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Blu-ray Review: The Complete Jean Vigo

4.5

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The Complete Jean Vigo

We romanticize the sustainability of authentic affection—itself a fabulist ideal, a useful fiction—because of the cruel truth that the deeper two people feel for one another, the more often they will be called upon to withstand estrangement. The passing of time simply brings opportunities for jaundice and abandonment; it cannot be avoided. Furthermore, conventional wisdom tells us that relationships of mutual or unilateral obsession are unhealthy partly because of the need to maintain space for personal, maybe even isolated, development; we’re “supposed” to ache for another, but not to the extent that it haunts this real estate of individuality. (Is this why the less distracting glow of fondness, the language of the archetypal elderly couple who has somehow beat the odds and achieved togetherness in virtual perpetuity, considered a particularly sturdy kind of love?) I have, like most, been bedeviled by the desire—as well as taken aback by a lack of longing—for a distant lover. And yet what ensured, threatened, or characterized those relationships was never the level of our yearning, or the manner in which it poisoned our lives while in obligatory alienation. It was how that yearning—the volatile, amorphous creature skulking the root of our spines—necessitated and informed compromise.

Compromise is not a word that immediately springs to mind when we consider cinematic wunderkind Jean Vigo, arguably the godfather of more European film-art dendrites than any other director. A curious confluence of technical adroitness and emotional nuance, Vigo’s premorse cinema (he died at 29, of tuberculosis) exhibited a blend of raw and refined that inspires effusiveness. Standing on the cusp of film’s totter into the sound era, and amid a period of photo-technological fecundity, his brief oeuvre—produced, it must be said, almost exclusively with maestro cinematographer Boris Kaufman—is both a veritable microcosm of the leaps and bounds the industry would make in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, and a nigh-unparalleled apogee of personal style. Despite the relative newness of double exposure, cross dissolves, freeze frames, and slow motion, Vigo employed them all without succumbing to gimmickry. Mimicking corporeal rhythms with the camera, his films limn the realm of the unhindered body, of the anarchic lust for unattainable justice, of puppy love that over-spills from those who it inflicts to form puddles, ponds, oceans. And yet the rendering of this exuberance would seem hopelessly foolish were it not so patient, so willing to acknowledge, to forgive, and most crucially to poeticize fallibility.

In Vigo’s best work, L’Atalante, a newlywed couple becomes separated after the bride, Juliette (Dita Parlo), is momentarily tempted away from the dingy barge home of her groom, Jean (Jean Dasté), by the lights of Paris. Finding her absent, Jean becomes infuriated and leaves the docks of the French metropolis a day ahead of schedule. Later that night, while a mournful Juliette beds down in a cheap hotel and her husband sleeps alone in his skipper’s quarters, a montage astoundingly communicates the intense mistake of their severance. Through cross-fades we see them toss and turn and grip their own bodies in vain as they might have desperately clutched one another, as well as occasionally leer toward the camera with Warholian grimaces. Jean rises at one point, his eyes carnally buggy; we transition to Juliette, barely touching her breasts while easing down as if in her man’s wanting embrace. The oneiric pacing and subtle, wistful sexuality of this sequence is poetic realism defined: It goes directly for the jugular, but it does so with such lyricism that we experience the blow at a manageable distance that facilitates reflection.

The montage above also illustrates the sublime eeriness of Vigo’s aesthetic. Though essentially representational, a cross-bleeding metaphor for haptic regret, the actors’ fourth-wall-breaking orientations infuse the scene with a curious theatricality. The compromise here, the mediator, is the audience; Vigo uses us to complete what becomes a triangular study of human folly and sincerity, since the lovers’ respective experiences sleeping alone can only become shared through our witnessing (and Vigo’s juxtaposition). This is why they look to us: We are what connects them, like a husband and a wife on opposite coasts peering at the same constellation and hijacking it from the sky to use as an objective correlative.

