[1 April 2010]
DVD and Blu-ray distributors are presently engaged in a turf war, in which the rights to classic and/or significant present-day films are being lost, recovered, and/or transferred and subsequently released under specialty labels. Vying for the attention and dollars of cinephiles, Lionsgate Home Entertainment now offers the Meridian Collection, The Weinstein Company presents The Miriam Collection, and Oscilloscope Laboratories releases handsomely packaged contemporary titles in a numbered series. To varying degrees, all of these labels bear the influence of the Criterion Collection (Janus Films/Voyager Company/Home Vision Entertainment), which for decades has been the gold standard for home video releases, from laserdisc to DVD to Blu-ray.
Recently, the Criterion Collection announced that it would be “losing a large group of titles from StudioCanal” and that “the titles are going to Lionsgate”. It is unlikely that Lionsgate or any other company could top Criterion’s deluxe presentation of these films, which include Grand Illusion, Peeping Tom, Coup de Torchon, Le Trou and many other titles. However, the first test of Lionsgate’s readiness to deliver high-quality editions of such classic films comes with the three inaugural releases of the “StudioCanal Collection” on Blu-ray: The Ladykillers, Ran, and Contempt.
Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers is a taut, meticulously designed dark comedy shot at Ealing Studios and released in 1955. The film capped a series of post-war Ealing comedies (among them Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, and Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit) that were often satirical in tone. Ealing regular Sir Alec Guinness stars in the film as a criminal who poses as “Professor Marcus”, a member of a sham musical ensemble made up of other criminals.
The professor rents space in the lopsided home of the elderly Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), who represents Victorian values and exudes sweetness and light. Marcus initially charms and fools Mrs. Wilberforce into letting him and his criminal associates take up residence in her house, in which they plot a robbery. For the audience, however, the script broadly indicates the professor’s criminality from the moment of his shadowy introduction (reminiscent of Peter Lorre’s ominous entry as Hans Beckert in M). This sets up expectations about when and how Marcus and his gang will be caught, as well as the potential danger that could befall Mrs. Wilberforce.
Forming the rest of Marcus’ crew are the slow-witted One-Round (Danny Green), hip Harry (a young Peter Sellers), murderous Louis (Herbert Lom), and cautious Claude (Cecil Parker). This group of actors continues the Ealing tradition of pitch-perfect ensembles, and much of the charm of The Ladykillers is in watching the arrangement of the characters in their cramped (and increasingly inconvenient) self-imposed criminal headquarters. In the supplementary material on the Blu-ray edition, director Terry Gilliam praises Mackendrick’s inspired comic combination of the homey set and camera/actor blocking, especially in the scene wherein Mrs. Wilberforce’s elderly female friends visit and interact with the men the hostess now knows to be criminals.
In addition to its intelligently comedic use of set and ensemble, The Ladykillers benefits from an efficient plot, which is so well constructed that it prevents the film from becoming too tonally dissonant. As the audience understands what Marcus and his men intend to do, the complicated security van heist is the anticipated central event of the film. Without the heist, the men would have no reason to enter the world of Mrs. Wilberforce and involve her in their crime. While it is thrilling to watch the execution of the robbery, the film wisely regards the moment Mrs. Wilberforce discovers her guests’ villainy as the plot’s true midpoint. Indeed, although the heist sequence creates excitement regarding the potential success or failure of the mission, the tension truly reaches a peak when One-Round’s cash-stuffed cello case bursts open and reveals the sinister secret to Mrs. Wilberforce, thus ensnaring and endangering her.
The second half of The Ladykillers particularly motivates the film’s reputation as a dark comedy. While Mrs. Wilberforce’s steadfastness and commitment to justice seem to strengthen her chances of survival, the band of criminals becomes increasingly hostile and hopeless. To escape with the money becomes the primary goal, and the robbers move from the rooftop to the railways in a fight to the finish. A classically constructed comedy to the end, the film ends with a frame scene that corresponds to an early scene of Mrs. Wilberforce in a police station.
Previously available DVD editions of The Ladykillers used serviceable transfers and were light on bonus features. The StudioCanal Collection Blu-ray release improves upon all earlier releases, boasting a restored print and several special features new to this edition. “Cleaning Up The Ladykillers” is a demonstration of the restoration process. There is also an introduction by Gilliam, an audio commentary with Phil Kemp, and interviews with Allan Scott, Terence Davies, James Mangold, and Ronald Harwood, all of which provide additional information and insights about the film. Perhaps most interesting is the “Forever Ealing” documentary, which was included as a special feature on the Criterion Collection edition of Kind Hearts and Coronets (spine number 325).
The next film in the collection, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), was previously released in a now out of print double-disc edition by the Criterion Collection (spine number 316). On Blu-ray, the image quality of the StudioCanal Collection edition rivals and in some scenes improves upon the Criterion Collection’s already impressive restoration. Ran combines factual details from the life of Mori Motonari (a feudal lord from 16th century Japan) with the plot of William Shakespeare’s King Lear to create an epic portrayal of a family torn apart by greed, the insatiable quest for power, and a legacy of war and chaos.
