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Delphine Seyrig

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’

“A singular work in film history,” begins the description on back of the case of Criterion’s release of Chantal Akerman’s astounding Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (France, 1975).

The Criterion Collection

That is no hyperbole. Jeanne Dielman is a painstaking, excruciatingly exacting portrait of the life of a perfectly organized homemaker, an epic portrait of a quotidian life where every gesture through the 200-minute study becomes important and the slips in routine reverberate like aftershocks of an earthquake. It’s astounding to realize that Akerman was only 25 when she put this uncompromising vision on the screen. It’s almost as astounding that this landmark work took so long for finally arrive on home video in U.S. Almost impossible to see for decades (it wasn’t even released in the U.S. until 1983 and was rarely revived in the years since), this singular work made its DVD debut in 2009, presented by Criterion in a magnificent two-disc special edition. Criterion has now remastered the film for its Blu-ray debut.

Middle-aged widow and single mother Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) lives a carefully structured life with a clockwork routine. She wakes up before dawn, sees her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) off to school, cleans every last dish in her tiny and spotless kitchen, then continues on with the errands and duties of her day. One of those duties just happens to be servicing an afternoon client as a part-time prostitute. Jeanne is all business when the bell rings and she puts the pot on low simmer to welcome her client for the day. It’s creepily expressive the way Akerman frames her head out of the shot when she answers the door, matching Seyrig’s inexpressive formality with each man.

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Review: The Black Windmill

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Drabble would, after all, have been a better title than The Black Windmill. The structure thus designated is not even mentioned till the film is two-thirds finished, whereas the fictional master criminal “Drabble” hovers over the picture almost as decisively as “Juggernaut” in the new Lester movie. Drabble catches the muzzy Englishness that is the film’s most strategic appeal, which comes through via such in-passing pleasantries as Scotland Yard man Clive Revill’s weary exasperation with his partner as they search and bug Michael Caine’s room, MI.5 stick-in-the-mud Donald Pleasence’s loss of sour face as he inadvertently says “Sean Connery” instead of “Sean Kelly” during a top-level security conference, or Pleasence’s desperate endeavor to maintain a blank look as his senescent superior fondles and is fondled by his murderously loving wife (Felicia Farr—of Charley Varrick fame—in an unbilled cameo, if I’m not mistaken). One may safely suppose that the opportunity for such moments had its fond appeal for Siegel, who spent his youth in England. Such suppositions are the only way to find, or posit, traces of the director in the film; for after a decade’s worth of consistently personal cinema, Siegel has simply taken on an average thriller property and given it, overall, little more than slightly above-average treatment.

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Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie)

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

“Sometimes dreams are really…”

One way or another, all the really big guys make movies about themselves making movies. Luis Buñuel may be caught most conspicuously doing so at the beginning of his career, in Un Chien andalou, and at what must be temporarily accounted the end of his career, Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, until Le Fantôme de la Liberté gets here or until Buñuel really does stop making films, as he’s been threatening to do for about a decade now. Unlike most of its sophomoric contemporaries, Un Chien andalou operates as a most lucid disquisition on a kind of formal logic peculiarly available to the cinema. The recurrent patterns of diagonal design (the pattern in Buñuel’s tie, the lines on the lid of the cyclist’s box and the wrapping paper inside) and diagonal movement (the stropping of the razor, the woman’s arrangement of untenanted garments on the bed) attest to the possibility of formal integrity without reference to any conventional, mundane logic. The succession of visually similar forms (a hole in the hand, a tuft of underarm hair, a sea urchin, a head glimpsed in a god’s-eye-view iris-shot) provides its own poetic justification, and a sinister shot-pairing (clouds cut across moon, razor cuts across eye) testifies to the power of editorial progression! A woman “hears” and reacts to the approach of a cyclist whose only sensory signal has been to enter and pass out of a right-angle frame of a street scene disposed between two shots of her looking at a book in a room somewhere: shot juxtaposition creates its own acceptable narrative logic. And that room she sits in, having been established in a conventional full shot at the beginning, can be broken up by camera angling and restructured by montage so that its window looks down on both a city street and a desolate beach, and its door opens on a stairway, the seashore, or the mirror duplication of the selfsame room, depending on where the narrative chooses to go next. Truly, Buñuel opens not only the girl’s but also his and our eyes to a new kind of vision.

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Review: ‘Donkey Skin’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Jacques Demy’s best films—Lola, The Young Girls of Rochefort—wave the silk scarf of an absurd romanticism so expertly over the abrasive realities of The World We Live In—unwanted pregnancies, painful, irrational separations, grotesquely violent death—that our appreciation of both textures is deeply enhanced in the delirious cinematic process. Donkey Skin, his 1970 retelling of the Perreault fairy tale, almost entirely lacks this sense of imaginative play and stylistic chance-taking. As such, it makes for a pre-afternoon-nap children’s story more elaborately visualized than most, but serves little other purpose.

