Blu-ray / DVD: Jacques Rivette’s nouvelle vague magnum opus ‘Out 1’ restored and reclaimed

Out1BoxJacques Rivette’s Out 1 (Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) has been one of the Holy Grails of international cinema since its premier screening in 1971. Rejected by French TV and, at over 12 1/2 hours in its initial cut, too long for theaters, the definitive editions wasn’t even completed until 1989. It showed on French and German TV but apart from periodic special screenings (including a handful of showings in the U.S. and Canada in 2006 and 2007) was impossible to see.

That changed in 2015 with a French digital restoration from the original 16mm negatives, a high-profile two-week run in New York (qualifying as the film’s American theatrical debut) followed by screenings across the country (including Seattle), streaming availability from the arthouse subscription service Fandor and a late 2015 disc release in France. Now 2016 brings this amazing Blu-ray+DVD combo box set release. It features not only the 13-hour Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971 / 1989) but the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision, plus an accompanying documentary and a booklet.

Out 1 is many things, not the least of which is a radical experiment in filmmaking and collaborative storytelling: a film completely improvised by the cast. Each actor was invited to create a character independently of one another and then interacted based on the situations of an outline developed by Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman and inspired by the “History of the Thirteen” novels by Balzac. Length was left open: the story would take as long to tell as the process demanded, and while Rivette was there to guide the process, he was also there to follow where the actors took it. The rhythms of the performances and interactions guided the shaping the film.

The film itself reflects its creation: two separate theater groups, each working on a different play by Aeschylus, work the material through acting exercises, each utilizing a different approach. One group is led by Lili (Michèle Moretti), who draws from dance and song to inform performance in her workshopping, the other by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), whose improvisational exercises are meant to get in touch with the essence of character and the act of collaborative performance. The post-performance discussions conducted by Thomas, which analyze the experience as well as the effectiveness, could be comments on the process of the shooting itself. At least that’s my takeaway.

In addition to these groups are another matched pair. Jean-Pierre Leaud plays Colin, a deaf-mute who panhandles with enigmatic messages and “talks” through a harmonica, and Juliet Berto is petty thief Frédérique, who flirts with bar patrons and then steals their money. Colin is handed a letter that hints at a conspiracy of thirteen individuals (followed by two more enigmatic notes) and turns investigator, looking for secret messages coded in the messages and following clues to a group that meets in a counter culture storefront run by Pauline (Bulle Ogier). Frédérique steals letters with references to The Thirteen from a chess-playing businessman (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) and tries to leverage them for the purposes of blackmail. Connections between the characters—who grow to include an author (Bernadette Lafont), a lawyer (Françoise Fabian), an intellectual (Jean Bouise), a gangster with aspirations to theater (Alain Libolt), and more—are discovered along the way and histories are revealed. There are also cameos by Rivette’s fellow filmmaker and former colleague Eric Rohmer (dryly funny as a Bazan scholar consulted by Colin in the “Third Episode”) and Barbet Schroeder.

Juliet Berto in 'Out 1'
Juliet Berto in ‘Out 1’

Even for the French nouvelle vague this is an unconventional narrative. Leaud’s character isn’t identified by the name Colin until the fourth episode (though it is cited in the credits) and there is no effort to establish characters or relationships for the viewer, as the screenwriting manuals instruct. You pick up their names and their backstories as they come, piecing the world together along the way. Two seemingly central characters referenced in great detail never even appear. Storylines don’t follow any familiar paths and endeavors fall apart as outside forces and personal anxieties pull at the characters. This was produced in the wake of May 1968 and in some ways it is their response, both as a communal endeavor among collaborators with a shared vision and a portrait of idealists whose creations collapse for any number of reasons. To say that patience is called for is an understatement—I for one found the theater exercises of Thomas’ group, which Rivette allows to play out in long sequences, trying in the early episodes—and it will frustrate anyone waiting for a narrative payoff, something that explains everything that we’ve seen. But it’s a delight if you engage in the process and enjoy the personalities, the collisions of character, the unexpected textures and rhythms of the storytelling, and the odd bounces of the narrative. Out 1 musters the energy and enthusiasm and free-spirited filmmaking of the Nouvelle Vague that Rivette’s more famous colleagues left as the moved into their own comfort zones (Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer) or, in the case of Godard, discomfort zones.

