ZERO FOR CONDUCT (1933), Jean Vigo’s penultimate movie, is a 49-minute featurette that packs a greater punch than most films twice its length. A remarkable tribute to the anarchic spirit of youth, it is perhaps best known today for the major influence it would go on to exert on both the French and British New Waves several decades later (François Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS would be unthinkable without it and Lindsay Anderson’s IF… is an unofficial remake), but make no mistake: there’s no substitute for the original. Vigo’s poetic rendering of the rebellion of four pre-adolescent boarding school students is so incendiary as an anti-authoritarian statement that it was banned in France until the end of World War II. There are unforgettable, occasionally surreal images—from the school’s principal, a dwarf, who keeps his prized bowler hat under a glass dome to the slow-motion shots in the celebrated pillow-fight sequence—but, as in Vigo’s more well-known L’ATALANTE made one year later, ZERO FOR CONDUCT’s aesthetic daring never overshadows the emotional sensitivity the director shows his protagonists. This is fitting given that, according to biographer Paolo Emilio Salles Gomes, the film was based on Vigo’s own childhood memories. Preceding ZERO FOR CONDUCT are Vigo’s shorts A PROPOS DE NICE (1930) and TARIS (1931). The former is a “city symphony”-style travelogue of the title location marked by astonishing stylistic flourishes (the low-angled shots of bare-legged women dancing on a balcony are particularly memorable for their eroticism) while the latter is a short experimental documentary about a champion swimmer that allowed Vigo to try out the underwater cinematography he would take to dizzying heights in L’ATALANTE. (1930-33, 83 min total, DCP Digital) MGS
Following my French cinema primers covering the Nouvelle Vague and the pre-Nouvelle Vague sound era, today’s post covers what I think are the most essential French movies of the silent era. Although I normally only write about feature films in these primers, I’m going to make an exception for this one so that I can cover some of the most influential French films of the era.
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumieres, France, 1896)
Bertrand Tavernier has referred to this Lumiere Brothers masterpiece as the “first horror movie” because, as legend has it, early audiences reacted to the image of a train moving towards the camera by fleeing in terror. This is a simple “actuality” that depicts just what the title states in a single shot lasting approximately 42 seconds. But it’s also a good example of how well made the Lumiere Brothers’ films were: the dramatic contrast of the black and white cinematography, coupled with the diagonal perspective of the composition, makes the film an aesthetically pleasing experience even when viewed today. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the image above.
A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)
Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray released earlier this year.
The Life of Christ(AKA The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ) (Guy, France, 1906)
Alice Guy, a true movie pioneer, began her directing career in 1896 and is sometimes credited as the first person to make a narrative film (as opposed to Lumiere-style actualities). A DVD compilation of her work released by Kino in 2009 is a revelation: it contains stunt comedies, panoramic views of exotic places, and fascinating early experiments with sound and color. My favorite of her films that I’ve seen is The Life of Christ, which recounts “the greatest story ever told” in 25 single-shot tableaux-like scenes that, at 33 minutes, made it relatively epic in 1906. Especially effective is the climactic resurrection, which is bolstered by a beautiful score on Kino’s DVD. This is my second favorite Jesus movie after Pasolini’s.
A Child of Paris (Perret, France, 1913)
Also included in Kino’s “Gaumont Treasures” DVD set is a an entire platter devoted to Leonce Perret, an important director previously unknown in the States. The major revelation of the set is A Child of Paris, a feature film from 1913 that is shockingly sophisticated in terms of its cinematography (including the kind of camera movements and oblique compositions that wouldn’t become commonplace for years to come). The Dickensian story concerns a little girl who becomes an orphan, is sent to a boarding school, runs away and then is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The acting is surprisingly naturalistic for the time and the use of real locations – in Paris and Nice – is impressive in the extreme.
Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915-1916)
The brilliant, prolific Louis Feuillade directed over 600 movies, many of them multi-part serials, before his death at 52. Les Vampires, which is not about vampires but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires,” is one of the highlights of his career. The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette. This was much beloved by the Surrealists for its evocation of an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood. Nearly a hundred years later, this 10 part mystery serial has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.
Tih Minh (Feuillade, 1918)
Jacques d’Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancee and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and sensitive government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious Latin origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book. Louis Feuillade’s 12 chapter, 7 hour serial is overflowing with action, thrills, humor and romance, and is a strong contender for the title of the most purely entertaining movie that I have ever seen from any era.
