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DVD Review: Eclipse Series 19: Chantal Akerman in the Seventies

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Eclipse Series 19: Chantal Akerman in the Seventies

Any consideration of Chantal Akerman’s work in the 1970s—or, really, Chantal Akerman’s work period—inevitably revolves around her towering 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. In that film, Akerman traces, through a series of frontal, shallow-space camera setups that pin down her eponymous heroine in her drab domestic setting, the minutiae of the daily life of a working-class single parent, which actress Delphine Seyrig performs in real time. The film follows Jeanne’s quotidian activities (cooking, cleaning, having sex for pay with a single client each day) over two 24-hour periods. The first time through establishes the routine, the second suggests small cracks in the well-worn edifice (as well as the heroine’s sanity) until, in the film’s final moments, things break down entirely. One of the most rigorously structured works ever committed to celluloid, Akerman’s 200-minute game-changer strikes a perfect balance between formalist temps mort immersion and intricately detailed narrative progression which suggests both feminist critique and an exhilarating, if psychologically opaque, study of impending madness.

For years, and notwithstanding Jeanne Dielman’s reputation among the hardcore cinephile set, problems of accessibility have kept Akerman’s work from achieving the pantheon status accorded to her natural peers. But following last year’s DVD release of her 1975 classic, Criterion has filled out the picture of her early work by issuing, through their Eclipse imprint, a three-disc set containing five of her ’70s efforts. If, as Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson suggest in their classic Film Comment essay on Jeanne Dielman, among the film’s principal achievements is to suggest “a workable parlance between the structural and commercial film,” then one of the pleasures of the Eclipse set is to trace the development of this balance, from Akerman’s early efforts at strict formal experimentation, through her first stabs at narrative, to the more expansive approach of her post-1975 offerings.

The earliest films included on the Eclipse set, 1972’s La Chambre and Hotel Monterey (which, along with the aesthetically similar 1976 piece News from Home, are grouped together on the first disc as the “New York Films”), represent Akerman’s clearest attempts to emulate the structuralist films that dominated Manhattan’s experimental cinemas of the time. La Chambre in particular betrays a clear Michael Snow influence, but it’s perhaps most interesting when viewed as a structural forerunner of Jeanne Dielman. In this 11-minute film, Akerman’s camera executes a series of circular pans around the perimeter of an apartment room, taking in the expected accoutrements of daily living (a sink, a refrigerator, a fruit-covered table) as well as Akerman herself lying in bed. Like Jeanne Dielman, the structure of La Chambre involves setting up a pattern, repeating that pattern with subtle repetitions—here involving a change in Akerman’s on-camera activity—and then ripping it apart entirely. As the camera gets half way around its third revolution, it suddenly reverses direction, moving back past Akerman, who is now caressing an apple, then continues to alter its course, traversing in both directions the space delimited by a desk and a dresser—and making specific reference to Snow’s Back and Forth.

Akerman’s real breakthrough occurred in her other silent, 16mm offering from 1972, the eerie, vaguely sinister Hotel Monterey. As Michael Koresky points out in his liner notes, this was the director’s first experiment with duration, the lengthy, mostly eventless takes which would come to define her aesthetic approach for the rest of her career and which make up the formal backbone of Jeanne Dielman. Taking as her subject the eponymous fleabag crash pad located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Akerman’s camera effects a rigorous investigation of the hotel’s rooms and corridors for 62 leisurely minutes. Starting with the lobby, Akerman works her way up the building’s floors, moving from the heavy traffic of the entranceway and elevators to the grimy, depopulated hallways, while fixing the architecture in static takes that she holds for durations moving upward from a half minute.

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With their constricting walls and sickly lighting, the corridors that come to represent the film’s chief area of inquiry look like a particularly apt horror film setting, particularly when the camera catches glimpses of people lurking at the margins. In one sublimely spooky sequence, Akerman takes in an impossibly narrow hallway, only to find a door at the end inch open and a face peek out ever so slightly, before the door slams shut for good. In the last 20 minutes, Akerman unshackles her camera, executing slow tracking shots down various hallways leading up to the fixed point of a window (shades of Snow’s Wavelength) before tracking back in reverse. Finally, as night turns to day, the film moves up to the hotel balcony, relieving the dense claustrophobia as it takes in time-capsule views of upper Broadway and the banks of the Hudson.