Out 1 is Rivette redux. His engagement with actors is there on the screen, creating energy even in simple conversational scenes, and they are co-conspirators in his hide-and-seek narratives, where characters circle conspiracies and play blind man’s bluff through mysteries that may have no solution. His love of actors and theater, his passion for mysteries and conspiracies and puzzles, his play with doubles and reflections, and his freewheeling approach to storytelling is all here. While Rivette had television in mind for distribution (French TV turned it down at the time and it was nearly 20 years before it was broadcast) and he breaks it into eight chapters, he always saw it as a work of cinema and that’s how it plays. This isn’t a mini-series along the lines of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz or a serialized story like the contemporary cable or streaming model. This is a movie and the pleasures are as much in the invention and energy of the moment as in the accumulation of detail. It simply takes its time, and is best seen in parts spread out over time (though I would never deny anyone the pleasure of watching it in a single epic screening).

Bulle Ogier in 'Out 1'
Bulle Ogier in ‘Out 1’

The complete 13-hour version was finished and presented in its final version in 1989. Carlotta Films restored this version from the 16mm negative, scanned in 4k and supervised by director of photography Pierre-William Glenn, and original sound mix, and remastered it in 2k for theatrical and video release. The producers of the restoration corrected damage to the materials but preserved the anomalies inherent in the original presentation; you’ll see stray hairs in the gate of the camera (preserved for posterity on the camera negative) in many shots. Rivette chose to keep some mistakes captured in the shooting if it meant preserving the integrity of the scene, especially in the midst of a long take. The futz on the frameline of some (actually quite a few) shots is simply a hallmark of the method of production, which he grabbed on the fly at a tremendous pace (the entire production was shot in six weeks). The presentation preserves the grain of the 16mm source, another distinctive texture of the film, and the odd intensity of the colors, a kind of saturation you don’t see in modern digital or even 35mm shooting.

The shorter Out 1: Spectre, which runs 255 minutes and is presented in two halves with an intermission, is not just a condensed version of the original cut but a reworking of the material (with some instances of alternate footage). Set in “Paris and its double,” this journey through the characters does away with most of the long takes and extended sequences (especially the theater exercises) and shuffles the B&W stills (which recap each episode in the long version) are shuffled through Spectre to fill in gaps and set a different narrative rhythm. Footage from the longer version, already scanned and restored, was used where possible, but a few alternate shots and sequences unique to Spectre were newly remastered for this presentation.

Out1Beauty

The 13-disc box set (6 Blu-rays, 7 DVDs), released stateside by Kino, features both versions and is identical to the French release but for the packaging and branding. It features the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited,” directed by Robert Fischer and Wilfried Reichart, as a bonus program. The 2015 production features new interviews with actors Bulle Ogier, Michael Lonsdale and Hermine Karagheuz, cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn, assistant director Jean-François Stévenin and producer Stéphane Tchal Gadjieff, plus archival interviews with Rivette and others. The accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet features an illuminating essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, a champion of Rivette and Out 1, along with archival interviews and articles with members of the cast and crew and a collection of production stills.

With the release of Out 1 and last year’s Le Pont du Nord (1981) on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber, I think it’s fair to say that Rivette is finally getting his due. Criterion will bring out the American home video debut of his debut feature, Paris Belongs to Us (1961), in March, while Noroit (1976) and Duelle (1976) were released in the British Out 1 box set, and I still hold out hope for the eventual Blu-ray releases of Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), announced by New Yorker a couple of years ago, and La belle noiseuse (1991), previously released on DVD by New Yorker but in desperate need of a remastered upgrade. Rivette is clearly an acquired taste. Here’s hoping more viewers are acquiring it.

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD

TRAILER OUT 1 BY JACQUES RIVETTE from Carlotta Films on Vimeo.