Coeur Fidèle (Epstein, 1923)
My favorite French silent feature is Jean Epstein’s Impressionist masterpiece about a young woman, Marie, whose cruel foster parents force her into a marriage with an unemployed, alcoholic thug ironically named “Petit Paul.” Marie nonetheless continues to pine for her true love, Jean, a local dockworker. This romantic triangle is infused with sublime visuals from beginning to end (including a highly poetic use of superimpositions, rapid-fire cutting and close-ups) that make the film a crushing emotional experience when viewed today. The famous merry-go-round sequence, with its striking imagery and musical rhythms, is one of the glories of the silent cinema.
Ménilmontant (Kirsanoff, 1926)
Dmitri Kirsanoff’s astonishing 38 minute short is arguably the most modern-looking film produced anywhere in the silent era. The story, told without intertitles, revolves around two sisters who, as children living in a small town, tragically witness their parents being murdered. Then, Kirsanoff flashes forward to years later as both sisters are living in Paris and become involved with an evil seducer. But no plot description can do justice to the way Kirsanoff uses his camera like a paintbrush to capture images of incredible beauty and emotional depth. The film’s tempo ranges from fast, Soviet-style montage to a deliberately arty languorousness depending on the mood of the characters, and contributes to an atmosphere of almost unbearable intensity. Finally, there is the brilliantly understated lead performance of Nadia Sibirskaïa (Kirsanoff’s wife) who, in the film’s most celebrated scene, contemplates suicide before changing her mind when a complete stranger offers her bread in a public park. Ménilmontant is on my short list of near-perfect movies.
Napoléon (Gance, 1927)
First, I must confess to having only seen this on VHS tape in a controversial restoration overseen by Francis Ford Coppola that was both incomplete and transferred at the wrong speed. The arguably nationalistic and pro-militaristic content of the film also strikes me as somewhat dubious. But . . . as an insanely gargantuan, impossibly ambitious work of pure cinema, this has few equals. Gance’s film begins with Napoleon as a child engaging in a snowball fight at a military academy and proceeds through many visually astonishing episodes before climaxing, unforgettably, with a three-panelled widescreen sequence that shows Napoleon at the height of his powers invading Italy as the head of the French army. One of my fondest cinephiliac desires is that silent historian Kevin Brownlow’s most recent restoration, which has now swelled to five and a half hours, will make its way to blu-ray soon.
The Little Match Girl (Renoir, 1928)
Although it wasn’t until the sound era that Jean Renoir directed the films that made him immortal (e.g., Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game), I think The Little Match Girl, a 40 minute adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story, is one of his best and most affecting films. The title character is a waif forced to sell matches on the streets in the dead of winter in order to earn her livelihood. While literally freezing to death, the match girl looks through a toy store window and fantasizes that she is inside and that the toys have magically come to life all around her. The dream-like visuals and fantasy element are atypical for Renoir, the humanism is not.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)
After a successful run of films in his native Denmark, Carl Dreyer headed to France for his last silent film, a beautiful dramatization of the life of the beloved saint. Instead of showing Joan’s heroism in battle the way you would expect a biopic to do, Dreyer focuses instead only on the last days of her life as she is tried and executed by an English court. The film’s most notable characteristic is its relentless use of extreme close-ups, which capture every wrinkle on the judges’ evil faces and every nuance of Renee Falconetti’s highly emotive performance in the title role, which remains one of the finest ever captured on celluloid.
Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, 1929)
Luis Bunuel’s directorial debut, based on a script he co-wrote with Salvador Dali, is the most famous Surrealist movie ever – and for good reason. It opens with the shocking image of a man slicing a woman’s eyeball with a straight razor (a shot that is graphically matched with a cutaway image of a cloud drifting in front of the moon) before jumping ahead to “Eight Years Later” and focusing on a new set of characters in scenes that are equally bizarre. But, since Bunuel plays the man with the razor, the function of the prologue is obvious: to announce an all-out assault on the viewer, whose sight, after all, is the most important sense in experiencing a film. Bunuel and Dali’s rule when writing the screenplay was that Un Chien Andalou should be nonsensical to the point of not being interpretable; legions of critics and historians, including me, have ignored their intention ever since.
À propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930)
À propos de Nice is the exceptionally promising debut film of Jean Vigo, whose career was tragically curtailed four years later when he died of tuberculosis at age 29. This begins as a conventional “city symphony”-style travelogue of the title locations before expanding its scope to offer surreal stylistic flourishes and a satirical/critical view of Nice’s wealthy citizens. In 25 minutes, Vigo and his ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman offer up more ideas, visual invention and wit than what you see in most features; the slow-motion, low angled shots of women dancing are particularly memorable for their eroticism.