Formal abstractions of this nature have a wealth of antecedents in silent and early avant-garde film, particularly the “gotcha!” structural nervousness of German Expressionism and its descendents, but Vigo’s singularity is in his near-invisible merging of film-as-spectacle and film-as-study. Through a Méliès-like magic trick he both tortures and relieves conjugal brokenness (and so obviously for our amusement) while deepening our experience of his fictional universe as in Murnau or Griffith. And yet, unlike either of those early narrative masters, Vigo was not a sentimentalist. He escapes this distinction by understanding the language of cinema as a metaphor—as the metaphor—for human dynamism.

His early short film Taris, a commissioned documentary on France’s leading swimmer, is a kinesthetic meditation that suggests the influence of fetishistic dissections of the human body by directors like Cocteau. The lens lingers on flapping legs and arms; Vigo cuts between slowed, intimate footage of the swimmer’s movement filling the frame and more journalistic overhead shots that show his technique against those of others training in the same pool. This somewhat painterly, modernist approach allows us to feel as the swimmer but not within the swimmer. Vigo would later inhabit the form of his characters without literally shooting from their perspective with even more counter-intuitive confidence. Michel Simon, as the old, boastfully eccentric boatman Père Jules in L’Atalante, wrestles with himself in a brief moment of physical comedy; Vigo steadies the camera and implies Père Jules’s strange egotism by letting Simon flop happily about the stoic frame.

Vigo’s humanism is therefore not as unabashed or template-offering as Jean Renoir’s, which often subverted castes in order to parse the depth of interpersonal compassion. It is perhaps the impish, communist younger brother of this sensibility, one that ignores hierarchies both social and dramatic to achieve a poetics of egalitarianism it knows is wishful thinking. This is made quite literal in both of Vigo’s “political” films, À Propos de Nice, an object-obsessed collage of inequality in the titular city, and the giddily trauma-conquering Zéro de Conduite—which Lindsay Anderson later expanded into the much more violent If…. Though narratively disinterested (it’s essentially a collection of cheeky boarding school sketches with an anarchic capper) and too caricature-y with its humor, Zéro de Conduite possesses a propulsiveness again made complex by compromise. Directly before the roughhouse climax, Vigo slows down footage of a march of nightgown-wearing, blunt instrument-wielding male students who emerge from a dreamy plume of falling pillow feathers, forestalling the success of their coup d’etat. The film’s final shot similarly watches the four young architects of the insurrection from behind as they climb to their school’s roof and wave to (presumably) throngs of ecstatic cohorts and a handful of confused adults: Their moment of glory is minimalistically iconicized. In moments like these it seems as though Vigo cannot bear to give his characters the full extent of what they so hotly pursue—perhaps for fear of destroying them in the process?

With L’Atalante, we find not only the culmination but the sublimation of this anxiety, as Vigo discovered that his characters could be rewarded in full only if they were first robbed of what they seek. After the procession of Jean and Juliette’s marriage—rendered in a series of slightly awkward cuts that seem to “trip” rather than “jump”—we learn that the couple has consummated their relationship after a very brief courtship. This of course mirrors, possibly intentionally, Vigo’s own desire to crystallize a new cinema despite his own youth and that of the art form. L’Atalante steadily gestates into film’s greatest and most idiosyncratic reflexive allegory, a series of simple but interlocking tropes and symbols that, much like those in Gertrude Stein’s poetry, indelibly and freely influence one another rather than simply appearing eloquently interchangeable.

We understand the ridiculousness of the titular barge where Jean and Juliette live as a figurative device, a concretizing of the barely functional and yet quite exhilarating nature of their electric affair. For the most part they can’t keep their hands off each other, much to the chagrin of their on-board extended “family”: Père Jules (literally, “Father” Jules) and an errand boy. When the camera caresses the boat, or caresses the shoreline from the boat’s perspective, it seems also to domesticate its purview; the not-quite-Dutch angles with which it observes Jean moving to and fro the hull fix him at the head of a ramshackle, atypical household from which he can likewise lord over the waterscape. And it’s not much of a stretch to read the brimming-with-potential lovey-doveyness of Jean and Juliette, and by extension their rarely anchored home of a boat, as a conceit for the hulking nascence of cinema-as-art, floating unstoppably if leisurely down the canal of the 20th century.

