Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust has a reputation. In an era when this week’s men-in-tights super-spectacular is routinely christened the greatest event in human history since some canny cave-dweller concocted the wheel, it’s almost refreshing to report that Cannibal Holocaust actually lives up to its rep—if the term “refreshing” can be applied to a film that will likely leave you wanting some quality time in a piping hot shower. When you come out on the other side of Deodato’s pioneering tropical torture porn, you probably won’t be all that surprised to discover that Deodato was hauled into court to prove he hadn’t in fact butchered the four leads. Touted, and not without some justification, on its Blu-ray packaging as “the most controversial movie ever made,” Deodato’s film remains an authentic endurance test for even the most determinedly desensitized genre enthusiast.
For all that, Cannibal Holocaust boasts a surprisingly sophisticated formal sensibility—one that’s yoked to a vitriolic, and still vitally resonant, critique not only of crass media manipulation, but also the public’s demand for sensationalistic “infotainment” of the lowest denominator. “The more you rape their senses,” as one female TV executive frames it, “the happier they are.” Deodato sets his sights here on documentaries like Mondo Cane, wherein tawdry exoticism competes with the depiction of dramatically embellished atrocities both natural and manmade. Rather than chiding Cannibal Holocaust for wanting to have its moralistic cake and devour it like a half-starved caiman too, we can see the film as a reduction to gory absurdity of “mondo”-style moviemaking.
The film’s most striking structural stratagem lies in contrasting two very different expeditions into the Amazonian “green inferno.” It’s a conceit that Cannibal Holocaust embodies visually by alternating between 35mm film stock for its frame narrative, in which NYU anthropologist Dr. Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) heads into Ya̧nomamö country to track down a missing crew of documentary filmmakers, and the grainy 16mm footage of their exploits (read: rampage) that Monroe successfully recovers. Neither expedition, however, is entirely free from implication in the brutality, let alone the instances of genuine animal slaughter that, more than anything, have contributed to Cannibal Holocaust’s parlous pedigree.
Nevertheless, the preponderance of both real and ersatz destruction resides with the crew led by Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke). For his part, Monroe inaugurates an exchange economy with the indigenes by trading his tape recorder for the surviving film reels, and participates, however half-heartedly, in some of their rituals. The documentarians, on the other hand, descend on them like conquistadors out for booty. And Yates’s penchant for wholesale fabrication is exhibited in footage culled from an earlier production entitled The Last Road to Hell, which we sample long before we witness his film crew stage-managing the incineration of a native village (with its unmistakable shades of Vietnam and My Lai) and indulging in a little lighthearted rapine and pillage along the way.
At first sight, scenes involving actual animal killings seem to be absolutely indefensible. Certainly, there’s precious little to excuse them from either an aesthetic or ethical standpoint. Altogether, six or seven animals are done away with over the course of the film. While most of these executions are mercifully brief, the decapitation, dismemberment, and subsequent shell-shucking of a large turtle is a nauseating ordeal by any sensible person’s standards. The only conceivable defense possible for these events—aside from addressing similar incidents that occur in more critically palatable films like Renoir’s rabbit-blasting The Rules of the Game—would be to point out the terrible, and terribly calculated, efficacy these scenes possess in confounding the lines between reality and its technological reproduction. And that is, after all, the ostensible “point” of Cannibal Holocaust in the first place.
The upgrade to Blu-ray leaves Cannibal Holocaust looking and sounding better than ever, a fact that will no doubt appall the film’s many detractors. Compared to earlier editions, color saturation is denser, which is particularly noticeable amid those verdant Amazonian forests, and fine details like clothing textures and facial features receive substantial improvement. And the deliberately…well, mutilated 16mm stock used in the found footage segments is much less of a sepia-tinted eyesore. The Blu-ray disc offers two sound mixes: original mono and a “digital stereo re-mix” that puts across dialogue and ambient sounds with more dynamic range than the unsurprisingly flat mono and amps up Riz Ortolani’s incongruously gorgeous score.
Grindhouse serves up a supplement smorgasbord spread out across two Blu-ray discs, carrying over most of the contents from their 2005 two-disc DVD set (noticeably absent is the hour-long making-of documentary) as well as ladling out helpings of new extras. Along with two different cuts of Cannibal Holocaust (viewable with or without the animal-cruelty scenes), the first Blu-ray includes two audio commentaries: the previously available track with director Ruggero Deodato and actor Robert Kerman, and a recently recorded alternate track with actors Gabriel Yorke and Francesca Ciardi. The latter is an engaging listen that alternates between nostalgic reminiscences about the production and expressions of unalloyed disgust with the unsimulated animal slaughter; their reactions will more than likely mirror most viewers’.
The second disc contains the bulk of the extras. Most substantive are new interviews with Deodato and Ciardi. The director ranges over his jungle trilogy, disavows blame for the critter killings by laying it at the doorstep of “the Asian market,” notes that everything killed on the set was eaten, and reflects on subsequent court cases wherein he had to prove that he had not in fact murdered his four lead actors on film. Ciardi discusses difficult shooting conditions, laments the “excessive” and unnecessary nudity required for her role, and sketches out the differences between American and Italian actors. Elsewhere, camera operator Robert Forges Davanzati sits down at Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso store to talk about the film’s legal woes, and actor and AD Salvatore Basile delves into the special effects and makeup work. Basile actually defends the rampant carnage with some specious circle-of-life rigmarole, summing up Cannibal Holocaust along the way as “wholesome cinema.”
Rounding out the second disc are a handful of horror-con panels, cast and crew reunions, and plentiful stills galleries. Grindhouse’s deluxe edition also includes reversible cover art and a lavishly, not to mention disturbingly, illustrated booklet, complete with a foldout centerspread that’s sure to leave gorehounds everywhere slavering. The booklet contains appreciations of the film from Eli Roth (whose Cannibal Holocaust-inspired The Green Inferno is currently residing in distribution limbo) and Chas Balun, a career retrospective of composer Riz Ortolani from Gergely Hubai, and Martin Beine’s gruesomely detailed outline of the differences between original screenplay and finished film. Last and certainly not least, you’ll find a cardboard-sleeved soundtrack CD tucked inside the slipcase packaging.
A cut above most Italian cannibal cinema, Cannibal Holocaust provides viewers with sufficient pluck some thematic meat to sink their teeth into. Grindhouse’s deluxe Blu-ray edition serves up a supplement-laden smorgasbord.
Cast: Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Giorgio Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile, Ricardo Fuentes, Paolo Paoloni, Pio Di Savoia Director: Ruggero Deodato Screenwriter: Gianfranco Clerici Distributor: Grindhouse Releasing Running Time: 96 min Rating: - Year: 1980 Release Date: July 1, 2014 Buy: Video
Review: Alejandro Jodorowsky: 4K Restoration Collection on ABKCO Blu-ray
Diving headfirst into this gorgeous box set is bound to be a mind-altering experience for Jodorowsky fans and novices alike.5
Maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky first came to prominence in Paris in the 1960s, where he co-founded the Panic Movement, a performance art collective inspired by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, alongside Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor. Their provocative public performances were part secular ritual, part intentional scandal, replete with copious nudity and blasphemous religious imagery (elements not entirely lacking in Jodorowsky’s later films). Working in Mexico in 1968, Jodorowsky filmed Arrabal’s deliriously dystopian play Fando y Lis using only a one-page script and his memory of the stage production. The majority of the film consists of Fando (Sergio Kleiner) leading crippled Lis (Diana Mariscal), who’s largely confined to a pushcart, across a postapocalyptic landscape, seemingly populated by an endless parade of assorted grotesques, in search of the mythical city of Tar.
As with most of Jodorowsky’s films, Fando y Lis fuses elements of broad social commentary and a deep concern for spiritual illumination. The former can be detected most obviously in a matched pair of flashbacks that illustrate the eponymous couple’s traumatic childhood experiences: Lis is assaulted by a gaggle of degenerate aristos, while Fando witnesses his mother’s fatal denunciation of his father as a political radical. It’s a critique that’s later deployed in a more succinctly surreal fashion with the image of woman in formal attire playing a piano that’s on fire. The more spiritual aspects in Jodorowsky’s works are almost always depicted through a symbolic death and rebirth, never more literally than in this film.
Singlehandedly inaugurating the midnight-movie craze upon its release in 1970, El Topo combines the arid landscapes and ultraviolent showdowns of the Italian western with the dogged quest for spiritual illumination that’s at the heart of King Hu’s Touch of Zen. Clad in a black leather ensemble inspired by Elvis Presley’s televised concert from 1968, Jodorowsky himself plays the eponymous gunslinger, first seen instructing his naked son (Brontis Jodorowsky) in the fine art of putting away childish things by burying them in the sand. Despite plenty of bizarro flourishes, the first part of the film is its most conventional. El Topo tracks down a dissolute Colonel (David Silva) behind the brutal massacre of an entire village. What transpires wouldn’t be out of place in a film like Sergio Corbucci’s Django.
After retribution has been assured, the film enters upon a more abstract phase. El Topo faces off against four masters of the gun, each of whom embodies a different philosophical or spiritual path. The exchanges between El Topo and these gurus is often leavened with off-kilter humor and visual details: There’s a Zen meditation involving freshly laid eggs and a corral that encloses dozens of white rabbits, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland being the obvious referent. The final part of the film brings things full circle. Now doing duty as a shaven-headed monk, El Topo enters a desert town, hoping to be of some service, only to find the place entirely given over to exploitation, cruelty, and corruption. The finale doubles down on the brutality of the opening. Moving beyond failure and the death of the ego, Jodorowsky leaves things wide open for a new beginning of sorts (not to mention a sequel).
