Films for Fans of Visionary Directors

In film, "visionary" has become a marketing adjective, like "iconic". Here, on the matter of visionary directors, we separate the claret from the beaujolais, if you will.

Even a Visionary's Bad Stuff Is Rich

If you had cable TV in the '80s, you must have seen Scanners (1981), and if you weren't around yet, you're in for a ghastly treat. The faceless corporate paranoia has hardly dated, even if some of the superficial styles have, and psycho-kinetic stuff still blows up real good just as you start to feel the throbbing in your own temples. In 1981, some found it derivative of Brian DePalma's The Fury, a senseless movie that looked terrible on TV but still had astonishing setpieces, like the death of Carrie Snodgress' character. (DePalma knows nothing if not how to kill women.)

Scanners (1981)

Today, we see Cronenberg's movie properly within the context of his own transition from gory "body horror" (which he practically invented, and I won't be surprised if Criterion next latches onto his agonized divorce drama The Brood) to the more intellectual path he's followed for the last 20 years. This path seems to disappoint some fans who miss the blood and guts, like the Woody Allen fans who yearn for his "early, funny movies", but I find Cronenberg as strong and willful as ever. A Dangerous Method is as beautiful, brainy, seductive, and roiling as anybody could want, unless it's just me.

Mmm, this martini is a bit on the tart and bitter side, don't you think?

The Lunchbox (2013)

After a diet of the unnerving, I enjoyed Ritesh Batra's modest and affirmative The Lunchbox. It builds from a culturally specific situation, Mumbai's lunchbox delivery system, and arrives at universal truths about friendship and choices. Thanks to a mix-up, an isolated and prickly desk-worker (Irrfan Khan) on the verge of retirement begins trading lunchtime notes with an equally lonely and frustrated young housewife (Nimrat Kaur).

As their epistolary confessions become more personal, we eavesdropping viewers become increasingly interested to know where this is going. Batra conveys this simple idea in the modern manner of handheld docu-realism, acted naturalistically without a music score (although recordings and street performers are elements in the story), and with many long-held middle-distance compositions focused on the man's careful, nuanced behavior. Batra doesn't reveal himself as a visionary, merely a humanist working an honorable field with tools he understands.

If you want a visionary who's affirmative yet stringent, extravangantly colorful yet off-putting in a good way, look no farther than Jacques Demy, a highly personal artist in a tangential relation to the French New Wave. Criterion's The Essential Jacques Demy gathers six films and garnishes with generous helpings of bonus shorts (four by the man himself), documentaries (two by his wife, Agnès Varda), and interviews with all and sundry, as is their wont.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Here you'll find his most famous and beloved film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) with Catherine Deneuve, a candy-colored confection in which all dialogue is sung and scored by Michel Legrand. It burst out as an apotheosis of his worldview of criss-crossed lovers and yearning souls, as expressed in the earlier black and white Lola with Anouk Aimée and Bay of Angels with Jeanne Moreau. All these have previously been on DVD from Koch-Lorber, but these new digital restorations supercede those.

The Young Girls of Rochefort, sometimes incorrectly labeled a sequel to Cherbourg, is the only film to co-star Deneuve with her sister Françoise Dorléac, who died shortly after. It's another gorgeously colored musical, with appearances by Gene Kelly and George Chakiris. I saw this film in Paris (how I love saying that) and was underwhelmed, so I understand Jonathan Rosenbaum's remarks in the booklet that the film is loved in France "but tends to be an acquired taste elsewhere."

8 Women (2002)

Now that I'm more mature (ahem), I better appreciate its expression of Demy's personal vision, and of course now I've seen such loving homages as Ozon's 8 Women (2002). I agree with Rosenbaum's insight that this movie manages to be disconcertingly more realistic and more artificial than we expect our musicals to be. I still think Kelly sticks out a bit, but this whole movie sticks out a bit.

Donkey Skin (1970)

Meanwhile, the fairy tale Donkey Skin (1970) is sheer glittering perfection. It stars Deneuve again, appropriately cast as a princess; Jean Marais (of Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, to which the film delicately winks) as her father the king, who decides to marry her (this ain't Disney!); and goddess Delphine Seyrig, also appropriately cast as her hip fairy godmother. This is another release that renders the previous Koch-Lorber disc superfluous.

What a strange treat is the sixth feature, the one I hadn't seen before, the almost wilfully concealed Une Chambre en Ville. Set in 1955 Nantes, Demy's home town in Brittany, during bitter clashes between striking dockworkers and police, this is another all-singing, pseudo-operatic vision in gorgeous colors, with everyone's pastel outfits matching the wallpaper. It follows 24 hours in the life of more ecstatically mismatched lovers, a world in which nobody can get or keep what they want. In an extra interview, Demy refutes the observation made by some that "it's like Umbrellas of Cherbourg", because it sure isn't. This is an essentially political, class-based tale and a tragic one.

One thing I've always admired about Cherbourg is that it acknowledges all the melodramatic feelings of love without capitulating to them, because it's wise enough to know that they pass and leave one rueful. In this sense, it's a Gallic equivalent to Splendor in the Grass. If that's the rueful ending and Rochefort contrives the ironically happy ending, this 1982 film contrives the tragic ending whose very absurdity and unnecessary-ness is the point, and an appropriate one.

Although Demy's complete output is available in a French boxed set, I understand (regretfully) Criterion's hesitation to clear all rights issues of the minor titles, especially since the remarkable Hollywood production Model Shop (or "Lola Goes to Zabriskie Point") is already available, as is the British co-production The Pied Piper, albeit in notably unrestored prints. But I've still never had the chance to see A Very Pregnant Man with Marcello Mastroianni, the musical Parking with Jean Marais, the cross-dressing adventure Lady Oscar, and few others.

