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 visit the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates, or suffer for your insolence.
July is a deceptively low-key month for Criterion. Their trio of new titles -- including two under-seen masterworks from legendary filmmakers and a dubious effort from a contemporary autuer of considerably lesser esteem -- are loosely united by lead characters who are devoured by their passions. The month’s three Blu-ray upgrades are all of a slightly higher-profile and well worth a look, especially as Criterion has selected an ideal Kurosawa film for an HD makeover. So widen your eyes and whip out your wallets, cause there’s a lot of goodness to go around. Let’s do this thing.
#572 Leon Morin, Priest (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville) 1961
The Film: Mired in the mid-point of his career and desperate for a hit, Jean-Pierre Melville decided to adapt Beatrix Beck’s autobiographical novel about a woman’s platonic (yet sexually charged) relationship with a strapping priest in nazi-occupied France -- it would prove to be the most bewildering and ambiguous film he’d ever make. The second of Melville’s three masterpieces involving the French Resistance, Leon Morin, Priest is an anxious and excitable little movie about one woman’s experiences in the eye of the 20th century’s worst fit of madness, eventually cohering into an intimate portrait of life during wartime.
And this is life during wartime, not merely survival. Neither Barny (a ravishingly commonplace Emmanuelle Riva as Beck’s stand-in) nor her young daughter are ever in any immediate physical danger, the horrors of the holocaust and the military agents of its destruction only occasionally visible on the periphery. In fact, Barny appears far less concerned with the partisans hiding in the forest or the tanks she hears rumbling down her street in the middle of the night than she is with Sabine, her beautiful, “Amazonian” co-worker, and the object of a frivolous lust Barny maintains as if only to focus her world around a more pleasant conflict. Once Barny meets Leon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo in a role of perfect discordance), Sabine is completely dropped from the narrative, a capriciousness Melville illustrates with staccato scenes and giddy edits that viewers familiar only with his somnambulant underworld sagas might think beyond his pulse.
Barny approaches Morin as a petulant non-believer, and though their sexually charged conversations are so protracted that the film often feels like a chamber piece with blue balls, the matter of religion never becomes much of a sticking point. Given that Barny is caustic but unstudied, and Morin an academic whose world is confined to a single set, the particulars of their dialogues are naturally only of interest to themselves. Yet in a world so violently divided by uniforms and barricades, the wild energy of Barny’s passions and the uncertain directions in which they lead her allow Barny not just to keep her life through World War II, but to cultivate it as well. In a conflict that produced scores of victims and survivors, she emerged genuinely victorious.
The Transfer: The disc’s scene-specific commentary uses an unvarnished print of the film, a disparity which underscores the staggering improvements of Criterion’s feature presentation. Some flickering remains, but what used to look
The Bonus Stuff: There’s a brief and amiably self-satisfied 1961 video interview with Melville and Belmondo (who holds a Cartouche revolver throughout). The disc also includes three chunks of scene-specific audio commentary by Melville expert Ginette Vincendeau. Her notes are dry but informative and deeply insightful -- more would have been appreciated.
The Best Bit: Melville’s original cut of the film ran over three hours, and at his own insistence was trimmed down considerably to focus the story on Morin and Barny. Criterion has included a brief (and well-restored) sampling of the stuff that was dropped, most of which strain to remind viewers that the Gestapo were not an idle threat. A succinct testament to Melville’s understanding of how less is so often more.
The Artwork: Plain and monochromatic, the fitting cover art Criterion chose features Morin staring right at you, prepared to confront, entice, and rebuff the viewer in much the same was as he does Barny in the film. Hardly classic, but functional and plenty elegant on your shelf.
The Verdict: 8.5 / 10.
#573 The Music Room (dir. Satyajit Ray) 1958 - PICK OF THE MONTH!
The Film: A film about the transportive powers of art that is in itself a powerfully transportive work of art, Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room is perhaps the cinema’s most beautiful rendering of a man entombed by his own passions. Ray favorite Chhabi Biswas stars as Biswambhar Roy, the aging landlord of a once-valuable estate who hasn’t left the house (or even its upper floors, for that matter) since a terrible accident befell his wife and child some years before, spends yet another haggard morning sunk into that chair on his roof. He has completely withdrawn from the world, the end of a decline that began when -- in his younger days -- Roy’s love for traditional Indian music overpowered his concern for a modernizing world with which he refused to keep pace. He spent his dwindling fortune on concerts in his lavish music room, inviting friends and rivals alike to enjoy the fine performances he’s arranged for them. He enjoyed such events at the expense of everything else in his life, and eventually their memory is all he had left.
So Biswambhar Roy has lost his edge a little bit, but -- cue the Lester Burnham voiceover -- it’s never too late to get it back. A small, self-contained film from India’s most revered filmmaker, The Music Room is moored by memory and the devouring power of joy in a world that can think only of progress. It’s a notion that Ray evocatively illustrates with the rare visual command he honed while making the Apu Trilogy, the enchanting sets and refined flares of symbolism helping to create a rich inner life for his tormented hero.