Tatsuya Nakadai stars as Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, a powerful patriarch in a fictionalized 15th century Japan. After many years of ruling the Ichimonji Clan and attaining power through ruthlessness and bloodshed, he says he is ready to “stable the steeds of war” and “give free rein to peace”. In addition to this proclamation, he declares that he will hand his authority and first castle over to son Taro (Akira Terao). His two other sons Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) will receive the second and third castles, respectively. Only Saburo, acknowledging the clan’s chaotic foundation and refusing to support his father’s fantasy, senses the coming discord. Hidetora banishes Saburo for his insolence.
As a drama about filial dissention and karmic tension, Ran is overwrought. The symbol-rich opening sequence conveys the family dynamic and foretells future events in a more effective way than subsequent scenes that address the conflicts more literally. It is clear to the audience that the film will fulfill Saburo’s foresight, but it takes a while for the other characters to come to terms with the consequences of their corruption. Kurosawa’s commitment to a meditative pace results in some wonderfully composed long takes, which were executed by cinematographers Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito, and Masaharu Ueda. However, even an epic film such as this could benefit from a greater temporal variation, especially since the expressionistic aspects of the film suggest that Kurosawa’s vision does not take place in a fixed historical context.
Visually, what remains most transfixing in Ran are the vistas around Mount Aso and Mount Fuji, the locations in which much of the film’s action takes place. The Blu-ray format offers a superior presentation of the green grass and black dirt, among many other standout features of the physical environment. Within the plot, the division of land is a central theme and the source of much of the conflict. While some action films and war epics seem to utilize exotic locations only to enhance the spectacle, Kurosawa creates a meaningful connection between the people and the landscape. In this context, Hidetora’s failure to gain entry to his son’s castles (after ceding authority to them) results in his return to the wilderness and an honest confrontation of his inescapable past sins.
One of the most famous sequences in the film is during the first major battle, when Hidetora seems to lose his grip on sanity. Ambushed by sons Jiro and Taro while seeking sanctuary at the castle he originally granted to Saburo, Hidetora is surrounded by bloodshed. He escapes death at the hands of his warring sons, who are motivated first by their own hunger for power and later by the urgings of a vengeful Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada). However, he also cannot commit seppuku and instead flees the castle to become a wanderer. There is a powerful contrast between Nakadai’s performance as Hidetora (covered here in medium and close shots) and the battle raging around castle walls (in long shots framing brilliantly choreographed action). The cross cutting between frozen fear on Hidetora’s face and the landscape full of frenetic violence suggests a generational causality and injects a kind of energy that enlivens the film.
Nearly every principal character in Ran meets a violent end. Kurosawa does not allow much room for redemption within these characters, who either habitually reenact the mistakes of their father or indirectly suffer lasting negative effects. Apart from its battle sequences losing some of their impact over time because of other modern films that have “outdone” them, Ran is a film unlikely to age or lose relevance. For better or worse, the film’s perspective on abuses of power makes it relevant to any time and place with leaders susceptible to greed and self-aggrandizement. This is a sadly universal dramatic situation, and Kurosawa uses the archetypes of classic myths to create his own variation on the inescapability of corruption.
The enigmatic final image of the film is that of Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), a character Hidetora had blinded years earlier and confronts again in his mad spiral towards death. His family taken away again by warring leaders, Tsurumaru is alone and nearly walks off of a cliff. He slips. A holy Buddhist scroll falls from his hand. He regains his balance and stands still. Kurosawa highlights the solitude of the character by covering the scene in long shots. There finally appears to be peace in the land, but the one character around to bear witness to this cannot see at all. After a series of devastating pyrrhic victories, the blind man is the new king.
In the booklet that accompanies this Blu-ray release, critic David Jenkins argues that the conclusion of Ran is intended to show how God has abandoned creation. I disagree with Jenkins on this point. Kurosawa seems to end the film with a powerful visual reiteration of its strongest theme: It is we who have abandoned the stewardship of creation and turned it into something that can be owned, divided, and conquered through bloodshed.
Special features of the StudioCanal Collection release of Ran include “Art of the Samurai”, an interview with a Japanese Art-of-War Expert, as well as documentaries “Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate”, “The Samurai”, and “A.K.”, Chris Marker’s feature-length documentary that was previously available on the Criterion Collection release of Ran. Additionally, the Criterion Collection release contained several other supplements that do not appear on the Blu-ray disc. Among these were an excerpt of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, a video reconstruction of Ran using Kurosawa’s sketches and paintings, and an interview with Nakadai.
Last is Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, which is the best film in the collection and remains unparalleled as a movie about movies. Although the film is now popularly regarded as a masterpiece, many in 1963 believed that leading New Wave light Godard was taking too many compromising risks. Among these was the decision to work with a international group of producers, each with his own agenda, to base the film on an uncelebrated source material (Alberto Moravia’s Il Disprezzo), to cast Brigitte Bardot as the female lead, and to channel and process it all through a gaudy CinemaScope/Technicolor apparatus. On paper, this list of choices still threatens to break the Wave. Yet Godard understood that confronting film art and industry could be most powerful by manipulating mainstream film’s most recognizable elements rather than basking in outsider status.
