The title may sound like a serial killer thriller but Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill (Italy, 1966) is a Gothic ghost story with haunting images, grotesque edges, and glorious style. Think of it as Bava’s answer to a Hammer horror, with hysterical superstition and suspicion of outsiders replacing the lurid sexuality of Hammer’s Victorian horrors and Bava’s rich palette setting an altogether more expressionist atmosphere.
Shooting exteriors on location in rural mountain villages of picture-postcard medieval stone dwellings and labyrinthine streets, Bava creates a fairy tale world of an oppressively provincial 19th century village in the grip of a curse. At least that’s the explanation of the townspeople who dismiss the scientific investigation of Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), a coroner from the city called into determine if Irena (Mirella Pamphili), a young woman whose death by impaling opens the film, was murdered or committed suicide. The villagers know—she is the latest victim of a curse upon the village—and do everything they can to drive the coroner and Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), the city investigator, from their insular little village. With the help of Monica (Erika Blanc), who was born in the village but sent away to school and has recently returned, Paul is determined to find the true cause of the inexplicable deaths plaguing the village.
Catching up on some of the silent films released to Blu-ray and DVD in the past months…
Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)
William Wellman was one of the most versatile directors of his day, making everything from comedies and musicals to gritty dramas and war movies, and his World War I epic Wings (1927) won the first Academy Award for Best Film, but in the late 1920s and 1930s he directed some of the most interesting films about struggles before and during the depression. Beggars of Life(1928) was made before the stock market crash but released in the aftermath, so while it’s not technically a response to the Depression, its portrait of hoboes riding the rails and forming a kind of outsider society was in tune with the times. Today, however, it is best known for Louise Brooks, the petit dancer turned actress who never became a star in America in her lifetime but starred in two great German silent films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and became a cult figure in retirement.
Brooks is Nancy, a young woman who kills her violent stepfather in self-defense (presented as a flashback, it’s a startling and powerful scene which Brooks underplays with haunting pain), and Richard Arlen is Jim, a boyish beggar who stumbles across the body and helps her escape. He dresses her in men’s clothes and teachers her how to ride the rails with the rest of the tramps on the road, landing in a rough hobo camp where Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) rules through intimidation. Figuring out that this delicate “boy” is actually a girl (and seriously, who was she fooling?), he claims Nancy as his property and puts the couple through a kangaroo court, a great scene that straddles comedy and horror. Beery delivers a big, blustery performance as he transforms from predator to protector, the handsome Arlen at times he reminded me of a young Paul Newman, and Brooks is incandescent in her best role in an American films (she immediately left for Europe to make the movies that made her reputation).
Three of the great icons of French crime cinema team up for The Sicilian Clan (France, 1969) (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD). Jean Gabin is Vittorio Manalese, the head of the Sicilian Manalese clan in Paris, Alain Delon the reckless, amoral French criminal and killer Roger, who hires Vittorio’s clan to spring him from custody, and Lino Ventura Commissaire Le Goff, the man who captured Roger. After Roger escapes, Le Goff struggles with is efforts to give up smoking.
The film opens with a terrific escape, not from prison but from prison transport in the chaos of a traffic snarl, in a nicely-engineered sequence crisply directed by Henri Verneuil. No guns needed here—the Manalese clan doesn’t kill during their capers—and Vittorio is wary of Roger, a loner who has killed more than one cop in his robberies, as he puts him up in a private apartment above the family home. But when Roger brings a big jewel heist his way, he agrees to partner up and proceeds to find a New York partner and case the target: an exhibition hall in Rome with state-of-the-art security. Vittorio meets up with distant New York mob cousin Tony Nicosia (played with dapper charm by Amadeo Nazzari), who he hasn’t seen for thirty years, and they slip into instant rapport and easy friendship as if no time has passed as they case the Rome exhibit. When they find the new technology impenetrable, Vittorio comes up with a new plan: hijacking the flight delivering the jewels to New York City in a genuine family affair.
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.
The Big Short (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Adam McKay is not necessarily the guy you look to for dramatic outrage at the greed and failure behind the economic collapse of the last decade. He is, after all, the director who guided Will Ferrell through such comedies as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys. Yet here he is, adapting Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book on the reasons behind the financial collapse and coming away with a hit movie, five Academy Award nominations, and an Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Charles Randolph).