Blu-ray Debuts: Two by Rohmer, ‘Tenderness of the Wolves,’ and Ford’s ‘Hurricane’

MarquiseThe Marquise of O (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD) – After Eric Rohmer completed his “Six Moral Tales,” and before launching into the “Comedies and Proverbs,” he tackled two projects very different than anything else in career. The first of these, The Marquise of O (1976), based on the novel by Heinrich von Kleist, leaves the young intellectuals of Paris for Italy of the late 18th century Napoleonic wars. During the Russian invasion the beautiful young Marquise (Edith Clever) is saved from certain assault the handsome and dashing Count (Bruno Ganz). She spends the night guarded by her chivalrous savior, who returns months later to rather insistently court her. Only when he leaves does she discover that she is, unaccountably, pregnant. Rohmer’s style is both more lush (shot in rich colors by Nestor Almendros) and less intimate than his previous romantic comedies, directed in painterly compositions from a removed distance. Unlike the self-obsessed young adults of his modern films, the Count and the Marquise act out of moral duty and social responsibility, and their actions reverberate through family and community.

Yet this is still a Rohmer film, filled with carefully tooled dialogue (spoken in German) and informed by irony. The story of innocence and corruption, and the shades that lay within even the best of men, ends on a note of delicate forgiveness and understanding. Rohmer followed this with an even more unexpected stylistic experiment, the beautiful and beguiling Perceval, which I hope is in consideration by Film Movement.

With archival interviews with director Eric Rohmer and star Bruno Ganz and a new essay by David Thomson.

FullMoonFull Moon in Paris (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD), the fourth of Rohmer’s six “Comedies and Proverbs,” stars Pascale Ogier as Louise, a restless designer bored with sleepy suburban life outside of Paris, lives with her lover Remy (Tcheky Karyo), a stable architect happy with a calm home life and a long-term relationship. The independent minded Louise decides to move back into her old Paris apartment during the week, losing herself in the bustle of dinner parties and nightclubs and single men, while spending her weekends back with Remy. Like an inversion of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” Louise becomes briefly entangled with another man, a spontaneous musician who is the opposite of Remy, but in a neat twist on the formula Remy himself drifts to another – at the suggestion of Louise herself.

This is the most ironic and, in many ways, judgmental of Rohmer’s films. Willowy Ogier’s kittenish sexuality and zest for life are wrapped in a self-absorbed determination that borders on indifference, but for the most part this is another wryly witty look at modern love from the master of the sophisticated romantic comedy. Fabrice Luchini plays Louise’s best friend and conniving confidante Octave and Laszlo Szabo appears as a café patron who pontificates on the magical effects of the full moon. Ogier, who died shortly after the film’s release, designed many of the handsome sets.

With an archival interview with actress Pascale Ogier and a new essay by David Thomson.

TendernessTenderness of the Wolves (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), based on the same true story that inspired Fritz Lang’s M, is a stylish and visually striking but narratively confusing and unpleasantly explicit thriller starring Kurt Raab as murderer, black marketeer and police informant Fritz Haarman, a pedophile who used his position to sweep the train stations and pick up young runaway boys.

Living well in the depression of post-World War I Germany, Haarman lured the boys to his attic apartment with the promise of a warm meal and bed, only to emerge alone the next morning with second hand clothes and black market “pork.” Director Ulli Lommel melds images from M and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu with the elegant camerawork, evocative sets and tableaux-style direction associated with the films of New German cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who produced the film and appears in a small role. Screenwriter/star Kurt Raab suggests Peter Lorre by way of the vampire Nosferatu with his shaved head, child-like smile and hunched walk, an insidiously beguiling boy-man who turns feral to strangle and feast on the blood of his innocent young victims. Fassbinder’s inspiration is all over the elegant camerawork, handsome design, and tableaux-style direction and the film is well performed by cast made up of Fassbinder’s regular troupe. But it gets muddled in the middle, tangling the many threads before finally winding them together in a bold, baroque climax. Though lacking in the rich irony of Fassbinder’s works, it’s a striking, often startling film dominated by Raab’s unsettling performance.

In German with English subtitles. Newly restored and remastered by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, the Blu-ray debut (the release is a Blu-ray+DVD Combo) features commentary by director Ulli Lommel with moderator Uwe Huber, an introduction by Lommel, new video interviews with Lommel, director of photography Jurgen Jurges, and actor Rainer Will, and an appreciation by European horror expert Stephen Thrower, plus a booklet with art and essays.

HurricaneThe Hurricane (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is frankly speaking one of John Ford’s weaker films. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (authors of “Mutiny on the Bounty”) and directed for high-rolling independent producer Samuel Goldwyn in 1937, it’s a drama of western civilization colliding with native culture in the South Seas, the same theme as Murnau’s Tabu but with more focus on the European characters and without the poetry or the power.