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Videophiled Classic: ‘The Essential Jacques Demy’

JacquesDemyThe Essential Jacques Demy (Criterion, Blu-Ray+DVD Dual-Format set) collects six features and a few early shorts from the Nouvelle Vague‘s sadder-but-wiser romantic. It’s not my intention to rate him against the movement’s most famous filmmakers – Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Varda – but just to find his place among them. Like so many of his fellow directors, Rivette loved American movies, especially musicals, but his taste for American musicals and candy-colored romance was balanced with a bittersweet sensibility. For all the energizing music and dreamy love affairs, his romances more often than not don’t really get happy endings.

Criterion’s 13-disc set, one of their last to come out in the Blu-Ray+DVD Dual-Format, picks six of his defining films from his 1961 debut to his 1982 Une Chambre en Ville, which makes its American home video debut in this set, all transferred from restored and remastered HD editions.

Lola (1961) is a bittersweet musical without the music, lovingly shot in Demy’s hometown of Nantes in black and white CinemaScope by Nouvelle Vague master Raoul Coutard, and set to a lovely score by Michel Legrand. Anouk Aimee, whose appearance in lacy tights, boa, and top hat made her an eternal pin-up dream, is a single mother looking for the father of her child in the port towns of Nantes. As in so many of his films, Demy reveals himself as both eager romantic and sadder-but-wiser realist, and for all the dashed dreams of the film it still manages to have its swoony romantic fantasy come true.

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The Haunted Palace: Alain Resnais’ ‘Last Year at Marienbad’

The couple face each other in an old-fashioned railway car set up in a 19th-century amusement park, the girl (Joan Fontaine) a sweet-faced blonde for whom he’s clearly the moon and the stars. The young man (Louis Jourdan) in elegant evening clothes is all charm, genuine enough for the moment, a roué enchanted by fresh innocence. Outside the window, painted landscapes from various countries flow by, long murals unwinding from one seemingly endless reel. Lisa’s only previous journeys have come courtesy of travel folders and her father’s reading, while Stefan’s a genial wastrel who’s never really transported by journeys, never deeply touched by experience. At the end of the line, when there are no more moving pictures, the rapt lovers decide to begin again, “to revisit the scenes of our youth.”

When and where did this magical train ride take place? Can we measure how long it took? Its point of departure and arrival?

The answers to these questions lie within the mystery of cinema. In this scene from Max Ophuls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), “real” time and space are subservient to the transformative power of a woman’s imagination. Already in the grave at this juncture in the film, Ophuls’ artist-heroine is surfing time, revisiting the scenes of her actual youth. Her resurrection is powered by the machinery of memory and art; her romantic narrative eventually generates Stefan’s (and our?) ultimate, soul-saving epiphany. A play of luminous light and sensuous shadow, Letter unreels out of a woman’s lifelong religious-aesthetic obsession. Her virtual reality, far richer and more compelling than those railway landscapes, hyperlinks with eternity.

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Daughters of Darkness

Daughters of Darkness” (Blue Underground)

Loving daughters

“Every woman would sell her soul to stay so young,” remarks smarmy, troubled Stefan (John Karlen) to his newlywed wife Valerie (Danielle Ouimet). He’s referring to the impeccably poised Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig), who sweeps into the off-season luxury hotel they previously had all to themselves. Elegant and ageless, looking like some out-of-time aristocrat from Weimar cabaret high society, she could be a soul sister to Marlene Dietrich in her prime in perfectly coiffed hair and a deep red gown that radiates both opulence and taste. Stefan doesn’t know how right he is.

Poised on the shadowy margins between art cinema and sexploitation, Harry Kümel’s elegant and sexy vampire film draws on the legend of Hungary’s Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the notorious “Blood Queen” accused of murdering innocent maidens to bathe in their blood, and mixes it with the lesbian vampire story “Carmilla” and the new freedoms of seventies genre cinema ushered in by the lurid Italian thrillers and Hammer’s sex-and-blood horrors of the late sixties and early seventies. Delphine Seyrig, famed as a frosty beauty of art cinema (she appeared here between making The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm for the Bourgeoisie for Luis Bunuel), brings dignity and cool grace to the film with her imperious presence, and Kümel places this jewel of an actress in a perfectly elegant setting: a grand but empty hotel, the ominous mood of the Belgian coast in winter, the handsome medieval architecture of Bruges, where a day-trip brings the newlyweds face-to-face with another in a string of murdered women, all young, beautiful and drained of blood.

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