Sprinkled with unhurried performances from some of India’s finest musicians, The Music Room is cinema at its most wistful and immersive, evoking an entire world from within the grounds of a single decaying estate. I’m left with the impression that Roy is the flip-side of Ikiru’s Watanabe, the emotionally ensconced bureaucrat who finds eternal solace in one selflessly defiant act. Roy’s defining triumph is in doing something purely for himself, preparing for his death with a requiem for his life.
The Transfer: Criterion’s most beautiful transfer since Pale Flower, this edition ofThe Music Room manages to overcome deficiencies inherent to the original negatives and become an unfathomably pristine presentation. Scratches and detritus on older prints haven’t just been picked off, their every trace has been removed in a way that doesn’t dare gauze over the harsh beauty so critical to the film’s transportive power. This is as good as it gets.
The Bonus Stuff: A satisfying interview with Ray’s biographer, and one with filmmaker Mira Nair who reveals that, even in India, Ray’s films were widely unavailable until he received an honorary Oscar in the early 90s. There’s also a 10-minute clip from a 1981 French roundtable conversation in which director Claude Sautet lavishes Ray with praise for the universality of The Music Room (in French).
The Best Bit: This is a no-brainer. The best Criterion supplement of the month (if not the year) is Satyajit Ray, an 131-minute documentary that Shyam Benegal began shooting in 1981. The film is riveting stuff, featuring extraordinary footage from the set of Ray’s 1984 feature, The Home and the World. Intimate and biographical, the documentary is perhaps most valuable as a directing masterclass from a legend who’s eager to share the genius of his craft with the world.
The Artwork: Marian Bartjes’ tiled, shimmering artwork makes for ideal cover art, the cracked but mesmerizing glass chandelier both beautiful and broken.
The Verdict: 9 / 10.
#574 Life During Wartime (dir. Todd Solondz) 2009
The Film: Before revisiting it for the purposes of this article, I would have told you that Life During Wartime is unequivocally the worst of the 574 films that Criterion has released, but writer / director Todd Solondz would be happy to learn that I’ve since upgraded my opinion from “Insufferable” to “Distractingly noxious.” It’s easy to understand why Solondz -- the sniveling poet-laureate of suburban psychosexual discomfort -- decided to make this sequel to Happiness, his best and most confrontational film to date. If Happiness gave grotesque expression to the most ordinary human desires, Life During Wartime (literally) recasts its characters as people struggling to forgive one another for the shared darkness of their natures.
Things in Happiness didn’t end very well (except for one character, for whom things ended... ecstatically, and at first it seems as if Life During Wartime will begin on a reconciliatory note. Ha! That being said, the opening sequence accurately anticipates a film in which forgiveness forms the sinew of human connection, a film in which everyone is so entombed by their own malformations that they can’t take solace with each other in that common struggle. Solondz is enraptured by this idea, returning to it after every snide, labored, and supposedly shocking aside like the world’s stiffest tape measurer snapping back into its shell. Sure, Solondz has an interesting take on the idea of neurotic, mutually assured social destruction (and an amazing cast to bring it home), but it’s obvious, belabored, and wearisome stuff. The film’s parade of wounded caricatures is so unpleasant that it undermines what few isolated moments of clarity Solondz is able to redeem from characters too didactic and thin the shoulder the burden of their inherently human foibles.
The Transfer: As would be expected of a film made so recently, Criterion’s Life During Wartime Blu-ray looks (and sounds) immaculate. Edward Lachman’s heavily saturated cinematography has been preserved with great care, the oppressive, theatrical atmosphere he and Solondz intended to create even more palpable on disc than it was on the screen.
The Bonus Stuff: “Ask Todd” is a feature in which you get to hearTodd Solondz respond to fan e-mails for 45 minutes. It’s a neat idea, and illuminating in the same way an autobiographical Wikipedia page might be, but it takes serious courage to stick it out till the end. An interview with Lachman is brief but illuminating.
The Best Bit: “The Making of Life During Wartime” features most of the cast talking quite candidly about working with Solondz, and the tales of his unique, unyielding approach (i.e. a devotion to the exact wording of the script that borders on the compulsive) explain a lot about how his films make render familiar domestic terrain feel so exotically.
The Artwork: Proof that Criterion can package anything beautifully, the hand-drawn artwork that adorns the cover and menus of their Life During Wartime release is cute, expressive, and just a little demented.
The Verdict: 4 / 10.
#6 The Beauty and the Beast (dir. Jean Cocteau) 1946
The Film: “‘Steer clear of magic,’ is what I advise those who believe that the cinema is a machine for manufacturing wondrous things.” The magic -- Jean Cocteau seems to be arguing -- is not in the camera itself, but the alchemy of that which is put before the device. Mortally opposed to special effects (such as they were in the 1940s), Cocteau believed that the essence of filmed poetry lay in “The sleepwalker’s sense of balance,” that the most effectively fantastical cinema doesn’t desecrate reality so much as it carefully tweaks the world as we know it -- the fantasy realm is new and exotic, but organically familiar enough that it makes a certain tactile sense to the guiding lights of our imagination.