Jon Hall is the young Polynesian hero Terangi, a Tahiti native with a foot in both worlds, beloved by the islanders and the respected first mate of an American ship, and Dorothy Lamour his innocent Tahitian bride. They get top billing and it is ostensibly their story but the film spends a lot of time with the Caucasian characters in paradise debating culture, morality, and justice: the alcoholic doctor with a philosophical take on Tahitian life (Thomas Mitchell), the priest devoted to the islanders (C. Aubrey Smith), and the new island Governor (Raymond Massey), a strict, stiff martinet whose devotion to the letter of the Napoleonic code makes no room for justice or compassion, let alone the moral code of the local culture. Mary Astor is both his wife and his conscience, and he refuses to listen to either when he sentences Terangi to six months hard labor for punching a racist white man, and then extends his sentence by years for his failed escape attempts. This is paradise invaded by civilization, which casts judgement and punishes accordingly.

It’s clear that Ford’s heart isn’t in this one. Ever the professional, he delivers a handsome drama, but this kind of exotic romanticism is a poor fit for America’s film poet. The characters of the script (written by Dudley Nichols) are more debate positions than developed personalities, the natives are holy innocents, and the film is shot largely in the studio, which does no service to the tropical setting. Ford signed on because of the opportunity to shoot on location in the South Pacific and apparently lost interest when the production was relocated to the studio, with Catalina Island standing in for Tahiti in the film’s few outdoor scenes.

The title of the film arrives in the final act, whipping up a deadly storm while Terangi struggles to get home, and it’s quite the spectacle even if it was created in the studio, but it is also a confused metaphor for a film that sets up Terangi as a kind of Christ figure and the storm as the wrath of God. If this is Old Testament punishment, it’s taking it out on the wrong folks: the hurricane destroys the church and kills the innocent islanders (who are no better than extras in the drama) while sparing the westerner interlopers. If this is all just a lesson in compassion and multicultural respect for the Governor, there’s a lot of collateral damage. Still, it was a big commercial hit for Ford and Goldwyn. It was also the last film Ford made for Goldwyn.

It looks great, a good quality transfer with no evidence of damage. No supplements.

DevilsDIn The Devil’s Disciple (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play of the American Revolution, friends and frequent co-stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas teamed up for the third time. It’s an odd kind of American-British co-production: produced by Lancaster’s production company and directed by British filmmaker Guy Hamilton (who replaced Alexander Mackendrick, director of Lancaster’s “Sweet Smell of Success”), it is written by Brits, set in revolutionary America, and shot on England.

Lancaster is the idealistic, soft-spoken parish priest whose faith mother England is destroyed by the cruelty of British soldiers and Douglas is wanted criminal turned rabble rouser and revolutionary guerilla Richard Dudgeon, a nemesis who becomes a compatriot in a complicated triangle that involves the priest’s younger wife. Kirk is rather old for the role but a good match for the rebellious nature of the character and Lancaster is still and subdued as the priest, at least until the final act. Both are shown up by Laurence Olivier, the very model of cool, calm authority as a savvy British officer surrounded by thickheaded underlings.

What could have been turned into a swashbuckling revolutionary war adventure with witty characters remains largely stagebound. It’s shot largely on studio sets from a script that remains grounded in conversations and debates. The witty dialogue and energetic performances keep the film moving along but it never seems to break out of its constraints. There is also a creative and clever use of cut-out figures and 3D stop-motion animation to stand in for expensive battle scenes.

Strong image, crisp focus, excellent source material. No supplements.

Film Detective is a new company releasing public domain films on Blu-ray. It’s an idea that has been done right by Kino Classics, which partnered with George Eastman House, Library of Congress, and UCLA Film Archive to find the best quality materials from which to master their editions, and has been done wrong by companies like HD Cinema Classics, which tried to overcome damaged and inferior source prints with the digital scrubbing of digital noise reduction (DNR), which removes the blemishes and smoothes over the image. Film Detective looks to be following Kino’s model in two of its first releases, though it doesn’t quite meet the bar set by Kino.