These respective entities’ inchoateness also means that we must compromise with moments of jejune gawkiness. When Jean finds Juliette and the avuncular Père Jules talking soberly in the latter’s cabin, he breaks several articles of the boatman’s junk in a blind, unnecessary rage; his love for her is so blisteringly new that it converts every whisper of seduction into a threat that needs squashing. L’Atalante itself is somewhat irascible, coming into its own with smart, uncanny spurts and then submerging into periodic confusion. The third act, for example, though inevitable, becomes a hyper-compressed lover’s quarrel resolved boringly by Père Jules’s worldliness and a half-clever leitmotif.

And yet the reunion between Jean and Juliette in the former’s cabin might be Vigo’s most accomplished exchange, a glorious compromise between the gestural and the symbolic. Before collapsing in an ignited, prurient heap on the hard, wood floor, they stare at one another in disbelief. When Juliette first moves toward her husband, he backs away—not brusquely, but with incredulous slightness. Contained in that minute turn of the torso is a lifetime of happiness-to-follow, a blink and a pinch and a gut check at the remarkable luck of having cultivated a relationship that can withstand not only estrangement, but the clichés of betrayal, despondency, and contrition as well. They have proven themselves worthy of their connubial bliss, and they need not apologize. They need not think. They need only melt into one another.

Image/Sound

Studies of Jean Vigo’s look and feel typically dote on his editing and blocking more so than his use of light—likely because ubiquitous un-restored prints of his films are awash with splotchy haze. Criterion’s 1080p transfers of this quartet are, shockingly, uniformly clean, with Zéro de Conduite the only Eclipse line-worthy mastering—though even the antiquarian scratchiness there is hardly a nuisance. L’Atalante remains a hodgepodge of visual and sound quality, given the film’s initial butchering and later reconstruction, but the relative clarity of the image especially allows the damp, crusty shadow of the titular boat’s innards to seduce us. Further examination of beach and dream sequences fosters a crucial discovery: That Vigo uses light and shadow not to split images with chiaroscuro but to suggest their unified, if occasionally mottled, essence. His cinematography illuminates his emotional topography.

Extras

The Complete Jean Vigo features an amicable junk drawer of supplements, from Michel Gondry’s inane but mercifully brief animated tribute, to a conversation between Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut where the wrong director does the talking, to a lengthy historical-biographical account of L’Atalante‘s production. Most of these, along with the audio commentaries by Vigo scholar Michael Temple, provide invaluable historical context, particularly in terms of what camera techniques Vigo pioneered and experimented with, but ultimately don’t parse the human significance of Vigo’s art with much gusto. Still, there’s no doubting that this is a completist guide, and the booklet’s essays fill in much of the aesthetic gaps left behind by the audio-visual material’s prosaic approach. Michael Almereyda’s career and life overview is a particularly incisive look at Vigo’s incalculable impact both on his contemporaries and his followers.

Overall

Criterion’s loving Blu-ray omnibus of one of cinema’s most celebrated martyrs provides three hours of poetic catharsis at 1080 progressively scanned lines of resolution.

Cast: Jean Dasté, Robert Le Flon, Delphin, Léon Larive, Madame Émile, Louis de Gonzague-Frick, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Dita Parlo, Michel Simon, Gilles Margaritis, Fanny Clar Director: Jean Vigo, Boris Kaufman Screenwriter: Jean Vigo, Albert Riéra Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 163 min Rating: NR Year: 1930 - 1934 Release Date: August 30, 2011 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Forty Guns

Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.

4.0

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Forty Guns

Though shot in a drum-tight 10 days, and on a low budget, writer-director Samuel Fuller’s raw, punchy noir-western Forty Guns isn’t a film of half-measures. As it acquaints us with Tombstone, Arizona, the parched Cochise County town where its action takes place, the 1957 film does so with an unbroken dolly shot that runs the entire length of main street, taking in something like 50-plus actors in choreographed motion and encompassing both an exposition dump and a startling zoom-and-pan reveal.

When Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the territory’s domineering land baroness, conducts her daily business via horseback, she does so with all 40 of her grizzled hired hands in tow, a thunderous spectacle trotted out for matters both large and small. And when a tornado rips over the hills, realized by Fuller and his crew as a high-powered dust storm that renders the landscape a grainy, swirling abstraction, Stanwyck is right in the middle of the fray; the script called for Jessica to be dragged along with the hoof of a runaway horse, and Stanwyck insisted on performing the daredevil maneuver herself, much to the chagrin of producers.

Bold expressionism and brawny physicality were staples of Fuller’s filmmaking career—qualities surely indebted in some part to his experiences as an infantryman and cameraman during World War II—and in Forty Guns the entire cast is synchronized with that sensibility. The film is possessed of an earthy eroticism, evident in a number of scenes dedicated to watching Tombstone’s men bathe openly under the afternoon sun, as well as in an insistent streak of sexual innuendo in the dialogue, wherein any talk of a man’s gun is quite transparently an allusion to his cock.

Upon the arrival of pacifistic U.S. Marshal Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), carrying a warrant for the arrest of Jessica’s rotten brother, Brockie (John Ericson), in town with siblings Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), the townsfolk’s dormant sexual energies are expulsed, with Wes angling for local gunsmith Louvenia (Eve Brent) and Griff himself going after Jessica. In a place where gunfire is the prevailing expression of emotion, violence and sex thus become intimately entangled—a link visually represented when Wes and Louvenia’s mutual desire is consummated by an eccentric down-the-rifle-barrel POV shot that Jean-Luc Godard would crib for Breathless only three years later.

This suggestive visual punnery aside, the structure of Forty Guns ultimately accommodates a shift from lewd flirtation to emotional vulnerability, with the at-first caricatured threat of violence becoming a real and deadly threat indeed, as new bonds are sewn and prior allegiances are fissured. Griff, having vowed to retire his six-shooter, awakens Jessica’s sensitive side in the process of spending time with her, breaking down her desperado roughness with his nonviolent, levelheaded enforcement of the law.

The moment when Jessica seems to have fully emerged as a more complicated woman than she initially appeared is among the film’s most beautiful: When she and Griff find shelter from the aforementioned tornado in an abandoned barn, a lilting crane shot descends from the rafters to find the lovers entangled from head to toe in a pile of hay, the camera finally landing in an intimate two-shot to survey their nostalgic exchange without a single cut. It’s a scene of aching tenderness in the midst of bawdy farce and jolts of brutality, but such a commiseration of souls proves fleeting in a land of hardened alliances and quick triggers, and it’s this very union that acts as the catalyst for an accumulating body count.

The film’s tonal swing from goofiness to severity is best exemplified in the three Tombstone ambushes conducted by Brockie. The first, seemingly the result of a drunken whim, is a maniacal shooting spree played mostly for shock laughs (save for the mood-puncturing casualty of an innocent blind man), and concluded by Griff’s swift pistol-whipping of the terrified Brockie. Mirroring this is a more coordinated attack later in Forty Guns when a wedding is interrupted by a surprise bullet, immediately throttling the mood from revelry to tragedy—and leading to a hymnal-led funeral scene to rival those in John Ford westerns. Finally, the third ambush in Tombstone finds Griff again marching calculatedly toward a menacing scene, only this time unsure of the whereabouts of the aggressors. Fuller stages the scene as a high-wire standoff between three disparate points of threat, juicing the dramatic irony to a breaking point until Griff expertly diffuses the situation, but not without preventing another death.

Shot in black-and-white CinemaScope at a time when the format was largely reserved for color productions, Forty Guns‘s deep chiaroscuro anticipates the characters’ deadly impulses and the grave directions that the drama takes. It all leads to a climactic showdown of remarkable savagery that seems to confirm an irrepressible violence within the hearts of even the most upstanding among us—though it’s followed then by a studio-mandated corrective to it, a scene that partially aims to clear the dust churned up by such a bleak capper. Fuller includes a line of dialogue that complicates the uplift, but even if he hadn’t, Forty Guns‘s damning treatise on gun infatuation and the incapacity to transcend one’s nature had already landed its heaviest blows, leaving a bitter aftertaste that no smearing of schmaltz could quite undo.

