DVD Times Favourite... French DVDs

Noel Megahey: Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows)
François Truffaut, 1959

Although he worked with some of the greatest actors in modern French cinema – Depardieu, Ardant, Trintignant, Adjani, Belmondo and Deneuve – some of Truffaut’s very best films were made with inexperienced child actors – notably in ‘L’Argent de Poche’ (Small Change), ‘L’Enfant Sauvage’ (The Wild Child) and here in his earliest masterpiece with a young Jean-Pierre Léaud, ‘The 400 Blows’. Depicted with utter realism, a great deal of humour and not a trace of sentimentality, Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical film shows a neglected child directing his intelligence and his restless imagination into an early life of delinquency and crime. Showing Antoine skipping-off school, running away from home, stealing a typewriter from his father’s office and being locked in a police cell, the film is full of wonderfully funny and tragic episodes. The 14 year-old Léaud is simply astonishing here, playing with perfect naturalism and a cheeky charm that he never again displayed in any of the subsequent and much less interesting adventures of Antoine Doinel. The film is important is so many ways, ushering in the dominance of the Nouvelle Vague, allowing auteur directors to make personal, realistic films that were entertaining while having something meaningful to say about the lives real people lead.

Forgetting the R1 Fox Lorber release, the choice here is between the Criterion and Tartan DVD releases of The 400 Blows. The original Criterion is out of print, but the film is included in the Criterion 5-DVD ‘Adventures of Antoine Doinel’ boxset. It’s a superb edition, although the other films are lesser Truffaut. The Tartan DVD is excellent, including a 1957 short film, ‘Les Mistons’, but lacks the extensive extra features on the Criterion release or indeed the other Tartan Truffaut releases.

Michael Mackenzie: Trois Coleurs: Bleu (Three Colours: Blue)
Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993

There's an old saying that which of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy you prefer depends on which of the three leading ladies you are most in love with, but whereas my incessant obsession with Julie Delpy knows no ends, my preferred instalment happens to be Blue rather than White. A powerful, emotional drama that defies categorization, Juliette Binoche gives an outstanding performance as Julie, the survivor of a car crash which killed both her young daughter and her composer husband. As she attempts to live a life devoid of purpose, Julie's day-to-day existence becomes a fascinating study into what makes us human. Beautifully photographed by Slawomir Idziak (with the predominant colour being, appropriately, blue) and languidly paced by Kieslowski, Three Colours: Blue is a majestic and haunting piece of work about the most basic of human emotions.

Three Colours: Blue is available in an excellent 3-disc set as part of the Three Colours trilogy on R1 DVD, featuring a stunning transfer and substantial extras, including interviews with Juliette Binoche and Krzysztof Kieslowski, Kieslowski's student film Concert of Wishes and an audio commentary by Kieslowski expert Annette Insdorf. The film is also available on a less impressive R2 DVD.

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Daniel Stephens: Spoorloos (The Vanishing)
George Sluizer, 1988

This 1988 French-Dutch co-production, directed by George Sluizer (who remade it in English five years later), plays on an idea originally first seen on film in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). Like Polanski's Frantic (1988), we find a couple touring a foreign land and one of them goes missing. However, where Polanski's taut thriller rooted its mystery on 'what happened' and 'who did it', Sluizer drops the 'who did it' plot by revealing early on exactly who is behind the kidnapping. Like pulling the rug from beneath us, but telling us he's going to do it beforehand, Sluizer opts to twist his tale over three years between the man looking for his other half (the anguish, the hate, the loss, the desperation) and the kidnapper himself (the normality of his life, his calculated plans). Sluizer's genius though comes in the form of how he approaches divulging exactly 'what happened', forcing the boyfriend to question exactly how much he really must know about the events that occurred to his girlfriend the day she was kidnapped. It all culminates in one of the most captivating and frightening last five minutes in film history, but it's the ambiguity of 'why' this psychopath would do such things that prompts you to go right back to the beginning and watch the whole film again.

Criterion have released this film in their collection on region 1 DVD. Only a trailer and an excellent essay by Kim Newman come in the package, but the film's audio/video is superb.