BeatDevi;Beat the Devil (Film Detective, Blu-ray) is a cult film with an incredible pedigree. Directed by John Huston from a screenplay written on the fly by Truman Capote and starring Huston’s buddy Humphrey Bogart with Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, and Peter Lorre, it’s something of an anti-“The Maltese Falcon” with Bogart as a down-on-his-luck businessman fronting a group of swindlers attempting to take control of a uranium mind in Africa. Heavy with irony and black humor, the shaggy dog tale was a flop with audiences but it found admirers years later for the games of lies and flirtations played by the stars and the dry wit of the script and wry attitude injected by Huston’s direction. It feels much more modern than many films of its era, but because it fell into the public domain it has been victim to poor home video editions since the days of VHS.

The image on the Film Detective release is a little soft but it’s clean and detailed and in the proper aspect ratio and does not appear to be scrubbed with DNR tools. It’s an acceptable Blu-ray and superior to other public domain labels. No supplements.

SaltEarthSalt of the Earth (Film Detective, Blu-ray), the only American film ever to be blacklisted in the U.S., is an independently produced 1954 drama inspired by a real life strike in New Mexico by Mexican-American mineworkers. The cast is comprised largely of non-professionals (many of them participants in the real strike) and the film was financed by the mineworkers union and produced by socially-motivated artists that had been blacklisted from Hollywood, including producer Paul Jarrico, director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson, and actor Will Geer (who plays the cruel sheriff that protects the strikebreakers).

It takes on issues of racial prejudice, social injustice, and economic inequity, often with a didactic approach, and delivers a message of collective action to improve working conditions and receive a fair wage. Remarkably it is built on the ordeal of the Mexican-American characters and there is no white movie star to save the day. But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the film was the recognition of the participation and strength of the women, who rise to positions of leadership in the community and demand the same respect from their tradition-bound husbands and fathers that the men have been demanding from their bosses. This was all at the height of the Red Scare and the film was branded communist propaganda. It’s a remarkable portrait for its time, a landmark production that is still a powerful film. It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992.

The Blu-ray debut comes from a worn print and looks pretty scuffed up, but the transfer also presents a reasonably sharp image. A restoration is called for but until then this is an acceptable substitute. No supplements.

Videophiled: ‘A Tale of Winter’

Big World

A Tale of Winter (Big World, DVD), the second film in French filmmaker Eric Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons” cycle from the 1990s, is not the chilly story its title would suggest. Felice (Charlotte Very) is a single mother with two lovers but feels little passion for either of them and Felice knows passion. In the opening scene she frolics with youthful abandon with Charles (Frederic Van Dren Driessche), an American she falls for on holiday. Through a careless mistake—she gives him her wrong address and doesn’t have his—they never reconnect despite her best efforts, but his presence continues to permeate her life as she raises their child. The sunny warmth of carefree youth and emotional ecstasy of the opening turns to the cool colors of winter as Felice tries to make the best of it by choosing one of her lovers but, in the best tradition of willful Rohmer women, she discovers she simply cannot settle for second best.

Rohmer makes small, intimate films about the foibles of people in love, both young and not-so-young, with both wit and compassion. This is one of his most compassionate and understanding. Felice is a delightfully contradictory character, lively under her somber front, headstrong and petulant, indecisive and flighty, dedicated to her search for true love, and Very invests Felice with a spark that enlivens her even at her most exasperating. That spark lights up in one of the most emotionally magical and compassionate endings in all of Rohmer’s films. It makes its DVD debut after getting a brief theatrical rerelease in the U.S. In French with English subtitles; they are electronic but unremovable.

Also on VOD and digital purchase (HD and SD versions) from iTunes and Vudu.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

DVDs for 2/10/09 – ‘Frozen River,’ ‘The Romance of Astrea and Celadon’ and more

Melissa Leo in
Melissa Leo in "Frozen River"

Courtney Hunt delivers the best kind of American independent drama with Frozen River, a film that is respectful of its characters, responsive to its location and honest in its storytelling. This kind of uncompromising filmmaking is often a hard sell. Hunt not only got her film a theatrical release, she earned Academy Award nominations for her screenplay and for her lead actress, Melissa Leo. Leo plays Ray, a mother of two in the border town of Massena in upstate New York. Misty Upham is Lila Littlewolf, a widowed Mohawk whose mother-in-law “stole” her newborn son a year ago. Life in this underemployed town is as harsh and barren as the frigid winter landscape. Ray’s gambling-addicted husband left town with the down payment for their new trailer home. Faced with little opportunity to make ends meet, Ray and Lila embark on an illegal venture transporting immigrants into the U.S. across Mohawk territory and the frozen river of the title. Hunt’s drama is devastating, not because of the tragic twists, but because of the human reality of poverty and desperation, and the equally human triumph of generosity and sacrifice in the face of it.