2011 didn’t see me go on quite the same insane Blu-ray buying spree that last year did. Perhaps the fascination of watching movies, new and old, in the bold new HD format has started to wear off a little. But mostly I think this was because I made a short film myself this year, which of course sucked up a lot of my time, energy and money. Therefore, I’m including a list of “only” my top thirty-five favorite home video releases (as opposed to last year’s fifty) — comprised of a countdown of the top ten, each with a capsule review, and an alphabetical list of an additional 25 runners-up. As with last year, the rankings were arrived at by averaging out what I estimated to be the overall quality of the film, the quality of the image/sound transfer and the quality of the supplements. In the interest of diversity, I also limited myself to one film per distributor for my top ten.
Any videophiles reading this should feel free to chime in with their own favorites in the comments section below.
10. Our Hospitality (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
Kino unleashed a hi-def Buster Keaton motherlode in 2011 — including a three-disc short films collection spanning the years 1920 – 1923, a double bill of Battling Butler and Go West and my personal favorite of the great clown’s works, 1923’s uproariously funny Our Hospitality. This inexhaustibly re-watchable stunt-filled comedy sees Keaton’s Willie McKay travel from New York to the rural south to claim an inheritance, unaware that he will soon be embroiled in both a romance and a Hatfield/McCoy-style feud. This is presented in an interlaced transfer (meaning “combing” is occasionally visible) in order to maintain the original speed at which the film was shot and the running time at which it was originally projected. (Although Kino, unlike Masters of Cinema with Coeur Fidele, could have released a superior, progressive-scan version if they had been willing to put in a lot of extra work). Still, this is the best Our Hospitality has ever looked on home video and I was particularly delighted to see it color-tinted for the first time.
9. The Terrorizers (Yang, Sony Pictures Blu-ray)
The most underrated title of the year — one that I didn’t even see rate a mention on the most popular Blu-ray review sites — is Sony’s Taiwanese release of Edward Yang’s 1986 masterpiece The Terrorizers, a terrific metaphysical mystery about the lives of three couples in Taipei that continually intersect over a span of several weeks. Yang is sometimes referred to as the “Chinese Antonioni” and if his debut That Day On the Beach is his L’avventura, then this more ambitious follow up is his Blow Up — a film with a surface thriller plot that is less important than the tantalizing questions regarding the connections between life and narrative at its core. I’ve never seen this movie in any other incarnation but Sony’s 1080i transfer is at least as impressive as their release of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Dust in the Wind from last year. The lush “1980s” color palette looks especially nice.
8. An Affair to Remember (McCarey, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)
Leo McCarey’s final masterpiece charts the unlikely romance between a millionaire playboy (Cary Grant) and a night club singer (Deborah Kerr) who fall for each other on a cruise in spite of being engaged to other people. Wrongly labelled a saccharine “women’s weepie” (damn you, Sleepless in Seattle!), this actually starts off as a very funny screwball comedy (note the incredibly witty banter between Grant and Kerr on the boat) before gradually shifting to a sublime Frank Borzage-style romantic melodrama in its second half. But even the word “melodrama,” while apt in the literal sense, feels inappropriate for a film that can be as surprisingly delicate and understated as this. Written, directed and acted to perfection, this is as moving as movies get. Fox’s hi-def transfer of the original Technicolor elements is pleasing and true.
7. Jackie Brown (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)
At the time it was released, many felt that this didn’t live up to the expectations generated by the phenomenal success of Quentin Tarantino’s previous outing, Pulp Fiction, from three years earlier. Today, Jackie Brown, a low-key adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime novel about a flight attendant’s attempt to beat a money-smuggling rap, looks like the better movie. It’s an intricately plotted yarn that masks its complexity with relaxed pacing, delicious dialogue and the warm affection that Tarantino extends to all of his characters. And there are career best performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster and Pam Grier. Shot by the great Guillermo Navarro, this exercise in retro-70s cool looks and sounds (The Delfonics!) better than ever on Lionsgate’s extras-laden Blu-ray. Did I mention you can get this on Amazon for just $10.99?
The Criterion Collection owns the U.S. home video rights to Abbas Kiarostami’s latest and greatest but have apparently decided to sit on it until at least 2012. Therefore, I’m exceedingly grateful to the U.K. label Artificial Eye for putting out this region-free Blu-ray and letting me have a chance to revisit my favorite theatrical film of 2011. Upon further viewing, I’m less convinced this is any sort of “puzzle film” at all but rather an allegory about the difficulty of communication between Man and Woman (as embodied by William Shimell and Juliette Binoche) in the modern world. Shot on the RED One camera, the digital-to-digital transfer done for this disc is unimpeachable. Also contains a fascinating, feature-length making-of doc, Let’s See Copia Conforme. A special thank you to Jessica for the gift.
