That’s the ticket

CN&R’s lead film critic looks at some quality films that missed local theaters

DVDs ARE A FILM LOVER’S BEST FRIEND A scene from the Facets video release of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiorstami’s Close Up

DVDs ARE A FILM LOVER’S BEST FRIEND A scene from the Facets video release of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiorstami’s Close Up

Rated 4.0

The trend continues—if you want to see quality films these days, you’ve got a better chance of catching them on video than in actual movie theaters. Even not counting the restored classics from the treasure-house of the Criterion Collection, there’s an abundance of good, new stuff coming out in the various video formats: DVD, VHS, cable.

The emergence of DVD as a desirable and affordable format has particularly helped this trend gain momentum. The “extras"—deleted scenes, audio commentary, companion footage and documentaries—are a real boon to the film buff, but now there are companies that are giving significant foreign films their first real American release—and exclusively on DVD in some cases.

In the midst of the post-holidays, pre-Oscar doldrums, you may not be finding much of interest in the theaters. But the video-outfitted moviegoer can set up a first-rate personal film festival with comparative ease.

Currently, for example, a cluster of films by major international directors (Jacques Rivette, Abbas Kiarostami, Vera Chytilova, etc.) are getting released on DVD; a Sundance Festival hit from 2001, Christopher Munch’s Sleepy Time Gal, is getting belated distribution via the Sundance Channel itself; one of the best foreign films of 2001, The Princess and the Warrior, left town before we could give it a full review but is out in both video formats now; and an earlier and previously overlooked film by the creators of Memento is out in a DVD with special options.

Jacques Rivette is one of the major figures of the French New Wave, but American moviegoers haven’t had many chances to see his films. Paris Belongs to Us, (1960), L’Amour Fou (1971), Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), and La Belle Noiseuse (1993) established him as a world-class filmmaker, but until his Va Savoir turned up at the Pageant earlier this year, the only Rivette films that made it to this neck of the woods were infrequent one-shot screenings at Chico State.

Like many of the New Wave directors, Rivette is intellectual, well read, and a connoisseur of film history, and his films reflect all that. Despite that profile and an affinity for films with longish running times (often close to three hours), Rivette almost always has at least one foot in the familiar, audience-friendly genres. Part of the special appeal of his best films comes from their quirky mixture of experimentalism and entertainment.

Various combinations of those qualities are on view in the three Rivette films that Images Entertainment is currently premiering exclusively on DVD—Wuthering Heights (1985), The Gang of Four (1988) and Secret Defense (1998). Add Va Savoir, La Belle Noiseuse and two other recent video releases—the quasi-musical Up/Down/ Fragile (1995) and the four-hour epic Joan the Maid (1997)—and there can be little doubt that Rivette is one of the great figures in recent world cinema.

Rivette’s version of Wuthering Heights moves the classic story to rural France in the 1930’s, and the result is surely the most restrained and austere version of Brontë's novel on film. With a youthful cast and locations that are both attractive and harsh, Rivette mixes something like the formality of Greek tragedy into this “modernization” of the story of doomed love, and the overall effect is a peculiarly beguiling combination of the ancient and the contemporary.

The Gang of Four is not as overtly political as its title might make it sound, but it does combine two of Rivette’s favorite subjects—a group of stage actors at work and a large, mysterious house with elements of another favorite: the paranoid thriller. The title characters are fledgling actresses in a cultish acting school run by the quietly charismatic Constance Dumas (Bulle Ogier). The film’s mixture of theatricality and documentary realism ease us into the increasingly precarious situations that develop when a seemingly helpful stranger (Benoit Regent) gets variously (and separately) involved with several of the women.

In Secret Defense , Sandrine Bonnaire (who also stars in Rivette’s Joan of Arc film) plays a research scientist who tries to take charge of a mystery surrounding her father’s death and gets much more trouble than she bargained for. Rivette creates some dazzling sequences out of an almost-documentary approach to elements of the paranoid thriller, but the action gravitates toward a large country house in which the secret and troubling lives of several characters come into a troubling half-light. The simple acts of riding and changing trains becomes an exquisitely perilous kind of adventure under Rivette’s eye here.