So... that’s pretty much why Cocteau’s The Beauty and the Beast is, for most of its running time, the most thrillingly palpable fairy tale ever committed to film. An enchanting riff on the classic story, the fantastical elements are a sublime conduit for Cocteau’s strengths and the transportive talents of his amazing design team. If the domestic scenes of Belle’s family aren’t quite as winsome, the two worlds eventually collide in a far more mutually satisfying fashion than they do in the Disney film.
One of the cornerstones of the Criterion Collection gets the HD makeover it deserves (and with some gorgeous new cover art, to boot). Fans of the film (by which I mean “People who have seen the film”) will be delighted with this definitive edition.
The Transfer: The brightly lit village scenes are predictably calmer and more comfortably detailed than they’ve ever been on DVD, but it’s the darker passages in the Beast’s castle that really benefit from the boost to HD. The Blu-ray transfer -- while occasionally revealing wires and other old-school charms -- affords the manor a palpably mystical quality, where things are as mysterious as they should be while not as murky as they once were.
The Verdict: 8.5 / 10
#24 High and Low (dir. Akira Kurosawa) 1963 - UPGRADE OF THE MONTH!
The Film: I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that this Akira Kurosawa guy was pretty good at the whole “making movies” thing. That being said, the rigors of Kurosawa’s genius are easily lost amidst the grand sweep of the iconic jidaigeki (period) films for which he’s most fondly remembered, but his contemporary dramas -- which more recognizably submit to the precepts of Western genres -- make obvious his inimitable talents as a master storyteller.
High and Low, in which Toshiro Mifune (natch) gives a feral yet contained performance as a shoe magnate caught in a ransom situation on the most pivotal night of his company’s history, is ostensibly cut from the same cloth as any number of police procedurals. Yet Kurosawa’s reliably humanistic interests and his brilliant command of geography (both physical and otherwise) elevate this story of a kidnapping gone right into a vertical odyssey with the texture of a fat Russian novel and the heavy heartbeat of the coldest noir. High and Low -- despite spending its first hour entirely confined to a single room -- eventually expands into a grotesquely beautiful portrait of a society stratified beyond all understanding.
The Transfer: Kurosawa always had an eye for aesthetics, but High and Low may be his most immediately beautiful film, its fluid cinematography and thematically critical contrasts recalling the wild work of Koreyoshi Kurahara. It’s easy to understand why this was the next Kurosawa film that Criterion chose for HD, and the razor-sharp transfer more than justifies their decision. The rift between high and low has never been so clearly defined: The heavenly whites of Mifune’s hilltop house are rich and warm, the darkness of the streets below thick and suffocating. The grain structure is intact but not overwhelming, and that famous jet of pink smoke finally looks like a clue, not a stain. Gorgeous.
The Verdict: 9.5 / 10
#307 Naked (dir. Mike Leigh) 1993
The Film: Has a harp ever been so menacing? Perhaps the angriest film made since Luis Bunuel’s death, Mike Leigh’s Naked chronicles the ribald odyssey of a man named Johnny (a ferocious David Thewlis) as he visits some old friends and wanders the dark streets of London in search of a void in which to deposit his bile-soaked wisdom. Either a mad prophet or an articulate lunatic with a lot of spittle left in the tank, Johnny is one of the iconic creations of 90s cinema, ranting at people in a series of endless (and endlessly quotable) soliloquies in which the wistful curiosity of Kurt Vonnegut is submitted to the brutalism of Anthony Burgess (“The human body is like this, er, wet, pink factory. What the f*** are they makin’ in there? I mean, what’s the product? You never see delivery trucks comin’ and goin,’ do you?”).
Thanks to the undeniable magnetism of David Thewlis’ unforgettable performance, several of the film’s detractors have been quick to peg Johnny as a maelstrom of misogyny, dangerously lionized by a male audience who sees him as a scruffy precursor to Tyler Durden, with all of his frustration and none of his self-respect, locked into a drag-out fistfight with the world. But Johnny is weak and wounded, speaking so fast in order not to hear himself think. He hopes to embarrass those around him into enlightenment, freeing them in the cruelest way possible from the rigid delusions of Thatcher’s England. Amy Taubin writes that Johnny “Disguises his need for power as honesty,” but I’d sooner argue that Johnny would rather be a virus than a leader. His sad self-hatred is the ultimate pity party, and he won’t be satisfied until he’s invited the whole world.
The Transfer: An immaculately film-like presentation that makes for an uncomfortably visceral viewing experience, Criterion’s Blu-ray of Naked looks even better than you might hope. The image is appropriately rough and textured -- it never succumbs to a hint of gloss, and every nasty fleck of dirt on Johnny’s face feels real and well-deserved. It’s not pretty, but it’s perfect.
The Verdict: 8 / 10