The women are tossed together by necessity and they may not particularly like each other, but they develop an understanding and even a mutual respect. Set in the rural culture of poverty and bigotry in upstate New York over a bleak winter, the film never cheats the grim reality of their circumstances and writer/director Courtney Hunt is clear-eyed about the animosity between the Mohawks and the whites and hardships facing them all, which makes the acts of kindness and sacrifice all the more moving and meaningful.

Read my complete review here.

Every decade or so, Eric Rohmer steps out of his comfort zone of contemporary romantic comedies and dramas to makes something different, a stylized period piece with a similar sensibility and performance style dropped into a different time and space and genre. At age 88, long past the age when Hollywood allows directors to keep on working, he does so again with The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, a romantic tale of first century French peasants in the idealized, fertile paradise of rural Gaul in the Roman era. It’s a gently stylized period piece based on a 17th century novel and filled with chivalrous notions of love and devotion. Yet take away the Renaissance Faire fashions, the elevated diction (even the shepherds speak as if reciting poetry) and a beautiful boy (Andy Gillet) passing himself off as a girl, and it’s another tale of gorgeous young people earnestly engaged in philosophical discussions of the meaning of love and devotion. This no historical portrait of ancient life but a dreamy reflection of 17th century romanticism of the past, right down to their Celtic culture refracted through a Christian sensibility. There’s a purity to the emotional turmoil of tormented lovers, but it’s the rich simplicity of the filmmaking and the seductive sensuality of a bucolic Eden where maidens innocently fall out of their artfully revealing dresses that makes the romantic frolic so delicious.
Continue reading “DVDs for 2/10/09 – ‘Frozen River,’ ‘The Romance of Astrea and Celadon’ and more”

‘Six in Paris’ on TCM

My review of the 1965 New Wave omnibus film Six in Paris, recently released on DVD by New Yorker, is up at the Turner Classic Movies website.

The omnibus film – a feature made up of original short films by different directors, organized by a theme or a place – flowered in the sixties, especially in Europe, where directors of international repute were gathered to contribute short films on a variety of themes. Films from Boccaccio ’70 (1962) and RoGoPaG (1963) to The Witches (1967) and Spirits of the Dead (1968) brought together the cream of European directors, and even today the omnibus film occasionally resurfaces, as with Paris Je t’Aime, comprised of 18 shorts by 18 directors shooting stories in 18 separate neighborhoods (the “Arondissements”). You can trace the inspiration for that particular cinematic love letter to the city of lights directly back to Six in Paris, a film produced by Barbet Schroeder and directed by six of the most interesting and distinctive young filmmakers working in France in the 1960s. The French New Wave had exploded in the late fifties, when Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge brought a breath of cinematic freshness and stylistic excitement to the largely staid French film industry. Barbet Schroeder, who was born in Tehran to European parents, grew up in Central Africa and Colombia, and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, had been an integral part of the movement. His ambition was ultimately to direct, but the filmmaker found his greatest contribution to the vibrant film scene as a producer of Eric Rohmer’s early films.

The inspiration for Six in Paris came from Schroeder, who hit upon the omnibus format as a way to work with most exciting young filmmakers in France and to explore the possibilities of shooting with new lightweight 16mm cameras. “It was the beginning of 16mm with direct sound,” he explains in a new interview on the DVD, and he hoped that the new technology would offer the young filmmakers the freedom of shooting quickly and spontaneously, on location and in the streets. Schroeder approached six directors he wanted to work with and offered them the challenge of making a short film in this new filmmaking paradigm. They had carte blanche to develop their own stories, so long as it all took place within a single neighborhood of Paris. It was something of a revolutionary idea, as even the low-budget productions of the French New Wave had all been shot on 35mm. The idea of mixing documentary and fiction techniques was primary in his Schroeder’s mind, and each director took up the challenge with essentially the tools but his own distinctive approach

Read the complete piece here.