The Big Short is serious and angry. It’s also very funny, which is its secret weapon. What’s a subprime mortgage? Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it to you. Need to explain what a CBO is without driving audiences away? How about Selena Gomez at a casino?
In the hands of McKay and his co-conspirators, the financial fraud of the 2000s is nothing short of a criminal farce with dire consequences. For us, that is, not the folks who perpetrated the crisis out of greed, criminal neglect, and reckless abandon. In this company of thieves and accomplices, the heroes of this story are a few men who saw through the façade and proceeded to bet against the house. They are, of course, outliers with idiosyncrasies.
Christian Bale is Dr. Michael Burry, a genius on the autism spectrum who doesn’t get sarcasm and fights anxiety with death metal. Steve Carell is Mark Baum, the outraged, angry head of a small investment team whose social skills are only slightly better than Burry’s. Brad Pitt is Ben Rickert, a disillusioned trader intrigued by the findings of two young guys (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) with a private investment fund. These guys, independently of one another, figured out that the so-called Triple AAA mortgage bonds were built on a foundation of ready to collapse at the first tremor of panic.
Ryan Gosling is the junior Gordon Gekko who narrates the story and provides color commentary with a cynical wit. A slick suit with a feral bloodlust for money, he’s not like these outsiders who, to some degree or another, are appalled at the degree of corruption and lack of accountability they discover in their respective campaigns of due diligence. He’s just a man who smells profit and signs up for his share, but it also makes him an effective master of ceremonies. He’s got no illusions to be shattered, which makes his incredulity all the more effective.
Let’s be clear: the characters of The Big Short are constructs with no dimension beyond their surface quirks and McKay, who has the chops for ensemble comedy and visual humor, hasn’t any idea how to stage or shoot a dramatic scene. This isn’t a film so much as an illustrated screenplay sustained by screen personalities and directorial momentum.
Given that, The Big Short is the film that we needed at this time. Its star power alone brings in folks who wouldn’t think of watching a documentary, and the jumpy pace and steady laughs are just the thing to pull viewers through the arcane details of the investment business to understand how it fell apart. At least in its broad strokes. You may not remember all the economic details once the film is over but you should come away with a sense of outrage, a checklist of those responsible, and a realization that the marketplace is not some pure self-correcting financial ecosystem but a free-for-all built on greed, faith, blind obedience, ignorance, and a disturbing lack of accountability. That the film has you laughing instead of crying is bonus.
The Blu-ray edition includes five featurettes and bonus copies of the film on DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD.
The Forbidden Room (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, Netflix) – Canadian iconoclast Guy Maddin has been making strange, surreal films that evoke the images and storytelling traditions of silent movies for decades. The Forbidden Room (2015), which he co-directed with his former student Evan Johnson, is like a compendium of his obsessions and cinematic fetishes. It opens on a mock-instructional film on “How to Take a Bath,” shifts to a submarine trapped at the bottom of the sea where a lumberjack (Roy Dupuis) inexplicably appears, shifts to his story of a feral forest adventure and a damsel in distress, who finds herself transported to an exotic nightclub out of an old Hollywood movie, and so on.
The film arose from a project called “Séances,” a museum installation at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris where he “remade” lost films and unfinished projects from the silent and early sound era. The Forbidden Room, partly shot concurrently with that project, is a collection of scenes and movie clichés reworked with campy exaggeration and absurd, cartoonish twists. Shot on a minimal budget, with a production design that favors ingenuity and creativity and a cast that includes such major European actors as Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, and recent Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling (some of them in multiple roles), it has a whimsical, absurdist sense of humor. The actors engage in the exaggerated performance style of silent movie melodramas and comedies and Maddin digitally “ages” his films with scuffs and scratches and cracks and even distorted frames as if they were from decaying nitrate prints from the 1920s. Those distortions are given a life of their own with his digital tools and even become cinematic devices of their own, morphing from one image to another as if released by the ghosts of early cinema.