In 1976, several years after Akerman had left New York to resume residence in her native Belgium, she returned briefly to the city to shoot News from Home, a post-Jeanne Dielman revisiting of the non-narrative structuralism of Monterey. Focusing on Manhattan’s public spaces, News reflects back on the director’s brief American sojourn, juxtaposing readings of the letters her anxious mother sent her during her stay with fixed shots of the city’s street corners, hidden spaces, and subway stations and cars. Akerman is especially attracted to the city’s queasy bowels and, while she doesn’t insist on the then-struggling metropolis’s dreariness, what emerges is a portrait of a decidedly unglamorous and vaguely desperate pre-gentrification New York. The reading of her mother’s letters—which bring updates from Belgium, while constantly bemoaning her daughter’s infrequent responses and speaking hopefully of her return—rarely corresponds directly to the image, but the juxtaposition of the reminders of home with the alienating city evokes an unsettling sense of displacement. Recalling Monterey and anticipating her great 1993 consideration of exile as a permanent state, From the East, Akerman eventually introduces an element of motion, ending with a series of vehicle-mounted tracking shots which take in a car ride past the auto shops and wholesalers of 10th Avenue, a peek out the window of an outer borough elevated subway and, finally, a boat ride in the harbor, lingering on a misty view of lower Manhattan as the fog envelops the city’s skyscrapers.

While Letters from Home represents one approach to introducing text to non-corresponding visuals, a more complex counterpoint between images and words can be found in Akerman’s feature-length debut Je, Tu, Il, Elle, made the same year as, though just prior to, Jeanne Dielman. Sharing with its more famous successor a concern with uncovering the potential for madness in a woman’s repetitive home life, Akerman’s first attempt to weld the structural film to a fictional storyline centers around a young woman named Julie (played by Akerman herself) who confines herself to a single room apartment. As she passes endless weeks in the same setting, she occupies herself by rearranging furniture, eating sugar from a paper bag and compulsively rewriting a letter that takes up an increasing number of pages. As she performs these tasks with a manic restlessness, captured by Akerman’s silently observing camera in marathon takes, her accompanying voice on the soundtrack narrates the events. But rather than directly matching the image, the spoken text always either lags slightly behind or anticipates the action on screen, so that the words being spoken sometimes contradict what we’re seeing. In one scene, Julie describes how she had long ago eaten all the sugar in her possession while the image, not having caught up with her words, shows her devouring the still present crystals. In the gap between her character’s behaviors as spoken and as performed, the director locates an incipient madness, a fracturing of identity that mirrors the dissociations of the film’s title.

As the movie progresses, Julie’s behavior becomes increasingly sexual: She begins to strip naked and crawl around the apartment floor. Then, surprised by a man watching her through the window, she presses herself up against the glass, hoping to be spied on again. Eventually, this desire for erotic fulfillment leads her out of her apartment and into the front seat of a truck when she allows herself to be picked up by a long-distance driver. But after she tells us in voiceover that she wants to kiss the man, her narration suddenly stops and, as she continues to ride with the trucker, accompanying him through a number of silent dinners between rides, she never speaks a word. When things finally do turn sexual, as he instructs her to give him a handjob, the camera remains on the man’s face throughout, the woman’s personality having shrunk to momentary irrelevance. Later, the trucker delivers a lengthy monologue, discoursing on his family, his declining marital sex life and his highway pickups, while Akerman’s camera continues to turn its fixed gaze on the man, although Julie remains visible at the edge of the screen, smiling her approval of his story. Her interaction with the trucker may necessitate the silencing of her voice, but in her madness she seems more than happy to accept it.

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Only in the film’s final section does that voice return as Akerman locates a corrective to the unequal male-female relationship through the erotic union of two women. Visiting an initially reluctant ex-girlfriend, Julie takes verbal charge of the situation, demanding food and drink from the woman. But after Julie succeeds in getting her into to bed, the director stages a lengthy sex scene in which power relations temporarily dissipate in the face of an impassioned and equal embrace. Whereas Akerman keeps Julie’s sexual relationship with the trucker off screen, here she gives us the lesbian union in all its graphic tangling, as the two women tumble around on the bed, taking turns on top, and providing an antidote to the identity-effacing displacements of heterosexual interaction, however fleeting it may finally prove to be.