Given free rein after the international success of El Topo, Jodorowsky’s follow-up was 1973’s The Holy Mountain, a hallucinatory allegory about the quest for enlightenment that delves even further into the mystical ideas and occult symbolism of the earlier films. The Holy Mountain encompasses a heady brew of Eastern and Western thought: alchemy, tarot, the Kabbalah, and especially Zen Buddhism. Viewed superficially, the film might seem like an almost random assembly of visual and symbolic non sequiturs. But there’s method in Jodorowsky’s psychotronic madness, and anyone with half an interest in these matters doubtless will have their mind blown by the bold colors, striking set design, and surreal imagery alone. The unforgettable score by Jodorowsky and jazz trumpeter Don Cherry just lends a further, suitably psychedelic haze to the proceedings.
The film’s first act addresses the woes of modern civilization, from student massacres to religious hypocrisy. The second introduces nine personality types, each astrologically associated with a different planet, and proceeds to explore their principal predispositions in a series of often amusing blackout gags. After the deliberate artificiality of the first two sections, the film’s final act almost morphs into a verité documentary that follows the group of seekers, led by the Alchemist (Jodorowsky), as they make their way up the sacred mountain. In the end, Jodorowsky goes meta by turning the camera back on the very act of filmmaking. It’s a narrative conceit that has been done before and since, but rarely does it pack both the symbolic logic and narrative punch that closes The Holy Mountain.
In his first-ever documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, Jodorowsky, near 90 at the time of filming, offers up a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that he’s developed over a lifetime spent reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an astonishing variety of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. The film is effectively a daisy chain of individual interventions that seem to vary in format only slightly from case to case. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. He recommends a course of treatment, a sort of symbolic activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art. Then a follow-up interview permits the participants (some of them couples) to describe the therapy’s impact on their lives.
These episodes are often intercut with a similar moment from one of Jodorowsky’s earlier films—from El Topo and The Holy Mountain to his more recent self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical films, The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry—as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary. Where the earlier films show Jodorowsky arriving at private rituals and symbolic acts to deal with his own issues, Psychomagic expands his sphere of influence to include men and women who find themselves in a cul-de-sac of existential distress. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, this documentary could easily stand as a compassionate encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run through his entire career.
Fando y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain are presented in new 4K restorations, and each looks pretty spectacular, marking a significant improvement not only over Anchor Bay’s 2007 DVD editions, but also over the individual Blu-ray releases of El Topo and The Holy Mountain from 2011. The monochrome Fando y Lis boasts deeper blacks and greater clarity of fine detail than ever before on home video. El Topo is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen for the first time ever, an aspect ratio meant as homage to Sergio Leone. It’s also available in the more familiar 1.37:1 full frame format, and (presented as an extra) in a separate English dub that’s also full frame. The widescreen format does lend a more epic feel to scenes of wholesale carnage and shots of sprawling desert vistas, though the framing of tighter shots can get a bit cramped. With The Holy Mountain, those psychedelic colors appear more deeply saturated, and grain levels look well-regulated. Considering its digital production and incorporation of various AV formats, Psychomagic, a Healing Art looks perfectly acceptable.
On the audio side, Fando y Lis is available in Spanish LPCM mono, which does a fine job of supporting the protean score and ambient sound effects. El Topo comes with both Spanish Master Audio mono and surround (as well as the aforementioned English dub in Master Audio mono). The 5.1 surround mix nicely opens up the already solid mono track, lending some depth to Jodorowsky’s hallucinatory score. The Holy Mountain has both English Master Audio mono and surround tracks, both of which do well by the outlandish psych score from Jodorowsky and Don Cherry. Psychomagic offers an English Master Audio surround mix, which gives some decent channelization to whatever bits of music may arise.
Each of the films comes in its own jewel case, all housed in a slipcase box, alongside a foldout two-sided poster, and a lavishly illustrated 78-page book replete with cast and crew information, essays on each film, a 1973 interview with Jodorowsky, and other ephemera. The El Topo and The Holy Mountain cases each contain a soundtrack CD. On their respective discs, the first three films come with an introduction from film scholar Richard Peña, a 2019 interview with Jodorowsky reminiscing about the film, and an archival commentary track from Jodorowsky. Taken together, these bonus materials constitute a master class in Jodorowsky’s early work, full of information about every aspect of the films from creation to reception, with particular emphasis on the occult and spiritual symbolism that runs rife throughout.
The Fando y Lis case holds six double-sided art cards: one side with images from El Topo, the other with ones from The Holy Mountain. The Blu-ray itself includes La Cravate, an early short film from 1957, based on a Thomas Mann novella, and told entirely in mime. It’s a colorful and charming tale of identity and loss and love. The feature-length documentary La Constellation Jodorowsky from 1994 features interviews with collaborators Fernando Arrabal and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, who worked with Jodorowsky on the aborted Dune project as well as numerous graphic novels. There’s some fascinating footage of a Panic Movement performance art piece, and a lengthy segment where Jodorowsky performs an early version of his “psychogenealogy” technique on the documentarian himself.
The El Topo disc has a recent interview with Brontis Jodorowsky, who appears in the film as the eponymous character’s naked son. He talks about meeting his father for the first time under circumstances that both mirror and diverge from incidents in the film, and gives an intriguing reading of El Topo and The Holy Mountain as spiritual companion pieces. A short archival interview with Jodorowsky from 2007 touches on the phenomenon of the midnight-movie craze inaugurated by screenings of El Topo at New York’s Elgin Theater in 1970.
The Holy Mountain Blu-ray has an occasionally emotional interview with Pablo Leder, who worked for Jodorowsky as both cast and crew member on several films. He offers some fascinating (and one or two pretty amusing) anecdotes about Jodorowsky’s on-set antics. “The A to Z of The Holy Mountain,” a video essay from Ben Cobb, provides an abecedarian assemblage of random tidbits about the film that range from Penthouse interviews to a recipe for your very own edible Jesus statue. Finally, there are five minutes’ worth of deleted scenes with commentary from Jodorowsky, including a brief look at an alternate ending, followed by nearly half an hour of silent outtakes billed as “newly discovered.”
Diving headfirst into ABKCO’s gorgeously assembled box set is bound to be a mind-altering experience for Jodorowsky fans and novices alike.
Cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Sergio Kleiner, Diana Mariscal, Brontis Jodorowsky, Alfonso Arau, Mara Lorenzio, Paula Romo, David Silva, Agustín Isunza, Horacio Salinas, Ramona Saunders, Juan Ferrera, Adriana Page, Burt Kleiner, Valerie Jodorowsky, Nicky Nichols, Richard Rutkowski, Luis Lomeli Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Films Running Time: 432 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 - 2019 Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
The exceptional new transfer highlights the aesthetic charms of one of the first great comedies of the talkie era.4
For all the ink spilt extolling the innovations of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight—the remarkably quicksilver visuals, the classy theatrical leaps of faith, the devil-may-care optimism—the film’s most astonishing feat is the vulnerable and charming performances that the director finesses from Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald. The former, who had become a star largely on the strength of his willingness to pimp out a ludicrously guttural patois Françoise in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (one of many pairings with MacDonald), plays the role of a sweet-natured Parisian tailor, Maurice Courtelin, with far fewer garish expostulations than usual. Courtelin’s consistently dire financial situation also puts him on an even keel with the then-contemporary Depression-era audiences; no longer was Chevalier the mysterious-if-gregarious “other,” but a member of the proletariat just like everyone else. And MacDonald, who probably died wishing she could’ve widened her already ample tremolo a bit more, doesn’t so much change her approach to singing but is for once blessed with a character whose unfeasible romantic ideals are met with a touch of scorn (contrast this with her portrayal of the holier-than-thou Mary in San Francisco).
Love Me Tonight opens early one morning in Paris. A few workers step out into the street and begin pounding away at the concrete. This is the foundational beat. Eventually, shopkeepers emerge to sweep away dust from the sidewalk, supplying a counterpoint to the construction worker’s pulse. Housewives open their windows to shake out rugs, adding to the rising symphony of musique concrete. By the time Chevalier looks out his window to exclaim “this city is too noisy for me,” Mamoulian’s daring orchestration of “The Song of Paree” has taken the world of sound films light years beyond what was largely considered acceptable in the “talk into the plant” era of early talkies. (It has also predicted the funky fresh street rhythms of the percussive physical theatre troupe Stomp by roughly 65 years.) And it’s only the first sublime moment in a film that tiptoes lighter than air for its entire running time.
Mamoulian, who had been a fantastically successful theater director in New York, was wooed by Hollywood to make his first film, Applause, in 1929. This pre-Code film won rave reviews from urban critics for its audacious angles and then-unparalleled sleazy atmosphere (sadly, the film was only in theaters for a few weeks before the stock market crash turned audiences off downers for nearly a decade). But half of the credit for the success of the film needs to go to Helen Morgan’s ferociously unbridled, Greek-like tragic performance as the long-past-her-prime performer. Plot-wise, Applause is little more than an early incarnation of the sinful maternal-sacrifice films that would flourish during the Depression; Morgan’s full-tilt blitzkrieg of self-pity while left forgotten and alone in her apartment brings to mind Ellen Burstyn’s Oscar-nominated tour de force in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (both got to wear fright-wigs). Practically as flamboyant was Mamoulian’s camera, which prowled every which way to mirror the brassy mise-en-scène. By the time he had established himself as a flashy purveyor of urban horror—Applause, City Streets, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde—Mamoulian’s next move could scarcely have been less predictable.
