We’ve been hearing people pronounce the death of DVD and Blu-ray for years now. You’d never know it from the astonishing wealth of Blu-ray debuts, restored movies, and lovingly-produced special editions in 2016. The sales numbers are way down from a decade ago, of course, thanks in large part to the demise of the video store, which drove sales of new movies to fill the new release rental racks. The studios still handle their own new releases on disc but many of them have licensed out their back catalog to smaller labels—some new, some longtime players—who have continued to nurture the market for classics, cult films, collectibles, and other films from our recent and distant past. Criterion, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory / Scream Factory, Twilight Time, Arrow, Olive, Blue Underground, Flicker Alley, Raro, MVD, Cinelicious, and others have continued to reach those of us who value quality and deliver releases that, if anything, continue to improve. We prefer to own rather than rely on compromised quality of streaming video and the vagaries of licensing and contracts when it comes to movies.
2016 has been as good a year as any I’ve covered in my years as a home video columnist and paring my list of top releases down to 10 was no easy task. In fact, I supplemented it with over two dozen bonus picks and honorable mentions. My approach is a mix of historical importance, aesthetic judgment, quality of presentation, and difficulty of effort. It is an unquantifiable formula influenced by my own subjective values but you’ll see some themes emerge. I favor films that have never been available in the U.S. before, significant restorations, discoveries, and rarities. But I also value a beautiful transfer, well-produced supplements, insightful interviews and essays, and intelligently-curated archival extras. You’ll see all these in the picks below.
1 – Out 1(Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) – This was my cinematic Holy Grail for years, Jacques Rivette’s legendary 12-hour-plus epic of rival theater companies, an obsessive panhandler, a mercenary street thief, an obscure conspiracy, the post-1968 culture of Paris, puzzles, mysteries, creative improvisation, and the theater of life. The history is too complicated to go into here (check out my review at Parallax View) but apart from periodic special screenings it was impossible to see until a digital restoration in 2015 followed by a limited American release in theaters, streaming access, and finally an amazing Blu-ray+DVD box set featuring both the complete version (Noli me tangere, 1971 / 1989) and the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision. It was shot on 16mm on the streets with a minimal crew and in a collaborative spirit, incorporating improvisations and accidents and morphing along the way. The disc release embraces the texture of its making and also includes the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited” and an accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet. There were more lavish sets and more beautiful restorations on 2016 home video, but nothing as unique and committed as this cinematic event, which made its American home video debut over 40 years after its first showing. Full review here.
Paris Belongs to Us (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Jacques Rivette’s 1961 debut feature, makes its U.S. home video debut in a Criterion edition, which is fitting for a founding brother of the French nouvelle vague and frankly about time for Criterion. It’s their first Rivette release and comes after Blu-ray releases of Le Pont du Nord (1981) and both versions of Out 1 (1971) from Kino Lorber. I call that a good start for the least appreciated filmmaker of that loose band of brothers (and one sister, Agnes Varda).
Familiar Rivette themes and fascinations are present from this very first feature. Anne (Betty Schneider), a small town girl in Paris for school, gets involved in a theater group led by the passionate but broke Gérard (Giani Esposito), whose rehearsals for “Pericles” have to keep finding new spaces as cast members drop out, and is introduced to vague, vast, international conspiracy by American-in-exile Philip (Daniel Crohem), a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist fleeing the blacklist and sliding into paranoia, alcoholism, and self-pity. He’s not just paranoid, he’s given up, content to lob cynical comments at pretentious parties with fellow writers and artists and then take refuge in his hovel of a room with the willing blonde Danish model next door. It’s as if he’s escaped McCarthyism convinced that it’s part of a global master plan. Anne’s older brother Pierre (François Maistre) has some connection to this group of artists, and perhaps the conspiracy itself, while Terry (Françoise Prévost), a glamorous American who lived with a Spanish composer and political activist named Juan who committed suicide before the film began, has since attached herself to Gérard and hovers around it all. The film hopscotches around Paris (some of the rehearsal spaces are marvelous little pockets hidden in the city) and the story kind of spirals in around itself.
There’s an intent seriousness to Paris Belongs to Us (and his sophomore feature, The Nun) that Rivette largely leaves behind with his subsequent features, which incorporate puzzles and a sense of play in his engagement with his conspiracies taht are less paranoid fears than literary themes escaped into the real world. Paris Belongs to Us, in contrast, is graver and a sense of despair takes over the artists and intellectuals who gather at parties to mourn the latest suicide of a colleague. The title itself is sourly ironic given the paranoia, the disappointment, the conspiracies, even the theatrical endeavor that, after struggling to find any stability, is smothered by its acceptance into the “legitimate” theater. Even the atmosphere (at least outside of the theater rehearsals, where a spirit of creativity remains) seems to breed disillusionment, with gray, overcast skies and chilly days. Paris does not belong to them at all. It belongs to the powerful, not the dreamers, and they powerful crush the spirits of the artists and idealists. Rivette’s attitudes evolved into something more hopeful even in the face of death in his later films.
Perhaps that’s why Rivette changed the way he made films later in the decade. Paris Belongs to Us is tightly scripted and directed. Out 1 and Celine and Julie Go Boating also engage in theater, conspiracies, obsessions, and playing detective to unravel a mystery, but they were launched with outlines rather than scripts, written along the way with the actors shaping the characters and suggesting the direction of the story. Films are collaborative efforts under any circumstances but Rivette clearly found his inspiration in greater collaboration, and the creative abandon of his later films have a more playful spirit and optimistic approach.
