The Proprietor Review

Adrienne Mark (Jeanne Moreau) is a writer living in New York City. She’s best known for a novel, Je m’appelle France, a cause célèbre in the1960s, filmed in French at the time and less successfully remade in the 1970s in the USA as Call Me French. Adrienne hears that the Parisian house where she grew up is up for auction. This was also the house from which her parents, real name Markowitz, were arrested by the Nazis. Adrienne travels to Paris, and soon becomes haunted by memories of her past…

Ismail Merchant had wanted to work with Jeanne Moreau since seeing her in Jules et Jim way back on its original release, but didn’t actually meet her until he had made In Custody. Unlike much of Merchant Ivory’s output, The Proprietor isn’t a literary adaptation but an original script by Jean-Marie Besset and George Trow, from an (uncredited) original story by Merchant.

The Proprietor is very much a mixed bag. As you might expect from a Merchant Ivory production, the dialogue is literate, camerawork (Larry Pizer) and production design (Bruno Santini and Kevin Thompson) are top-notch. There’s a typically fine score from Merchant Ivory regular Richard Robbins. You certainly can’t complain about the cast either: Jeanne Moreau is practically an icon rather than merely an actress, with Catherine Deneuve as possibly her only rival in French cinema, and she carries her role on sheer presence alone. Of the supporting cast Nell Carter, as Adrienne’s New York maid, stands out, and her rendition of Wilson Pickett’s “Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do” is a highlight.

On the other hand, the film is a bit of a muddle. At base it’s a story about racism and a woman trying to resolve her troubled past. The tone varies from sombre introspection to rather broad satire, particularly in the scenes with Sean Young as a crass Hollywood producer wanting to remake Call Me French. A minor nitpick is that, although Merchant and Pizer do successfully recreate the look of a 60s black-and-white French movie in the extracts from Je m’appelle France but the scenes we see from Call Me French (with Young again as the heroine) look nothing like an American film of the 70s. Merchant can be seen briefly near the end, in footage from the Cannes Film Festival.

A more serious problem is Merchant’s direction. He fails to shape the material or even deal successfully with the shifts in tone, and even worse makes the whole thing proceed at snail’s pace. Whatever you may say about James Ivory’s directorial abilities, his best work does have a light touch and a sense of pace and form that’s lacking from the work of his imitators – and sadly that includes Merchant. (I speak as someone who has sat through Merchant’s very tedious 1999 film Cotton Mary, though Madhur Jaffrey’s scenery-chewing has to take some of the blame there.) Unfortunately, for all its good intentions, The Proprietor is simply dull.

The Proprietor is released as part of Odyssey Quest’s Merchant Ivory Collection. This DVD, encoded for Region 2 only, is available on its own, as part of the six-pack Merchant Ivory in America (along with The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, The Bostonians, The Europeans, Jane Austen in Manhattan and Roseland) and as part of the complete 20-film Collection box set.

The DVD has an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 1.78:1. At first sight that would seem to be more or less the correct ratio, give or take Odyssey’s preference for opening the matte slightly from intended 1.85:1 ratios. However, one source (Maltin’s Film Guide, which is usually reliable on such matters) says that the film was shot in Super 35, and Sight & Sound says it the film is in Scope. Super 35, briefly, exposes a full-frame negative including the area usually given over to the soundtrack – a ratio of approximately 1.66:1. This is cropped at the top and bottom of the frame (or sometimes just at the bottom, giving all versions a “common topline”) to produce cinema prints in 2.35:1 or much less commonly 1.85:1 and full-frame homeviewing versions. (Super 35 is also commonly used for widescreen TV productions.) I didn’t see The Proprietor in the cinema, so I can’t be entirely certain, but it’s certainly possible that this DVD has had the matte opened from 2.35:1. (It’s odd that Odyssey would do this, as the other Super 35/2.35:1 film in the Collection, Howards End, is transferred at 2.35:1.) There’s also no mention of a director’s preference on this disc. On the other hand, the opening credits don’t look like they could be cropped very much wider than the present 1.78:1. That said, there’s a fair amount of headroom in many shots. It’s entirely possible that the reference sources are wrong and the intended ratio is 1.85:1 after all, whether or not originated in Super 35. I’d certainly rather see a film in its intended ratio, though opening up a matte us less of a sin than panning and scanning. If definitive information is received on the correct ratio, I’ll amend this review.

Given this caveat, the DVD transfer of The Proprietor is very good indeed. It’s sharp and colourful, with strong blacks, good shadow detail and no artefacting that I could spot.

The soundtrack replicates the film’s mix of English and French dialogue, with English subtitles translating the latter. According to the press release, these subtitles are switchable but I was unable to remove them. There are no other subtitles on the disc, which is consistent with the other releases in the Merchant Ivory Collection. It’s a wrong-headed decision, and once again the deaf and hard-of-hearing, not to mention people who speak English as a second language, will lose out. As for the soundmix, it’s Dolby Surround. The film is very dialogue-led, but the surrounds are often used for the score and for ambient sound effects. The sound mixing in the dream/memory sequences is sometimes quite imaginative, for example in some of the wartime sequences which are silent except for footsteps. There are fifteen chapter stops.

As ever with their Merchant Ivory Collection releases, Odyssey have provided a number of extras. “About the Film” and “About Merchant Ivory” are self-explanatory text features, the latter appearing on all the Collection discs. “Ismail Merchant Talks About The Proprietor” is a new video interview. Merchant discusses the origins of the film and his meetings with Moreau. He talks about the casting: Merchant Ivory regular Sam Waterston (who replaced Christopher Reeve after Reeve’s accident) and Sean Young. He also discusses the film’s critical reception: dismissive on its cinema release, but more enthusiastic once it was shown on television. This interview is 16:9 anamorphic and runs 10:18. “Behind the scenes” (16:9 non-anamorphic, running 7:12) looks like it comes from the electronic press kit prepared at the time of release. It’s standard fare, featuring shots of the production, extracts from the film and interviews with Merchant and Moreau. The video quality is much rougher, and there’s plenty of artefacting. “Cast and crew” is another self-explanatory text feature, and there are biographies of Moreau, Sean Young, Sam Waterston and Christopher Cazenove – but oddly not Merchant, who is presumably covered by the “About Merchant Ivory” extra. Finally, Odyssey continue their odd habit of including trailers for other films than the one on the disc: in this case, Maurice, Quartet and The Deceivers. Oh, and the FACT anti-piracy ad makes yet another appearance at the start of the disc.

It’s hard to recommend The Proprietor except to diehard Merchant Ivory fans. One of their weaker efforts, it is however well enough presented on this DVD.

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