Love Me Tonight’s Maurice Courtelin, who like everyone else in Paris owes everybody a little bit of money, has his best employees working overtime on a full suit of clothes for the wealthy Gilbert (a daft Charlie Ruggles), nephew of the wealthy Duke D’Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith). When Courtelin finds out that Gilbert’s allowance from the duke has been put on permanent suspension, he sets out to the family’s manor to collect his due. Along they way, he meets MacDonald’s beautiful and lovesick Princess Jeanette (the two had previously connected indirectly in a showstopping montage wherein the song “Isn’t It Romantic?” travels from Maurice’s shop through cabs, trains, military regiments, and gypsy bands to the countryside manor). Amid a gaggle of rich eccentrics—Myrna Loy’s nymphomaniac Countess Valentine; a trio of aunts who, though introduced as an oddball parody of MacBeth’s witches, turn out to be an innocuous flock of hysteria-prone biddies—Maurice pretends to be of royal blood so as to make himself welcome at the mansion and thereby initiate the game of love.
Though set pieces in Love Me Tonight are as abundant as they were in Mamoulian’s earlier films, their frothiness (and the acknowledgement of the diversion-based nature of the plot) allows them to snuggle into the fabric of the film in a much less stilted manor than Applause. The spirit of experimentalism didn’t escape the famed Broadway composer-lyricist team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart either. They supply the festivities with a full slate of witty, cheeky tunes that are as willfully facetious (“Mimi”) as they are heavily meta (on the artifice of the musical comedy, much in the same way as the more renowned Singin’ in the Rain).
Clever double entendres add to the fun, as when the princess sings “Lover” as she drives a coach and at the end of each verse yells an otherwise randy lyric as an aside to her horse: “You and I will roll in the…Hey!” Later in the film, she and Courtelin hear the titular duet in their sleep, and Mamoulian uses a split-screen effect to give the appearance that the two are lying side by side, post-coitus (predating a similar sequence in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante). Love Me Tonight still stands as a definitive musical because, aside from the filmmaking wonders Mamoulian conjured, it conveys one universal truth to the musical genre: that there’s no better motivation for breaking out into song than to express sexual satisfaction.
Sourced from a new 4K master, Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is an improvement over their spiffy 2003 DVD edition. The images are stable throughout, maximizing the textures of the medium-contrast cinematography; details are quite visible even across exceptionally bright scenes, and the black levels are deep and artifact-free. Only a few instances of print debris and scratches can be seen in an otherwise immaculate transfer. The soundtrack cleanly balances the boisterous score with the dialogue and singing. Only the tinny quality inherent to early sound films dates the audio, but the film’s busy soundtrack has never sounded as full as it does here.
On his commentary track, film historian Miles Kreuger is prone to pauses and dry summarizing, but he provides interesting information about the film’s productions and the careers of the cast and crew. Clips of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald singing songs from the film are included, as are screenplay excerpts of scenes that were deleted prior to shooting. There’s also a gallery of various production stills and documents, along with fascinating notes submitted to Paramount from the then-new Hays Office that show just how much of the film’s blatant innuendo is the product of incessant revisions and censorship that masked even more explicit content as was originally written.
Rouben Mamoulian’s antic musical is one of the first great comedies of the talkie era, and an exceptional new transfer highlights its aesthetic charms.
Cast: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Myrna Loy, Charles Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, C. Aubrey Smith, Elizabeth Patterson, Ethel Griffies, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Greig, Bert Roach, Blanche Friderici Director: Rouben Mamoulian Screenwriter: Samuel Hoffenstein, Waldemar Young, George Marion Jr. Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 1932 Release Date: September 29, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray
Kino’s release Wilder’s 1943 film boasts a gorgeous transfer and an illuminating audio commentary track.3.5
Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo begins in the wake of the Axis capture of Tobruk, with Corporal John J. Bramble (Franchot Tone), the lone survivor of an attack on his unit’s tank, stumbling through the Sahara Desert before arriving at the Empress of Britain. The bombed-out hotel functions, not unlike Rick’s Cafe in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, as an essential gathering place for soldiers and civilians from various warring nations in the midst of World War II. The confluence of cultures and ideologies that define this place is well-suited to Wilder’s cosmopolitan sensibilities, and he and frequent co-writer Charles Brackett lend the clashes that ensue between the film’s characters a delightfully black humor, bringing levity to dire circumstances without undercutting their significance.
France is represented by the prickly Mouche (Anne Baxter), a chambermaid who fled her Nazi-controlled homeland and holds a grudge against the British for presumably abandoning her brothers in Dunkirk. Italy’s kowtowing to the Hitler is mirrored in the buffoonish, opera-singing General Sebastiano (Fortunio Bonanova), a mistreated guest of the Germans, while the Arabs of North Africa are signified by the skittish hotel manager, Farid (Akim Tamiroff). As for the ruthless Nazi Germans, the sneering, sinewy Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Erich von Stroheim), who leads a Nazi brigade to take control of Northern Africa, is certainly a prototypical representative of the group. And while Bramble emerges as the film’s protagonist—as he assumes the identity of the hotel’s deceased, club-footed waiter, Davos, only to learn that the man was also a German spy—it’s von Stroheim who steals every scene he’s in.
Adorned in tightly fitting, white military regalia, and sporting a cocked cap and a bullwhip cum flyswatter, von Stroheim essentially reprises his role as the suave, arrogant officer from his 1922 silent-era masterpiece Foolish Wives. Rommel’s deadpan antics aren’t only amusing, they also speak to the nascent weaknesses that arise from his unwavering belief in the superiority of his race and nationality. “Of course. Nobody hates the Germans,” the field marshal blurts out at one point, and in such a blasé tone that it’s clear just how genuinely he believes the sentiment. It’s an ironic counterpoint to the fact that nearly every non-German in the film is secretly conspiring against him, but von Stroheim sells the man’s hubris with such gusto that the moment is simultaneously authentic and funny.
Five Graves to Cairo, though, is first and foremost an espionage thriller, and it spends much of its 96-minute running time ramping up white-knuckle tension as Bramble, with the help of Mouche and Farid, seeks to uncover how Rommel is able to secretly access fuel and other supplies so quickly out in the middle of the desert. Elements of maudlin and familiar wartime woes creep into the plot from time to time, but Wilder and Brackett coyly acknowledge their disdain for sentimentality when Rommel quips, “A familiar scene, reminiscent of bad melodrama,” after Mouche pleads with him to save her brother who has been taken captive by the Germans. In lieu of directly depicting Nazi depravity, moments like this exemplify Wilder’s tendency to deploy his acerbic wit as a means of attacking fascism at its ideological core.
Throughout, the film intriguingly airs the notion that war necessitates deception, which is evident in everything from Bramble’s masquerading as Davos to multiple outwardly amiable interactions between the Allied and Axis forces. There’s more than a hint of Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion here, but the gentlemanly displays of respect in Five Graves to Cairo are secretly laced with poison, and the filmmakers are particularly attentive to the subtle manipulations and duplicity that every character engages in.
Though Wilder resists the more saccharine and idealistic leanings of wartime propaganda, Five Graves to Cairo isn’t immune to them in the end. His celebration of the importance of fighting for the greater, rather than individual, good is laudable, which makes it all the more unfortunate that this stretch of the film feels so hopelessly tacked on, implementing on-screen text and generic wartime montages before returning to one final scene where Wilder uncharacteristically tugs hard at the heartstrings. It’s certainly not as egregiously jingoistic as many other Hollywood films made during the war years, but it’s a disruptive tonal and stylistic shift that mars what’s otherwise a taut, and often sharp, wartime thriller.
Sourced from a brand new 4K master, newer even then the one used for Eureka’s recent release, Kino’s transfer is simply stunning, with a consistently sharp, richly detailed image that’s free of all signs of debris. Ample and evenly distributed grain helps preserve the original film-like texture of the 35mm print, while the high contrast ratio produces inky blacks and an impressive range of grays, which go a long way to highlighting John F. Seitz’s moody cinematography. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is well balanced, capturing the full depth of Miklós Rózsa’s rousing score and sporting perfectly clean dialogue.
Film historian Joseph McBride’s audio commentary is the only extra feature here. He provides a fairly comprehensive reading of the film and Wilder’s career, including how the death of the director’s mother during the Holocaust colored his representation of World War II in Five Graves to Cairo. Of particular interest is McBride’s focus on the multiculturalism in much of Wilder’s work, and how his recurring fascination with deception stemmed in part from his need to blend in as a European exile in Hollywood. Ample time is also spent covering Wilder’s work under both Mitchell Leisen and Ernst Lubitsch, which helped to develop his skill at melding comedy and drama. McBride also makes a compelling case in challenging Wilder’s reputation as a misogynist and digresses into a humorous and lengthy dragging of Bosley Crowther, whose 1943 review of Five Graves to Cairo for New York Times he uses to highlight the critical misunderstanding of the film when it was first released.