Same-sex coupling figures again in Les Rendez-Vous d’Anna as the peripatetic heroine describes to her mother a surprising lesbian encounter that occurred amid her customary on-the-road male pickups. But mostly the sexual encounters in Akerman’s 1978 feature remain frustratingly unfulfilled. Rich with images and symbols of displacement, Rendez-Vous moves beyond the locked-down claustrophobia of Jeanne Dielman to evoke the languors and frustrations of an opposite but equally deadening mode of existence. As Akerman follows the eponymous woman (and directorial stand-in: Like Akerman, Anna is a Belgian filmmaker, played by fellow director Aurore Clément) on her travels through Cologne, Brussels, and Paris, she lingers on a repeated series of images and events—the halogen glow of platforms glimpsed from train windows, the uniform rows of hotel corridors, Anna’s perpetually unsuccessful attempts to call a friend (lover?) in Italy—to evoke the banality of a perpetual rootlessness which Akerman posits as something like an existential state.

As she stops off at stations along the way and meets up with old friends and family members, this sense of displacement comes to take on a tinge of world-historical heft. Although Anna remains largely impassive (her face barely registering a flicker, her conversation kept to a minimum), as she listens to a German lover discourse on his country’s devastating recent history or a Polish friend describe her own experience of exile, we come to understand rootlessness as the natural condition of 20th-century Europe. Even if Anna seems relatively unaffected by the century’s upheavals, she has nonetheless absorbed enough to accept dislocation as her own normal state of being. So that when she returns to her adopted home of Paris, she encounters the city (via Akerman’s camera) as a blur of abstract lights seen through a car dashboard or an ultra-mod hotel room in which she watches the town through a window while an on-the-fritz television sprays fuzz at the corner of the screen. Returning at last to her apartment, she lies impassive on her bed while her answering machine spews out the disembodied voices of friends, lovers, and finally, her agent announcing her latest itinerary and signaling her impending return to the road. In Akerman’s films, such a feeling of exile—whether presented literally as in Anna’s case or expressed through an alienation from a domestic environment, as in Je, Tu, Il, Elle and Jeanne Dielman—becomes endemic, internalized as a perpetual state of mind.

Image/Sound

The New York films were shot on not-particularly well-preserved 16mm and they look it, but the rough nature of the image suits the experimental nature of the projects. Je, Tu, Il, Elle and especially Les Rendez-Vous d’Anna are far crisper. Sound (on the three films that have sound) is sufficiently clean, even if Letters from Home betrays a fair amount of hiss.

Extras

As usual with Eclipse sets, the only extras are liner notes, in this case, an insightful set of observations from critic Michael Koresky.

Overall

There’s more to Akerman’s work in the ’70s than Jeanne Dielman, even if that film continues to loom large over the period.

Cast: Chantal Akerman, Niels Arestrup, Claire Wauthion, Aurore Clément, Helmut Griem, Magali Noël, Hanns Zischler, Lea Massari, Jean-Pierre Cassel Director: Chantal Akerman Screenwriter: Chantal Akerman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 371 min Rating: NR Year: 1972 - 1978 Release Date: January 19, 2010 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Luciano Ercoli’s The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion

No fan or cinephile’s knowledge of the giallo would be complete without seeing Luciano Ercoli’s film.

4

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The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion

In the opening scene of The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Minou (Dagmar Lassander) lies in a bathtub, taking a drag from a cigarette, telling herself in voiceover that today she’ll give up smoking, whiskey, and pills. These objectives aren’t for better health; rather, as Minou further states, they’re meant to appease her husband, Pier (Pier Paolo Capponi). Minutes later, Minou contemplates an alternative to giving up her vices: telling her husband that she wants a divorce. Minou’s oscillation between appeasing her husband and breaking away from him neatly establishes the film’s attention to reality versus possibility. Since Minou neither stops indulging her habits nor tells Pier that she’s leaving him, the film generates an underlying tension regarding Minou’s ability to act on behalf of herself that extends beyond the basic plot points of blackmail and potential murder that recur within Italian gialli throughout the 1970s.