Contemporary directors who have followed Godard’s lead in this respect include David Lynch, whose Mulholland Drive was literally a failed soap operatic television pilot turned on its head and revived into a surrealistic feature film, and Pedro Almodóvar, whose entire career has celebrated the degree to which the style of design-heavy melodrama, when treated with artistry, can yield profundity through nakedly exposing our inner desires. The influence of Godard’s choices in Contempt are especially evident in the final image and line of Mulholland Drive (“Silencio”—the final, loaded word of both films) and throughout the plot of Almodovar’s recent Broken Embraces, which could be considered a loose remake of Contempt.
As Contempt is concerned with the frustrating gap between real life and cinema fantasy, the film opens with a quotation from critic Michael Mourlet (yet mistakenly attributed to André Bazin), which serves as a sort of thesis statement for the film that follows: “The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires”. Raoul Coutard’s tracking camera then rotates and tilts towards the audience, and we first engage with Contempt by staring into the machine that exists to generate our fantasies. The shot is not revolutionary (Vertov can claim the revolution), but the implication of the shot is a quite a revelation when combined with Mourlet’s words. Hence, if the camera is simply watching us, then it loses the power to create harmony with our desires and instead reminds us of the artifice inherent in the creation of those desires. Even more damning is the burden that has been transferred to us by this change of perspective—it is now up to us to enact and investigate the fantasy.
To watch the whole of Contempt is to experience variations on this initial mindbender, rendered over and over to feature length. The plot, in which a writer (Michel Piccoli’s “Paul”) is hired to rewrite the script for a screen adaptation of The Odyssey, and in the process loses his wife (Bardot’s “Camille”) to the film-within-the-film’s boorish American producer (Jack Palance’s fearlessly puerile ” Prokosch”), is nearly inconsequential when compared to the emphasis Godard places on principles of geometric shape, boldly contrasting colors, and the creative arrangement of vast interior and exterior spaces. Accompanying this heightened formalism is an indelible, gorgeously romantic musical score by Georges Delerue, and of course, the intoxicating beauty of Bardot.
Godard’s obsessive attention to these formal elements indicates that he wants the audience to consider the impact of their allure, and the events of the plot and dialogue mischievously turn the eye-catching locations (Cinecittà, a labyrinthine Roman apartment, the Isle of Capri) into less than desirable forays into fantasy. There is much to enjoy in the meta-narrative that one could discern from Godard rebelling against his own producers in his creation of the brash Prokosch, and the casting of legendary director Fritz Lang in the role of the put upon director of the film-within-the-film. Specifically, the contrast between the powerful Prokosch’s ignorance and the restrained Lang’s philosophical wisdom, creates a dialectic that indicates very clearly the conflicting directions Godard senses within the future evolution of film. To stage this discussion in a screening room wherein industry and art clash constantly is another sly use of setting.
Yet the main plot of the film—a disintegrating romantic relationship between Paul and Camille that could be understood as the characters’ unconscious enactment of events from The Odyssey—lacks the causality and resolution the audience might expect. This, too, is an intentional frustration of our desires and the film’s most provocative reversal of fantasy. The middle act of the film is an extended argument between the two characters, and both the domestic location and their interaction sporadically tease our wish for romantic fulfillment.
However, Godard has indicated from the opening shot that no such fulfillment will be available to us, and so the cryptically staged argument yields a series of deadlocks that play instead like the real life frustrations from which we hope to escape. At the beginning of the sequence, we want nothing more than to move in to that great apartment. By the end of the sequence, we cannot wait to move out. To borrow a line from Agnès Varda’s New Wave-influencing La Pointe Courte, “Instead of a haven for each other, it’s a constant revolt”.
While there will never be a substitute for seeing Godard’s formalist “film-film” projected at a cinema, the quality of this Blu-ray edition allows Contempt to reach an optimum format for home viewing. The transfer is superior to that of the officially out of print (but still available through the secondary market) double-disc Criterion Collection edition (spine number 171). However, several of the special features from the Criterion Collection release are missing from the StudioCanal Collection release. Features included on the Blu-ray edition are an introduction by Colin MacCabe, documentaries “Once Upon a Time There Was…Contempt” and “Contempt…Tenderly”, a conversation with Fritz Lang, and “The Dinosaur and the Baby”, which is a discussion between Lang and Godard.
Those features not carried over from the Criterion Collection release include an audio commentary with Robert Stam, additional documentaries “Contempt: Bardot et Godard” and “Paparazzi”, and a video interview with cinematographer Coutard. Therefore, in order to have the complete Contempt experience, it would be worth adding both the Criterion Collection and StudioCanal Collection releases to your DVD library.