New DVDs gather early work by Jean Renoir, Louis Malle

[24 April 2007]

By Terry Lawson

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Two of the greatest of all French filmmakers are the subjects of two new and revealing DVD retrospectives of their early work. The Jean Renoir Collector’s Box Set (Lionsgate, $29.99) features seven Renoirs and a new documentary about his work, while The Documentaries of Louis Malle: The Eclipse Series 2 (Eclipse/Criterion, $79.95) collects seven films he made concurrently with his award-winning fictional films.

The Renoir collection brings together two of his earliest silent films: 1925’s drama La Fille de l’Eau (Whirlpool of Fate) (3 stars), a pastoral melodrama about a young girl’s attempt to find refuge in the country; and 1926’s Nana (3 stars), an adaptation of an Emile Zola novel about an actress (Catherine Hesling) who becomes the unhappy mistress of a government official. Both movies are deeply indebted to American pioneer D. W. Griffith, and while there’s no knowing what Renoir was after with the experimental 1927 short Sur un Air de Charleston (Charleston Parade) (2 stars), a surreal tale of a black-faced space traveler, his 1928, humanistic interpretation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl, aka La Petite Marchande d’ Allumettes (3 stars) begins to establish the themes and style of the great films to follow.

One would be 1938’s classic La Marseille (4 stars), Renoir’s newsreel-styled re-creation of the beginnings of the French Revolution. It is the obvious centerpiece of this set, which includes two Renoir films originally made for French TV: 1959’s La Testament du Docteur Cordelier (3 stars), released as An Experiment in Evil in the United States, is a variation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and 1962’s Le Caporal Epingle, shown here in theaters as The Elusive Corporal, is something of a junior version of his masterpiece, Grand Illusion, telling the tale of three French soldiers from different backgrounds and different ranks in a German prison in WWII.

The documentary, Jean Renoir: An Auteur to Remember provides a good overview of his career and art for newcomers as well as professional insights from Martin Scorsese and personal ones from son Alain Renoir, a one time literature professor at Berkeley.

The Documentaries of Louis Malle is the second release from Criterion’s new specialty imprint Eclipse. Malle, director of classic dramas like Murmur of the Heart and Au Revoir les Enfants, began his career making documentaries, but even some of his ardent admirers are unaware he never stopped.

Malle’s most admired non-fiction work, what he always referred to as the most personal film of his career, was actually produced as a miniseries for French TV, though it had one of its rare theatrical screenings at the Detroit Film Theatre: 1969’s seven-part, six-hour Phantom India (4 stars) is an ambitious, hypnotic, humanist exploration of that country’s topography, culture, people, and religions; Malle would use footage from the project to create 1971’s stunning Calcutta (4 stars), a deeper look at the emerging mega city.

Included too are Humain, trop Humain (3 stars), Malle’s 1974 feature-length TV film about the effects of automation as typified by an automobile assembly line; Place de la Republique (3 stars), which has the director examining life on one Parisian street corner; God’s Country (3 stars), an English-language documentary made for PBS, that looks at life in a Minnesota farm town; And the Pursuit of Happiness, which uses his own experiences as a Frenchman transplanted in the U.S. (he married actress Candace Bergen) to look at the immigrant experience, and Vive le Tour his 1962 short about the bicycle race that would become a global phenomenon, the Tour de France.

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ALSO NEW THIS WEEK:
Two of the best performances of last year, or any year, came courtesy of two of the grand dames of British acting. The Queen, (4 stars, Miramax. $29.99) cast Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II attempting to understand, with the prodding of new Prime Minister Tony Blair, the outpouring of grief that accompanied the death of Princess Diana. Mirren won a best actress Oscar for her performance. As good as she was, the statuette could just as deservedly have gone to Judi Dench, who was sinister and astonishing as the scheming, embittered schoolteacher who befriends new hire Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal (4 stars, Fox, $29.99) and stands behind her when she is accused of having sex with a student.

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TV ON DVD:
The armchair detective is a staple of crime fiction. But the concept got wheels and a fine, mobile support team in Ironside, the show that brought Perry Mason star Raymond Burr back to weekly TV in 1967, and whose original 28 episodes are collected in the 8-disc The Complete First Season (Shout! Factory, $59.98). The DVD introduces Burr as a flinty, tough, and often frustrated (if never self-pitying) paralyzed detective who takes a job as special consultant with the LAPD, and recruits a team rife with conflict and personal issues (his driver was an angry African American played by Don Mitchell) to be his “legs.” In the pilot, they hunt for the sniper who brought him down. The jazzy score is provided by Oliver Nelson. Quincy Jones wrote the title theme.

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FAMILY PICK OF THE WEEK:
There’s nothing terribly novel about last year’s Night at the Museum (3 stars, Fox. $29.98). It stars Ben Stiller as a divorced dad who, fearing his ex-wife will have to cut off his visitation with his son if he’s evicted from his apartment, reluctantly takes a job as night security guard at New York’s Museum of Natural History. But any kid under 12 will be amazed and amused when exhibits like the reconstructed T-Rex, the Native-American diorama and the statue of Teddy Roosevelt come alive when the museum is closed, and mayhem ensues. It’s also available in a 2-disc Special Edition ($39.98), but the special effects magic can be best appreciated in Blu-ray ($39.98); they’ll even send grown-ups running for cover.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/new-dvds-gather-early-work-by-jean-renoir-louis-malle/