Kino’s release Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo boasts a gorgeous transfer and an illuminating audio commentary track by Joseph McBride.
Cast: Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Akim Tamiroff, Erich von Stroheim, Peter van Eyck, Fortunio Bonanova, Leslie Denison, Ian Keith, Miles Mander Director: Billy Wilder Screenwriter: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett Distributor: Kino Lorber Studio Classics Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1943 Release Date: September 29, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Jules Dassin’s Brute Force on the Criterion Collection
The supplements may not be new, but they’re still meaty, and the 4K restoration accentuates the brutal, beautiful punch of an essential noir.
Jules Dassin’s Brute Force scrambles the trajectory of the traditional noir film, which is often driven by lust and the fear of downfall. By contrast, this seminal 1947 production is set in a prison and features characters who are already paying for their indiscretions. Rather than standing front-and-center as individualistic antiheroes, they co-exist collectively as a rogues’ gallery of convicts, with occasional flashbacks that offer several ostensible noir narratives in miniature, in which the men break the law for glamour, money and women, or take risks for more noble measures—differing actions which all lead to a cramped cell with unlikely parole or escape. Brute Force is driven less by fear than by resignation and stasis, which collectively threaten to ignite wrath.
This wrath has another ingredient: the hypocrisy of the prison and society at large, which favors, as in real life, the proletariat sector for punishment. The enforcer of this prison, Chief Munsey (Hume Cronyn), pits the prisoners against one another so that he may hurt them for acting out according to his manipulations. He’s an overcompensating sadist, a small man with a Napoleon complex, which is pitilessly underscored in an early image that contrasts Munsey with Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), a supernaturally statuesque prisoner. As Munsey taunts Collins in the prison yard, it’s obscenely obvious that Munsey’s Nazi-esque uniform is all that allows him to threaten his prey without retaliation. Society trumps natural selection in this case, and no one is more alert to this irony than Munsey, who revels in the role reversal. It’s the craving for such power that drove him to the prison industry to begin with, as a good-hearted, drunken doctor, Walters (Art Smith), poignantly insists late in the film.
Munsey might not be the warden, whom the filmmakers also despise, but he’s the prototype for many cinematic wardens, who are usually portrayed in American prison films as cowardly politicians with a bloodlust they gratify from afar, via their henchmen. By contrast, Munsey isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty—a tendency that gives him stature even if the character is contemptible. Munsey’s essentially understood to be a member of the proletariat himself, though he’s cannier than the protagonists and ruthless about ascending the social ladder. Dassin, the famed producer and journalist Mark Hellinger, and screenwriter Richard Brooks were all leftists, and they project onto Munsey their resentments of the authoritarian societies that were recently quashed in World War II (in which they served), and which were then rising in the United States in the form of various hard-right anticommunist measures. (Dassin was blacklisted in 1949 during the production of Night and the City.)
Though the politics of Brute Force can seem pat now, the notion of a prison as a corrosive extension of a corrupt society packed considerable heat, especially given production codes that forbade criticism of authority. Yes, Brute Force has a sentimentality that seems to be baked into the prison genre, and to the point that you may find yourself asking: Couldn’t just one of the prisoners have committed an authentically awful crime that challenged the filmmakers’ ideology? But the film’s sense of place, of violence, and of profound bitterness remain unshakable, even compared to the many modern productions that it has clearly inspired.
Dassin’s direction is terse, compact, and matter of fact. The geometry of the prison, the passage of time, and the gradations of power among the prisoners and guards are established via elegant long takes, and much of the film is an ongoing feast of close-ups and bodies, crouched among one another, that suggest some uncanny fusion of realism and cubism. Dassin captures both the constriction of this life and the weird comfort that the prisoners must find in order to function, especially in the shots of Collins and his fellow cellmates hunched over a card game while plotting escape. And while his methods are more severe, one can imagine Robert Bresson drawing on this film’s iconography for his extraordinary A Man Escaped.
Collins and his men aren’t entirely soft-soaped either, as they kill one of Munsey’s informers with surprising mercilessness in a set piece that’s staged by Dassin with an unsettling mixture of expressionism and docudramatic flair. The setting of the killing is a prison factory, and the sounds of metal pounding metal are symphonic, suggesting a death dirge. A distraction is staged, drawing the guards, while Collins’s friends stalk the man with blowtorches until he falls into a machine press. At that moment, they embrace the lure of dehumanized mass power—of the fascism that also intoxicates Munsey and his men.
This lure is also evident when Munsey beats a man unconscious with a phallic club, explicitly deriving sexual pleasure from his power. Dehumanization, even if it’s more understandable, also figures into the film’s even more violent climax, as the prisoners revolt against Munsey and his collaborators, moving in enraged, geometric waves that echo the corridors of their hell. Munsey mans a machine gun on top of the central tower of the prison, finally asserting his latent will to kill openly, even while his power goes up in literal flames. It’s difficult to find imagery of such comparably brutal, resonant, graphic power in other Hollywood films of this time—Howard Hawks’s Scarface might come closest—and the mixture of blunt savagery and symbolic suggestion retains a nightmarish pull. These images transcend any singular theme to tap the subconscious fears of oppression and subsequent destabilization that rise to the forefront of the mind, especially as society flirts again with fascism.
As text at the beginning of the film and in the liner notes inform us, the new 4K digital restoration of Brute Force used elements from multiple sources, “primarily a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master positive from the British Film Institute and a safety duplicate negative.” The results are very impressive, especially in terms of image depth, which is of intrinsic importance to a film concerned with establishing a sense of confinement. The floors, walls, and bars of the prison really pop here. Facial details and postures are also superbly rendered, and are equally invaluable in conveying character relationships, reflecting Jules Dassin’s intense interest in actors and propensity for fashioning direct and pared imagery. (The blacks, especially shadows, are also quite sharp.) The monaural soundtrack is generally detailed and healthy, particularly supporting the many subtle diegetic sounds that establish the drudgery of the prison’s work details, such as the machine pressing factory and the drain pipe.
These supplements are all archival, though they still provide valuable context on the creation on reception of Brute Force. Most valuable is the audio commentary by film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver, coauthors of The Film Noir Reader and The Noir Style, that was recorded for the 2007 Criterion Collection DVD of the film. Ursini and Silver offer a general overview of the careers of Dassin and especially of producer-journalist Mark Hellinger, who was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers and hired by Warner Bros. and later Universal Pictures to bring his voice to a variety of projects, including Robert Siodmak’s The Killers and Dassin’s subsequent The Naked City, the latter of which he narrated.
The commentary also covers Hellinger’s leftist politics, which were shared by Dassin, who co-founded the Actors’ Laboratory Theatre, which included Brute Force actor Hume Cronyn and many other performers who appeared in the film. These politics would get many of these artists in trouble as anti-communist fervor gripped the country, both with the government and, in the case of Brute Force, with Joseph Breen, the head of Motion Picture Association of American Production Code, who objected to the film’s violence and anti-authoritarianism. Some of the letters between Hellinger and Breen, whose passive-aggression chillingly parallels the behavior of Brute Force’s chief villain, are included in the disc’s liner notes.
In another featurette, produced in 2006, criminologist Paul Mason discusses the tropes of prison movies while alluding to the relationship between the media and the prison complex in real life—an idea that could’ve been plumbed at greater length. In an episode from the Criterion Channel series Observations on Film Art, film theorist and historian David Bordwell compares the various acting styles on display in Brute Force, complementing some of the thoughts that Ursini and Silver proffer in their commentary. The theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson, and an archive Saturday Evening Post profile of Hellinger round out the package. Atkinson’s discussion of the meaning of noir in our society is a must-read with several unforgettable sentiments, such as “the American dream as such is a tissue of propaganda, a lie invented for crowd control.”
The supplements may not be new, but they’re still meaty, and the 4K restoration accentuates the brutal, beautiful punch of an essential noir.
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Yvonne de Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines, Anita Colby, Howard Duff Director: Jules Dassin Screenwriter: Richard Brooks Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 1947 Release Date: September 8, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: William Wyler’s Roman Holiday on “Paramount Presents” Blu-ray
This is sure to be the definitive transfer of Wyler’s classic for years to come.3.5
The indomitable mystique of Audrey Hepburn captured international attention almost immediately following the release of William Wyler’s Roman Holiday. By a stroke of good luck, genius, or, more likely, some alchemical combination of the two, the 1953 classic plays surprisingly well as a whimsical deconstruction of the Hepburn persona even as that persona was only just entering its gestation period.
In its opening scene, the film announces its fascination with the conflicts that arise between a star’s public persona and their internal desires. The star in this case is the young and beautiful Princess Ann (Hepburn), who, during one of many stops on an international diplomatic tour on behalf of her unnamed European homeland, stands upright and displays an impassive expression across her face, politely greeting a seemingly endless line of world leaders. Her decorous nature carries with it an air of nobility, and draped in a lavish white gown, she looks more like a porcelain figurine than a red-blooded woman.