Actress Franka Potente (the starlet behind Run Lola Run) commands the screen in the Princess and the Warrior, from her boyfriend, German director Tom Tykwer. Both critically acclaimed films have seen recent DVD and video release.

One of the several surprising things about Tom Tykwer’s The Princess and the Warrior is that, despite its title, it is not a medieval fantasy. On the contrary, it has a rather grubby and unpromising setting in the contemporary world, and another of its surprises is that it has much of the spirit of Tykwer’s breakthrough film Run Lola Run and the same star (Franka Potente) but strikingly different circumstances.

Potente plays Sissi, a shy psychiatric nurse who crosses paths with a petty thief named Bodo (Benno Furmann) when she is run over by freight truck while the latter is fleeing a botched robbery on foot. Bodo is a desperately alienated sort, but he sees a certain responsibility for the accident and goes to Sissi’s rescue and improvises a means of keeping her from choking to death while still lying under the truck.

After her ostensibly “miraculous” recovery from her injuries, Sissi seeks out her gloomily self-deprecating rescuer, and the two of them begin to emerge as the princess and warrior of the title, but not without a good deal of further drama and conflict first.

Sissi, a virtual saint in the eyes of the asylum’s inmates, keeps getting knocked flat and bouncing right back. Bodo, who has an otherworldly calm as he wades heedlessly into oncoming traffic, is full of hostility and tortured regrets.

Beyond all that, there’s also an elaborate bank robbery in which the carefully laid plans of Bodo and his older brother come unhinged and Sissi, a not entirely accidental bystander, intervenes on Bodo’s behalf. And when Bodo takes refuge in the asylum, both he and Sissi get caught in the crossfire of her now-disrupted relationships with various male inmates. Like Run Lola Run, the new film generates extraordinary pleasure and interest out of some wild swerves of narrative logic. In this case, the story’s marvelous zigzags are part of some inspired play between madness and sanity. Potente’s glowingly modest performance is especially effective in transplanting the mythic dimension implied by the title and making a case for goodness in the madhouse of the world they drift through (the actual location is Tykwer’s hometown of Wuppertal).

The Princess and the Warrior seems to drift into more conventional romance in its later stages, but the first two thirds of it are so far off the charts (in daring, ambition, and reckless insight) that I’ve split the difference and blown the top off Mr. Popcorn once again. It’s an imperfect film, but its best parts are exhilaratingly rewarding.

See it on DVD if you can: It’s a beautifully composed widescreen film, and the “extras” include a selection of deleted scenes, some of which are little masterpieces in their own right.

Abbas Kiorstami’s Close Up, released by Facets Multimedia on DVD, is yet another sign of the brilliant simplicity of contemporary Iranian cinema. This docudrama about a film fan impersonating a famous Iranian director is loaded with little surprises and small beauties. Not in the same league with the director’s Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, but inspired moviemaking all the same.

Vera Chytilova’s Daisies is the gem of Facets’ new package of Czech films from the 1960s. It’s Cinema of the Absurd with a streak of marvelously rambunctious feminist diatribe running through. The title characters are two hilariously irreverent young women in bikinis whose antics punctuate Chytilova’s brashly wide-ranging montages. Bohemian humor and the Czech brand of Surrealism are in full, gaudy, semi-psychedelic flower here.

Lemonade Joe, also from Facets’ Czech package, is an exceptionally intelligent and inspired spoof of the American western. The title character rides, shoots, sings, and makes pitches for Kolaloka Lemonade. If it’s not the funniest comic western ever made, it’s almost certainly the smartest and the best.

Sleepy Time Gal is a thorny relationship movie with Jacqueline Bisset as a middle-aged beauty battling cancer and trying to keep her conflicted, loose-knit family from flying totally apart. Seymour Cassel and Marsha Plimpton add to the pathos and the intensity of the characterizations. First run, on Sundance Channel in March and April.

Following might be an earlier version of Memento, but in black and white and with British accents. The rationale for the scrambled, disjointed narrative is somewhat different here, but it too is a brilliant demonstration of arrangement-via-disarrangement. Rent it on DVD for the extra function that shows you how it would all look if told "straight."