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DVD Review: Mommie Dearest

You’ve gotta give Paramount credit for resisting the urge to call it the No Wire Hangers Ever! Edition. They’re aces. True class.

3.5

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Mommie Dearest

“It could be hair-raising if Faye [Dunaway] were to have trouble shaking off the gorgon Joan,” wrote critic Pauline Kael, herself a woman for whom career and her own self-aware capacity for utter monstrosity overshadowed everything else, to the delight of legions of nebbish, weak-willed gay men everywhere. (As though being on the outspoken Crawford’s or Kael’s side meant sitting back and letting your enemies answer to someone they couldn’t punch out, thereby never again having to suffer “the vapors” during intellectual brawls.) Kael’s quip is something of a bitch-slap coda to an otherwise fawning appraisal of Dunaway’s “startling, fierce” incarnation of Christina Crawford’s harrowing portrait of her abusive adoptive mother Joan, one of very few contemporary reviews of Mommie Dearest to actually take the whole screaming affair more or less seriously. I mean, when Dunaway was revealed as the Best Actress runner-up in the New York Film Critics Circle voting to that epochal ’70s trophy-bait goose Glenda Jackson (in a film leftover from the ’70s, at that!), you could almost hear the Paulettes reaching for their cans of Old Dutch Cleanser.

But Kael’s sendoff does little to defuse Dunaway’s soon-to-detonate career, and in fact seems to sprinkle a hint of relish over the sacrificial lamb. Kael knew that a performance like Dunaway’s Joan isn’t something one will ever shake off, and that it indeed would become the filter through which both Dunaway’s and Joan’s entire careers would forevermore be viewed. Which is one major reason why Mommie Dearest, like Showgirls (another cause célèbre for drag queens and the men who love/hate them), still registers as questionable on camp value. And why anyone who “ironically” loves either should still probably admit that the guilt in “guilty pleasure” resides within themselves and not the filmmakers. I mean, what could possibly be more insulting than to say that a work of art is so much a failure that it even fails at providing the schadenfreude one exercises when drinking in camp, a sensibility that celebrates failure? Seriously, step off, mother-Freuders! Your latent misogyny is showing.

Which is not to say that the contemporary revisionists (and I incriminate myself with this group) are much more chivalrous in their defense. It’s all too easy now, with the benefit of retrospect and securely degraded (female) careers like Dunaway’s and Elizabeth Berkley’s, to act as a postmortem resuscitator, as though mistaking cinephilia for necrophilia. The act of loving Mommie Dearest or Showgirls has evolved to the point where critical understanding gets tossed out the window for reactionary tautology. Now Mommie Dearest and Showgirls aren’t “so bad they’re good,” they’re so good they’re bad (or, as John Waters puts it in his commentary track for the new “Hollywood Royalty” edition DVD, “so good it’s perfect”…perfection, roughly translated, meaning unbelievable badness). Well, doesn’t that just warm the cockles of your heart to see the testicles of the self-appointed target audience descend just long enough for the men attached to go off comparing the size of theirs with that of Joan’s and Nomi’s? To say that the films owe their rejuvenated reputations to their stalwart love of camp, unwittingly knocking them up a tier or two in the circu-freakshow caste? Ah, failure. It’s an awfully entitled stance these days.

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Now that this review has provided me the forum with which to perform my own imitation of Joan bucking off fag pretenders to her throne like so many crusty Pepsi board directors, let’s get down to business. I suppose that the film’s most enticing failure is that it refutes its own structural punchline. The final scene of the film depicts poor put-upon Christina reacting to the reading of the late Joan’s cutting will by wondering aloud “Does she?” to her brother Christopher’s morbid assessment: “She always had to have the last word.” “Does she?” she asks again, lest anyone in the audience remain unable to hear her drafting the first few sentences of her impending tell-all book in her head. Well, judging from the evidence on display in the film version of Mommie Dearest, then yes, Joan does get to have the last word. Not to take anything away from Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid’s sweet-and-sour portrait-in-tandem of ’Tina Darling, but Joan, thanks to Dunaway’s performance, manages to steal Christina’s story from beyond the grave. Faye grabs center stage of the entire would-be excoriation by the throat and throttles it with a fury that plainly doesn’t exist in any other film performance. Her commitment to the role goes far beyond plucked eyebrows. Here we see an actress daring to use her lower eyelids, the facial muscles that are usually mere backdrop for copious tears but here hitch up, fatten, and contort to convey rage eight ways to Sunday.

Kael’s review, aside from the snideness of the last sentence, claimed the best thing one could say about the film itself is that it doesn’t get in the way of Dunaway. Was it supposed to? That was the whole point. In any case, the role of the straight man is as underrated by camp aficionados as it is overrated by everyone else. Director Frank Perry and producer-scriptor Frank Yablans do as well as any of Joan’s square-jawed paramours to maintain an even keel, letting the grotesque hysteria of the film’s first hour to simmer down to a resigned, jaded emotional iceberg that very nearly reaches pathos. All the while, they refuse to add exclamation points to Dunaway’s readings, letting vaguely perverted details such as that harness little Christopher is forced to wear in bed surreptitiously underscore Joan’s mania. (The harness was reportedly used to prevent Christopher from masturbating…at age seven.)