That Hepburn was also descended from royalty—her mother, Ella van Heemstra, was a Dutch baroness—only further connects her to the character she plays on screen. And as Wyler peels back the veneer of Ann’s built-up façade to reveal the humanity beneath, it feels as if we’re seeing Hepburn herself cutting loose. In a perfectly naughty move worthy of Lubitsch, Wyler cuts from a wide shot of Ann steadfastly giving off the appearance of perfection to a close-up under her dress where she scratches one of her feet with the other. It’s a succinct summation of the princess’s struggle to balance her internal needs and desires with the external demands constantly thrust upon her. Not unlike Hepburn when she became one of the world’s foremost fashionistas, you don’t see a single chink in Anne’s composure.
Once Ann sneaks out of her country’s embassy after being injected with a sedative, she ends up spending the night at the crummy apartment of Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). Their free-spirited tour of Rome the next day engages in that familiar rom-com trope where neither of them wants to reveal their true self to the other: Joe plays it cool, never telling her he’s a beat reporter out for a story, while Ann keeps her royal background under wraps, enjoying her newfound anonymity. It’s a screwball scenario that banks successfully on the charisma and chemistry of the film’s two leads. Hepburn is particularly impressive, often tapping into deep wells of emotion through subtle shifts in facial expression and body movements.
As Ann and Joe jet around Rome aboard that now-iconic Vespa scooter, Roman Holiday revels in the beauty of the city, with the film’s long takes and deep-focus photography savoring everything from the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps to, in a scene that finds Hepburn and Peck at a pinnacle of charisma, the Mouth of Truth. The film may seem at first glance to be a trifle, but as Ann gradually realizes that her aristocratic responsibilities are inescapable, Joe and the princess’s adventures are retroactively endowed with emotional gravitas.
In the homestretch, Wyler wisely eschews sentimentality. As Ann, aloof and imperial, gazes down at Joe, who’s up front in a crowded press box, their eyes connect, and a brief shift in each of their facial expressions acknowledges the secret of their day together. Here, Wyler nimbly employs deep focus in a medium profile shot in which Joe and a group of other journalists patiently wait as the princess makes her way down the line to shake their hands. And in contrast to the film’s opening, it’s Joe who must keep up appearances, fighting to keep his feelings in check as he bids the princess adieu. It’s a sly way to signify Joe’s understanding of the woman who less than 24 hours earlier he was looking to exploit for a scoop.
Remastered from a 4K film transfer for its first release on Blu-ray, Roman Holiday has never looked better. The image on the disc is remarkably sharp, allowing for even minute details deep in the frame to be perfectly visible, and the extremely high contrast ratio makes for a pleasing range of grays that only further add to the transfer’s beauty. There could stand to be a bit more grain, as the picture occasionally looks a bit too cleaned up, but the distribution is even. The audio is also quite strong across the board, with clean dialogue and the layered background sounds of a bustling Rome are perfectly balanced into the mix.
Most of the extras here are fairly cursory, never really digging too deep into the pre-production and making of the film. The 12-minute Dalton Trumbo: From A-list to Blacklist offers a brief yet judicious summary of the Hollywood blacklist and the nefarious tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Many of the other extras—focusing on everything from the film’s costumes and shooting locations to Audrey Hepburn’s seven films with Paramount and the studio’s overall output during the 1950s—all bear the strong imprint of Paramount’s involvement, and are as such geared less toward providing insightful revelations about the film and more toward propping up the studio’s accomplishments. Finally, Leonard Maltin provides a short intro in which he gushes over the film and its charming actors.
William Wyler’s Roman Holiday lands on Blu-ray for the first time, and this is sure to be the definitive transfer of the film for years to come.
Cast: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power, Harcourt Williams, Margaret Rawlings, Tullio Carminati, Paolo carlini, Claudio Ermelli Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton, Dalton Trumbo Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment Running Time: 118 min Rating: 1953 Year: 1953 Release Date: September 15, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela on Grasshopper Film Blu-ray
Vitalina Varela is the latest stage in a filmography that continues to evolve in moral terms as much as aesthetic ones.4
Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela picks up where Horse Money left off: immersed in a realm of suppressed memory and collective trauma. The film’s first image, of an alleyway lined by looming stone walls, cross-shaped gravestones dotting the upper right wall as a funeral procession silently emerges from the background shadows, renders a real street as a kind of military trench. The shot looks like something out of a post-World War I silent film, epitomizing Costa’s uncanny ability to balance realism and stylization.
The oneiric atmosphere of the film’s opening minutes is shattered, though, by the deafening roar of a jet engine heralding the arrival of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) from Cape Verde. Costa frames her disembarkment as a series of contrasting images, such as her bare, calloused feet walking down the metal steps of the commercial airliner. Vitalina’s greeting party, such as it is, consists of several Cape Verdean immigrants who work custodial jobs at the Lisbon airport. The women, arranged artfully around Vitalina and offering stern warnings that she should return to Cape Verde rather than suffer the indignities of life in Portugal, bring to mind the three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the way they ominously portend doom.
The reasons for their grim tidings are apparent enough to Vitalina even before she leaves the tarmac. Having long dreamed of moving to Portugal after her husband, Joaquim, left Cape Verde for Lisbon decades ago to establish himself there before sending for her, Vitalina arrives now only for his funeral. Joaquim’s squalid home makes clear that he never could have supported Vitalina in Portugal, and she wonders aloud why he chose to live in such conditions instead of returning home. Vitalina, like everyone else in Costa’s films, speaks in a declamatory fashion that brings to mind the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. But Vitalina’s long reflections on her thwarted dreams and her husband’s broken promises and lack of fidelity, drawn from some of the real Varela’s experiences, are shot through with tremors of suppressed rage and anguish that are rare across Costa’s calculatingly stoic filmography. The director has gotten some incredible performances from non-professionals over the years, but the inner pain and disgust that plays across Varela’s hardened features may be the most viscerally compelling acting to ever grace one of his productions.
It’s been two decades now since Costa refined his filmmaking approach by utilizing digital cameras, minimal on-location crew, and manipulations of available light with mirrors, and he continues to compose some of the most singular images in modern cinema. As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects Costa and cinematographer Leonardo Simões wish to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of the immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters.
Yet Vitalina Varela is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film’s oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina’s personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Joaquim looms over it like a spirit with unfinished business, to the point that Vitalina’s extended, accusatory monologues about their relationship sound like direct addresses to his loitering soul just waiting off-camera. As Vitalina’s caustic assessments of her husband soften with nostalgic reflection and empathy for his life in Lisbon, she’s left feeling unmoored, loosed even from the tether of her anger.
For all the pain that reverberates through it, Vitalina Varela marks the first time in ages where a Costa film communicates more hope than despair. Networks of neighbors and friends have played a key role in all of his films since he began to document the residents of Lisbon’s now-razed Fontainhas shantytown, but arguably the presence of community has never before been felt so strongly in Costa’s work. When men arrive at Joaqium’s home to offer condolences to Vitalina, social rituals kick into gear and begin to bond them. She cooks for the men, one of whom tenderly confesses that he had forgotten what home cooking tasted like. Others talk to the woman about all they did to care for her husband in his failing health, with one neighbor noting insistently, “We also know how to help our fellow man.”
Vitalina may feel lost in Portugal, but she’s quickly accepted by the members of the immigrant community living in Fontainhas. Her presence even sparks life in some of the slum’s residents who’ve hardened emotionally, namely Costa mainstay Ventura, who here acts as the local priest of a long-empty congregation. Offering the last rites to Joaqium, the priest then performs mass for Vitalina and is momentarily rejuvenated by his faith. And the film’s coda, in which Costa returns to Cape Verde for the first time since Casa de Lava, marks the first indication in more than a decade that Costa might be leaving behind the literal and figurative darkness that has defined his filmmaking for 20 years. At last, he appears to be more interested in how people get on with life than how they keep the company of ghosts.
Pedro Costa’s films, given their extensive use of minimally lit, mostly nighttime shots, present a challenge for home video, but Grasshopper’s transfer perfectly renders the dark images with no instances of crushing or other digital artifacts. The film’s colors and expressive lighting pop from the stable black backdrops, while skin textures and tones are sharply defined. So well balanced are the film’s black levels and color saturation that this could be used as a reference disc for calibrating a TV. Costa’s sound design is always subtle, stressing silence as much as noise, and this disc’s soundtrack is free of blemishes or any hiss during the many moments of quiet, while dialogue and off-screen noises are distributed cleanly across the channels.
This disc comes with an interview with Costa conducted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, during which the director speaks at length on how his filmmaking has evolved over the years, especially in relationship to the neighborhood in Lisbon and locals he’s been filming for decades. Most interesting are his thoughts on digital, swimming against the notion of the technology making filmmaking easier by pointing out how much more difficult it can be to wring cinematic imagery from digital than celluloid. Also included is Chantal + Pedro, a short film by Júlio Alves that juxtaposes and superimposes images from Chantal Akerman’s 2007 installation Women of Antwerp in November and Costa’s 2003 short The End of a Love Affair in a silent dialogue of urban loneliness. Finally, there’s a theatrical trailer and a booklet essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum that concerns itself as much with the production’s behind-the-scenes activities and Costa’s shooting methods as it does with the film itself.
Vitalina Varela is the latest stage in a filmography that continues to evolve in moral terms as much as aesthetic ones, and Grasshopper’s Blu-ray faithfully preserves its haunting beauty.