5. L’Age d’Or / Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, BFI Blu-ray)
Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and his feature length follow-up L’age d’Or, arguably the two most important Surrealist films of all time, were never intended to look or sound all that pristine. In fact, their technical crudity is just one of the strategies Bunuel implemented to intentionally piss off his original audience. Nonetheless, these delirious sex-and-death obsessed fever dreams, full of hilarious, provocative digressions and repeated attacks on both church and state, look and sound better than I ever thought possible. Even the damage caused by the ravages of time is more visible due to BFI’s impressive 1080p transfer — and I have a feeling that’s just the way Don Luis would’ve wanted it. “Slicin’ up eyeballs, oh-ho-ho-ho-ho!” L’age d’Or essay here.
4. The Strange Case of Angelica(de Oliveira, Cinema Guild Blu-ray)
The brilliant Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira makes his hi-def debut with this incredible package from Cinema Guild that contains both his very first film, 1931’s Douro, Faina Fluvial as well as his most recent, 2010’s The Strange Case of Angelica. The earlier movie is an extremely impressive, fast-paced avant-garde documentary short about working class life in Porto (Oliveira’s hometown) while the latter is a slow, stately CGI-buttressed masterpiece about a photographer who falls in love with a beautiful but inconveniently dead young woman after being commissioned by her family to photograph the corpse. It’s no exaggeration to say that, taken together, these films, made 80 years apart, contain the totality of cinema.
3. The Complete Jean Vigo Collection (Vigo, Criterion Blu-ray)
As with BFI’s Bunuel release, Criterion has seemingly done the impossible by taking Jean Vigo’s beloved films of the late silent/early sound era, which have been kicking around forever in poor quality versions, and managed to make them look sparkling and fresh and new. L’atalante in particular is a revelation; it has always been the most modern-looking movie of its era because of its unabashed eroticism as well as its incredibly striking sense of composition (courtesy of ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman). Rounding out the set are all of Vigo’s other movies: Taris (a short experimental documentary about a swimmer), A Propos de Nice (one of the most poetic and playful of all city symphony films) and his immortal tribute to anarchic youth, Zero de Conduite. Vigo was a visionary genius who left this world far too soon. But his films will live forever and, thanks to Criterion, can now be readily experienced under the optimum conditions they should be. L’atalante essay here.
2. Citizen Kane 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Welles, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
Citizen Kane finally gets the home video treatment it deserves courtesy of Warner Bros.’ staggeringly elaborate new box set, which includes by far the most film-like (and thus best ever) presentation it has seen in terms of image and sound. It also includes a handsomely-produced hardback book about the making of the film, postcards, an excellent quality DVD of Welles’ follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (its North American digital debut) and a whole host of other goodies that I won’t be able to finish going through until probably late into 2012. To paraphrase Mr. Thatcher, I wish I were a little boy watching this movie for the first time in this particular edition! Full review here.
1. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
Jean Epstein’s Impressionist classic from 1923 is the midway point between the Victorian melodrama of D.W. Griffith and the Surrealist-inflected romance of Jean Vigo’s L’atalante. The plot concerns a love triangle between working class characters but it’s the rapturously beautiful cinematography and poetic use of dissolves — most notably during the famous “carousel sequence” — that lift this movie up to heaven’s door. Masters of Cinema’s glorious HD transfer (which involved painstaking work to ensure that the film would run at the correct speed) of Gaumont’s impeccable photochemical restoration makes this my favorite Blu-ray release not just of the year but of all time. Discovering a major masterpiece like this just when I thought I’d seen it all is the kind of thing that makes life worth living.
Runners-Up (alphabetical by title)
11. All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)
12. Army of Shadows (Melville, Criterion Blu-ray)
13. An Autumn Afternoon / A Hen in the Wind (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
14. Equinox Flower / There Was a Father (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
15. Good Morning / I Was Born But . . . (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
16. The Horse Soldiers (Ford, MGM Blu-ray)
17. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Late Autumn / A Mother Should Be Loved (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
19. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
20. The Naked Kiss (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
21. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, Paramount Blu-ray)
22. People On Sunday (Ulmer/Siodmak, Criterion Blu-ray)
23. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Criterion Blu-ray)
24. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)
25. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, Criterion Blu-ray) Essay here.
26. Senso (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Shock Corridor (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
28. The Social Network (Fincher, Sony Pictures Blu-ray) More here.
29. Solaris (Tarkovsky, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
30. Some Like it Hot (Wilder, MGM Blu-ray)
31. The Stranger (Welles, HD Cinema Classics Blu-ray)
32. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, Sony Blu-ray)
33. Touch of Evil (Welles, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
34. Way Down East (Griffith, Kino Blu-ray) Full review here.
35. Yi Yi (Yang, Criterion Blu-ray)