Perry and Yablans fuse this formal schizophrenia with the cruelly episodic structure and fetishized period details of Hollywood biopics, sneakily turning Crawford’s plight into an endless (even at just over two hours, it feels like Syberberg) series of smartly-decorated character sketches in some gruesome variety revue. Or, as Christina reportedly accused upon the film’s release: “They turned it into a Joan Crawford movie!” Is it any surprise that composer Henry Mancini, in The Book of Lists, put this film toward the top of his list of “hardest films to score,” next to Ghost Dad and Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce? Inscrutably powerful and brutally honest about diva worship as another form of male domination, Mommie Dearest is to camp what Medea was to Dr. Benjamin Spock.

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Image/Sound

Paramount’s previous DVD for Mommie Dearest had a pretty solid anamorphic transfer and a nice if unnecessary 5.1 audio remix (thankfully including an original mono track in the bargain). So acceptable, in fact, that they appear to have merely recycled it for this release. Colors are a tad flat, and there’s some interference with the picture from the print’s occasional dirt. (That sad, lazy maid Helga was apparently in charge of cleaning the master up, too.) Otherwise, this transfer boasts a nice, filmic look.

Extras

“Gay people today have more children than Catholics” is one of the many digressions that come with John Waters’s dependably entertaining audio commentary track. As noted above, Waters claims to be an unabashedly non-ironic fan of the film. I believe him. Though he certainly lets his tongue slip into his cheek pretty frequently, he also demonstrates some real misgivings about a few of the film’s most obvious examples of over-the-top sensationalism, as though they upset the balance of the film as a whole and taint its less-heralded triumphs. Although it should be noted that one of those scenes, the garden rampage climaxing with Joan’s oft-misquoted “Tina, bring me the axe!” (not “fetch”), is parsed by Waters for its proper context within Joan’s William Castle years. Waters doesn’t have the outrageous, firsthand anecdotes that he spins on yack-tracks for his own films at his disposal here (at best, he claims Divine loved the film). And I wouldn’t have minded if the disc’s producers paired Waters with Kenneth Anger for some real Hollywood Babylon dish. But this is probably as good as we’re going to get without the participation of Faye Dunaway, who’d gladly Medea her own performance in this movie. Beyond the commentary track, there are 45 minutes worth of Laurent Bouzereau “making of” retrospectives, broken into three parts, which are typically professional and surprisingly reverent (even Lipsynka approaches her interview on the film from a relatively grounded perspective, her red hanky on hand in case she wells up). In fact, Bouzereau’s only misstep is the title that closes out “Life with Joan” claiming that Johnny Guitar is currently available on (presumably Region 1) DVD. News to me. Rounding out the set is the epic theatrical trailer and an expanded version of the original disc’s photo gallery.

Overall

You’ve gotta give Paramount credit for resisting the urge to call it the “No Wire Hangers Ever! Edition.” They’re aces. True class.

Cast: Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Mara Hobel, Rutanya Alda, Howard Da Silva, Steve Forrest Director: Frank Perry Screenwriter: Frank Yablans, Frank Perry, Tracy Hotchner, Robert Getchell Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 1981 Release Date: June 6, 2006 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.

4

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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. Bee (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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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: Arrow Video’s Crimson Peak

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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Blu-ray Review: Julien Duvivier’s Panique

This dynamic and balanced restoration makes a significant case for the film as one of the most moving and beautiful of unjustly neglected noirs.

4.5

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Panique

Julien Duvivier’s Panique informs small-town life with rich menace, suggesting a correlation can exist between vicious gossip and physical violence, as people seek to assert dominion over the reputations of their neighbors out of boredom and resentment. Throughout the film, a doubling motif links classism with atrocity, and rumor-mongering with the tragedy it incites—such as linked images of two funerals, one of the murder victim that drives the film’s plot, the other of a person framed for the murder, essentially for being an eccentric outcast. As in many a film noir, Panique has, at its center, the structural rigidness of a mathematical equation, which it fleshes out with macabre comedy, piercing pathos, and a mad blend of realism and rococo expressionism.

The outcast is Monsieur Hire, played by Michel Simon, in casting that recalls Jean Renoir’s La Chienne. In both films, Simon plays a frumpy, lonely, and artistic man stuck in his own head, who falls for a beautiful woman who exploits his affections with the encouragement of her true lover. Renoir allows us to understand from the outset that Simon’s character is trapped, by his self-loathing as much as by his manipulators, while Duvivier offers a panorama that gradually closes in on Hire. In fact, one of the driving pleasures of Panique’s first act is in attempting to discern where it’s going, as Duvivier studies the respective habits of a baker, a prostitute, a shifty young man, a hypocritical accountant, and so forth. The film’s foreboding emphasis on daily life sometimes suggests The Marseille Trilogy by way of Shirley Jackson.