The result is something that defies explanation, let alone description. Maddin make no effort to make sense of any of it, or even worry about any kind of dramatic closure. It’s all about the texture, the weirdness, the quality of the cinematic moment. This is not for audiences who demand story and character and narrative logic. But if you can put expectations aside and lose yourself in the ravishing dreamscapes and absurd situations that Maddin creates on his tiny stages with his mad collaborators, you’ll discover a cinematic experience like no other.
Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, two featurettes, and a bonus short, plus a booklet.
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.
Given the title of Killer Cop (Raro / Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) a 1975 poliziotteschi from Italy, you might expect a rogue cop thriller, and ambitious young Commissario Matteo Rolandi (Claudio Cassinelli), a rising officer on a major drug case, certainly has good reason to go rogue. His case gets caught up in a major terrorist bombing and his best friend (Franco Fabrizi), a workaday veteran with a fidgety nature and a streak of bad luck, is murdered for stumbling across the prime suspect. He’s frustrated that he’s been bounced from the case by the Prosecutor General, a serious, stone-faced legend of dogged duty who has the unlikely nickname “Minty” (because he keeps popping breath mints while working a case) and is played by American star Arthur Kennedy (dubbed in Italian of course), so when his drug investigation winds back into the bombing he conducts his own investigation. It turns out the Prosecutor has his reasons for keeping the case close to the vest: the police force, the justice department, the entire political system in Milan is riddled with corruption and he doesn’t know who he can trust.
The northern capital of Milan, the symbol of modernity and progress in the Italian cinema of the 50s and 60s, is the epitome of official corruption and the urban mob in the crime cinema of the 70s. The violence here, however, is no mob war or message from the criminal underworld. It’s not even a terrorist attack, at least not as defined by the traditional “war on terror” yardstick. It’s… well, I’m not really sure, but as the masterminds explain it, “It was only supposed to be a demonstration.” The best I can figure is that it’s a conspiracy rooted in a cabal of industrialists, government officials, and mobsters and it is designed to stir things up. Which pretty much vindicates the fears of both Rolandi and Minty, who keep tripping over each other with a frequency that makes them both suspicious.
Raro has been championing the poliziotteschi—brutal crime thriller and mob dramas from Italy in the 1970s—since its revelatory release of Fernando di Leo’s filmography. Killer Cop is a minor but interesting addition to the library, a low-key film that (unusual for the genre) focuses on honest cops trying to do their job in a culture of corruption and political intimidation. Italian audiences of the day would have recognized the event as a reference to a real-life bombing at Piazza Fontana, which was unsolved, and director Luciano Ercoli suggests a conspiracy that could have come out of the American cinema of the day, like The Parallax View. It’s short on exposition, which is as interesting as it is frustrating—the whole conspiracy remains shadowy and the complicity of the police and justice officials is unclear—but also gives the film an atmosphere of distrust of all official representatives. The bomber himself (Bruno Zanin) is a kind of sad-sack patsy, not even a true believer but a foot soldier getting his orders from phone calls and abandoned by his bosses when the case spins out of their control.
As far as I know, this is Ercoli’s only poliziotteschi but he brings an interesting attitude to the genre.
Blu-ray and DVD, with both Italian and English dub soundtracks (the Italian is preferable, as the English dubbing is sloppy and lazily performed) and optional English subtitles, plus a 20-minute interview with production manager Alessandro Calosci.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, Netflix), written and directed by California-based and Iranian-born filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour, is a genre film with a fresh approach and a distinctive cultural texture: a vampire movie from a female director who stirs American movie references into her stylized Iranian street drama.
The Girl (as she is identified in the credits), played by Sheila Vand (Argo), walks the streets (and at one point rides a skateboard) of the ominously-named Bad City in a chador, but underneath wears a striped blouse that could have been borrowed from Jean Seberg in Breathless and her basement room is adorned in pop music posters. Arash (Arash Marandi), the son of a heroin addict father in debt to a drug-dealing pimp, seems to model himself on James Dean, right down to the white T-shirt, black leather jacket and blue jeans. (The pimp, meanwhile, who fashions himself an East LA gangbanger.) Of course they cross paths and The Girl, who exercises a measure of morality in choosing her meals, allows him to woo her. Why not? They’ve both already robbed the same gangster (she took jewelry and his CDs, he grabbed the cash and the drugs).