Although the screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahén Velasco doesn’t make tensions between genders into a spoken theme, numerous scenes pit a woman’s word against an unbelieving man’s point of view. After Minou is accosted on the beach by an unnamed blackmailer (Simon Andreu) who claims that Pier is a murderer, she recounts the events to her husband, who immediately casts doubt upon the veracity of Minou’s story.

Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, from the same year as Forbidden Photos, is comparably absorbed by the (in)accuracy of eyewitness testimonies, though in that film’s case, the male protagonist is implicated as the attacker himself. Even Otto Preminger’s 1949 noir thriller Whirlpool, which also depicts men distrusting a woman’s perceptions, invests its dramatic stakes in whether or not that woman will be found guilty of murder. Conversely, director Luciano Ercoli emphasizes Minou’s role as a spectator to the deceit of the creditors and financiers who comprise Pier’s business. By eliminating the possibility of Minou’s being implicated in a crime, Forbidden Photos is able to take a playful, melodramatic tone that more fully explores the interior life of its female protagonist.

The film’s attention to Minou’s plight as a woman is redoubled with the appearance of Dominique (Susan Scott), whose liberated sensibilities free her from the anxieties about her body and sex that inform Minou’s apparently monogamous devotion to Pier. After the two become close, Dominique casually shows Minou nude photographs of herself as if they were mere snapshots from a summer vacation. Even when Minou realizes that her own blackmailer is a participant in Dominique’s photos, Forbidden Photos doesn’t get bogged down by its routine plot elements; while resolving the blackmailer’s identity and motivations are essential to the film’s resolution, Ercoli has more fun juxtaposing how the two women perceive themselves within the social fabric of ‘70s Rome.

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In a memorable shot, the pair have lunch on the roof of a high-rise café overlooking the sea. Dressed in similar hats, coats, and skirts, the pair bond over their experiences as women in a city filled with desiring men. Their relationship comprises the film’s true center, something Ercoli tips his own hat to with a closing aerial shot of the two driving around a Rome that seems renewed with possibilities both sexual and professional.

It’s difficult to view Forbidden Photos and not see Scott as its greatest strength—something Ercoli apparently agreed with given that he cast her as the lead in his next two films, Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight. Ercoli’s vision of the giallo provides a thrilling B side to Argento’s own—one that’s much more engaged with how women navigate the terrain of marriage, sex, and their own happiness, even if that means, as its seems in the end of Forbidden Photos, waving goodbye to men altogether.

Image/Sound

Arrow Video’s 2K scan from a restoration of the original camera negative abounds in image clarity; as with Arrow’s previous releases of Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, colors pop and flourish throughout, with nary a texturing flaw in sight. Whether showcasing a wide shot of Rome or a close-up of Minou preparing herself for Pier’s approval, the transfer displays a remarkable attention to detail. Grain remains consistent and present throughout; while there are sporadic instances of image defects, they’re minor and confined to a small blip or a slight crack, likely the result of irreparable damage to the negative. The Dolby Digital track comes in both monaural Italian or English and does a commendable job of balancing Ennio Morricone’s memorable score with crisp dialogue and Rome’s street noise.

Extras

A host of fine extras is highlighted by a feature commentary from critic Kat Ellinger, who contextualizes the film within the giallo tradition. Most helpfully, Ellinger distinguishes between the “F giallo” and the “M giallo,” which are designations meant to indicate whether a film has a female or male protagonist. “Private Pictures,” a newly edited documentary featuring archival interviews with Susan Scott and Luciano Ercoli, elaborates on how the film came into being and the impact it had on each of their respective careers. The documentary also features new interview material with Ernesto Gastaldi, who went on the pen numerous other gialli throughout the ‘70s. Musician Lovely Jon hosts a tour of music from Forbidden Photos and other ‘70s Italian cult cinema, supplementing his informed perspective with facts and trivia from the era. The disc also contains an interview from 2016 with Dagmar Lassander, original Italian and English theatrical trailers, and an image gallery.

