Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Blu-ray Review: Criterion's Vivre Sa Vie (1962) and Summer Hours (2008)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Blu-ray Review: Criterion's Vivre Sa Vie (1962) and Summer Hours (2008)

by Tony Dayoub

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.


Sam Juliano said...

Well Tony, this is certainly a timely piece as far as I'm concerned, as just yesterday I finally placed an order for both these blu-rays as well as the Criterion RIDE WITH THE DEVIL by Ang Lee with amazon (almost $100 blown too! Ha!) and both the Assayas and the Godard films are essentials, in every sense. As I've stated on another thread in assessing SUMMER HOURS (which is one of the greatest films of recent years):

Summer Hours pays homage to the great Ozu, in a year when more than one French director has honored the Japanese icon. As family members share a summer holiday in their uncle Paul Berthier’s rural house, elderly Hélène (Edith Scob) discusses the future with her son Frédéric (Charles Berling), an economist. Over the years, her brother amassed an extraordinary collection of furniture, pottery and artifacts, to say nothing of his own artwork and journals. But much of the collection, like the house itself, needs restoration that her children can’t afford.

Frédéric’s brother Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier) is considering moving to China to work, while their sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer, has been living in New York. Their decision about what to do with the estate is forced on them sooner than expected. Should they try to hold the collection together, or should they disperse their family heirlooms to museums and auction houses?

The basic plot synopsis makes Summer Hours seem like a stereotypical French film, one filled with wine, cigarettes and endless talk. But the themes Assayas raises have more widespread appeal. For example, each character approaches art in a different manner. For Eloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), Hélène’s longtime housekeeper, a vase is simply an object of beauty; for Jérémie, it might finance his relocation, and further separation from his siblings. For Frédéric, it represents the history of his family, something he senses is slipping away. But how can one remain loyal to a family that no longer shares a purpose or direction? It's a fleeting elegy to the past, an acknowledgement of global change, of multi-national integration. (the ending with the partying teenagers in gateway to the present and future and a death knell to the past) It's a poignant examination of the value of the material things, of furniture, of paintings and decor, and these inform a general philosophy of life filtered through fractured familial relationships.

Lastly, in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman it's about the encroahment of death, of of things left undone and unrealized, and of just how fleeting life is.

Through poetic, indellibly lovely images Mr. Assayas imbues his universal story with a rapturous melancholy, beautifully lit with a classical palette, a perfect match for the high standards of Criterion.

This will be a stellar blu-ray to add to the collection--perhaps the most distinguished for me so far in that sense among Criterions, and the Godard gem is ditto in that regard.

The Taxi Driver said...

Tony you are right about My Life to Live, even all these years later it feels fresh and original. Certainly there is something of worth to be found in many of Godard's films, even if it is just to see that once upon a time someone had the courage to make them, but this film is just a masterpiece.

But I think your interpretation of my calling Summer Hours minor is taken wrong here. It's minor in a good way; a quiet and introspective way. I called the film minor but I wouldn't want to to be major for if that were the case it would lose some of it's charm. However, on that note I'm not running out to see it again any time soon. I also find it interesting that you say Summer Hours is removed from the French New Wave when it feels to me like it could have fit nicely into Rohmer's season films or maybe on of the proverbs. Rohmer seems to be a more acurate point of comparison in terms of style and execution than the Bergman one Sam makes, but the Ozu one also does apply fully.

Ed Howard said...

A great piece about two films that I really love. Vivre sa vie is of course one of several peaks for Godard in the 60s, and Summer Hours is a delightful, subtle film that really impressed me when it came out.

I'll also agree with Mike that, though Summer Hours is in some ways distinct from the New Wave's formal concerns, it is definitely a tribute to Rohmer (and Ozu, as well, as Sam notes). Moreover, Assayas in general is VERY much concerned with form and the boundaries between fiction and reality in ways that I'd call outright Godardian. Irma Vep, especially, even has outright references to the New Wave. I think Assayas is his own filmmaker with his own style, and I don't mean to imply otherwise, but he also seems very conscious of French film history and his place in it. I still have a lot more to see from him, but I already get the sense that Summer Hours is a bit of an outlier in his career in that respect.

Tony Dayoub said...

Hey Ed, nice to see you around these parts.

Maybe I should clarify my statement about the New Wave. I agree Assayas is conscious of Rohmer and other New Wave directors in his work on a stylistic level, indeed as you say "he also seems very conscious of French film history and his place in it." What I meant to say is that Assayas is not bound by the philosophical "idealism" of the New Wave's early days. His films are not a repudiation of classical French cinema. If anything, his films embrace it and French cinema's entire storied tradition.

Ed Howard said...

Very true, Tony. Although it should be noted that even the New Wave directors didn't really preserve their polemical purity for too long, and in many respects the supposed rejection of the past that they've become known for was mostly a didactic stance advanced in essays rather than a real component of their filmmaking going forward. Certainly, Rohmer became the most classicalist of directors, in the best possible way, while the other New Wavers, to varying degrees, at least engaged with the past in their work. I've been reading Rohmer's book The Taste for Beauty lately, and I think it's interesting that he makes a point of including some lenghty introductory material in which he distances himself from some of the more extreme views of the Cahiers critics, basically saying that this stuff was a necessary rhetorical pose at the time and little more.