Welcome to Criterion Corner, where the movies love you back. A column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, Criterion Corner runs twice a month, one installment featuring reviews of Criterion's new releases, and the other an essay pertaining to Criterion culture. Follow @CriterionCorner and the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates!
What do Godzilla and Catherine Deneuve’s character in Belle de Jour have in common? They’re both controlled by men in suits (hold for laughter). You know, try not to think about that one, too much. Criterion likes to start the year off on the right foot, and in 2012 that foot is stomping all over Tokyo. Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla kicks off this year’s roster in a big bad way, presenting a gloriously deluxe package of a film that some viewers might be surprised to discover is extremely worthy of the Criterion name.
Luis Buñuel’s erotic puzzler Belle de Jour is the other major mainline release, and even if you hate the film (jerk) you’re gonna want this thing on your shelf. Also on tap are Francesco Rosi’s A Moment of Truth, and a Blu-ray upgrade of Soderbergh’s Traffic, the latter of which I’m not even going to review. I mean, I just saw this movie called In Time, and the moral was “Life is short, don’t waste it revisiting Traffic.” And that was a smart movie.* Okay, these reviews are a little late, so let’s get down to business before this before Criterion announces a Mothra box set. Be sure to visit the Criterion Corner Tumblr for a forthcoming review of this month’s other excellent release, an Eclipse Series dedicated to the documentary work of Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin.
*In Time is not a smart movie.
#593 BELLE DE JOUR (dir. Luis Buñuel) 1967
THE FILM: There’s a humility inherent to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour that immediately isolates it from the rest of his work. Made in 1967 in the wake of Simon of the Desert -- a film so angry that it burns through its own rage in a scant 45 minutes -- Belle de Jour is positioned at the last pivotal fulcrum of Buñuel’s career, the project with which he began to temper the sociopolitical fury that characterized earlier work like The Exterminating Angel with a degree of awe and mystery. The softening wouldn’t last (his final film, The Obscure Object of Desire, ends in a plume of fire), but in Catherine Deneuve’s mercilessly perfect flesh he encountered an object that eluded the ire of his understanding, a dull and perfectly blank face that kept human desire submerged beneath a glimmering surface like an iceberg. A sex iceberg (*hold for Pulitzer*).
Séverine Serizy: By night a bored bourgeoise housewife with a lame but functional marriage. By day, a high-end prostitute with a penchant for punishment and humiliation. Buñuel, who was compelled by Freud but ultimately scoffed at the totality of his conclusions, had by 1967 already made a career of exploring the facets of human nature that society felt compelled to ignore or extinguish, but with Belle de Jour he finally found a character unfit for his particular brand of torture, as she would have enjoyed it too much. We meet Séverine through her fantasies, as she’s strung up to a tree and raped by her husband’s carriage drivers. The steely young blonde enjoys imagining herself subjugated to such violations, her psyche’s resistance to a life soured and streamlined by a rigid society. She yearns for the upheaval that Buñuel typically visited upon his characters, and so the subversive iconoclast responds by transforming Séverine into Belle de Jour, a creature who is a fantasy, herself. The lines between her reality and her dreams for it are too blurred for Buñuel to navigate with his usual indignant precision, and so instead he shifts his focus away from how desire informs, to how it persists, festers, and takes over.
Shot in the soft and centered fashion that Buñuel so often relied upon in order to prioritize his ideas over his aesthetics, Belle de Jour is nevertheless among the filmmaker’s most fetching works -- erotic in a way that seems incapable of modern cinema, tawdry in the way that defines it, and eventually willing to sacrifice its momentum for mystery as it comes full circle. Channeling everything from Charade to Le Samouraï in an effort to confuse its own nature (and inspiring Mulholland Drive, it would seem), Belle de Jour hasn’t aged a day, its perversities too human to ever be reduced to kitsch. It’s not Buñuel’s best, and its simpler moments betray his disinterest, but the film remains a perfect testament as to why sex and Buñuel are two of the only things that will always make sense of why we don’t.