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Overall

No fan or cinephile’s knowledge of the giallo would be complete without seeing The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, which receives a lovely Blu-ray transfer and a slew of informative supplements from Arrow Video.

Cast: Dagmar Lassander, Pier Paolo Capponi, Simon Andreu, Susan Scott, Osvaldo Genazzani, Salvador Huguet Director: Luciano Ercoli Screenwriter: Ernesto Gastaldi, Mahnahén Velasco Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1970 Release Date: January 15, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

A strong audio-visual transfer makes the long-awaited arrival of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner to Blu-ray well worth the wait.

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4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days all advance the notion that time is of the essence in Romania. Set in 1987, two years before the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, Mungiu’s Palm d’Or-winning film has the urgency of a ticking bomb. Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the snarl of red tape sticks to everything, and while the tone here is less sarcastic, the cumulative effect of the film’s long shots—triumphs of concentrated minutiae and heightened performance—are every bit as haunting.

Luminița Gheorghiu, who appears in the film in a small role, passes the humanist baton of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu to Anamaria Marinca, who transforms the desperate struggle of her character, a college girl trying to help her roommate secure an abortion, into a stirring expression of female solidarity and empathy. Twice Otilia (Marinca) is told that her tech major will keep her from “being sent to the country”; she’s heard it all before, and the look on her face suggests a girl both used to and resentful of having to navigate the cruelties of a bureaucratic system. Much of the story follows Otilia as she tries to secure a hotel room for her friend, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), and the film derives its disconcerting power from startling shifts in perspective and understated collisions of personality, as in the suffocating dinner conversation at the home of Otilia’s boyfriend, Adi (Alexandru Potocean).

Masters of horror should marvel at Mungiu’s canny deployment of red herrings: the pocketknife swiped by Otilia out of the abortionist’s briefcase in sudden fear, and the ID left by the man, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), at the hotel’s front desk, whose method of operation suggests that of a torture program. Otilia and Gabita’s fear of being caught shapes every frame, though abortion isn’t so much the subject of the film as it is a jumping-off point. Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which is only outwardly about the difficulties of securing health care in modern-day Romania, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an allegory that speaks to the struggles of freedom fighters gripped by the terror tactics of a political machine.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s color grading stays true to the drained palette of Oleg Mutu’s cinematography. The transfer is crisp across the board, highlighting the textures and acute visual details found throughout the film’s settings. The crumbling exteriors of buildings, cracked walls, and dimly lit hallways take on a vivid, expressive quality that further amplifies the increasingly horrific circumstances that the characters’ find themselves in. The 5.1 surround soundtrack cleanly presents the film’s dialogue, while discrete, off-screen sounds creep into the mix nicely, helping to convey a disconcerting sense of unease in several scenes, especially during the chaotic family dinner sequence at Adi’s house.

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Extras

The beefiest extra here is an interview with film critic Jay Weissberg, who helps to contextualize the rise of the Romanian New Wave by charting the history of the Romanian film industry from the Nicolae Ceaușescu years through to the post-revolution period and into the 21st century. Weissberg’s historical perspective is augmented by his astute observations on the use of the long take in recent Romanian cinema, asserting that it’s an aesthetic strategy used to unflinchingly present horrific truths when examining personal morality in a society that had dehumanized its citizens for so many years. Weissberg also briefly touches on the work of filmmaker Lucian Pintilie, whose films remain little known outside of Romania, citing him as a significant influence on Cristian Mungiu and his contemporaries.

A lengthy new interview with Mungiu touches upon everything from the director’s very personal inspiration for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to the various ways he honed and perfected his aesthetic strategies throughout the making of the film. Mungiu is dry and direct, but he’s also humorously self-effacing at times, particularly when expressing his disappointment in how the film’s opening shot turned out. The complete Cannes press conference allows Mungiu to further expound on the cinematic techniques employed in the 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and the reasons behind them, as well as address his controversial decisions, such as various red herrings and graphic, disturbing images that garnered much debate upon the film’s release. Actors Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, and Alexandru Potocean also field questions here, but Ivanov is the only one who clearly and confidently expresses his opinions on his character’s questionable behavior.