Cast: Vitalina Varela, Ventura Director: Pedro Costa Screenwriter: Pedro Costa Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 2020 Release Date: September 8, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima Joins the Arrow Academy
While the transfer leaves a lot to be desired, it’s thrilling to have Sekigawa’s little-seen drama finally available on Blu-ray for the first time.3
Much like Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog warns of the horrors in forgetting human atrocity, Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima uses its reenactment of the United States’s 1945 bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima to call for an end to the development of atomic and nuclear weaponry. The most didactic of such moments occurs near the film’s end, as Yukio Endo (Yoshi Katô) explains to his teacher, Kitagawa (Eiji Okada), that a local factory has begun producing artillery shells. “We’ll all end up like this!” he exclaims, in reference to the radiation exposure that’s causing a variety of cancers in people throughout Japan, among them several students in Endo’s class.
The film is an incongruous patchwork of tones, invoking the neorealist aesthetics of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine and the Red Scare paranoia of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but its mix of pathos and cautionary rhetoric is reflective of how the despair of a country’s populace resembled a schizophrenic bedlam. While the film features passages that sentimentalize the catastrophic toll of the A-bomb, Hiroshima also complicates its political outlook with a two-pronged indictment of how both the U.S. and Japan have minimized the value of human life. To that point, the film works best as a time capsule for understanding how, nearly a decade after the atomic bombings, Japan was historicizing its own past to educate audiences in hopes of creating a future free of either atomic or nuclear warfare.
Despite containing multiple stretches of archival footage that predominately show actual devastation caused by the bombings, the film minimizes its initial newsreel realism with a melodramatic plotline across which a handful of teenage students and their teacher, several years after the bombings, either espouse or reject Japan’s military actions in contrived fashion. Sekigawa’s tear-jerking direction—replete with a remarkably sorrowful score by Akira Ifukube—places the actual bombing at the film’s core and chronicles the immediate aftermath over the span of a 30-minute sequence that features young children crying out for their parents and teachers while buried under debris. Hiroshima revels in such imagery to the point that you might question the motivation behind the representation and ask if the film, like Paul Greengrass’s United 93 more than 50 years later, by framing real-life tragedy as spectacle.
But if it’s difficult to see United 93 as anything other than a cheap 9/11 simulator, Hiroshima wrestles itself away from a similar fate by broadening its scope during its final third, during which Endo becomes the film’s protagonist. A schoolboy when the bombings occurred, he’s now a teenager flirting with delinquency, roaming the streets of Hiroshima and antagonizing younger boys. His antisocial behavior stems from his enduring the trauma of his missing sister, as well as his anger over having his innocence stripped away. One afternoon, he dips into a movie theater to see Charles Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and emerges having taken the ironic line “One murder makes a villain, millions a hero” to heart. In making an American film the thing that awakens Endo’s consciousness with regard to personal responsibility, Hiroshima complicates its more rote expressions of unthinkable tragedy by acknowledging how art—and especially the movies—can cross borders and constructively shape hearts and minds.
The high-definition transfer on this Arrow Academy Blu-ray is an unusual beast. At its best, the image is clean, appropriately and pleasantly grainy, and almost entirely free of scratches. At its worst, deep scratches are so apparent that they nearly outnumber that areas of the screen that don’t have them, leaving one to assume that those responsible for the restoration had to work with multiple prints of vastly varying quality. The audio track, while listenable, is no less compromised, as it abounds in pops and distortion. Still, this transfer must be graded a success on a fundamental level for offering a widely unavailable film in hi-def.
A trio of extras offer helpful contextual information on both the making of the film and the physical and psychological toll of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Writer and curator Jasper Sharp narrates an excellent video essay about how the catastrophe impacted “Japan’s nuclear imagination,” by which he means the way it’s been depicted in films, either directly or tangentially. Sharp rattles off titles of monographs and films with the precision of an expert scholar, even spending a bit of time looking at the English-language posters for several films, including a rather tasteless one for Hiroshima that promised: “It blasts you out of your seat!” The 2011 documentary Hiroshima Nagasaki Download brings the matter of nuclear imagination into the 21st century, and features interviews with survivors of the bombings who now reside in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Finally, a brief archival interview with actress Yumeji Tsukioka dives into her recollections of shooting the film.
While the transfer certainly leaves a lot to be desired, it’s thrilling to have Hideo Sekigawa’s little-seen drama finally available on Blu-ray for the first time.
Cast: Eiji Okada, Yumeji Tsukioka, Yoshi Katô, Masayuki Tsukida, Takashi Kanda, Isuzu Yamada Director: Hideo Sekigawa Screenwriter: Yasutarô Yagi Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 104 min Rating: NR Year: 1983 Release Date: July 14, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers on Criterion Blu-ray
It’s a relief to have Schrader’s underrated sexual psychodrama outfitted with the ravishing transfer it deserves.
The 1990 film The Comfort of Strangers is a unique collaboration of diverse (and quite perverse) talent, as it’s an adaptation of an early Ian McEwan novel that’s been written for the screen by Harold Pinter and directed by Paul Schrader. The sensibilities of these artists mesh quite well here: McEwan’s class concerns have been enlivened by Pinter’s shrewd austerity and sense of humor and concision, which has in turn brought out a surprising playfulness and sensuality in Schrader, who imparts to the film his exacting formalism and distinctive tempo. Call it mournful detachment, with a soupcon of lurid sadism. The filmmaker fashions a tortured art object that’s also a wicked parody of the same.
Pinter and Schrader are loyal to many of the particulars of the novel, though they hollow out the connective tissue between scenes, allowing for more space and ambiguity. Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) are on holiday in Venice for reasons that are kept murky for a long stretch of the film, the mystery generating the sort of subterranean hum of tension that’s familiar to Pinter’s work. They speak in curt shards of dialogue that’s often shrouded in innuendo: At one point Mary asks Colin if he likes children, specifically her children, which she then modifies again to refer to children in general. Later in an outdoor restaurant, Mary tells Colin a story of childhood rejection that registers subliminally as a plea (for Colin not to reject her) and a lament for not-quite-past pain. Colin’s responses betray the aura of a man who isn’t willing to commit to either commitment or explicit dissolution; he projects a self-protective vanity that drives the audience’s sympathy toward Mary.
This tension—are Colin and Mary friends considering romantic possibilities or lovers on a downward trajectory?—is intensified by external factors. Colin and Mary are young, affluent, and gorgeous, and seem to be trapped in the sort of situation that grips either unconfident wallflowers or people old enough to truly understand what a rut is. There is also the beauty of Venice, which Schrader and cinematographer Dante Spinotti render surreal and dangerous, lingering on labyrinths of tunnels, alleys, and bridges that are shrouded in ripe, hot noir colors, allowing the architecture of the city to dwarf a couple prone to getting lost. Venice is also often strangely underpopulated here, especially at night, suggesting the empty New York City that Kubrick would later conjure in Eyes Wide Shut, or the haunted cityscapes of Dario Argento’s Deep Red. The juxtaposition of Colin and Mary’s crisis with the gorgeous, forbidding alien-ness of Venice allows one to intuit that this couple is opening itself up to danger.
That danger manifests itself in Robert (Christopher Walken), who’s seen at the opening of the film inhabiting a palatial gothic flat—another instance of beauty and menace comingling at a seemingly biochemical level—while pontificating about his father’s bigness and power. Robert will discuss his father and grandfather many times throughout The Comfort of Strangers, mostly with Colin, and these reveries are the most ostentatiously “written” of Pinter’s carefully crafted lines. They’re absurd and vainglorious boasts that Robert seems to rehearse to himself daily, and which increasingly indicate nostalgia for fascism. Robert sees his relatives as men’s men who kept the women in their place during a time when gender roles weren’t complicated by notions of equality. (One assumes they were okay with Mussolini.) Pinter doesn’t spell this ideology out—McEwan was more explicit—and this vagueness imbues Robert with a frightening and amusing sense of unfulfilled violence. And a potential fascist, revealed to be mixed-up sexually between what he wants and what should be of interest to men’s men, is the sort of character that Schrader knows inside and out.
One of the chief pleasures of The Comfort of Strangers is how Robert, a potentially traditionally heavy Schrader obsessive, is played for deadpan, occasionally grotesque yet poignant comedy; the artiness of the writing and staging become evocatively intertwined with Robert’s own pretension. The character makes little literal sense, as he’s supposed to be an Italian by way of England who speaks only in a sporadically Italian-inflected version of Walken’s iconic staccato sing-song style of speaking, a displacement that parallels the filmmakers’ stylization of Venice as a garden of suppressed yearnings and reinventions. He’s very consciously a creation, expertly played by Walken, who serves as a manifestation of comfortable, liberal Colin and Mary’s fears of obsolescence in the wake of Thatcher—an association that’s briefly yet pronouncedly alluded to in a charged dinner sequence.
But The Comfort of Strangers more vividly registers as a psycho-comedy on the divide between sexual appetites and political bromides. Robert’s obnoxious, neurotic braggadocio, and the masochistic submission he encourages in his wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), jumpstart Colin and Mary’s relationship. Seeing Mary gazing out at a vista from Robert and Caroline’s flat, clad in a gown, her blond locks shimmering in the sun, Colin is overcome with lust for Mary, and they hole up in their own rented place for days, consummating a sexual frenzy.