Rik Booth: Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (Amélie)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001

The triumph of 'Amélie' is the way in which it perfectly captures the essence and joie de vivre of France and its inhabitants. Jeunet's film combines the stunning locales of Paris with a sweet, spellbinding tale of love and drama that is both touching and amusing. Audrey Tautou completely embodies the character of Amélie; a stunning performance that allows the audience to fully connect and relate to her journey in life as she strives to find love whilst helping the lives of others. It may be saccharine sweet, but the script - penned by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant - still manages to enthrall. Special mention must also go to Jeunet's fantastic use of cinematography and his inventive direction: in my mind he is one of the most creative modern filmmakers, seamlessly blending perfectly-composed widescreen frames with the odd quirk and special effect to enhance the story.

There are many DVD editions of 'Amélie' circulating - including two in the UK - but the two-disc special edition from Momentum Pictures is still my preference. Boasting an insightful audio commentary from Jean-Pierre Jeunet (in English), the film is supported by Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS original language soundtracks, as well as a crystal-clear video transfer that displays the film's vibrant colours in all their glory.

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Alex Hewison: La Reine Margot
Patrice Chéreau, 1994

Though I'd regard Cyrano de Bergerac and Trois Couleurs:Rouge as superior examples of filmmaking, La Reine Margot is more accessible and is an exhilarating example of big-budget French cinema.

Whilst the dated historical epics of the 40s, 50s and 60s created and adhered to a rigid formula, La Reine Margot was content to marinate the historical epic rulebook in gore, embroider it in the finest brocade and serve up a tempestuous cinematic spectacle of power politics and moral bankruptcy that few films would have the stomach (or the finances) to make. Centring on the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre and the struggle of the titular Queen Margot to survive its impact and escape the political viper's nest of court, the film pulls no punches in portraying the decadent lifestyle that the wealthy blithely revelled in and the ever-present danger of assassination. Amidst the political upheavals, poisonings and decapitations, Isabelle Adjani delivers perhaps her greatest performance as Margot, never attempting to gloss over the character's many foibles whilst equally never alienating the viewer from her. Unlike Elizabeth, La Reine Margot never simplifies itself or courteously provides uncompromisingly altruistic heroes: the line between good and evil is a fine one and La Reine Margot is never quick to delineate which characters belong on which side.

Plus the UK DVD has a superb transfer and a sufficiently booming soundtrack.

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Michael Sunda: Delicatessen
Jean-Pierre Jeunet / Marc Caro, 1991

A visually spectacular, genre-defying example of new-age Surrealism, Delicatessen follows the lives of several characters in an unspecified street in post-Apocalyptic France. As food is now in short supply, a butcher takes it on himself to provide his tenants with his own brand of culinary delights, namely ill-suspecting visitors and employees. Although full to the brim with eclectic, quirky details, the plot and relationships are surprisingly simplistic, and the humour is all the more effective for this. The cinematography is a fine example of how to effectively create a consistently unusual atmosphere, and the ultra-expressive acting from all the cast is praise-worthy.

Released in the UK as part of Momentum’s ‘World Cinema’ collection, the DVD contains an enlightening audio commentary with the director, as well as a decent anamorphic transfer.

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Mark Boydell: La Haine
Matthieu Kassowitz, 1995

Though some young whippersnappers may wonder why the hell Kassowitz is getting to make all these dire movies (Assassins was dire, Gothika was diabolical, Crimson Rivers was poor but in an interesting fashion), the answer is this burning ember of a film: La Haine - oft mistranslated as hate but in this context it's closer to meaning pissed off - took France by storm in the spring of 1995 with the government organising a special screening. With elements of Racine tragedy, farcical weirdness and Scorcese's visual knack, the stark black and white leaves no room for ambiguity. This is an angry film by an angry (but well off) young director about the endemic split that is still occuring in France between the middle-class and the banlieue - the ugly high-rise flats of Seine Saint-Denis, on the wrong side of the Péripherique. Kassowitz's mastering of the narrative, directing, mise-en-scène and image is sickeningly pitch perfect making a star out of "Vinz" Cassel and ensuring Kassowitz a special place in French cinema, despite all his best attempts to mess things up ever since. It's been said that everyone has a great film in them - this was most definitely Kassowitz's and sadly remains a pinnacle of a rather average career so far. In the meanwhile, we can only Hollywood kicks him out and he returns to this simpler but brilliant form of cinema.