THE TRANSFER: The most beautiful Criterion transfer of the month, the Belle de Jour Blu-ray is saturated to a rather extreme degree that I happen to really enjoy (mileage may vary). I find that the heightened hues call attention to the conflicting dimensions at the heart of this film, and the consistent veneer of unreality suits Séverine’s sexual limbo. Detail is magnificent, and the grain is modest but satisfyingly filmy.
THE SPECIAL FEATURES: First and foremost is a commentary by film historian Michael Wood, which is a dryly analytical example of how a track can be enervated by a speaker who is a little bit too ensconced in the material. Wood knows his stuff, I mean the guy literally wrote the BFI book on the film, but while this may not be Last Year at Marienbad, it’s still a film that rewards free-association and a flexibility of thought, and the commentary feels a bit too cut-and-dry. I wouldn’t wish it away, but ideally it would have been complimented by a second, looser track. Also included is an exclusive 10-minute interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, in which a great deal is revealed about Buñuel’s idiosyncratic methods.
THE BEST BIT: My favorite thing on the disc is an 18-minute video essay starring “sexual-politics activist” Susie Bright, who focuses this no-holds barred look at the film through a very particular lens. Bright is fiercely intelligent, and should effectively unmoor any readings of the film that have become a bit too settled and secure.
THE ARTWORK: Wooooow. The stunningly evocative cover art comes courtesy of artist David Downton (no relation to the Abbey), whose work has previously graced the Criterion release of Lola Montes. A flowing portrait of Deneuve painted with thick brushstrokes and bisected by a black / white median that both underlines and mocks the film’s illusory moral divide, this is a perfect distillation of Belle de Jour, and the early frontrunner for the year’s best Criterion cover art.
THE VERDICT: 87 / 100
#594 GODZILLA (dir. Ishiro Honda) 1954 CRITERION CORNER RELEASE OF THE MONTH!
THE FILM: If this Criterion Collection release of Ishiro Honda’s enormously formative film has accomplished anything, it’s that many of us will never again be surprised to rediscover that Godzilla is a genuinely great film. Its allure diffused by the the cultural detritus that the atomic-breathing post-nuclear icon has left in his path of destruction, (not to mention the cottage industry of kaiju films for which Honda himself would eventually be responsible), Godzilla doesn’t need to be rescued from its own appeal, but rather re-appreciated for its art.
The monster movie that perfected the formula, Ishiro Honda’s earth-shaking introduction to the scaly, pre-historic scourge of post-war Japan is a sublime piece of entertainment, mitigating its layers of accrued kitsch with the undeniable force of its storytelling. The opening twenty minutes, which begins with a fishing boat meeting a violent end and follows as all of the vessels sent to investigate vanish into the same stretch of sea, succinctly nails the pace and scale by which an unseen terror matures inside of our collective imagination, providing someone like J.J. Abrams with the template from which he and Matt Reeves would extrapolate Cloverfield some 50 years later. The horror that Godzilla visits upon the shores of Japan and, later, the neon streets of downtown Tokyo is actually enhanced by the archaic effects -- the miniature work is nearly immaculate, and the visual of a monster who is obviously just a man in a latex suit (man in suit! man in suit!) carries a discomforting thematic heft of which animatronics and CG have deprived contemporary disaster films. The horrors of the atomic age that Godzilla so obviously represents are man-made, emblematic of the pivotal moment at which humans wrested control of our species’ fate away from powers beyond our understanding.