These scenes are so beautifully composed they almost serve as punchlines themselves; the bodies so perfectly arranged and lit as to suggest a perfume or lingerie ad. Yet these aren’t the cold and abstract sex scenes of Schrader’s American Gigolo. There’s an element of authentic warmth and eroticism here, complicated by the fact that this union was brokered in part by Robert and Caroline’s perverse and retrograde energy, which Colin and Mary can’t entirely allow themselves to fathom. Schrader isn’t preachy here, allowing himself to be turned on by the decadence of his characters and setting as well as his divine aesthetic.
Robert may be a pig, but he understands that subjugation has a primordial grip on the sex drive of a species that feigns enlightenment while remaining enthralled with alpha/beta dynamics. But the gift Robert gives Colin and Mary has a price, for his taboo-bashing is rooted in a sexual torment that has metastasized into insanity. At the end of The Comfort of Strangers, Pinter and Schrader deviate from the novel to offer an ironic conclusion that’s reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which a madman is no more inscrutable than when explaining himself, treating his spectators to an endless ticker tape of self-mythology that comes to suggest a mental labyrinth with no exit. We’re no closer to truly knowing Robert than we are to explicitly charting the emotional, political, classist, sexual currents driving Colin and Mary and Robert and Caroline and probably every other couple real and imagined.
The Criterion Collection’s new 4K master of Paul Schrader’s film boasts a wide and beautiful array of colors and textures. The daylight scenes in Venice boast spectacular clarity and nuance, while the interior and nighttime sequences have a deep and rich sense of color and dimension. Shot by Dante Spinotti, The Comfort of Strangers is a luscious film that practically explodes off of the screen in this transfer. (The many paintings, antiques, and religious icons that are glimpsed in the frames are also rendered with crisp clarity.) The English LPCM 1.0 track is also faultless, with Angelo Badalamenti’s score occupying center stage, its operatic beauty accentuating the film’s playfully doomy stylization.
This disc includes new interviews with Schrader, Christopher Walken, editor Bill Pankow, and Spinotti. Schrader succinctly describes the film’s mixture of sensibilities, observing that The Comfort of Strangers has three themes: the ultimate incompatibility between men and women, via Ian McEwan; the obfuscation of language, via Harold Pinter; and the danger of beauty, a concern he brought himself as inspired by his work on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Schrader also discusses his aspiration to make every shot strong and essential, which is supported by Pankow, who observes that no shot is duplicated, which gives the conversation scenes in particular a tense, jagged, sculptural quality. Meanwhile, Spinotti offers insight on the fashioning of some of the film’s more insinuating, sometimes seemingly unmotivated camera movements, which appear to be shot from the viewpoint of an unidentified interloper. Walken speaks of the challenge of performing Pinter’s austere dialogue, which is complemented by an archive interview with Natasha Richardson from 2001. Rounding out the package is a 1981 interview with McEwan from The South Bank Show, concerning his source novel and his other recent work at the time, trailers, and a liner essay by critic Maitland McDonagh that discusses the film’s erotic beauty, mystery, and examination of gender roles.
This edition is a little light on the extras, but it’s a relief to have Paul Schrader’s underrated sexual psychodrama outfitted with the ravishing transfer it deserves.
Cast: Christopher Walken, Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Helen Mirren, Manfredi Aliquo, David Ford, Daniel Franco, Rossana Caghiari, Fabrizio Castellani, Giancarlo Previati, Antonio Serrano, Mario Cotone Director: Paul Schrader Screenwriter: Harold Pinter Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: August 18, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits on the Criterion Collection
This set boasts enough supplements for at least two semesters’ worth of martial arts semiotics.
The five films spotlighted in the Criterion Collection’s Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits cumulatively offer a pseudo-autobiographical narrative that parallels the general beats of Lee’s life, from his rising status as a film star to his death at 32 as he was on the cusp of becoming an icon. The films abound in patterns, especially structural bifurcations, that reflect how Lee had to prove himself first to the Hong Kong film industry and later to Hollywood. Adaptation is the theme of his films and the guiding philosophy of his own school of martial arts.
As this set’s supplements make clear, Lee returned to Hong Kong after trying to break through in American cinema. His adventures in America, most prominently in the ‘60s, yielded a sidekick role as Kato in the short-lived TV show The Green Hornet. But Hong Kong viewers saw him as the hero of the series, and this unexpected love from his countrymen led Lee to partner with the studio Golden Harvest, a rival of Shaw Brothers Studio that produced or co-produced all of the films in this set, from 1971’s The Big Boss to 1978’s Game of Death. In The Big Boss, Lee doesn’t assume prominence until the second half of the narrative, as producer Raymond Chow was still deciding if the actor had the gravity to command an entire film. In Game of Death, Lee haunts a production that was posthumously, tastelessly cobbled together from footage he had shot himself before leaving to shoot 1973’s seminal Enter the Dragon. Across the spectrum of this set, Lee grows quickly, far too quickly, from ingénue to pro to specter.
The Big Boss, written and directed by Lo Wei, shrewdly builds anticipation for what Lee can do in his first major outing, setting a pattern that would be followed by his other vehicles. Always pointedly the outsider, Lee’s characters arrive in another country either for the first time or after a long absence, gradually acclimating themselves to a society that’s been perverted by corruption. Remarkably, only one of these films, Game of Death, is partially set in Hong Kong. The Big Boss finds Lee in Thailand; 1972’s Fist of Fury, also written and directed by Lo Wei, is set in early-20th-century Shanghai; 1973’s The Way of the Dragon, written and directed by Lee, takes place in Rome; and Enter the Dragon is set on a fictional island deliberately meant to evoke the hideout of Dr. No. These films continually wrestle with dislocation, cannily reflecting the estrangement of Hong Kong, a city that’s been occupied by multiple foreign parties, and serving to humble Lee’s astonishing charisma and skill. In these films, Lee straddles an empathetically powerful line between underdog and master.
There’s a sense in these films, as in Lee’s life, of a man having to prove himself over and over again, and then suddenly dying upon the achievement of total acceptance. Portions of this idea are intentionally achieved, via formulaic plots, while other elements seep in from the reality of the films’ productions. After arising as a star in the second half of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and The Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon finds Lee once again sharing the spotlight with other stars, John Saxon and Jim Kelly. Internationally, Enter the Dragon is easily the most famous film in this set, and it remains a feverish and exciting blend of espionage, sleaze, horror, and martial arts hokum, but it’s a disappointment to see Lee demoted in stardom after The Way of the Dragon, especially if one is binge-watching these films.
The Way of the Dragon, though, cannot compete with Enter the Dragon in conventional formal terms. Lee’s direction of the action scenes in the former is superb, and he has a phenomenal understanding of the graphic power of his own compact, sculpted, seemingly fatless body. These talents are especially evident in a sequence in which Lee and former pupil Chuck Norris battle in a colosseum, though his inexperience as a filmmaker is revealed in the film’s long buildup to the set pieces, and in the strange and not-entirely-successful blend of broad comedy (in the first half) with violence (in the second) as Lee’s character evolves from well-meaning tourist to, well, Bruce Lee. This is another bifurcation, of course, though Lo Wei utilizes these sorts of devices more skillfully in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, Lee’s best film.
The Big Boss and Fist of Fury merge fight sequences, comedy, historical myths, and gothic horror with aplomb; they’re not only kinetic but aesthetically ravishing to behold. Most importantly, they capture Lee’s profound soulfulness—his awareness of his characters’ need to prove themselves as an extension of his own ambition. Lee is often at his most moving while at his most terrifying, especially when his characters finally lose control, summoning their rage in a galvanic burst of violence. It’s a rage that’s kept in check, for most of these films’ narratives, with signature moves—from his animal sounds to the licking of his own blood—that are both contemptuous and self-compensating.
It’s a bizarre irony that Game of Death, mostly directed by Robert Clouse, most potently underscore’s Lee’s gifts via his absence. Cobbled together five years after Lee’s death, it mixes in a few minutes’ worth of footage that Lee shot for a future project before he left to work on Clouse’s Enter the Dragon. To be clear, for the majority of the film’s 101 minutes, Lee is represented by stunt doubles and stock footage, and even, in one particularly ludicrous moment, a cardboard cutout of his face. The film offers the spectacle, then, of a Bruce Lee film without Bruce Lee, and his galling absence speaks to the magnificence of his presence and talent. When we finally see Lee, he’s ascending a stairway to a fight, in a gesture that in this context suggests resurrection. This idea is very intentionally evoked, as the film unforgivably utilizes footage of Lee’s real funeral as part of a “fake death” scenario. The garishness of Game of Death suddenly gives way to the real McCoy, who just as promptly vanishes. This is an extreme version of the bifurcation of this series, as Lee, once marginalized, is now yoked from death, via crassness, as an elusive star who’s truly beyond life. In short, a myth.
Criterion offers 4K digital restorations of most of these films, though the special edition of Enter the Dragon was undertaken in 2K. Though there some blemishes, most notable in the awkward doubling work in Game of Death, these images are often gorgeous, with lush, vibrant color schemes that recall those of Hammer horror films. In the days of VHS and TV showings, these movies often seemed too bright, and so Criterion’s great accomplishment here is to restore their sense of robust, suggestive darkness, which now balances well with the light and assorted other hues. (These films have a vivid, primary-based color scheme.) Skin textures, which could seem overexposed or waxy in the old days, are also resoundingly lifelike here. Depending on the film, a variety of monaural and alternate soundtracks are available, including English dubbings, and they boast remarkably dimensional soundscapes, rendering the action scenes more kinetic and cathartic than ever before; the swift, hyperbolically pronounced kicks and punches suggest the inner furies of the characters writ physical. And the voices, even the dubbings, have also been rendered with exacting care.