Yet for all the disillusionment of Paris Belongs to Us, there is a spirit of creativity and an existential sense of mystery. Why are the cops chasing Philip? Why has the tape of Juan’s guitar music gone missing, and what’s on it? What is Pierre’s part in all this? What exactly is this vast conspiracy? Schneider brings a spirit of curiosity and innocence to this little society that, for all its intellectual and artistic bonafides, is stuck in self-observation, and her detective work gives the film momentum. It’s a shame she did not continue on as an actress.
It should have been one of the first feature from the group of critics-turned-filmmakers—it was shot in 1958—but wasn’t released until 1961 for various reasons. By then the nouvelle vague had become defined by the fresh, spirited lyrical realism of Truffaut and the genre-busting and narrative experimentation of Godard and Rivette’s film, in many ways a reflection on the end of the fifties, looked decidedly conventional. Which is most certainly is not. It’s an accomplished, engaging, fascinating portrait of Paris at the end of the 1950s as the arts seem mired in tradition and political and social energy is suppressed at all levels. It’s interesting to see Rivette at the beginning, of course, but it is also engaging to see a different kind of cinematic rebellion, one that indicts the culture itself for its conservatism and fear of new ideas and innovation, the very thing that the nouvelle vague brought with a vengeance. Rivette captures the culture that the nouvelle vague rebelled against.
It’s also fun to go cameo spotting. Among the guests in the opening party scene are Claude Chabrol and Rivette himself, Jean-Luc Godard is a man at a sidewalk café interviewed by Anne, and Jacques Demy is also supposed be in the film (though I did not spot him myself).
Criterion presents the US home video debut of the film in a new 2K digital restoration mastered from the original camera negative. Presented in the old Academy ratio of 1.37:1, it’s like a throwback to classic movies with a modern sensibility. It looks lovely, capturing the often shadowy, overcast atmosphere of his Paris, but you may also notice grit and artifacts in some shots, elements that disappear at the next cut. Just as the new restoration of Rivette’s Out 1 (released stateside by Kino earlier this year), the folks behind this version remain true to the restorer’s job, which is to come as close to possible returning the film to the same state as its day one premiere. These imperfections reflect the realities of its production and whether or not Rivette would have removed them had he the technology at the time, it’s not up to the engineers and restoration producers to second guess him. Curiously, it’s the only part of the production that shows its low-budget, independent origins. The images are lovely, clearly carefully composed and beautifully shot by Charles L. Bitsch (who went on to become an assistant director for Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean-Pierre Melville).
The Blu-ray and DVD feature Rivette’s 1956 short Le coup du berger, which stars Jean-Claude Brialy and features appearances by his fellow film critics (and future nouvelle vague filmmakers) Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut, and an interview with critic and historian Richard Neupert.
Jacques Rivette’sOut 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.
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).
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.
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.
Making its stateside home video debut on Tuesday, February 17, is Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD), a dark sister film to his more buoyant and whimsical Celine and Julie Go Boating. Longtime collaborator Bulle Ogier stars with her daughter, Pascale Ogier, and they co-wrote the film with Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman, which gives the characters and their journeys a decidedly female perspective, a hallmark of many of Rivette’s films. It also channels his love of puzzles, games, fantasy, and conspiracy with a story that tosses the two women together in Paris and sends them on an odyssey through the city, following clues and hopping through neighborhoods like they are squares in a massive boardgame with fatal stakes.
Marie (Bulle Ogier) arrives in the back of a pick-up truck—she’s spent the last few years in prison—with the intention of tracking down her old lover. Baptiste (Pascale Ogier) rides in on a moped, challenging a motorcycle rider like a kid playing matador and stepping off to slash the eyes from posters and placards. Marie is older, experienced, practical, disillusioned yet still hopeful, and she’s afflicted by a crippling claustrophobia that prevents her from even stepping inside stores. Baptiste is young, dreamy, a believer in fate and magic, and possibly unstable (her reflexive defacing of public imagery seems more compulsion than artistic statement). She’s also unfailingly loyal. When Baptiste sees that Marie’s criminal boyfriend Julien (Pierre Clémenti) is involved in shady business dealings, she appoints herself Marie’s guardian and takes the lead in investigating the contents of Julien’s briefcase, which includes newspaper clippings of political assassinations and of Marie’s criminal past. What’s the connection?
That’s for you to decide. Rivette doesn’t connect the dots so much as he follows the path of the game board, jumping from one square to another to make sense of the clues. The women discover that there are deadly stakes to this game but Rivette mixes fantasy with the fatalities and whimsy with the seriousness. Marie’s past connects her with the revolutionary spirit of the late-1960s that no longer exists by 1981, where the rich and powerful play games with lives. Baptiste’s idealism is less political than personal, perhaps a kind of chivalry. Her moped as much steed as machine and in the final act she takes on an amusement park slide in the design of a fire-breathing dragon like she’s a 20th century Don Quixote with tai chi moves. When a rival player attacks her, he puts her to sleep like a fairy tale princess, going so far to use a piece of stage craft to cocoon her in a literal web. Marie’s story is less whimsical, as her devotion to her criminal lover drags her into a criminal plot to which she remains willingly blind. Not that Baptiste understands it any better, but her drive to attack the eyes of the posters and artworks in the city echo with fears of surveillance. Who exactly is watching them?
Le Pont du Nord is shot on location on the streets and in empty lots of Paris where buildings in various staged of demolition and construction suggest the skeleton behind the city. The scenes were worked out with the performers and then partially improvised and have a playful, meandering quality held together by Rivette’s dashes of humor and visual punning and the bond created between the two women. But this is a dark bookend to the cycle of films he began with his 1971 epic Out 1 and continued with Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and Duelle (1976).
Features the 13-minute video essay “Composites,” an experimental rumination on the film that I found uninformative, and the more useful but fairly inert 11-minute “Mapping Le Pont du Nord,” an image essay that goes through the film chronologically and identifies the locations of each scene.