Of course, Ishiro Honda (who served as both friend and assistant to Akira Kurosawa), used giant monsters to become one of the cinema’s great humanists. For Honda, Godzilla was merely a warning for the kind of problem that’s able to be ignored only because it’s so big -- the enjoyably facile slideshows that paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (world’s greatest actor Takashi Shimura) uses to explain Godzilla’s existence are all the more damning as a result of how hilariously childlike they appear to modern audiences. Violence begets violence, and the extent to which Honda charts Godzilla’s transition from folklore to apocalyptic threat imbues Godzilla with a gripping suspense, the Japanese psyche effectively becoming the film’s true protagonist. In fact, Honda so skillfully aligns the viewer’s perspective with that of an entire country that the canned individual dramas feel completely superfluous, and the film stops dead in its tracks whenever it pauses to check in on the woefully undercooked love triangle that he uses to contextualize the story’s forward lurches.
Perhaps the film’s most memorable scene finds a troop of radio reporters broadcasting the impossible terrors they’re witnessing -- as Godzilla heads towards them and their deaths become imminent, they’re helpless to do anything but narrate their own destruction. Their only legacy is to narrate the horror, and hope that their message is heard. That ethos has endured to this day -- a few years ago I visited Hiroshima on the anniversary of the bombing, and there I encountered no talk of right or wrong, no attempt to cast blame or wallow in victimhood. Instead, the day was devoted to a future free of such evils, to a world in collective agreement that the destruction dropped onto Japan must be a lesson and not a precedent. Standing under the A-Bomb Dome, surrounded by families who will continue to suffer from the fallout for generations to come, it was reassuring to see that Godzilla was gone but not forgotten.
THE TRANSFER: The Godzilla negative has seen better days, and Criterion has definitely inherited a number of scratches and artifacts, but fortunately they don’t prove to be all that distracting (the commentary track assures that the presentation here is very similar to how the film looked when it premiered in 1954). Overall, the visuals here is stellar, clear and precise enough to launch a thousand reconsiderations of this classic film. To Godzilla’s immense credit, the details revealed by this Blu-ray don’t mock the effects work, but actually call attention to the supreme craftsmanship responsible for them. Fans of the film will be in heaven.
THE SPECIAL FEATURES: Criterion didn’t mess around with this one. This thing is stuffed to the gills (does Godzilla have gills?) with extras, including exclusive interviews with several of the film’s surviving actors and special effects technicians, an interview with the man responsible for that unshakable theme music, an interview with film critic Tadao Sato, a much-needed new subtitle translation, and a 10-minute featurette on the visual effects that makes it that much easier to appreciate the meticulous model work required to create the film’s pivotal scenes of destruction.
THE BEST BIT: I can’t imagine that Criterion would have ever released Godzilla without including Terry Morse’s 1956 reworking of the film (the only version of film to play in American cinemas prior to the 2004 re-release of the original), but they’ve gone above and beyond, completely restoring the bastard cut and providing it a dedicated commentary track. The re-edit, which cuts in footage of Raymond Burr as an American reporter, unquestionably defuses the film’s power, but it’s a vital chapter of Godzilla’s legacy as well as a fascinating example of the cinema’s malleability. Film historian David Kalat also provides an exclusive commentary track for Ishiro Honda’s official cut of the film, an animated, impassioned oratory that nicely compliments the tone of the film. Kalat loves this stuff, and though I imagine he might be grating to some, I think he provides some of the most engaging Criterion commentaries in some time.
THE ARTWORK: Criterion had a bit of fun with this one, dumping austerity and opting for a sea of fire and a maximalist bid to reclaim Godzilla’s badass cool. It works. And in an unprecedented move for the company, the package goes 3D when you peel it open and the city-stomping monster sticks his head out of the cardboard. Sure, it’s an iteration of Godzilla that wouldn’t appear until decades after Honda’s original film (oops), but whatever, it’s an awesome touch.
