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The Top Home Video Release of 2013: Watching Blu Paint Dry

Below is my continuation of last week’s post concerning the most essential home video releases of 2013:

1. Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’Integrale (Rohmer, France, Potemkine Blu-Ray)

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Last month, French home video distributor Potemkine — in collaboration with everyone’s favorite fashion designer/patron of cinema, Agnes B. — unleashed a gargantuan Blu-ray and DVD box set that not even the most ardent Francophile-cinephile would have ever dreamed possible: a complete career-spanning retrospective of one of the giants of French cinema, influential film critic-turned-master filmmaker Eric Rohmer. The set, entitled Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’intégral (“The Complete Eric Rohmer Box”), includes all 24 of the writer/director’s feature-length movies, plus numerous shorts, made-for-television films and documentaries, nearly all of which have been restored and presented in high-definition, plus many extras, spread across a total of 52 discs (both Blu-ray and DVD). Among the goodies included are a 100-page book (en Francais only), a set of collectible postcards, a poster for Claire’s Knee (1970), and two teabags(?!) thrown in for good measure. The artwork adorning the box and the digipaks that house the discs is colorful, hand-drawn and delightful, making the entire enterprise feel like the precious collector’s item that it is. Although the Blu-ray discs are “Region-B locked,” meaning North American Rohmer fans will need a multi-region Blu-ray player to enjoy them (and, really, what better excuse do you need to buy a multi-region player than this?), all 24 of the features, plus the essential 1962 short The Bakery Girl of Monceau (the first of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales”), fortunately come with optional English subtitles. This ambitious project is easily the most impressive home-video release ever devoted to a single filmmaker, eclipsing the “Ford at Fox” DVD box set from a few years back, Universal’s “Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection” Blu-ray set from last year and anything else that I own or can even think of.

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Raymond Carver titled one of his most famous short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which could have served as an equally fitting subtitle for this box set. I am prepared to argue that no artist in any medium, not just cinema, explored the subject of romantic love as thoroughly as Rohmer — although it takes a certain amount of life experience to appreciate the depth of his accomplishment. I initially saw most of Rohmer’s films when I was in my early twenties and, save for the Moral Tales (his most well-known work), I hadn’t bothered to revisit his filmography until now — at the age of 38. After recently watching all of his movies in the span of less than a month, I now understand and appreciate his artistry in a way that I never had before. While I always considered myself an admirer of his “official masterpieces” (the later Moral Tales and certain key films in his other two prominent cycles: “Comedies and Proverbs” and “The Tales of the Four Seasons”), some of his films struck me as dull or even annoying, mainly because I found the characters annoying — without realizing that this was fully Rohmer’s intention. See, for example, the last segment of 1995’s Rendezvous in Paris, a hilarious satire of “mansplaining” (before the term even existed). But the most important revelation I’ve had about Rohmer is the realization that his special genius lay in his illustration of how the vast majority of human desires remain unfulfilled — the drama of his scenarios arises from the tension between what his characters want and their refusal/inability to attain it. Rohmer knew that eros has a way of making one talk, act and think differently, and this is what his camera documented with the precision of a microscope. And I’m not just referring to the kind of strong desires that make us want to sleep with person X or try to make person Y our significant other; he showed how eros can make one act just the tiniest degree nicer to a person to whom one is attracted, even when — or perhaps especially when — one feels that nothing may come of it.

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The Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’intégral set feels so right. It makes sense to bundle together the complete works of Eric Rohmer even more than the filmographies of most other major directors. From The Sign of Leo in 1959 to The Romance of Astrea and Celadon nearly a half of a century later, Rohmer showed a remarkable consistency in terms of his stylistic and thematic preoccupations. Sometimes he came in for criticism for it but Rohmer really did tend to make the same movie over and over again, sometimes with only minor — though crucial — variations in the characters and settings (something that can’t really be said about his compatriots in the nouvelle vague). The conventional wisdom, at least in certain mainstream cinephile circles, is that Rohmer was a kind of French Woody Allen: an intellectual who wrote and directed “talky” (i.e., dialogue-heavy and “uncinematic”) romantic comedies about upper class characters for upper class audiences. But far from being the cinematic equivalent of “watching paint dry,” to quote the famous putdown by Gene Hackman’s detective character in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), Rohmer’s films are both more exquisitely cinematic than his detractors give him credit for while also keeping more of a critical distance from their protagonists than many of his supporters are willing to admit. (Having said that, I can’t quite go along with the assertion of critic Gilbert Adair that Rohmer’s characters “are among the most foolish, ineffectual and pathetic milquetoasts ever to have graced a cinema screen, [and] that, on a generous estimate, 90% of the celebrated talk is sheer, unadulterated twaddle” — even if Adair meant that as a compliment!)