The 15-minute featurette “The Romanian Tour” tracks the film’s reception in small Romanian towns, but offers little in terms of insight aside from stressing the dire shortage of theaters outside of Bucharest. Also included, in a fold-out booklet, is a fine essay by NPR’s Ella Taylor, who examines the myriad ways that Mungiu slyly satirizes Ceaușescu’s Romania and shrewdly presents a case that the demeanors of the film’s protagonists, Otilia and Gabita, represent “two poles of personality shaped by totalitarian rule.” The disc is rounded out with a deleted scene and two alternate endings, each of which offers a more explicit peak into Găbița and Otilia’s personal lives, both before and after the day on which the film takes place.

Overall

The Criterion Collection’s release of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a tad light on extras, but its strong audio-visual transfer makes the long-awaited arrival of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner to Blu-ray well worth the wait.

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Cast: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, Alex Potocean, Luminița Gheorghiu, Adi Carauleanu, Liliana Mocanu, Tania Popa, Teo Corban, Cerasela Iosifescu Director: Cristian Mungiu Screenwriter: Cristian Mungiu Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2007 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak on Arrow Video

Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance receives a significant packaging upgrade from Arrow Video.

4.5

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Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak may be the quintessential Guillermo del Toro film, as it compresses his fetishistic attention to detail into a single looming set where creaking floorboards, scores of dying moths, and the frequent intrusions of mutilated ghosts are just pieces in the giant dollhouse where the director merrily plays. The combination of gothic ghost story and harlequin romance doesn’t break new ground for either genre, but the intensity of Brandt Gordon’s art direction and Kate Hawley’s costume design reinforce the innate connection that period romance and horror share in how these genres so purely express their most profound ideas through ornate style.

Amusingly, the action of the film’s first act, the gamesmanship of high society’s courtship rituals playing out in well-lit parlors, is no less tense than the story’s eventual retreat into the dark confines of Allerdale Hall. The most dominant sound effects in these early scenes are the gasps and mutterings of New York’s nouveau riche as English nobleman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) ignores the pampered bachelorettes trotted out before him. Instead, he homes in on the bookish Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring horror author and the only child of a self-made magnate (Jim Beaver) from whom he seeks financing for mining equipment. Del Toro films a scene of Thomas and Edith waltzing for a gathered crowd of elites, all while trying to keep the flame from the candle they grip in their hands from going out, as if it were a circus stunt, the couple’s willingness to dance in front of a wall of judgment akin to performing acrobatics without a net.

Such flourishes are almost subtle despite their intricate blocking and rich color palettes, but when Crimson Peak finally arrives at the Sharpe family home in remote Cumberland, del Toro indulges his most freewheeling whims. Allerdale Hall itself appears to have been hand-carved out of blatant symbols: the dulled seafoam-green wall paint that points to its overgrown ruin; the dank corridors lined by ominously spiked stone pillars and arches; and the gnarled architecture, with rooms that intersect so erratically with other chambers that they become entangled with one another. Rot has claimed the roof, letting dead leaves and, eventually, snow coat the long-faded grandeur of the foyer. Meanwhile, the blood-red clay that Thomas mines from the property seeps up through the floorboards, occasionally giving the house the impression of bleeding from ripped-open sutures.

So precisely defined is every aspect of Allerdale Hall’s physical decay that even the people who dwell within it feel more like conduits for the manse’s soul than independent agents. If Wasikowska’s surprisingly fortitudinous naïf is meant to recall Jane Eyre, Hiddleston’s version of Rochester comes not from Charlotte Brontë’s classic tome, but the revisionist version found in Wide Sargasso Sea, a feckless brute who maintains a veneer of respectability just long enough to nab a wife he can exploit to boost his own faded status. Hiddleston’s best performances always hint at a bit of sleaze beneath a show of welcoming charm, and the hunger that fills Thomas’s eyes whenever talk of money arises lays bare the sham of his romance from the start.

