Three Films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet Review

As I’ve said before in reviews on this site, filmmakers’ reputations frequently depend on the availability of their films. The names of the husband/wife team of Jean-Marie Straub (born 1933) and Danièle Huillet (1936-2006) should be known to those familiar with European arthouse cinema – any book on the subject is likely to mention them – but up to now most of their films have been hard to see in the UK. Two of the three in this DVD set are receiving their British premiere (festival showings apart). The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, their first feature and their best-known and by all accounts most accessible film, had a limited UK cinema release in the late 1960s. Apart from that, Class Relations received a cinema release in 1985, but not on VHS or DVD. And that appears to be it, with TV showings (apart from one of Chronicle on Channel 4 in 1985) hardly forthcoming either.

Straub began his career as an assistant to such directors as Robert Bresson, Abel Gance, Jean Renoir and Jacques Rivette. He made his first film, a short, in 1963 with Huillet, who he had met in 1954 and married in 1959. Straub and Huillet divided filmmaking duties between them, with Straub concentrating on shooting and Huillet on the editing and post-production, and both responsible for pre-production and scriptwriting.

The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach) is on the face of it the biopic of an artist, but the film is unlike any other such works that I have seen. Straub and Huillet’s formal rigour is very much present: the film consists of performances of many of Bach’s key works interspersed with readings from his second wife’s (fictional) journal and dramatised scenes. (Christiane Lang plays Anna.) The actors are professional musicians: Gustav Leonhardt, who plays Bach, is a distinguished harpsichordist. The music performances are filmed in single, formally composed shots, with the musicians in period costume. Also in the spirit of authenticity is these French filmmakers' making a German-language film.

Although Anna’s readings give the film a timeline, finishing with Bach’s death, the film is intentionally de-dramatised, with scenes that would be dramatic peaks in other films (such as the deaths of all but two of the couple’s twenty children) being recounted by Anna’s voiceover. Instead, the music is left to speak for itself, and the film is as much a documentary on its music – and a record of some of the leading classical musicians of the time – as it is a story. The viewer is left to make connections between the life and the art that that life produced.

The two other films in this set take up the second disc, a short feature of just over an hour and a long short or mid-length film of three quarters of an hour. Sicilia! was made in 1999 and is based on Elio Vittorini's novel Conversations in Sicily, which was banned by the Fascists in 1942. Silvestro (Gianni Buscarino) returns to Sicily after spending fifteen years in America. The film, subdivided into four parts, is a series of conversations with Sicilians, the talk covering a wide range of topics – from economic conditions (the first conversation is with a man selling oranges he helped grow and with which he was paid for his labour) to questions of Sicilian history and culture. The longest conversation is with his mother about his childhood and their relationships with his father. All of this is beautifully shot in black and white by William Lubtchansky, and as well as listening we asked to look. And sometimes just that, such as a sequence where the camera simply observes an arid landscape.

Une visite au Louvre was made in 2004 and is in colour. Julie Kotaï reads the words of Cézanne, comments on the masterpieces held in the museum which were committed to permanent form by the poet Joachim Gasquet. Apart from an opening shot of the Parisian streets and a brief interlude and epilogue of a nature scene, the film consists entirely of the artworks, beautifully lit and impeccably framed by cameramen Renato Berta and William Lubtchansky. The film was shot in two very similar versions, and in some cinemas were projected one after the other in the same showing. We only have one version on this DVD, though.

This kind of cinema will certainly not be for everyone, with its formal rigour, uncompromisingly high-art approach, sometimes recondite subject matter and lack of drama in the conventional sense. It's cinema which many will bounce off straight away, some will admire rather than love and a small minority will love unreservedly. These were the first Straub-Huillet films I've seen, and I'm in the middle of that spectrum.


Three Films... is released by New Wave as a two-disc set, with Chronicle on Disc One and Sicilia! and Une visite au Louvre on Disc Two. Both discs are DVD-5s. As the total space taken up is 7.38GB, it would have been possible to fit all three films onto one DVD-9. Both discs are encoded for Region 2 only and are in the PAL format.

All three films are in a ratio of 1.33:1, which I take to be correct, so no anamorphic enhancement is necessary. Sicilia! and Une visite au Louvre look absolutely fine, with the latter doing justice – as much as standard-def DVD can do – to the rich colours of the paintings it displays. In Sicilia! the blacks, whites and greyscale seem just right.

However, the transfer of Chronicle is more problematic. Given the importance of the music to this film, it may have been transferred at 24fps (instead of the PAL speed of 25 fps, which results in the soundtrack's pitch being raised about a semitone, which has significant effects on music as you can imagine) or mastered from a NTSC source. Evidence for this is the running time, which matches that of the cinema film from every source I could find. Whichever, it's soft, interlaced and excessively pictureboxed. Disappointing.

All three films are in their original mono, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Given that it's recorded on a mono optical soundtrack, the music in Chronicle sounds fine to these ears. However something strange happens forty minutes in, at the first dramatised scene. Up to now, the only voice on the soundtrack has been Anna's, but with the lower frequency of the male voices in this scenes comes noticeable distortion, particularly on sibilants.

There are no such problems with Sicilia!, which has a dialogue-dominated soundtrack. Une visite au Louvre has a jump in clarity due to the film's use of Dolby SR noise reduction. It's still mono, though, but as it has a single female voice for most of its length, with three short interjections from a male voice, an uncredited Straub, plus street sounds in the opening shot and nature noises in the closing one, a multi-channel sound mix is hardly called for.

The DVD of Class Relations reviewed here by Noel Megahey had reduced subtitles – more a summary than a full translation – at the filmmakers' request. However, all three films in this set are fully subtitled in English. Purists and/or sufficiently polyglot viewers can turn them off if they so wish.

As this set is called Three Films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and not The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, I don't regard the two shorter films as extras. So, no additional material at all, which is unfortunate as some introduction to films like this would be beneficial to many viewers. Pedro Costa made a documentary about Straub-Huillet, Where Lies Your Hidden Smile?, made during the production of Sicilia! and it would have been good to include this if rights permitted. There would certainly have been space for it.

No complaint about the work of these two filmmakers with a worldwide reputation being made available on DVD in the UK, and let's hope that there will be more. However, as a DVD presentation and package it falls short in a number of respects.

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