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As far as Rohmer’s too-little-remarked-upon visual mastery is concerned, its virtues lie in the most discreet aspects of mise-en-scene. Yes, his films are about people talking, oftentimes in a self-deceptive fashion that is humorous for the way it rings of psychological truth, but there is often a poignant discrepancy between what his dialogue tells and what his camera shows. I would argue this is dialogue that would not add up to much on the page or even the stage. It does, however, come spectacularly alive on the cinema screen because of its very specific real-world context. In other words, the things that matter most in Rohmer’s movies are the material facts of where and when his characters do their talking — character and environment are inseparable. The main interest in watching Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987), for instance, stems not from the romantic musical-chairs plot but rather from the way this plot unfolds against the backdrop of the horrific modern “architecture” of the pre-fabricated Parisian suburb known as Cergy Pontoise. And even more important than locations in Rohmer are the seasons, the time of day and the weather (“My films are slaves to weather,” he pronounced in one interview): has the particular color of summer sunlight ever registered so vividly as in Nestor Almendros’ photography of the French Riviera in La Collectionneuse (1967)? Is it possible to watch Jean-Luis Trintignant attend midnight mass at Christmastime in the black-and-white My Night at Maud’s (1969) and not feel the coldness in one’s bones? In Rohmer’s last masterpiece, 1998’s An Autumn Tale, what sticks with one the most about the beautiful character study is the sense of what it’s like to walk among the vineyards in the Rhone wine-region of France on a perfect fall day. But Rohmer knew a thing or two about interiors too. Check out Claire’s Knee, in which Aurora, a 30-something female novelist, wears matronly dresses with floral patterns that subtly link her to the wallpaper around her (and thus the concept of domesticity), in pointed contrast to the teenaged and bare-kneed Claire (who is repeatedly associated with the outdoors).

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It is precisely because Rohmer was a director who cared about such minute details that his movies — even with their lack of dramatic external “action” — deserve to be seen in high-definition. I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed watching movies at home more than I did while poring over the contents of this box set during the past month. Unfortunately, it seems the public has been taught to think of the Blu-ray format as one that is somehow most conducive to showcasing state-of-the-art CGI and bone-crunching sound effects. I am therefore particularly grateful to Potemkine for putting out such a lavish set devoted to this modest master with such loving care. The image and sound quality of all of the films included here are remarkably faithful to their source material, and also remarkably consistent from one film to the next (something that cannot be said about the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection — where the A/V quality varied wildly). Note that this set consists of 30 DVDs and 22 Blu-rays. Three of the features, which have not been restored, are available on DVD only and not Blu-ray: The Lady and the Duke (2001), Triple Agent (2004) and The Romance of Astrea and Celedon (2007). This means that, ironically, the three most recent titles in the bunch are also the most underwhelming in terms of their tech specs. (Speaking as someone who prefers Rohmer’s contemporary films to his period pieces without exception, this is no big loss as the three most recent titles are also my least favorite movies in the box.) Below are my ratings of all of the individual films. The first letter grade is for the movie itself, the second is for the A/V quality.

1. The Sign of Leo: B+/A
2. The Bakery Girl of Monceau (short): A-/B+
3. Suzanne’s Career: A-/B+
4. La Collectionneuse: A/A+
5. My Night at Maud’s: A+/A
6. Claire’s Knee: A+/A+
7. Love in the Afternoon: A+/A+
8. The Marquise of O: B/A
9. Perceval: B/A+
10. The Aviator’s Wife: A+/A
11. A Good Marriage: A-/A
12. Pauline at the Beach: A/A
13. Full Moon in Paris: A/A+
14. The Green Ray: A+/A-
15. Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle: A+/A
16. Boyfriends and Girlfriends: A-/A
17. A Tale of Springtime: B+/A+
18. A Tale of Winter: A+/A+
19. The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque: A/A
20. Rendezvous in Paris: A/A
21. A Summer’s Tale: B+/A+
22. An Autumn Tale: A+/A+
23. The Lady and the Duke: C+/B-
24. Triple Agent: B-/B+
25. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon: B+/B+

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Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’intégral can be ordered from Amazon in France here: http://tinyurl.com/klppeud

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