Image/Sound

Studio-shot interiors are granted a superb degree of contrast, with the deep, inky shadows doing full justice to the film’s celluloid origins, in addition to mirroring the bottled-up anxiety and rage in the characters. Meanwhile, location work in the foothills of Arizona is awesomely vivid. When Barbara Stanwyck or Barry Sullivan ride across the landscape on horseback, the subtle gradations and tones of the arid ground are as compelling as the action being depicted. And suitably for a film at least partly about the destructiveness of firearms, the howling gun blasts heard on the audio track are enough to get the attention of the neighbors, if not too loud to overwhelm the at-times hushed dialogue and gentle desert ambiance.

Extras

The meatiest supplement here is “A Fuller Life,” Samantha Fuller’s affectionate feature-length tribute to her father’s experiences as a journalist, infantryman, and filmmaker, unconventionally presented as a series of readings from his autobiography, A Third Face, by directors and actors who knew him. Not all these participants seem equally enthusiastic about the project, and the documentary consequently has some dry, overly wordy passages. But the access to Fuller’s treasure trove of personal material—clips from his old bylines, footage from WWII, and production files—makes it never less than a fascinating excavation for acolytes of the artist.

Similarly rewarding in this regard are the three other bits of deep-dive Fuller content: an entertainingly candid 1969 interview with the director that can be played as a commentary track, a printed excerpt from A Third Face that goes into some detail about Forty Guns‘s production, and a newly shot interview with Fuller’s second wife, Christa Lang Fuller, and daughter that plays like a heartfelt stroll down memory lane. Rounding out the package is an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and a new interview by critic Imogen Sara Smith, who, in a welcome pivot from all the attention lavished elsewhere on Fuller, conducts a fairly thorough examination of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Forty Guns, hailing it as an impassioned summation of a career that was on the decline by the late ’50s.

Overall

Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix, Jidge Carroll Director: Samuel Fuller Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: December 11, 2018 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Let the Corpses Tan

The solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.

3.5

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Let the Corpses Tan

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan might rekindle a familiar debate regarding style and substance in art and whether the distinction matters in discussions of aesthetics. Riffing on 1970s-era Italian crime films, Cattet and Bruno Forzani get so lost in their catalogue of fetishes that they lose grasp of the snap and tension that drive even a mediocre heist narrative. That’s partially the intention here, as the married Franco-Belgian filmmakers are aiming for a wandering bloodbath that stews in their characters’ obsessions, which presumably parallel their own, but those obsessions often feel trivial, distracting from the abstract plot.

In Let the Corpses Tan, Cattet and Forzani announce their self-consciously derivative intentions with explosions of paint that suggest blood as well as the act of ejaculation. This link—between art, sex, and violence—is the thread purportedly uniting the film’s various shoot-outs, sexually and religiously inflected fantasy sequences, and odd camera angles, lurid color stocks, and splintered editing. Luce (Elina Löwensohn) is a painter living out among the jagged and sunbaked cliffs presumably somewhere along the Mediterranean, where she drinks, works, sunbathes, fucks, and keeps the company of a traditionally motley collection of misfits. Some of these misfits have just robbed a truck carrying hundreds of kilos of gold, brutally killing several guards and police officers in the process. These acts are played nearly for comedy, with explosions of blood that echo Luce’s splattering of paint against canvases. And the crimes bring the police upon Luce’s desert idyll, triggering a shoot-out that spans the majority of the film’s running time.

The film’s desert setting is memorably beautiful and punishing, and Cattet and Forzani milk it for quite a bit of its erotic potential, gazing at Luce’s often nude body as she sweats in the sun while the coterie of grizzled thugs ogle her. Pleasurable for their own sake, such scenes also affirm the notion of the gold heist as a re-channeling of unfulfilled sex. A little of this symbolism goes a long way, and amusingly so, though Cattet and Forzani keep indulging jokey metaphors, from a lamb roasting sensually on a spit to a martyr fantasy in which Luce is tied nude to a stake, her breasts lactating champagne.