New Reviews: ‘Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,’ ‘Role Models,’ ‘The Boy in Striped Pajamas’ and ‘The Romance of Astrea and Celadon’

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (dir: Mark Herman)

I’d really like to like this film more than I do. It’s well made, it’s exceedingly well-intentioned, it’s out to teach a lesson about the Holocaust to a young audience in terms they can understand and relate to.

In “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” adapted from the novel by John Boyne, 8-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the son of an SS officer (David Thewlis as a thoroughly efficient and loyal Nazi) assigned to a concentration camp in an isolated countryside.

The use of a British cast (or at least British accents, in the case of mom Vera Farmiga) for the German family gives the film a feeling that is both warmly familiar — the period British drama in the cocoon of upper-class privilege — and skewed with alien details — the swastika flags, the SS insignias, the “Heil Hitler” salutes. The sense of normalcy slowly cracks under the fatal reality represented by those details.

Bruno and Schmuel and the fence that separates them
Bruno and Schmuel and the fence that separates them

Is it a good film? Not really. It’s simplistic and a purely emotional response to the Holocaust. But there is something quite powerful in the very structure of this approach. The 8-year-old Bruno is a naive observer who is resistant to the stream of nationalistic propaganda and racial superiority that his tutor feeds him (yet his 12-year-old sister is eager to embrace), and he challenges the broad proclamations with simple questions that show it can’t stand up to even naive logic and the tutor resorts to bullying to drill the “lessons” in.

More importantly, as all the evidence mounts about the reality of the camp and the inhuman treatment of the camp workers brought in to work in the house, Bruno can’t follow it to the obvious conclusions because it is beyond his comprehension that his father, his country, could be evil, and that such inhuman behavior is possible.

But by tying us to the German boy who befriends a Jewish boy on the other side of the electrified fence of the “farm” next door, Herman attaches all of our emotions to the boy on the outside rather than anyone on the inside. Bruno is us, in a sense, and the Jews are different from us in this narrative strategy. It’s not Herman’s intentions, I’m sure, but by the end of the film, as the innocent German decides to join his friend on the other side of the fence, all of our fears are locked in on him and his brief confrontation with horror rather than on the people who have been enduring the horror for years as they await execution. In it’s own, inadvertent yet irresponsible way, it suggests that Bruno’s life is somehow worth more than the people in the camp, and that contradicts everything the film is trying to tell us.

Read my review in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (dir: Eric Rohmer)

Eric Rohmer is now 88 years young, long past the age when Hollywood allows directors to keep on working. In France, that just makes him an elder statesman of the craft. (Is that why 72-year-old Woody Allen left the states for Europe when he creeped past retirement age?) And if The Romance of Astrea and Celadon isn not exactly the work of a young man, it is certainly a deft, lovely little film directed with a light touch that looks effortless, perhaps even artless in its simple stylization and poetic rhythms. The source is a 17th century novel about peasants in 1st century Gaul (France during the Roman occupation) in a bucolic setting far from the cities and the Roman rule. The simple peasant dresses and loose shirts and natural fiber clothing looks less like a historical recreation than a Renaissance Faire celebration of an idealized past, where peasant farmers and shepherds frolic in holiday parties and beautiful young folk flirt and fall in love in lush landscapes. There is no hardship here, apart from the feuding families that keep young lovers Astrea and Celadon apart.

But take away the Renaissance Faire fashions, the elevated diction (even the shepherds speak as if reciting poetry) and a beautiful boy (Andy Gillet) passing himself off as a girl, and it’s another tale of gorgeous young people earnestly engaged in philosophical discussions of the meaning of love and devotion. This is no historical portrait of ancient life but a dreamy reflection of 17th-century romanticism of the past, right down to their Celtic culture refracted through a Christian sensibility. There’s a purity to the emotional turmoil of tormented lovers, but it’s the rich simplicity of the filmmaking and the seductive sensuality of a bucolic Eden where maidens innocently fall out of their artfully revealing dresses that makes the romantic frolic so delicious.

Continue reading “New Reviews: ‘Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,’ ‘Role Models,’ ‘The Boy in Striped Pajamas’ and ‘The Romance of Astrea and Celadon’”