet because everyone is looking for her. Later, the girl is taken to the police station so they can file the missing person report. The officer deems it convenient that the absent girl is right there, the better to prepare a detailed description so they can start the search. This sequence deploys no disorienting stylistic techniques, no canted angles or shocking reveals. It just plods through a mundane series of shots of people directly interacting with a little girl who they also consider to be missing, rendering the whole spectacle profoundly uncanny and unsettling. Downright Bunuelian, you might say.

That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977) was Bunuel's final film (he died in 1983), and is less formally audacious than the other two films in this set. Toying with an almost archaic classical story structure, the film centers on Mathieu (Fernando Rey), an older man of wealth from an unspecified job who boards a train and regales his cabin mates with his tragic love story. Mathieu fell for the teenage Conchita, briefly his maid, later a hat-check girl, and possibly a revolutionary. Conchita allegedly falls for him too but steadfastly refuses to have sex with him, leading to a series of tragicomic frustrations for Mathieu, one involving the sudden appearance of Conchita's impenetrable chastity belt. Mathieu cannot break the spell the seductress has over him, yet also cannot break her spirit and possess her. “I belong to no one but myself”, she insists.

Though the film provides a few surrealist touches (a doting mother turns out to be swaddling her precious baby pig) the story, based on a 1898 novel by Pierre Louys, unfolds in fairly linear fashion, though with Mathieu serving as the unreliable narrator. The idiosyncratic touch this time is that Conchita is portrayed by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. Supposedly, Bunuel made this decision partly as a lark after he found it difficult to work with actress Maria Schneider, who was originally cast. Bouquet and Molina sometimes switch off in the middle of a scene, and there's no clear reason why either appears at any particular moment. Each takes turns at playing Conchita as diabolical or as innocent. Reportedly, most viewers at the time didn't even realize there were different actresses, likely a disappointment to the filmmakers.

Domestic terrorism plays a role in all the films in this set, but becomes more prominent here with urban ambushes, shootings, and bombings punctuating the anti-romantic love story. In Bunuel's films, civilization is a thin veneer over a violent society, and that's as true of the rituals of love as of the cultured manners of the bourgeoisie. It can all blow up in your face at a moment's notice, no matter how fancy your suit or how dignified your title.



Video:

All three films are presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratios. These “new high-definition digital restorations” all showcase sharp image resolution and a rich color palette. They also feature a fine grainy look. I only have the old “Phantom” DVD as a comparison point, but the new Blu-ray image represents a substantial upgrade.

Audio:

The films are all presented with linear PCM mono audio tracks. The mono audio is crisp with no evident distortions. The sound design isn't particularly robust, and the mono track serves it well. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:

Each of the three films in this set was released as a stand alone DVD by Criterion 15 or more years ago. The Blu-rays in this set maintain their old spine numbers (102 for “Discreet Charm”, 143 for “Obscure Object”, 290 for “Phantom.”) Some of the old releases had substantive extras, others few at all. Criterion has pretty much packed each of these discs for these 2021 Blu-ray upgrades.

Each disc has its own keep case, all three of which are tucked into the outer cardboard slip case titled “Three Films By Luis Bunuel.”

The “Discreet Charm” begins with an import from the old DVD release, the documentary “Speaking of Bunuel” (2000, 99 min.) Directed by Jose Luis Lopez-Linares and Javier Rioyo, this feature-length documentary aims to be a comprehensive biography of the filmmaker, detailing his childhood through his early days as an artist (covering his friendship with Salvador Dali and Federico Lorca) and his wanderings as a filmmaker in several countries over many decades. Covering so much territory, it doesn't dive deeply on too many subjects, but it's an informative piece, spiced up with interviews from collaborators such as Jean-Claude Carriere, actor Michel Piccoli, and many others.

Another import from the old release is “The Castaway of Providence Street” (1971, 24 min.), an eccentric feature filmed at the Mexico City home of Bunuel and his wife, Jeanne. It shows Bunuel mixing drinks, while we also hear interviews from friends and collaborators raving about Don Luis.

New for this Blu-ray is a 2011 episode of the French show “Once Upon A Time” (52 min.) which consists mostly of interviews (Carriere again, actresses Bulle Ogier and Stephane Audran, and others) discussing the production of “Discreet Charm.”

In addition to a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.), the final feature on this disc is a short “Making Of” piece (14 min) that mixes interviews with some on-set footage.

The old “Phantom of Liberty” disc only came with a short interview with Carriere. That interview (4 min.) is included here. The other features on the disc are new.

Film scholar Peter William Evans analyzes (20 min.) “Phantom,” touching on as many of the vignettes as possible while trying not to over-interpret.

A 1985 documentary (30 min.) turns the spotlight on producer Serge Silberman, who worked with Bunuel on most of his later films.

The disc also includes an interview with actor Jean-Claude Brialy (6 min.) and a separate interview with both Brialy and Michel Piccoli (5 min.)

The “Obscure Object” disc arrives with another Carriere interview (19 min.) in which he talks about his close working relationship with Bunuel, and how they'd live together for long stretches while bouncing ideas off each other daily.

“The Woman and the Puppet,” the Pierre Louys novel Bunuel worked from, had already been adapted to film several times before. Criterion has included three scenes from the 1929 silent version by Jacques de Baroncelli. Running 11 minutes total, these scenes suggest that Bunuel borrowed considerably from the film, one which he acknowledge as a favorite.

“Portrait of An Impatient Filmmaker” is a 2012 documentary short (16 min.) in which cinematographer Edmond Richard and assistant director Pierre Lary discuss Bunuel's work habits on set, with a focus on his reasons for replacing Maria Schneider with two different actresses in the role of Conchita. A separate extra titled “Lady Doubles” (2017, 37 min.) invites the two actresses, Bouquet and Molina, to discuss their participation in this unusual experiment.

“Remembering Bunuel” (1977, 31 min.) is an episode of the French TV show “Allons au cinema” in which a round table of collaborators (Carriere, Piccoli, Fernando Rey, etc.) talk about Bunuel.

Finally, Criterion has included an excerpt (15 min.) from a 1977 episode of “Le monde du cinema” in which Carriere, Rey, and Silberman discuss their work with Bunuel.

The thick insert booklet includes essays on all three films, with author Gary Indiana writing about “The Phantom of Liberty” and film critic Adrian Martin writing about the other two films. The booklet also includes some extensive excerpts of interviews with Bunuel that were originally published in “Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Bunuel” by critics Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Turrent.

Final Thoughts:

It's not that unusual to see a filmmaker still at their creative peak into their seventies and beyond. Agnes Varda, Robert Bresson, Frederick Wiseman, Manoel de Oliveira, and Jean-Luc Godard spring to mind instantly. But it's remarkable that the veteran Luis Bunuel of the 1970s was every bit as radical and provocative as the young punk Luis Bunuel of “Un Chien Andalou.” I guess he kept paying attention to the world and stayed angry about it.