by Tony Dayoub
A couple of weeks ago, Barnes and Noble began their semi-annual 50% Off Criterion Collection sale. With their sale due to wrap up next Monday, this gives me an opportunity to post several capsule reviews of some recent titles the label has sent me which readers might be interested in perusing before stocking up. In addition to linking to the book store's page online, I've linked each of my recommendations to its corresponding entry on the store's site.
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) (Directed by Jean Cocteau, 1946, Spine number 6) - The newest (out last week) of quite a few Blu-ray reissues which have come our way from the label finally upgrades one of their oldest releases. First released in the late '90s, Criterion re-released the disc once before, upgrading their transfer to that of a restored version produced by the French in 1995. Although fans of the way Cocteau lights his muse, Jean Marais, may want this for their collection, those who already own the 2003 disc may want to reconsider before upgrading to the Blu-ray. The high contrast cinematography fares well, but in high-definition it looks almost too good: On my perfectly calibrated Sony Bravia I could see the matte lines during many of the film's special effects scenes. Special features are virtually identical to the 2003 iteration's except the reprint of the original fairy tale is replaced with a new essay by Geoffrey O'Brien.
Solaris (Solyaris) (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972, #164) - Though Tarkovsky ran away from any comparisons between Solaris and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the fact is that the two films complement each other perfectly. Each, in their own way, deals with man's search for his place in the larger scheme of things when faced with what his limited mind can only classify as divinity. Tarkovsky uses pacing a bit differently than Kubrick does. Where Kubrick slows the movie down in order to create a slowly growing sense of tension, Tarkovsky uses it to enlarge the gulf between his lead character, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) and his life on Earth. Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), the enigmatic replica of Kelvin's late wife, metaphorically embodies the increasing alienation of Kelvin from his humanity as his consciousness begins to embrace that of the all-encompassing living planet of Solaris around which his space station orbits. Criterion's reissue replaces certain color shots with alternative monochromatic ones, as Tarkovsky intended. I'm not sure they necessarily enhance or detract from the film.
Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende) (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1955, #237) - Before The Seventh Seal elevated Bergman to cinematic godhood, Smiles of a Summer Night brought the director to international prominence at a time when many of his own country's moviegoers had come close to writing off the talented filmmaker. Featuring some notable players from Bergman's repertory, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck, this romantic comedy of manners is a bit lighter in tone than Renoir's The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu), its obvious, and more cynical, inspiration. This makes it a rather surprising entry in Bergman's oeuvre since he is well-known for his own streak of darkness. And that's not to say the film doesn't hover just above the black depths of the soul the Swedish director usually dices into unabashedly. But viewed within the context of the director's filmography, this delightful lovers' romp can be seen as a brief respite before Bergman plunges into the abyss of The Seventh Seal two years later. This recent Blu-ray reissue highlights the lustrous black-and-white cinematography by Gunnar Fischer (who passed away last month).
Naked (Dir. Mike Leigh, 1993, #307) - This gripping character study of acerbic, Mancunian drifter Johnny doubles as a tour-de-force performance by David Thewlis. Leigh elicits a ferocity from Thewlis seldom seen since the days of Fifties-era Method productions. Seeing dark beauty Katrin Cartlidge—who as a frisky roomie of Johnny's ex-paramour steals scenes even from the right-on-point Thewlis—makes one mourn her unexpected death a few years ago. The Blu-ray reissue's amazingly crisp digital transfer enhances Naked's immediacy, a movie even more resonant post-Millennium than it aimed to be pre-Y2K.
Insignificance (Dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1985, #566) - A nice bookend to Performance in Roeg's directorial career, Insignificance is probably the last of his major works before he veered off into more exploitative preoccupations. Like in Performance, Roeg experiments with switching character traits amongst four iconic personas in order to get at deeper, philosophical answers about heady themes like celebrity, political expediency and the fear of Armageddon. Although never identified by name, the four characters are Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), Senator Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis) and Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell). Criterion's new release sports a gorgeous transfer whose beauty doesn't fully come to fruition until the movie's apocalyptic final moments.
Léon Morin, Priest (Léon Morin, Prêtre) (Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961, #572) - For those familiar with Melville's work in the gangster (Le Samourai) or French Resistance (Army of Shadows) genres, this may seem like an atypical entry in his oeuvre. But this character study of a young female atheist (Emmanuelle Riva) and her increasingly obsessive infatuation with the title character (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is tangentially related to one of those genres, exploring the desperate loneliness and want that many of the women had to contend with after being left behind by their fighting men during France's occupation. Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour) is stunning, her placid face a mask hiding the tumult of spiritual uncertainty (seen in her eyes) brought on by her sexual attraction to the studly priest. Belmondo (Breathless) confidently uses his magnetism to complicate the benevolent priest. The viewer is left unsure if Morin is deliberately enticing the lonely woman into his religious flock with his sexual charm. Criterion's latest release (out today) is light on extras, but worth purchasing because of Melville's masterful direction of these two iconic New Wave actors.