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Jessica Chastain outdoes him, however, as Thomas’s even more mysterious older sister, Lucille, her face frozen in resentment and given to mirthless, thin-lipped smiles only in moments of extremely rare generosity. Perpetually clutching a set of ornate keys in her hands, Lucille is at once a judging matron, jealous sibling, and pitiless overseer. If Thomas embodies the house’s self-loathing and revulsion, Lucille is its unrepentant pride—neither the hole in the ceiling nor the sinking floor, but the decorated walls and lavish furnishings that stand defiant to the reality of their obsolescence.

Compared to the siblings, Edith lacks a memorable hook, and Wasikowska doesn’t get the chance to pore over her character the way that Hiddleston and Chastain do theirs. Nonetheless, most del Toro films feature a proxy for the director, and Edith’s ghost-seeing bookworm fits the bill here. As in the director’s other films, the supernatural is both real and imagined, clearly having a direct impact on a character’s surroundings while also pitched with sufficient ambiguity that some encounters suggest projections from the mind. Del Toro typically plays that line for maximum fairy-tale effect, but Edith’s tendency to continue to believe in the fundamental romance between herself and Thomas puts her in as much danger as her openness to the paranormal prepares her for the eventual confrontation with the truth of her new family.

Del Toro’s decision to explicitly underline the weaknesses of his proxy in Crimson Peak belatedly exposes prior stand-ins as equally shortsighted, and in the process the director clarifies a crucial thematic through line of his filmography. In retrospect, his fantasies are the opposite of escapes from harsh reality: It’s the real world, with its war and discrimination, that intrudes on the imagination, which can conjure up impressively detailed creatures and settings, but often struggles to map the complexities of emotion and history. Del Toro’s films tend toward the mythological, which is to say they’re timeless, rooted in a deep, era-nonspecific past. When social and historical context finally breach his microcosm, they expose the rifts of immaturity and sadness of a child who knows it’s time to grow up, but cannot face adulthood.

In that sense, del Toro may have less in common with the masters of horror than he does Wes Anderson, who similarly papers over his characters’ melancholy and displacement from the present with elaborate bricolage and immersion in esoterica. Crimson Peak, then, may be the director’s Life Aquatic, his fussiest, most compartmentalized construction, and therefore the one filled with the most powerful sense of repression and delusion.

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Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s his Grand Budapest Hotel, what with its deranged aristocracy fighting a losing battle against time by targeting the new stewards of capitalism, leaching from them in a futile attempt to be restored to the old pomp and wealth. In Anderson’s film, a fading way of life tries to remain relevant by ignoring the atrocities begat of its willful obliviousness. In del Toro’s more explicitly generic terms, however, it’s the old guard that directly commits those atrocities to stem the tide of progress, a strategy so all-consuming that only at the point of self-destruction can one character realize what a waste it was to cling to so rotten a home in the first place.

Image/Sound

This Blu-ray edition’s hardback book indicates that the transfer was “made available by NBC Universal.” Indeed, there are no appreciable differences between this transfer and the one on Universal’s 2016 home-video edition of the film. Only a few instances of noise exist in the darkest shots, but otherwise this remains a crisp transfer. The 7.1 and X lossless audio tracks are likewise pristine, perfectly balancing the film’s exacting sound design—so rich in creaks and ghostly whispers—relative to Fernando Vélasquez’s tense but mournful score.

Extras

Arrow Video has ported over all of the features from Universal’s original release, which contained mostly brief EPK documentaries and one of Guillermo del Toro’s indispensable audio commentaries. Arrow supplements these extras with some new—and meatier—goodies, chief among them “The House Is Alive,” a 50-minute documentary that dives deep into the film’s intricate production design and literary inspirations. Del Toro also contributes a new interview, while two new critical pieces are included. One is an interview with critic Kim Newman, who places the film in the broader context of gothic romance, the other a video essay by Kat Ellinger on del Toro’s entire filmography and Crimson Peak’s place within it. Arrow’s lavish packaging also includes production stills and a booklet with an interview with del Toro and critical essays by David Jenkins, Simon Abrams, and Mar Diestro-Dópido.

Overall

A slew of excellent new features ensures that this is, for now at least, the definitive home-video edition of Guillermo del Toro’s elegant haunted-house film.

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts Director: Guillermo del Toro Screenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robbins Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2015 Release Date: January 15, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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