THE VERDICT: 90 / 100
#595 THE MOMENT OF TRUTH (dir. Francesco Rosi) 1965
THE FILM: Francesco Rosi’s The Moment of Truth is the ultimate expression of the duality central to any bullfight, as a matador must balance the peril of his circumstances with the pageantry of his sport, so too does Rosi balance the blunt urgency of documentary footage with the narrative demands of fiction filmmaking. Unfortunately, The Moment of Truth suggests that Rosi wouldn’t last very long in the arena, as he’s unable to find the right rhythm between the two distinctively different modes that circle around each other for control of the film, reducing this quintessential depiction of the corrrida de toros to a gory, intermittently astonishing curio that sheds a lot of blood but never exposes its heart.
The Moment of Truth burns through its best material right at the top, opening with a nearly wordless 15-minute sequence in which Rosi’s handheld camera reappropriates the techniques of the French New Wave to flitter around the frenzied streets of Pamplona, presenting the Running of the Bulls from the thick of the pack. His abstract depiction of the event is urgent and unnerving, an unmistakably “real” view of the inexplicable ceremony from the inside out, flecked with fiction in such a way as to potentially inform Gillo Pontecorvo’s impending portrait of The Battle of Algiers. The camera, alive with its own sense of self-preservation, frequently returns to the face of one sturdy young man in the crowd, and we soon understand him to be the protagonist (since this isn’t a short film, we assume that he makes it home safe).
The film smoothly segues into its script, even though Rosi is quick to deny the wild aesthetic of the opening sequence in favor of a more mannered approach. The young man is revealed to be a blue-collar bumpkin named Miguel (naturally played by real-life matador Miguel Mateo), who yearns for financial stability and the endless possibilities that come along with it (the image of him being dragged around the family garden in a recliner tells us everything that we need to know about his discontent). Miguel picks up and heads off to the big city of Barcelona to find some work, and yadda yadda yadda attends a bullfight, during which he leaps into the arena from the stands and tames a beast too violent for the working matador. And so a pointed critique on the grotesque spectacle people are willing to make of themselves in order to secure financial independence stabs itself with its own muleta, abandoning its rare verve for a “Rise of the unlikely sports star” story that’s only a lingering echo of artistic integrity removed from Happy Gilmore or Eddie (remember Eddie?).
Miguel participates in various bullfights during his rise to the top of the sport, and there’s nothing fake about them. Rosi filmed the actual events, and the thick red blood that Miguel draws from his opponents is as real as the devastating footage of their horns upending him by the groin. It’s not for the squeamish and methinks that many animals were harmed during the making of this film, but it certainly captures the spectacle of the arena unlike any film before or since. That being said, the vitality of the bullfighting sequences only underscores the inauthenticity of their context, as Miguel isn’t a particularly interesting character, his obstacles are frustratingly standard, and Rosi’s apathy for it all is a waving red cape to distract you from the meat of the movie. The narrative hardly ever informs the bullfights, which work only to overwhelm the story when they should be framing it. A strikingly abrupt finale helps to refocus the film on the compelling aspects of its early passages, but by that point this cinema of attractions has already lost its pull.
THE TRANSFER: Given that there are two distinct modes of filmmaking at work here, the visual presentation of The Moment of Truth is naturally inconsistent. This was never going to be a visually coherent experience, and Rosi’s film isn’t really the type to benefit from an HD restoration. Criterion seems to have recognized that, simply cleaning the print up a little bit and eliminating rogue elements to the best of their ability. The film doesn’t really look considerably better on Blu-ray than it does on Criterion’s Hulu page, but it’s hard to imagine that The Moment of Truth will ever look better.
THE SPECIAL FEATURES: There isn’t much to speak of in the way of extras, as Criterion acknowledges that this isn’t exactly a critical addition to their roster. All we get is a 14-minute video interview with Rosi himself -- recorded by Criterion all the way back in 2004 (!?), the chat provides a much-appreciated opportunity to learn a little bit more about how this film came together, and the means by which Rosi and co. captured the incredible vérité footage.
THE ARTWORK: Ugly but with clear purpose? The cover art reflects the pivotal instant referred to by the film’s title, but the blurry stabbing figure doesn’t make for a particularly fetching static image.
THE VERDICT: 54 / 100