This month’s Criterion Collection column discusses recent UK releases including Roma, Fail Safe, and The Essential Jacques Demy boxset
When Roma was originally released in 2018, some critics, cinephiles and even directors trained their guns on Netflix, who’d struck a deal for the film and made it available to 150 million subscribers, insisting it had to be seen on the biggest screen possible to be truly appreciated. But while the full theatrical experience certainly suits Roma’s ravishing black, white and grey colour palette and impressive set-pieces, its intimate story and focus on character means the film works perfectly well on a decent-sized flat screen, too, whether you’re streaming it or pressing play on this Criterion hard copy.
The winner of three Oscars, Alfonso Cuarón’s sumptuous tale vividly recreates his childhood in early 1970s Mexico City, its narrative excavated from the director’s own memories as well as those of Libo, his family’s live-in maid (here named Cleo and played by wide-eyed newcomer Yalitza Aparicio). Taking place against a backdrop of societal upheaval in the country, and exploring themes of class, gender and race – Cleo is an indigenous Mexican who has moved to the city from her rural home – Roma is powerfully personal and political. And whilst it meanders and showboats at times, you get a real, immersive sense of time and place, while a couple of its big dramatic moments are so perfectly realised they fair take the breath away.
If you’re big on detailed ‘making of’ documentaries, then Roma’s extras will be right up your street. There are five different docs in all, including Road to Roma (72 minutes), which looks behind the scenes at the film from Cuarón’s perspective (I was particularly taken with the director’s story about recreating the heart-rending moment his father left the family home for good). Two more films (20 and 27 mins) focus in-depth on the post-production process (the look and sound of it all), while another details ‘Romaton’, the filmmakers’ campaign to get Roma shown in every corner of Mexico. The technical stuff can be a little impenetrable at times, but these docs underline the painstaking work that went into Roma’s production and, rather than remove the film’s mystery, only made me admire it more. A glossy 100+ page book, featuring new writing and fold-out photos, completes a gorgeous package.
From ’70s Mexico to ’60s America and Fail Safe (1964), an impossibly tense Cold War thriller from director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network). Based on a novel from 1962, although I suspect the same year’s Cuban Missile Crisis was also an inspiration, it sees an electrical malfunction send a group of American bombers to drop 20-megaton warheads on Moscow. The US president (Henry Fonda, pictured above) and a bevy of aides and military men (including Larry Hagman’s young interpreter) try desperately to recall them as the clock ticks irrevocably down to nuclear Armageddon. It’s edge-of-your-seat stuff laced with moments of downright farce (the bomber squadron have been told to ignore verbal commands, even from the president, in case the Soviets have employed an impersonator). Fonda exudes the quiet authority he brought to so many of his roles, but the film belongs to Walter Matthau as a hawkish professor and Dan O’Herlihy’s anti-war general. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – released earlier in 1964 and embroiled in a lawsuit with Lumet’s film – might have completely reinvented the Cold War movie but, drenched in the icy sweat of paranoia and claustrophobia, Fail Safe is an incredibly compelling piece of work well deserving of the Criterion treatment.
Director Lumet provides a commentary (recorded in 2000) in which he admits he hasn’t seen the film “in a very long time”. That doesn’t prove to be a drawback, though, as he goes on to provide fascinating insights into the making of Fail Safe and the inventiveness needed to circumnavigate the US defence department, which refused to cooperate with the production. In an interview from last year (19 minutes), former Village Voice film critic J Hoberman talks about other Cold War-era movies and the aforementioned lawsuit brought against Fail Safe by Columbia Pictures. There’s also a featurette (16 minutes) from 2000 featuring Lumet, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, actor O’Herlihy, and George Clooney, who remade the film for US TV with Richard Dreyfuss as the president. I particularly enjoyed its side-by-side comparisons between scenes in Fail Safe and ones in Dr. Strangelove.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) couldn’t provide more of a contrast to Fail Safe’s 112-minute nervous breakdown. A musical explosion of kaleidoscopic colour and bittersweet emotion, it’s contained in The Essential Jacques Demy, a six-film collection of the French director’s work. Although Demy – husband of Agnès Varda and occasional player in the Nouvelle Vague and Left Bank movements – was best known for his films with Catherine Deneuve, such as Umbrellas and 1967’s giddy, joyous The Young Girls of Rochefort (also included here and pictured above), his early black and white work had a grittier edge. Lola (1961), Demy’s first feature, is the tale of the titular cabaret dancer and lovelorn single mother (played by Anouk Aimee), while Bay of Angels (1963) concerns a disenchanted young bank clerk (Claude Mann) drawn into the world of high-stakes gambling by an alluring but damaged woman (Jeanne Moreau).
The two later films showcased here are among the director’s most eccentric. Donkey Skin (1970) is a bizarre musical fairy tale in which Deneuve plays a beautiful princess on the run from her incestuous father, while the melodramatic Une Chambre en ville (another musical, this time from 1982 and, like Umbrellas, one in which every word is sung) shows star-crossed lovers conducting a tempestuous affair during France’s 1955 shipyard strikes. While it would have been nice to have Model Shop, Demy’s Hollywood-made sequel to Lola included here, the sheer ebullience and inventiveness of these half-dozen films makes this a must-have… and that’s before you even get to the extras.
The set I picked up in New York last summer was a 13-disc, dual-format affair, but this slimmed-down UK version is Blu-ray only. As you can imagine, across six discs, the variety of extras is quite dizzying but well worth putting aside a weekend to luxuriate in. I particularly enjoyed The Young Girls Turn 25 from 1993. One of two excellent Varda documentaries featured here, it sees the Faces Places director return to Rochefort to attend a big celebration in honour of the film’s 25th anniversary. Her film (64 mins) is warm and funny but rendered melancholy by Demy’s death in 1990. The Young Girls Turn 25 also contains a ton of behind-the-scenes footage from the original shoot, plus interviews with people from the town, extras from the film, and a good deal of Deneuve herself.
There’s also an excellent video essay – The A-Z of Jacques Demy (61 mins) – which talks about the director’s life and influences, as well as delving deeper into his film cannon. A wealth of other material, including a superb documentary about Umbrellas (54 mins), four early short films, TV shows, a restoration demonstration, a 70-page booklet, and all sorts of interviews with critics, journalists, Demy, Deneuve, and the director’s musical collaborator Michel Legrand, completes the set. There’s so much, in fact, the absence of any audio commentaries barely registers.
The big news from the States this past month is that following its impressive haul of four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (pictured above) will be added to the Collection later in the year. Also getting the Criterion treatment is the same filmmaker’s Memories of Murder from 2003. Like other distributors, though, Criterion has the rights to different films in different countries, so whether these discs will get a UK release is unclear at this time.
Join me again next month when I will offer my thoughts on Criterion UK’s March releases: Antonio Gaudi, Anatomy of A Murder, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Roma – 4K digital master supervised by director Alfonso Cuarón, with Dolby Atmos soundtrack.
Fail Safe – New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Donkey Skin, and Une Chambre en ville – New 2K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
Lola and Bay of Angels – New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
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