The French release is the way to go - 5.1 soundtrack, english subs, deleted scenes and a French only commentary. Avoid the Tartan release like the plague - you know why...

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Mike Sutton: Le Mepris (Contempt)
Jean-Luc Godard, 1963

In a series of films between 1959 and 1967, Jean-Luc Godard reinvented cinema with a vigour and excitement that is matched only by Welles and Griffith. In "Le Mepris", he uses astounding technical skill to burrow deep inside a crumbling relationship with an intensity that makes the film deeply uncomfortable and, ultimately, desperately moving. Set during the filming of a Hollywood epic, presided over by Fritz Lang's exhausted director and Jack Palance's appalling vulgarian of a producer, it shows how moral and artistic compromise combine to shatter a fragile marriage between scriptwriter Michel Piccoli and his wife Brigitte Bardot. In one unforgettable set-piece of emotional cruelty, it collapses the whole sorry process into a thirty minute duologue between the couple in their apartment. With the vital aid of Georges Delerue's beautiful score, Godard gets at the uncomfortable truth about how people with a compelling mutual need contrive to tear each other apart. Yet the film is also very funny indeed, a savage satire about Hollywood playing away and the lunacy of placing artists in the hands of accountants. Godard's extraordinary skill with the Scope frame - previously demonstrated in Une Femme Est Une Femme - and the ravishing colour cinematography makes this an intense and startling visual experience.

The best way to see the film is on an exceptional disc from Criterion which contains a good commentary and some impressive extra features. If you can't get hold of this then the Momentum R2 is a reasonable substitute, which I've reviewed in the link below:

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Nat Tunbridge: Les Enfants du Paradis
Marcel Carné, 1945

The greatest French film of all time, as voted for by 600 French film critics and professionals in the late 1990s, is also the greatest movie of all time, a truly all-encompassing epic that somehow manages to transcend and reach beyond its admittedly extraordinary constituent parts to embrace a level of film-making magic rarely attempted and almost never achieved. At once a peerless romance, a crime thriller, a superb comedy, a matchless historical drama and a work of bewitching and sublime fantasy, ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ is a three-hour plus epic that leaves no heart untouched and, once seen, occupies a permanent space in the viewer’s imagination, its characters spinning and turning in a hallowed corner of the mind, imbued with the milky luminosity of dreams.

The creation of ‘Les Enfants’ was no less dramatic than its careening narrative. Despite its massive crowd scenes and colossally expensive production, the movie was shot in France during the height of the Nazi occupation and the creative team had to struggle with power failures, Gestapo agents and a dearth of money and film stock. Both the movie’s production designer and one of the writers of its soundtrack were Jewish so had to contribute to the film anonymously and from a distance. When completed, director Marcel Carné arranged for the premiere of the film to be held back until after the liberation of France, so that it’s arrival was both balm for an abused populace and a shout of defiance, an outrageously bold proclamation that the French spirit had survived the dark years of the occupation intact, as witty and elegant as ever.

At the core of ‘Les Enfants’ – set in the world of the 19th Century Parisian theatre – is the luminous figure of Garance, occasional actor, sometime prostitute and full-time lover of life. Bought by many men but owned by none, she wafts through the streets of Paris like a seedy angel, her beauty and unselfconsciousness bewitching all who meet her. Passionate and remote, often invaded but never conquered, vulnerable yet utterly indomitable, Garance embodies not only the archetypal ideal of French femininity but the essence of the Gallic spirit itself – she is France.

Similarly, her four lovers are more than simply characters, representing fundamental archetypes within the human psyche: Frédérick Lemaître, the ebullient, leonine, outrageous actor, carefree and spendthrift, whose desire for Garance knows no bounds; Baptiste, the enigmatic, melancholy mime, who enchants all of Paris with his art, and truly loves Garance most of all but who fate decrees will be parted from her time and time again; Count Édouard de Montray, the arrogant, sophisticated aristocrat whose immense wealth, perfect manners and impeccable breeding lure Garance to his side, yet who can never possess her as utterly as he longs to; and finally Pierre-François Lacenaire, the contemptuous, misanthropic thief, murderer and criminal (but always very polite and well turned out) who looks on life and death with equal disdain, yet finds Garance to be the one entity capable of stirring his immured heart.

