Jean Grémillon was one of the great French film directors of the golden age with a career that spanned from the end of the silent era through the late 1950s, but is one of the least known to American audiences and very few of his films are available in the U.S. (in fact, the only previous releases I’m aware of are three films on the Eclipse set Jean Gremillon During the Occupation). The Love of a Woman (France, 1953), his final feature, confronts a modern theme in the rural, conservative culture of an island community of sailors off the coast of France.
Micheline Presle is the new community doctor, a single, relatively young woman who must prove herself to a population suspicious of outsiders and a culture steeped in chauvinism. Massimo Girotti is an Italian engineer working on the island who challenges the provincial attitudes as he romances the doctor, but too is trapped in traditional views of marriage and forces her to choose: love or career. It takes on themes that were also being grappled with in American cinema after the war with a sympathetic portrait of women professionals in a culture that constantly challenges them to prove themselves and demands they sacrifice career for marriage. The choice is put into focus when the retiring schoolteacher, the doctor’s only real friend on the island, contemplates retirement as a spinster.
The Conformist (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) opens in the deep blue of dawn, an intense, vibrant azure with a hint of ultramarine that blankets the city like an ocean. Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a petty bourgeois Italian who just wants to disappear into the fabric of his society, specifically Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s, has volunteered to be an informant for the Secret Police. He doesn’t believe in the Fascism, he just wants to belong, and under the glow of this overwhelming blue he heads off oversee the political assassination he has been called to facilitate. This is the temperature of his dispassionate nature, the calm of conformity that he desires, but even under this comforting ocean of reassurance, he remains anxious and out of place, a pretender to this society who wears his convictions like a suit. It’s all about appearance.
I focus on this blue because until now, it has never enveloped me so as I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). I’ve seen the film on 16mm college prints, on 35mm revival prints, and on Paramount’s DVD from a decade ago, but this restoration brings out Vittorio Storaro’s colors with a richness and a depth I’ve never seen before. For the first time those hues have reached through the screen and into my experience.
Color is central to the experience of The Conformist, pushed to intensities beyond what we could call natural yet nothing so actively artificial as the great MGM Technicolor musicals or as symbolically loaded as Antonioni’s Red Desert. It’s not some much unreal as hyper-real, a subjective reality as seen through the eyes of Marcello, a man seeking comfort in conformism and compromise. Those blue filters create a deep blue ocean of a sky, a perpetual twilight that is at once calming and unsettling. If it represents Marcello’s ideal state of stasis, it threatens to drown him as much as comfort him, and its chilly atmosphere suggests his amoral compromise. He may desire Anna (Dominique Sanda), the young wife of his former professor, but it sure isn’t love, and he’s quick to shut off any human connection to her when his mission as an agent / informer for the Secret Police comes to fruition. He has no love for his own beautiful, shallow, and silly petite bourgeois wife Guilia (Stefania Sandrelli), who is “all bed and kitchen,” he tells his best friend, a blind radio personality who spouts Fascist propaganda on a daily basis. Marcello only has self-loathing. His father is in an asylum and his mother, once rich and now broke but living a decadent lifestyle in a crumbling manor, disgusts him. And then there is that childhood trauma that he thinks this act will expiate. It’s all very symbolically loaded, a flashback to a world of sepia-tinged nostalgia that is tangled up in sexual confusion, guilt, and innocence besmirched, a psychological motivation that ultimately explains nothing beyond the excuses he gives himself.
It’s a superb performance by Trintignant, whose presence is the film is physically passive even as he tries to play the confident, intellectual leader of men. He is stiff and still and pulls himself inward, instinctively resistant to physical contact. (He is also dubbed into Italian, as is Dominique Sanda.) In the memorable scene at a cheery dance hall, a room of bright lights in the midst of the blue sea of Paris at evening, Anna dances with a very willing, drunk, and giggly Giulia in a Paris bar, and then swirls the line of dancers around Marcello, who is caught in the middle of the empty dance floor and suddenly surrounded, the center of attention. His arms go up defensively, to keep the world from making contact. That passivity, his complete lack of conviction, is what fools his old professor (Enzo Tarascio), an anti-Fascist now in exile in Paris that he has been assigned to gather information on, into believing he can sway the former student to his side.
The Conformist was hugely influential on American cinema of the seventies. Coppola picked up the stylized color palettes for The Godfather movies, where the sepia became an idealized past contrasted with the chilly present of Michael’s corruption, and brought Storaro over to shoot Apocalypse Now, while Paul Schrader reached out to production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti to be his “visual consultant” on American Gigolo and Cat People, films with defining, carefully painted color palettes. Bertolucci, Storaro, and Scarfiotti showed them that it was possible to marry such expressionism with the strain of seventies realism in American cinema. Not that anyone would mistake anything in The Conformist as realism. It is heightened, exaggerated, distorted, the world reimagined by the filmmakers as something familiar yet not. It is magnificent.