This supplements package is head-spinning, offering a bonanza of information that could take a cinephile a month to fully unpack. Firstly, there are three more films included in this set: the 103-minute special edition of Enter the Dragon that’s been in circulation for some time; Game of Death II, an even more desperate and ghoulish enterprise than its predecessor (though it has a few outstanding action scenes); and a newly remixed 34-minute version of the original Game of Death that’s made up strictly of material written and directed by Bruce Lee. This Game of Death Redux is a masterpiece of action and emotion, as Lee’s character ascends three floors of a pagoda, encountering enemies with differing fighting styles and having to adjust his tactics accordingly—a major tenant of Lee’s own martial arts. The short also climaxes with a legendary fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which the men invest with a pathos that’s mostly missing from the still-awesome encounter in the feature-length film. If one could only have one supplement from this set, it would be Game of Death Redux.
Most of these featurettes are still superb. There’s an illuminating new interview with producer Andre Morgan, an American who worked with Raymond Chow at Golden Harvest. He discusses the working relationship between himself, Chow, and Lee, especially as they sought to tap the American market. Dozens of other interviews and extras complement Morgan’s anecdotes, recounting Lee’s attempts to become a star in America in the ‘60s, including the devoted following he cultivated as a martial artist teacher, with students such as Steve McQueen and James Coburn. The politics of the various films are examined at length, especially in the audio commentaries originally recorded at Shout! Factory by Mike Leeder, who speaks of, say, the Chinese-Japanese tensions that drive Fist of Fury as well as of the general cultural sensibilities of Hong Kong. Dozens of archive documentaries offer a course in how Lee’s legend has been presented at different times, including footage of Lee’s elaborate Hong Kong funeral, in which one can see Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, and their son, Brandon, who would also grow up to die a bizarre death right as stardom appeared to be approaching. (Even stranger: Brandon’s death, caused by a gun shot from a faulty blank on the set of The Crow, uncomfortably echoes the attempted murder of a Lee stand-in in Game of Death.)
Lee’s philosophies are articulated at length here, most succinctly and directly by “Bruce Lee: His Own Words,” which offers an assemblage of interviews with the legend. “Brucesploitation,” the practice of hiring Lee lookalikes to star in imitation martial arts films in an attempt to capitalize on his death, is given an overview by author Grady Hendrix, and the art of English dubbing is also explored. There are many making-of documentaries, including Blood & Steel, which covers the making of Enter the Dragon. For a quick one-stop shop, the 10-minute interviews with Lee biographer Matthew Polly included on each film serves as a wonderful primer on the social contexts that inspired each respective production. Various promo materials round out this indispensably mammoth collection, and a liner essay by critic Jeff Chang does an especially fine job of outlining how Lee fought to keep his integrity on Enter the Dragon, and how a shifting America, in the wake of Vietnam, embraced martial arts films.
Criterion’s Bruce Lee set is as wonderful as you’ve heard, boasting definitive restorations and enough supplements for at least two semesters’ worth of martial arts semiotics.
Cast: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien, Han Ying-chieh, Lau Wing, Nora Miao, Robert Baker, Riki Hashimoto, Jun Katsumura, Chuck Norris, Jon T., Wei Ping-ou, Huang Chung-hsin, Robert Wall, Malisa Longo, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Ahna Capri, Shih Kien, Angela Mao, Bolo Yeung Director: Lo Wei, Bruce Lee, Robert Clouse Screenwriter: Lo Wei, Bruce Lee, Michael Allin, Robert Clouse Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 506 min Rating: R Year: 1971 - 1978 Release Date: July 14, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Claire Denis’s Beau Travail on the Criterion Collection
Denis’s oblique portrait of erotic angst receives a definitive transfer that demonstrates the full range of its poetic beauty.4.5
Claire Denis’s international breakthrough, Beau Travail, begins with a curious set of images. The first is a pan across a painting of a silhouette of soldiers in the French Foreign Legion done on the side of a rock wall in Djibouti, in the style of a cave painting—a faux-ancient artwork that gives the impression that the French were in Africa since time immemorial. A military song of conquest chanted over the image is then interrupted by the jolting sound of a kiss that kicks off an electronic dance track as the scene cuts to a local nightclub where women in colorful clothes dance elegantly with uniformed soldiers who move stiffly but aggressively as they possessively crowd up against the women. The effect of this juxtaposition of images is immediately alienating, stressing the intrusiveness that marks the relationship between the film’s main characters.
Loosely based on Herman Melville’s posthumously released Billy Budd, Beau Travail retains the core premise of the novella: A violent envy is born in a lifelong military man, in this case an adjutant named Galoup (Denis Lavant), by one of his new recruits, here a private named Sentain (Grégoire Colin). Though Galoup is a career officer who dedicates himself to the legion, the film’s editing makes it instantly clear how alienated he is from the men under his watch. Quick cuts juxtapose the camaraderie between the enlisted soldiers with the stony countenance of their superior, who always hangs back and watches them as they go about their daily duties. By contrast, Sentain is simpatico in every way, instantly charming the other soldiers upon his arrival, as well as the base’s commandant, Forestier (Michel Subor).
In the novella, the sexual tension transmitted between the main characters suggests a riptide, dangerous and under the surface. But Denis turns that frisson into a whirlpool, one that lures Galoup and Sentain to their doom. The film regularly highlights the way that Galoup stares at Sentain with a mixture of envy and longing, the stark difference between Lavant’s pockmarked face and Colin’s cherubic features further highlighting the friction between their characters. Oblique references to rumors that have dogged Forestier since his service in the Algerian War prefigure his budding interest in Sentain. Through stares and associative editing, the film suggests that this is the last straw for Galoup, whose deep existential connection to the legion is borne out as a love both filial and romantic toward his commanding officer.
Perhaps Beau Travail’s greatest show of faithfulness to Melville’s text is in its depiction of the paradoxically freeing nature of rigid military activity. There’s an almost ritualistic quality to the scenes of soldiers training in the deserts and coasts of Djibouti that, for all of the political connotations of legionnaires residing in a former colony, seems to place them outside of time. Adding to this sense of displacement are the cues from Benjamin Britten’s own operatic adaptation of the novella—dissonant choruses laid atop shots of the men running obstacle courses, wrestling, and assuming meditative tai chi poses. It’s in these scenes, through intercut close-ups of backs and arms moving in hypnotic rhythms and muscles rippling almost erotically beneath the actors’ flesh, that Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard staked their position as the supreme cinematic poets of body language.
Beau Travail is rooted in specific political and historical contexts of French colonialism, frequently setting scenes of vibrant, colorful, and modern city life against the austere severity of the remote locations where the legion has set up its spartan bases. That juxtaposition is as much a reflection of the film’s deep and insoluble sense of history as it is a visualization of the war that rages within Galoup. This impressionistic rendering of masculine angst culminates in the film’s legendary ending, a suicidal vision in which the heretofore stoic, silently seething Galoup explodes in a feverish hallucination of dance that marks the only time in the film, and perhaps his entire life, in which the man sees himself honestly.
Beau Travail receives a 4K restoration that renders the film unrecognizable from its long out-of-print New Yorker Video DVD. Bright desert backgrounds that were once washed out and hazy now pop with amazing color separation, while flesh tones are significantly more natural. The film’s full sensuality can now be appreciated in the visible beads of sweat trickling down soldiers’ faces and arms, and the colorful beauty of Djibouti stands out even more, further emphasizing the elegance of both its cities and its harsh rural terrain. The soundtrack is likewise given a major upgrade; dialogue is always clear, while the intrusions of dance music and cues from Benjamin Britten’s opera are sonorous and pounding.
Recorded just after the first protests over George Floyd’s death, a discussion between Claire Denis and director Barry Jenkins foregrounds the film’s political content and the loaded racial subtext of its postcolonial context. From there, the two pivot into a broader overview of the film, including the process of working warily under the supervision of real legionnaires and the fact that Denis, surprisingly, didn’t intend for the film to be so homoerotic.
Interviews with actors Denis Lavant and Grégoire Colin abound in anecdotes about their time in Djibouti and surrendering to a shooting process that sounds every bit as intuitive and unspoken as the completed film. Cinematographer Agnès Godard provides a selected-scene commentary in which she breaks down several moments from Beau Travail with details about the challenges of the location shooting, including notes about which films stocks and lenses she used in order to be able to shoot in harsh light while also accurately capturing both white and black flesh tones. Even at her most technical, though, Godard praises the “spiritual” experience of shooting under isolated and harsh conditions.
A video essay by film scholar Judith Mayne focuses on Beau Travail’s use of music—namely the scenes set at the Djibouti nightclub—as a précis of the larger emotional, sociopolitical, and narrative strategies at work in the film. Finally, an essay by critic and educator Girish Shambu offers a holistic analysis of Beau Travail, from background details like Denis’s non-Melville inspirations to the visual articulation of Galoup’s sense of resentful longing.
Unavailable on home video for years, Claire Denis’s stunning, oblique portrait of erotic angst receives a definitive transfer that demonstrates the full range of its poetic beauty.
Cast: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Richard Courcet, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Marta Tafesse Director: Claire Denis Screenwriter: Claire Denis Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Release Date: September 15, 2020 Buy: Video
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