The latter sequence offers a juxtaposition of cruelty and sadomasochistic sex that might’ve been startling in a film less grab-bag in nature—if, say, the scene had been allowed to serve as a narrative culmination, suggesting that the heist and hostage situation inspires in Luce a reckoning with forbidden desires. In this context, however, it feels as if Cattet and Forzani are merely adding another whimsy to their woodpile in order to certify their bona fides as cult rebels. There’s another violent and sexual fantasy sequence later in the film, which seems present just to give the audience a nude shot of another actress, and the images are festooned with leather, guns, insects, skulls, and seemingly endless close-ups of the bad-ass bank robbers’ faces.

Let the Corpses Tan is diverting when watched for 10 minutes—and which 10 minutes you choose doesn’t really matter, as the film runs in circles, re-digesting its conceits as characters stalk and kill each other. In the end, Cattet and Forzani’s pastiche is less reminiscent of Italian crime films than of Quentin Tarantino’s own brand of orgiastic cinephilia, and this contrast elucidates why Let the Corpses Tan feels so hollow. Though Tarantino is also a trickster enthralled with formalist gimmicks, his best films have emotional texture, expressing the longing that drove him to movies to begin with. Cattet and Forzani are too cool for such vulnerability.

Image/Sound

On the whole, Kino Lorber’s transfer leans a bit on the dark side, leading to more muted reds, greens, and golds, especially throughout the film’s daytime sequences. Still, the graininess of Manuel Decosse’s 16mm cinematography is ably preserved; the acute textural details found in the film’s endless array of close-ups of sweaty, expressive faces and objects in motion are beautifully rendered. The nighttime sequences, often shot with a blue filter, still offer ample contrast between the deep black shadows and carefully lit bodies that move gracefully in and out of them. The 5.1 surround and stereo sound tracks are particularly impressive, offering an evocatively layered and full-bodied mix that highlights the film’s intricate sound design. The crackle of fire, creaking of leather, and bursts of gunfire sit forward in the mix, replicating the sensorial overload of the theatrical experience.

Extras

Film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Queensland Film Festival Director John Edmond, who have known each other for years, evince an amiable rapport on their engaging audio commentary, and while this frequently leads them into light-hearted digressions, they do manage to cover a large amount of ground regarding the cinematic influences that inform Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s aesthetics. Their discussions of ’70s Italian crime films, gialli, and spaghetti westerns are informative if a tad predictable. More fruitful and compelling are the stretches where their talk veers into the unexpected, such as the influence of Satoshi Kon on the filmmakers’ sense of narrative structure and the film’s playful warping of time through rapid-fire editing. Perhaps most enlightening is when Heller-Nicholas and Edmond link Let the Corpses Tan, for its plethora of associative metaphors and reliance on sexual and religious iconography, to George Bataille’s Story of the Eye and the work of Kenneth Anger. The only other extra included is a theatrical trailer.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s edition of Let the Corpses Tan is fairly slim on extras, but the solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.

Cast: Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Bernie Bonvoisin, Michelangelo Marchese, Marc Barbé, Marine Sainsily, Pierre Nisse, Marilyn Jess Director: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Screenwriter: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Release Date: January 8, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: A Dry White Season

This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.

4.0

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A Dry White Season

The opening shot of A Dry White Season depicts two young South African boys, one black and one white, laughing and merrily playing ball with each other. This moment of harmony, a tacit reminder that racism is learned, is soon torn asunder by the viciousness of South Africa’s apartheid system. The forces of division at work in the country are charted after the tranquil opening, with the black child, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu), arrested and brutally caned for attending a peaceful student protest and the white boy, Johan (Rowen Elmes), seen playing rugby with schoolmates who are, of course, all white. Soon we learn that Jonathan’s father, Gordon (Winston Ntshona), works as a gardener for Johan’s father, Ben (Donald Sutherland). When Ben sees the bloody cane marks on Jonathan’s buttocks, he immediately begins rationalizing the actions of the police, unable to admit that they acted irrationally. Johan, upon glimpsing the same wounds, can only gape in horror.