Hire initially appears confident, accepting his status in this picturesque country as the resident weirdo. After resisting the butcher’s attempts to talk with him, Hire orders a bloody pork loin and proceeds to the cheese shop to search for its “ripest” Camembert. Such details, which are plentiful in Panique, are amusing for their own sake while revealing that Hire fashions himself a ghoulish aesthete who’s somewhat difficult for the sake of being difficult. (The emphases on blood and ripeness also suggest a rechanneling of thwarted sexual hungers.) Unlike the immediately pitiable hero of La Chienne, Hire allows the audience to enjoy his loneliness. Perhaps this is a man who’s figured out how to live apart from society with dignity intact. In other words, Hire, who possesses the gifts of Simon’s own inherently introverted magnetism, flatters similarly-minded people in the audience.

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This narrative misdirection mirrors Hire’s fooling of himself, underscoring how he’s attempted to transcend his human need for companionship—a nuance that renders his fall from grace all the more moving. As Hire becomes intoxicated with Alice (Viviane Romance), Simon’s physicality becomes subtly heavier and more awkward, as the actor understands Hire to be reverting to a vulnerable state that’s been long suppressed. Duvivier’s compositions complement this notion, particularly when Hire is framed in his cluttered apartment, regarding Alice’s residence from below as carnival lights luridly illuminate him. The carnival isn’t only a metaphor for the “show business”—the manipulations, the play-acting—that govern everyday life, but for how society always requires freaks for projection and ostracizing.

A beautiful and merciless film, Panique has been read as an allegory for Vichy France’s complicity with Nazis, which is apparent in the way the conspiring villagers are shown to unify against a diseased cause that’s been engineered by a third party. And such an association is complicated further by the controversy of Duvivier leaving his country for Hollywood during WWII, which is helpfully illuminated in the essays in the booklet included with this disc. But humankind has so often betrayed itself—honoring its irrational base instincts above issues of morality or common sense—that Panique now operates as a free-floating nightmare of persecution, one which offers a vividly haunting victim. As Hire ascends a building to his doom, fleeing his vengeful neighbors, one may think of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, only in this case there’s no mythical creature to offer one the distancing assurance of the fantastic.

Image/Sound

The image has a few minor blemishes but is generally quite sharp and rich in tactile detail. Throughout the film, this superb clarity particularly emphasizes the relationship between the various foregrounds and backgrounds of the frames, underscoring the vitality of tracking shots that elaborate on the various connections between the characters, emphasizing how small this troubled community really is. Blacks are rich, and whites are delicately soft, the latter of which is important in rendering characters’ flesh, particularly in the surprisingly erotic images of a woman teasing her male voyeur with glimpses of her body. The monaural soundtrack expertly preserves the film’s intricate soundstage, which often pivots on a contrast between the sounds of everyday work (carpentry and butchery) and those of the carnival, which physicalize the lurid thoughts driving the narrative’s action.

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Extras

“The Art of Subtitling,” a new short documentary by Bruce Goldstein, founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures, offers an unusual and fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day challenges of translating foreign dialogue into English text. Like a lot of things many of us take for granted, subtitling requires an exactitude and discipline that’s invisible at first glance. For instance, a subtitle must disappear before one image segues into another, so as to not jar the audience. And, for the sake of flow, subtitles must also summarize dialogue rather than literally transcribe it, so that an audience doesn’t spend a film’s entire running time reading. Goldstein also examines the process of updating and improving subtitle tracks over the years as films are restored, including the production of the new track of Panique that was commissioned for this release, as modern audiences have grown to crave a precise rendering of the slang and humor that give characters and narratives texture.

A new interview with author Pierre Simenon, the son of legendary Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, offers an inside look at how Julien Duvivier altered one of his father’s novels to arrive at the screenplay for Panique, while providing a short overview of Georges’s life, particularly during WWI and WWII. (Georges wasn’t especially fond of the many films made from his work, though Pierre has high praise for Panique.) Meanwhile, a conversation from 2015 between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot succinctly covers a variety of topics, especially the rocky reception that Duvivier received when he returned to France after working in the United States so as to dodge the Nazi occupation. French audiences, somewhat understandably, were resistant to a critique of mob justice from someone who managed to avoid the danger and turmoil of the mob altogether. The essays by film scholar James Quandt and Duvivier expert Lenny Borger also discuss the political context of Panique, while reveling in the film’s brilliant melding of realist and expressionist textures. The theatrical trailer rounds out a slim but informative supplements package.

Overall

With this dynamic and balanced restoration, Criterion makes a significant case for Panique as one of the most moving and beautiful of unjustly neglected noirs.

Cast: Michel Simon, Viviane Romance, Paul Bernard, Charles Dorat, Louis Florencie, Max Dalban, Émile Drain, Guy Favières Director: Julien Duvivier Screenwriter: Charles Spaak, Julien Duvivier Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 Buy: Video

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