Were you one of the mob who rushed to buy the movie-only Avatar (2009) disc oh so cannily released on Earth Day? Why would you when it's already been announced that Cameron plans a more extensive edition containing extra footage within a year, and a 3D Blu-ray by 2012? Especially the last one since the science fiction film is so inextricably dependent on 3D immersion to tell its story effectively. In this age of double—and now triple—dips by Hollywood studios in order to maximize the profits they see vanishing as the whole business model of film distribution and release changes, it is gratifying to see one label, Criterion, hone in on films which advance the art of telling a story over productions which simply accelerate the visual technology used to illustrate the bare minimum of a plot. And Criterion usually gets it right the first time, double dipping only in rare cases where a better quality print has been restored for a film in often dire need of such a thing. Two of the most recent examples of Criterion's concern with its product presentation, Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live) and Summer Hours (L'Heure d'été), have only one tenuous tie (they're both in French) but are fully deserving of one's attention over the most recent Hollywood blockbuster.
Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie remains a revelation nearly 50 years since its original release even to someone well versed in cinema's history. It should be pointed out that this writer's extensive knowledge of film starts to look extremely limited when it is revealed the master New Wave director has long been a cinephilic blind spot. Here is what's great about a Criterion disc. The supplements included with the disc are exhaustive to the point of providing a mini-tutorial about Godard and his importance then and now. Told in 12 chapters, the film examines the day-to-day life of Nana (Anna Karina), a young record store clerk new to prostitution. Neorealism, theatricality, and the avant-garde intersect in unique ways to give us perspective on both the character and the actress (who was married to Godard at the time)... some say, even Godard himself.
The support material includes excerpts from a 1961 exposé on prostitution and a pictorial essay on a nonfiction book which inspired the film; both bolster the assertion that neorealist Roberto Rossellini was a strong influence on Godard's early work. But the most telling extras address Godard and his relationship with wife and star, Karina. Film scholar Adrian Martin's commentary, an interview with film scholar Jean Narboni, an essay with critic Michael Atkinson, and most tellingly, a 1962 TV interview with the actress herself make concrete what is obvious when watching the film. Vivre sa vie is Godard's metatextual look at his wife and their relationship. Using prostitution as a metaphor for acting, Godard examines the vampiric relationship between director and star, and the chilling effect of objectification which staging a scene before a camera can have on a marriage. The film is at once an indictment of and a paean to Anna Karina, and a mea culpa from the icily distant director.
2008's Summer Hours couldn't be further from the New Wave. Its director, Olivier Assayas, is part of the current crop of filmmakers who have liberated French cinema from the legacy of the New Wave and forged their own distinct path. Today's audience seems to have bought into what Godard once said half in jest, "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." Summer Hours proves you don't even need that to keep your audience enthralled. So it isn't strange this film created controversy on this site a few weeks back when one reader diminished Assayas' achievement by calling it "minor." The film's success revolves around its value as a micro-story with grander themes of art, history, life, death, family, and romance which belie its humble exterior.
With a small cottage full of priceless art and family heirlooms at its center, Summer Hours follows the effects globalization has on three siblings (Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche and Jérémie Rénier) dealing with the estate of their late mother. Here is a bit of what I said about it when I caught its North American premiere at the NYFF in 2008:
Assayas examines the way the house and these art objects hold not only economic value, but sentimental value, for the family, particularly for Frédéric, who is more rooted in France than the other siblings. The other siblings, though still attached to these, are conscious of their inability to transport them into their far-flung new lives abroad. And even the intrinsic value of the pieces, and the house, as historical objects dissipates when removed from the context of the family relationships to the items. This is evident when the committee at the Musée D'Orsay, the museum which takes in the collection, starts to examine each item divorced from the family context, and in the greater context of whether it will attract interest to the collection or not.Taken from one of this writer's earliest reviews, the quote above may sound a little too on the nose, but how else to describe such a unique film to American readers who wouldn't have an opportunity to see it for at least another 6 months?
The extra features on this disc also illuminate the film's text. Ignore the rather perfunctory "making of" documentary. Instead enjoy Inventory, a short film that documents the Musée d'Orsay involvement in commissioning Summer Hours and the film's unique use of the museum's pieces. The best feature, however, is a half-hour interview with Assayas which presents us with a man who fully understands his place in his own family lineage, the broader context of French cinema, and the contemporary world he examines in the film. Further information fleshing out Assayas (who knew he served as an apprentice on the Salkinds' Superman film) is lovingly presented in a mini-tribute by Kent Jones.
Summer Hours and Vivre sa vie, both on Blu-ray and DVD this week, prove Criterion's focus goes beyond the short-term rewards offered by the latest flashy film. What Criterion is doing is akin to curating world cinema's priceless masterpieces, whether epic or intimate, classic or contemporary; in this undertaking, it's the film buffs who win.