Director Euzhan Palcy spends much of the film’s first act visually delineating the extent to which South Africa has been divided under apartheid. In the black townships of Soweto, for example, there’s scarcely any vegetation to be found in the drab, arid ground. Meanwhile, Ben’s home and other white communities are verdant with irrigated, perfectly manicured lawns. And while Ben has a friendly rapport with Gordon, he never forgets his assumed superiority to the man, who must address his boss as Mr. Ben in even their most informal moments. Ben’s initial inability to consider that the police crossed a line with Jonathan changes when the boy is killed and buried in an unmarked location. When Gordon attempts to find the whereabouts of his son’s body, he too is abducted, tortured, and murdered, leaving Ben so stunned that he’s shaken from his oblivious privilege.

The remainder of the film tracks Ben’s attempts to get answers for these shocking events and the fallout it brings to both Gordon’s family and his own. Seeking justice for Gordon, Ben takes his case to a human rights lawyer (Marlon Brando, giving perhaps his weariest and least showy performance), who can only solemnly urge the man to drop this case, as it will never be upheld by an apartheid judge and will only bring him misery. This grim prophecy soon proves true as Ben’s increasingly zealous quest to broadcast the atrocities of the government earns him the enmity of a brutish police captain (Jürgen Prochnow), alienates his wife (Janet Suzman) and daughter (Susannah Harker), and enrages Ben’s colleagues and friends. It even brings further horrors onto Gordon’s surviving family, who are systematically harassed and evicted from their home in retaliation for Ben’s behavior.

In maintaining her focus on both families rather than just Ben’s, Palcy traces the pervasiveness of apartheid’s methods of reinforcing the status quo using everything from social stigma to outright violence. That Ben, riddled with guilt and horror, tries to honor his dead friend and ultimately makes things worse for Gordon’s widow is held against the man, but the director nonetheless foregrounds the near-impossibility of an individual resisting a regime devoted to an ideology like racism. Palcy does occasionally confront Ben with his ignorance, as when he wistfully tells his black driver, Stanley (Zakes Mokae), how they’re both equally African as he reminisces about growing up on a farm, only for Stanley to sarcastically bring up other aspects of “real” African life, such as having to carry one’s ID papers everywhere or being thrown in prison. Ben, embarrassed, trails off and falls silent. Yet Ben is consistently presented with complexity and empathy as he slowly becomes politically aware, and if A Dry White Season ultimately illustrates the high cost of true allyship in a system of segregation, it nonetheless also respects the willingness to make that sacrifice in the face of injustice.

Image/Sound

Sourced from a 4K restoration, Criterion’s transfer retains the thick grain of the film but marks a significant upgrade in color depth and texture from previous home-video editions. In particular, the bright shades of the white communities pop in comparison to the impoverished and infertile soil of drab Soweto townships, and the blood spilled by bullets and torture looks especially vivid. The lossless stereo track nicely balances the predominantly dialogue-driven soundtrack with the occasional bursts of chaotic violence in the police’s crackdowns on demonstrations, losing no fidelity at any point.

Extras

A half-hour interview between director and co-writer Euzhan Palcy and critic Scott Foundas digs into the former’s life, from her childhood cinephilia to her art studies in France and early support from François Truffaut. Palcy offers copious insights into her career and her approach to A Dry White Season, from building out the source novel’s black characters to her clandestine trips to Soweto to interview survivors of security force arrests and torture. Palcy also contributes an interview in which she breaks down five of the film’s scenes from the research went into them to her filming. Impressively, Criterion unearthed a long-sought interview that Palcy conducted with President Nelson Mandela on the first anniversary of his election in which she questions him on the future he envisions for South Africa. A 1989 interview with Donald Sutherland is also included, as is footage of a 2017 South African National Honors Awards ceremony in which Palcy was bestowed with the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo for her work in illuminating the anti-apartheid struggle to the international community. Finally, a booklet contains an essay by film professor Jyoti Mistry, who explicates how Ben is developed as a genuinely moral agent and not simply a bystander to atrocity.

Overall

This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.

Cast: Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Jürgen Prochnow, Zakes Mokae, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando, Winston Ntshona, Thoko Ntshinga, John Kani, Susannah Harker, Rowen Elmes Director: Euzhan Palcy Screenwriter: Colin Welland, Euzhan Palcy Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1989 Release Date: December 12, 2018 Buy: Video

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