Shot in high-contrast black-and-white widescreen almost entirely at night, A Girl Walks Home is like an Iranian film noir by way of a crime drama with supernatural edges. Amirpour uses the widescreen format to present a stripped-away landscape, devoid of bystanders (giving it a ghost town atmosphere) and prowled by predators, criminals, hookers, and other society drop-outs. It was produced in the United States, with night-shrouded California locations transformed into the suburbs and industrial outskirts of an Iranian town by the loaded name of Bad City and a cast speaking Farsi, and financed in a decidedly American manner: production funds were raised in an IndieGoGo campaign. And there are also two rather familiar Persian-American faces in supporting roles: Marshall Manesh (Ranjit in How I Met Your Mother) and Pej Vahdat (Arastoo Vaziri in Bones). The brief glimpse of nudity will likely keep it from screening in Iran but had a good festival run and a theatrical release.
Blu-ray and DVD, in Farsi with English subtitles, with a substantial collection of featurettes, including an onstage Q&A with director Ana Lily Amirpour conducted by Roger Corman and an interview with Amirpour and actress Sheila Vand, plus deleted scenes and a booklet with a graphic novel version of the film.
It’s previously been available through Cable On Demand and VOD and it is now also available to stream on Netflix.
Life of Riley (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) – It is curious that Alain Resnais, who was the most narratively experimental and ambitious of directors at the birth of the nouvelle vague in France, spent the last two decade of his filmmaking career melding cinema and theater in productions that are both highly theatrical and uniquely cinematic. Life of Riley, the final film from the director (he passed away in 2014, a few months after the film’s debut), is his third adaptation of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn and, like his penultimate feature You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012), revolves around the theater. In this case it’s an amateur production, a play within a play that we only get in glimpses of rehearsals interrupted by disagreements and digressions. The biggest digression is their friend George Riley, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He never appears on screen but his presence looms over the film and his actions stir the drama between the three couples of the story: suburbanites Kathryn and Colin (Sabine Azéma and Hippolyte Girardot), wealthy friends Tamara and Jack (Caroline Sihol and Michel Vuillermoz), and George’s ex-wife Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain) now living on a farm with the older Simeon (André Dussollier).
“Drama” may not be the right word. The play itself is a pleasant frivolity, a mix of bedroom farce (without the bedrooms), romantic comedy, and self-aware theater that opens on the first day of rehearsals and ends after closing night, with a coda that brings us back to the themes of mortality and emotional connection. Resnais was 90 when he made the film and it is surely no coincidence that his final two features raise a glass to life by facing death and mortality.
Life of Riley is no funeral, though a funeral does take place before it ends. It’s a celebration, albeit a low-key one. It plays out in the gardens and lawns of the characters, represented by stylized, abstracted sets with hanging strips of heavy cloth as backdrops, with footage of driving down real country roads marking transitions and architectural drawings establishing the next location. It’s not necessarily a successful device but it is inventive and playful, just like the stylized performances. All the world is indeed a stage. This story simply takes place in the rehearsals and afterparties of the “official” performance, while between scenes George continues to play the womanizer, using sympathy and the romance of a dying man’s final fling to entice all three women into lending their attentions to his comfort.
It’s the end of a filmmaking career of over 60 years, perhaps not the last word he would have chosen (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet is more profound, more rapturous, and more stylistically exhilarating), but a pleasant variation on a theme in a rich career, minor but sweet.
Blu-ray and DVD, in French with English subtitles, with a featurette of cast interviews and an accompanying booklet with essays by director Alain Resnais and film critic Glenn Kenny.
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.