Around these titanic creatures teem a host of other well-drawn figures, each motivated by a frantic desire to love and be loved and each given countless gems of dialogue to utter thanks to Jacques Prévert’s sparkling screenplay. It’s a shock to realise that ‘Les Enfants’ is now over 60 years old, as it always seems astonishingly modern. The story moves forward at breakneck speed, throwing its characters into love affairs and duels and taking us through teeming crowds into glittering palaces and huge theatres. Yet its attraction is also extraordinarily intimate, appealing to that innocent fantasist inside all of us that longs to be lost to love, wholly abandoned to the Beloved. Thus, ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ is as eternal as love itself, and will live in the hearts and minds of moviegoers for as long as the bright light of the projector cuts a path to the screen.

The greatest movie of all has been fully restored and given a breathtaking new digital transfer, courtesy of the Criterion Collection. The superb DVD presents the movie’s two parts in their original 1:33:1 aspect ratio on two separate disks along with commentaries, a demonstration of the restoration process, a unique video introduction by longtime fan Terry Gilliam and a wealth of other special features. A beautifully designed 24-page booklet completes this handsome package.

Gary Couzens: The Lacemaker (La dentellière)
Claude Goretta, 1977

This review contains plot spoilers.

Béatrice, nicknamed “Pomme” (Isabelle Huppert), works as a hairdresser’s assistant in Paris. On the rebound from a broken love affair, her outgoing workmate Marylène (Florence Giorgetti) takes her on holiday with her to the south of France. While Marylène goes clubbing night after night, the very reserved Pomme feels increasingly out of place. And then she meets student François (Yves Beneyton) and soon they fall in love.

Isabelle Huppert had made her screen debut in 1972 at the age of nineteen. She had made several films in the next five years – including an excursion to Hollywood with Otto Preminger’s Rosebud and a small role opposite Gérard Depardieu in the once-banned Les valseuses – but she hadn’t made much impression on filmgoers until she appeared in The Lacemaker (La dentellière). She gives a quite extraordinary performance, as much to do with body language as dialogue, as the deeply introverted Pomme. She dominates the film, so much so that she overshadows her co-stars, who give entirely capable performances.

In the first half of The Lacemaker, Swiss director Claude Goretta makes us see the world from Pomme’s eyes. Although Goretta’s realist camera style is very different, like Max Ophuls he puts a young woman’s emotional life centre-stage, without apology or comment. For Pomme love is everything, and when it is taken away from her, she breaks down. Some fifty minutes in, Goretta ably manages a change of tone: the film becomes more analytical, in fact political, as this is a relationship that comes apart due to class differences. François introduces Pomme to his student friends, and it’s soon clear that they may be better educated than her, but that doesn’t make them better. Goretta contrasts Pomme’s pure-hearted innocence against their pretentiousness. (One of the students is played by a future leading lady of French cinema, Sabine Azéma.) The ending is very sad, with a final shot you won’t forget in a hurry.

The film is not without flaws, such as a 70s mindset which insists on showing its leading actresses nude several times while Beneyton only has to expose one buttock, and that briefly. Goretta has made other notable films (such as La provençale aka A Girl from Lorraine, starring Nathalie Baye), but The Lacemaker may well be his finest work.

As this feature is entitled “favourite French DVDs”, there are several titles that I could have chosen. The main reason why I’ve picked The Lacemaker is this: it was only the second subtitled foreign-language film I ever saw, on BBC2 one Saturday evening at 9pm in 1981. I was seventeen years old, and this is the film which started me on the big wide world of cinema made in languages other than English. And that’s one reason I’m here now writing this. For that alone I’m grateful to this. The fact that it’s a film I can still watch with pleasure – as well as that TV showing, I’ve seen The Lacemaker on the big screen at the NFT and own it on video – is a bonus.

The Lacemaker was released earlier this year on DVD in France. This edition appears (correctly) to be 1.66:1 anamorphic with a mono soundtrack, in the original French as well as English and German dubs. Extras comprise a 40-minute featurette of interviews with the cast and crew, the trailer, and filmographies. As far as I am aware this edition does not provide any English subtitles, which would certainly be preferable to a dubbed version, so here’s hoping that it gets a British or American DVD release sometime soon.

Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:05:25

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