Jacquot de Nantes (1991)

Like a Demy character, I yearn restlessly for what I may never have: a follow-up set, perhaps called "The Inconsequential Jacques Demy". And I urge you to seek out Varda's loving and beautiful Jacquot de Nantes (1991), which is perhaps the only biopic about a film director's life (and certainly the only one made with its subject's participation), and a masterpiece.

Judex (1963)

Have a few more truffles. I can't stop talking until I've mentioned another film by a wilfully independent French filmmaker, another title I'd heard about for years and never got to see until Criterion just brought it out: Georges Franju's Judex (1963), the hypnotic tribute from visionary auteur to another. As the extras explain, it's his remake of one of Louis Feuillade's silent films -- not the one he really wanted to remake, though, because he'd have preferred one that concentrates on the villain instead of the good guy. But then, as he also explains in an interview, this Judex is really a bastard anyway!

Feuillade's films were celebrated by the Surrealists for their straightforwardly staged presentation of complicated twists and reversals and masquerades so fantastic and absurd, they enter a dreamlike realm of mysterious figures populating pretty landscapes. Franju's version rushes slowly, as it were, from one oxymoronic histrionically-restrained setpiece to another, unraveling a never-ending series of kidnappings and false deaths whose narrative path can just about be inferred by indirection. The most celebrated sequence involves a masked ball in which Judex wears a giant bird-head, as if in reference to famous etchings by Max Ernst, although the interview with co-writer Jacques Champreux (Feuillade's grandson) identifies another source: cartoonist J.J. Grandville.

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

The plot cannot be sensibly described, but there's a lot of it. American magician Channing Pollock plays the title role. The wispy and large-eyed Edith Scob (Franju's Eyes Without a Face ) is the fainting heroine, while Francine Bergé dominates all as the relentlessly evil and ingenious villainess. She got the part after Franju saw her in a scandalous success from the Cannes Film Festival, Les Abysses, which Wikipedia describes thusly: "A violent and surrealistic mixture of farce and social commentary, its story was inspired by the real-life case of the Papin sisters." Goodness, now that's another I have to see somehow. Hello, Criterion? It would have too much to ask for that one as an extra.

Also present on the disc are two shorts by Franju. One is about disfigured survivors of war and a museum of war, and the other is a gentle docudrama recreation of the life of another landmark magician of cinema, Georges Méliès (played by his own son). I like an artist who doesn't forbear to honor his forebears. Now let me publicly express the hope that Criterion (or somebody) will continue to mine Region 1's undisc-ified Franju, especially Head Against the Wall, Therese Desqueyroux, Thomas the Impostor and Shadowman.

Looking back over our little tête-à-tête, you must think I fall into raptures over everything I see, especially if it has "Criterion" on the label. I assure you it isn't so, and not every acclaimed filmmaker seems to me to have vision, much less be a visionary. I've never "gotten" writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, who either pillages old genres in uninteresting ways (Body Heat, Silverado ) or presents us with "serious" films about characters in crisis, as in Grand Canyon and The Big Chill (1983). The latter is now on Criterion, signifying its acceptance as the landmark it was hailed as by my college generation in 1981 amid Oscar nominations and soundtrack sales.

The Big Chill (1983)

I was among the few left cold by it, and I was surprised by its projective nostalgic appeal to people in their 20s. They weren't children of the '60s (except literally), but it was as though they were already looking forward to their Big Chill reunion moments, perhaps because this movie promised they'd be pretty, witty, and well-employed. Well, you've had it now, folks, and how was it? At my reunion, all the women looked fabulous and the men had gone to pot.

But you know, I often consider Pauline Kael's point that we can't hang on to our old opinions. We find that films we recall fondly haven't retained their shine, but it's harder to find examples where we reverse a negative opinion, simply because we don't go out of our way to revisit what we didn't like in the first place. How are we ever going to discover the gold to which we'd previously been blind? So this new edition, carefully curated with interviews and reunions, provides the perfect excuse to revisit my old prejudices after 30 years.

The story's about a group of college chums, out of touch in more ways than one, who spend a weekend burying their youthful dreams along with their suicided Golden Boy, and discover (or at least the viewer does) that none of them has interesting problems or lives, a point they paper over with enough witty one-liners to choke Neil Simon and enough classic music to pass for emotion.

It all comes back to me: Meg Tilly's young outsider felt like the only real and surprising character at the time, and she still does. Glenn Close plays the index who lets us know how sad each scene is by the tracks of her tears. William Hurt plays the lump who can't get through a conversation without mentioning that a Vietnam injury left him unable to have sex, of which he seems to have a limited definition. I find that this slice of modest soul-searching among the well-groomed doesn't make me grate my teeth anymore at the thought that it's supposed to represent anybody's generational snapshot (no fear), but it's still an easy, forgettable foray.

I kept wishing Eric Rohmer had made it. John Sayles did, as Return of the Secaucus Seven, which I prefer without loving. Now it occurs to me that Louis Malle made it much later, as May Fools, and that was tiresome, too. It looks like the times, they're not so much a-changing after all, or at least my impression of films on that subject. They could all take a cue from Kasdan and borrow profundity from a '60s song: "What a drag it is getting old".

Snap out of it. I keep telling you, the movies can still be as personal and visionary as ever. And isn't this a lovely little Bordeaux? Try the manchego cheese with quince, you won't be sorry.

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