The Retrieval (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) is a moving, heartfelt drama centered on a thirteen-year-old black boy, Will (Ashton Sanders), who serves as a kind of Judas Goat to a band of bounty hunters tracking escaped slaves in the midst of the American Civil. Will’s mercenary uncle Marcus (Keston John) tries to sell him to the head bounty hunter and bullies him when they set out to lure one last target into the arms of the gang. Nate (Tishuan Scott), a free man with a bounty on his head, is suspicious of Marcus but slowly warms to Will. As he becomes something of a father figure to the scared, brow-beaten boy, Will struggles with his conscience while leading Nate from freedom back to the slave states of the South. The high stakes of this situation—Will is an African-American boy in the south during the Civil War and an orphan under the control of an outlaw who threatens to kill him if he tries to escape—frame an intimate coming of age story on a vast canvas.
Filmmaker Chris Eska shoots the film against the alternately lovely and desolate landscapes of state parks and national forests in Eastern Texas, standing in for blurred lines of battle around Virginia. He hints at the broader war with a single battle scene, which is more of a chaotic skirmish in the brush that sends Will fleeing in panic. Sanders, whose open face and wide, nervous eyes communicate his vulnerability, gives Will a yearning for connection and a sincerity in conflict with his fear, and Scott brings a dignity and a sureness to Nate, a man who had to abandon everyone he loved to live free in the North. It’s quite powerful and very rewarding.
Blu-ray and DVD, with filmmaker commentary, a 48-minute cast and filmmaker Q&A, featurettes, and deleted scenes among the supplements.
Adua and Her Friends (Raro / Kino Lorber, Blu-ray) are prostitutes from a Rome brothel attempting to take charge of their own lives after their place is shut down in the aftermath of Italy’s Merlin Law, which ended legalized prostitution in 1958 (the film was released in 1960). Adua (played by Simone Signoret), a veteran of the life, has a plan to open a restaurant as a front for their own little brothel in the rooms upstairs and her friends—cynical and hot-headed Marilina (Emmanuelle Riva), naïve and trusting Lolita (Sandra Milo), and practical Milly (Gina Rovere)—pitch in for the purchase and start-up and fake their way through running a real business. Adua may be a dreamer but she has a lot invested in this project. She’s the oldest of the four and, as anyone familiar with the films of Mizoguchi will attest, life on the streets isn’t forgiving of age. But what really charges up the film is the feeling of accomplishment and ownership as they work their way through each problem and, almost without noticing, create a successful business out of the restaurant.
For all the stumbles along the way, director Antonio Pietrangeli and his screenwriting partners (which includes future director Ettore Scola and longtime Fellini collaborator Tullio Pinelli) don’t play the disasters for laughs but rather a mix of warm character piece and spiky social commentary. It’s not simply that their pasts follow them around but that the Merlin Law has actually made things worse for women, whether they remain in the life (without any legal protections) or attempt to transition into another career. Palms need to be greased and officials cut in on the business; they haven’t even started up and they’re already paying off a pimp. And no, it’s not Marcello Mastroianni’s Piero, a charming hustler who hawks cars and woos Adua, who enjoys engaging in a romance that she gets to define for a change. He’s a pleasant distraction and something of an ally, but he’s better at looking out for himself.
Pietrangeli has great empathy for women (based on the evidence of this film and his 1964 La Visita) and his story frames the sexual double standards and cultural chauvinism of their lives. Those are the kinds of forces that good intentions and elbow grease can’t always overcome. But between the arguments and setbacks, Pietrangeli offers a portrait of life lived in hard times and buoyed by friendship and hope for a better life. When Marilina’s young son moves in (the girls didn’t even know she was a mother), they coalesce in a kind of family. The scene of the boy’s baptism, with the women lined up like adoring aunts, is a lovely and touching moment. There are no happy ending fantasies here but their moments of triumph, solidarity, and defiance are oases in a life that otherwise has it out for their dreams of self-definition.
Raro first released the film on DVD in 2011. This marks the Blu-ray debut and it looks very good, clean and sharp with lots of detail, and sounds great. Its score is informed by fifties cool jazz (and I’m a sucker for any soundtrack featuring the vibes) and dotted with pop songs (including a great use of Santo and Johnny’s instrumental “Sleepwalk”). It features an introduction by Italian film historian Maurizio Poro, the short film Girandola 1910, a segment from the 1954 anthology comedy Amori de mezzo secolo directed by Pietrangeli, and a booklet with essays, excerpts essays and reviews, and filmographies.