A Married Woman (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), subtitled “Fragments of a film shot in 1964,” is Jean-Luc Godard’s modern portrait of love and sex in the media-saturated sixties with Macha Méril in a role that was clearly meant for Godard’s wife and longtime muse Anna Karina (they were separated at the time) and it channels Godard’s feelings at the time. Like Karina, Méril’s Charlotte is beautiful young woman who is married to an older man and having an affair with an actor. The film opens on a montage where Charlotte is reduced to parts—legs, arms, back, lips, midrift, isolated glimpses of the naked female suggesting those erogenous zones that could not be photographed in a mainstream feature film—caressed by her unidentified lover. It’s shot in creamy cool black-and-white by longtime cinematographer Raoul Coutard and the strikingly handsome formality is both erotic and removed, suggesting a physical intimacy and an emotional disconnection even in even the most intimate scenes of lovemaking and pillow talk.
Paris Belongs to Us (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Jacques Rivette’s 1961 debut feature, makes its U.S. home video debut in a Criterion edition, which is fitting for a founding brother of the French nouvelle vague and frankly about time for Criterion. It’s their first Rivette release and comes after Blu-ray releases of Le Pont du Nord (1981) and both versions of Out 1 (1971) from Kino Lorber. I call that a good start for the least appreciated filmmaker of that loose band of brothers (and one sister, Agnes Varda).
Familiar Rivette themes and fascinations are present from this very first feature. Anne (Betty Schneider), a small town girl in Paris for school, gets involved in a theater group led by the passionate but broke Gérard (Giani Esposito), whose rehearsals for “Pericles” have to keep finding new spaces as cast members drop out, and is introduced to vague, vast, international conspiracy by American-in-exile Philip (Daniel Crohem), a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist fleeing the blacklist and sliding into paranoia, alcoholism, and self-pity. He’s not just paranoid, he’s given up, content to lob cynical comments at pretentious parties with fellow writers and artists and then take refuge in his hovel of a room with the willing blonde Danish model next door. It’s as if he’s escaped McCarthyism convinced that it’s part of a global master plan. Anne’s older brother Pierre (François Maistre) has some connection to this group of artists, and perhaps the conspiracy itself, while Terry (Françoise Prévost), a glamorous American who lived with a Spanish composer and political activist named Juan who committed suicide before the film began, has since attached herself to Gérard and hovers around it all. The film hopscotches around Paris (some of the rehearsal spaces are marvelous little pockets hidden in the city) and the story kind of spirals in around itself.
The Killing Fields (Warner, Blu-ray), the first major western film to confront the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide, stars survivor Dr. Haing S. Ngor as Cambodian national Dith Pran, translator and journalistic partner of New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) who was left behind when the Americans fled the country and was plunged into the terror of Pol Pot’s oppressive and brutal prison camps.
It’s the first feature directed by Roland Joffe, who came from TV and stage, and he shoots the drama with an unforced realism, lent a terrible grace by the handsome images and smooth, unobtrusive long takes of cinematographer Chris Menges, who keeps the camera panning and tracking the characters through almost every scene. It’s a remarkably effective stylistic choice, keeping the camera centered on Dith and Schanberg and the other journalists (played by John Malkovich and Julian Sands) while embracing the vivid reality of their surroundings, be it the bloody aftermath of a guerilla bombing in a busy city street, the rubble and human suffering in a village destroyed by bombs or the nervous tension and desperation of western journalists holed up in a nearly-gutted, overcrowded embassy as young, undisciplined rebel soldiers surround the gated grounds. Joffe keeps them firmly in the reality of their environments and the long takes makes the terrible consequences feel more immediate, the narrative more out of control. I think it’s still Joffe’s best film.
It earned seven Academy Award nominations and won three, for Ngor’s performance (though he is surely a leading actor in the film, he won in the “Best Supporting Actor” category), Chris Menges’ cinematography and Jim Clark’s film editing.
The Blu-ray debut is presented in a 36-page Blu-ray book with photos and production notes and features commentary by director Roland Joffe carried over from the earlier DVD release.
