Catch French filmmakers' early works
By Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press
By Terry Lawson
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) features seven Renoirs and a new documentary about his work, while "The Documentaries of Louis Malle: The Eclipse Series 2" (Eclipse/Criterion) 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"), a pastoral melodrama about a young girl's attempt to find refuge in the country; and 1926's "Nana," 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"), 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" begins to establish the themes and style of the great films to follow.
One would be 1938's classic "La Marseille," 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 It is the obvious centerpiece of this set, which includes two Renoir films originally made for French TV: 1959's "La Testament du Docteur Cordelier," released as "An Experiment in Evil" in the United States, is a variation of Robert Louis Stevenson's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 Documentaries of Louis Malle" is the second release from Criterion's new specialty imprint Eclipse. Malle, director of classic dramas such as "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 nonfiction work, what he always referred to as the most personal film of his career, was actually produced as a miniseries for French TV: 1969's seven-part, six-hour "Phantom India" 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," a deeper look at the emerging mega city.
Included, too, are "Humain, trop Humain," Malle's 1974 feature-length TV film about the effects of automation as typified by an automobile assembly line; "Place de la Republique," which has the director examining life on one Parisian street corner; "God's Country," 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 Candice 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.
Two of the best performances of last year, or any year, came courtesy of two of the grand dames of British acting. "The Queen," (Miramax) 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" (Fox) and stands behind her when she is accused of having sex with a student.
TV ON DVD
The armchair detective is a staple of crime fiction. But the concept got wheels and a fine, mobile support team in "Ironsides," the show that brought "Perry Mason" star Raymond Burr back to weekly TV in 1967, and whose original 28 episodes are collected in the eight-disc "The Complete First Season" (Shout! Factory). 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.