The original American release was cut by about five minutes. It was restored to its full version in 1994 and released on a fine DVD edition by Paramount a decade ago. This disc is mastered from a new restoration commissioned by the Cineteca di Bologna in 2011 and mastered from the original negative in 2K for digital screenings and for disc. It brings out the rich hues while preserving the texture of the film. It looks like a film print from 1970, not a piece of digital photography. Raro’s release on Blu-ray and DVD features the “visual essay” In the Shade of the Conformist with Italian film critic and historian Adriano Apra and featuring clips from a 2011 video interview with Bertolucci, plus two trailers and a 28-page booklet with essays and excerpts from archival reviews, articles, and interviews. The credits on the booklet also helpfully identify the actors who dubbed Trintignant and Sanda.
Alain Robbe-Grillet is best known as an experiment novelist in the nouvelle roman movement of the fifties and as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ elegant yet conceptually daring French nouvelle vague landmark Last Year at Marienbad. But Robbe-Grillet was also a filmmaker in his own right. He directed ten features in a career that spanned over 40 years. Until this year, only two of those films had been released on disc in the U.S.: the 1983 La Belle Captive (from the now defunct Koch Lorber label) and his final feature Gradiva (from Mondo Macabro). Now Kino Lorber, in partnership with the British label Redemption, has announced a slate of six Robbe-Grillet films for release on Blu-ray and DVD. Trans-Europ-Express is one of the first releases from this collection.
A lighthearted play with spy movies, erotica, and storytelling from 1967, Trans-Europ-Express is the director’s second directorial effort and his most popular success and audience-friendly production. It opens on a trio of movie folk–a director (played by Robbe-Grillet himself), a producer (actual film producer Paul Louyet), and a secretary / script supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet–you get the idea)–boarding a train (the Trans-Europ-Express, naturally) and brainstorming a story for a film about drug trafficking between Paris and Antwerp. When the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (fresh from furtively picking up a bondage magazine at the station newsstand) briefly ducks into their cabin, he’s recognized by the filmmakers and quickly cast as their main character, Elias, a smuggler involved in a big score with a shady criminal. Their sketchy, silly little plot (initially illustrated in a gag sequence right out of a silent movie parody) suddenly gets a face and a grounding. As much as a film that is constantly rewritten and revised can be said to be grounded.
Think of it as Robbe-Grillet’s Breathless, a pulp story refracted through the director’s own distinctive take on narrative deconstruction and sexual perversity.
Vittorio Gassman is a force of nature in Dino Risi’s 1962 road movie Il Soprasso, an odd couple odyssey that begins on a whim and drives off into one long detour from the staid, serious, self-repressed life of a bookish law student. Gassman’s Bruno roars into the film, screeching his Lancia Aurelia convertible through the all but deserted streets of Rome, which is practically shut down for the summer holiday, searching for cigarettes and a pay phone while Riz Ortolani’s jazzy score bounces through the background. It’s all high spirits and impulse behavior and this swinging bachelor seems destined to pull the shy, suspicious Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) from his apartment, where he’s cramming for finals, and out into the world. What begins as a quick drive to a bar for a drink turns into a road movie that carries them through a couple of days bouncing from one restaurant to another and finally landing at the shore for a sunny beach escape.
Director Dino Risi was a prolific and popular director and one of the masters of the commedia all’italiana, the witty, earthy comedies and social satires that were hugely popular in Italy but overshadowed internationally by the “serious” works of Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini and others. Il Sorpasso was his breakthrough film, a lively road movie and a deft character piece. The title Il Soprasso is an Italian term for passing cars on the road, a defining action in the film as speed demon Bruno constantly overtakes cars on the highway like it was a road race. It was released in the U.S. under the title The Easy Life, which works too, but the original title is about rushing to the next thing, to living in the fast lane and rushing past the crowd.
Z, the defiant 1969 political thriller as provocative expose by Costa-Gavras, begins with a statement that frames the film in no uncertain terms: “Any similarity to real persons and events is not coincidental. It is intentional.” In place of a disclaimer, he offers a proclamation: Though he never names the country in which it takes place, the rigorous fidelity to the historical record is obviously Greece, the homeland of Costa-Gavras, where a right-wing military junta staged a coup in 1967 and put the country under repressive authoritarian rule. This is the filmmaker’s angry denunciation of the fascist tactics to harass the liberal opposition, attack the leaders and ultimately overthrow the democratic government that had tacitly supported the military’s tactics all along.
Z is based loosely but unmistakably on the real life murder of Greek liberal politician Grigoris Lambrakis, an Olympic athlete, doctor, peace activist and Member of Parliament who became the magnetic leader of the rising progressive movement, and the documentary novel by Vassili Vassilikos of the same name. Z is no documentary but Costa-Gavras and his writer partner, Jorge Semprún, conducted their own research of what was essentially a state-sanctioned assassination and added their findings to their screenplay. It’s agit-prop, to be sure, but it’s thrilling, compelling, run through with vivid supporting characters and narrative twists and turns that have the dramatic punch of fiction even (perhaps especially) when based on real events.