Two films from the second half of Jean-Luc Godard’s career debut on Blu-ray and new DVD editions. He aroused the ire of people who wouldn’t otherwise even take notice of his films in 1985 with Hail Mary (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), his modern retelling the nativity. Mary (Myriem Roussel) is a basketball-playing student in Switzerland working at her father’s gas station and Joseph (Thierry Rode) a taxi-driver, and they both try to get their heads around the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy. The controversy, accompanied by the spectacle of picketers outside of small theaters screening the film, brought this small, quiet, rather spiritual little picture far more attention than anything Godard had made since Weekend. Juliette Binoche co-stars in a small role. The feature is paired with Anne-Mary Mieville’s delicate short film The Book of Mary, the tender drama of a failing marriage as seen through the eyes of a child which played with Godard’s film on its original theatrical release. French with English subtitles, with commentary by director Hal Hartley and Museum of the Moving Image Chief Curator David Schwartz, Godard’s video notebook, three additional featurettes, and a booklet with essays by critic David Sterritt and Boston University lecturer Charles Warren.
Early in the career of Jean-Luc Godard career, when he still the firebrand film critic aspiring to make features, Godard contemplated the “Mystery and fascination of this American cinema” and found himself bedeviled by an unshakable realization: “How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”
Forty years later, he’s still pondering the question in Histoire(s) du cinema, his epic rumination on cinema as industry and art. In eight episodes and four-and-a-half hours, Godard struggles between his conflicting perspectives on cinema: on the one hand an industrialized business that cranks out products designed to sell images, consumer goods and an entire ideology, and on the other, a history of images, stories and experiences that haunt the soul and stand with the great works of art.
Histoire(s) du cinema is not, strictly speaking, a history of cinema, at least not in a traditional documentary sense. The title provides the first hint. In French, “histoire” means both “history” and “story” and the (s) suggests the multiple histories and stories involved in any understanding of cinema, not the least of which is Godard’s complicated personal connection to film history. From passionate young critic staking out his position in the fifties to maverick director who shook up the staid French industry with provocative films to political commentator and social critic exploring the frontiers of expression and representation, he has been nothing if not provocative. The personal and political are constantly in flux in this collection of eight video essays, begun in 1988 and concluded in 1998, where the Nouvelle Vague legend considers the history of the movies with a typically idiosyncratic style and non-linear train of thought.
Vivre Sa Vie (Criterion)
Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film marked a significant new direction for young turk director, away from the impassioned sketchiness of his furiously directed first films and into the realm of carefully composed scenes and formal visual strategies. Developed to showcase his wife and muse Anna Karina (they were on the verge of breaking up), the film follows the journey of shop girl Nana (both a reference to the Zola novel and an anagram for Anna) from frustrated aspiring actress surviving on the generosity of her dates to professional prostitute. Karina isn’t given a glamorous treatment here, not like in the playful musical A Woman is a Woman, but the camera adores her in her simple shop girl clothes and Louise Brooks “Lulu” bob and Godard directs her to the performance of her career, giving a humanity to this shallow girl. It’s not just the famous close-up of Karina, with tears streaming down her cheeks, intercut with Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but her distinctive body language, her distracted behavior around her “dates” and furtive response to a police interview.
Godard makes it a mix of character study, social commentary and street tragedy broken into twelve distinct tableaux (the full French title is Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux), many of them composed of carefully arranged long takes by Raoul Coutard. On the one hand it’s a provocative portrait of social and sexual politics (at one point the soundtrack reverts to a recitation of laws on the business of prostitution) directed with Godard’s distinctive gift for counterpoint and dramatic disassociation, on the other a moralistic tale of a shallow, emotionally reckless young woman ultimately punished for her ambitions and infidelities.
For a political radical, Godard was quite the conservative moralist when it came to women in his films of the sixties; where his male rebels were a mix of lovable criminals, charming cads and doomed individualists, his women are consistently flighty, shallow and ultimately disloyal, betraying the men in their lives in ways large (Patricia betrays Michel to the police in Breathless) or small (Karina’s character cheats on her husband in A Woman is a Woman). This is especially true when Godard’s personal life was in such emotional chaos: Karina wanted to leave him and he was desperate to hold onto her. You could say this was both his offering (to make her a serious actress) and his warning to her. (Spoiler alert) After all, Nana opens the film by leaving her husband to follow her dream as an actress and ends up herself betrayed, abandoned and dead, the victim of callous, thoughtless, brutally impersonal violence. (end spoiler alert) For a film that proclaims itself with the title “To live life” (translated as My Life to Live for U.S. release), it is awfully judgmental. Whose life to live is it anyway? (As an aside, I was brought back to Richard Brody’s excellent Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard after reviewing the film and his rich mix of biography and aesthetic observation makes some excellent observations on Godard’s problematic portrayal of women in relation to his personal life. A well-researched and well-written book and I highly recommend it.)Read More “Vivre Sa Vie, Summer Hours and a Crazy Heart – DVDs of the Week”