Unseen cinema

DVDs provide unprecedented access to underground films—both old and new

“Oramunde” (1933), from Unseen Cinema box set

“Oramunde” (1933), from Unseen Cinema box set

Unseen Cinema, the title of a remarkable new DVD box set on early experimental film, is an apt term for what movie-lovers are encountering in the era of digital video. Contemporary cineastes live in a world which, thanks to the DVD in particular, has extensive and unprecedented access to film history and to world cinema. But we’re also stuck in a period in which it’s less and less likely that we’ll be able to see the best new films, foreign-language films in particular, in actual movie theaters.

The Story of Marie and Julien

The continuing good news with the DVD phenomenon is that many of the outstanding foreign films that don’t appear in local theaters—our contemporary “unseen cinema"—do still come to us, and often with some dispatch, on DVD. Part of the bad news of this phenomenon is that it looks as though DVD is altering the whole business of film distribution, here and everywhere else, with the net result that, here in the United States, some major foreign films go “straight-to-DVD” and never get into the theaters at all.

Be that as it may, there’s plenty of good news on these matters. Four of the great figures of the French New Wave—Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais—have new films out. Godard’s is the only one to have even token theatrical distribution in the U.S., but all four are now available on DVD:

Notre Musique

The Color of Lies This is more than just another of Claude Chabrol’s Franco-Hitchcockian crime films in a provincial setting. It’s also a sharply written and beautifully acted drama in which a half-dozen intriguing and increasingly ambiguous characters get caught in the fallout from the murder of a local schoolgirl in a small coastal town. The new police commissioner (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) has a second homicide on her hands even before the first one is half-solved. And her prime suspect, an anguished painter (Jacques Gamblin), is the only one of the local folks who’s behaving as if he’s got a guilty secret of some sort. The painter’s wife (Sandrine Bonnaire), a celebrity writer (Antoine de Caunes), a duplicitous handyman (Pierre Martot) and a couple of eccentric shopkeepers (Bulle Ogier and Noel Simsolo) are prominent among the small-town folk involved. The crimes get solved, but the mysteries of character keep cropping up, with the biggest one of all coming at the finish.

Not On the Lips

The Story of Marie and Julien A chance meeting between a reclusive clockmaker (Polish icon Jerzy Radziwilowicz) and a mysterious woman (French star Emmanuelle Beart) from his past sets off a dreamlike chain of events. A new romance begins to form between them, but seemingly forgotten difficulties of the earlier relationship also begin to resurface. A lost letter, a blackmail scheme and another woman (Anne Brochet) and her troubled sister insinuate themselves into the fascinatingly ambiguous action. One or more of the characters may be trapped in an unfinished dream as well, but master auteur Jacques Rivette (La Belle Noiseuse, Va Savoir, etc.) maintains a haunting mixture of realistic style and surrealist mood throughout. It’s an enigmatic love story played out with compelling artfulness.

A Talking Picture

Not On the Lips More than forty years after classics like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais is still making extraordinary movies. Here he has taken an operetta from 1925 and put it into astonishingly fresh form—a combination period piece, movie musical, bedroom farce and post-modernist rumination on love, art, money, memory and time. The production remains faithful to the period and the artifice of the original, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about the onscreen results. An attractive cast—Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi, Audrey Tautou, Lambert Wilson, Jalil Lespert—excels with the comedy and the songs alike. Wilson’s American accent and Darry Cowl’s turn as a concierge in drag are special sidelights in a film that has many of them.

Notre Musique For the still-edgy enfant terrible of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, cinema and history have become inextricably—and confoundingly—intertwined. His latest feature-length cine-essay on the arts and modern events brings a Dante-esque structure to a series of reflections on war, politics and culture. “Hell” is an astonishingly moving montage of war scenes from the full history of cinema. “Purgatory” is present-day Sarajevo where real-life artists and intellectuals (including novelist Juan Goytisolo, poet Mamoud Darwish and Godard himself) are meeting with assorted fictional characters (including two young Jewish women, Judith and Olga) at a literary conference. In “Paradise,” Olga walks through pastoral landscapes in which the dilemmas of the previous parts still hover in the margins. Godard’s performance, as both lecturer and traveler in “Purgatory,” constitutes perhaps the warmest and most complex of his many roles in his own movies—going all the way back to a key bit part in his first film (Breathless, 1959).

Intimate Strangers

There has also been a small flood of impressive French-language films from younger directors plus one by the nonagenarian Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira:

A Talking Picture On a shipboard journey to several major European ports, a Portuguese history teacher (Leonore Silveira) takes her young daughter on a tour of western civilization’s landmarks. Eventually the passengers also include women from France (Catherine Deneuve), Italy (Stefania Sandrelli) and Greece (Irene Papas), and the ship’s captain (John Malkovich) is presiding over their multi-lingual conversations about the state of the world. You might call it a magical history tour, but it’s also a serious and gravely charming mixture of documentary and allegory on the times we find ourselves in.

Tomorrow We Move The Belgian-born experimentalist Chantal Akerman offers up another of her offbeat forays into the territory of romantic comedy. A writer of erotic novels (Sylvie Testud) allows her idiosyncratic mother (Aurore Clement) to move into her split-level apartment, but soon decides they should move out to yet another place. Putting your own place up for sale turns out to be an interesting way to meet new people, including an avuncular salesman (Jean-Pierre Marielle) and a disenchanted newlywed (Natacha Regnier). Complications, romantic and otherwise, ensue. The result is both thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly “experimental.”

Red Lights An unhappy couple (Jean-Pierre Daroussin and Carole Boiuquet) take a short road trip; they quarrel, and eventually get separated; a menacing hitch-hiker (Vincent Deniard) intrudes in the meantime, and things start to get scary. Daroussin is superb as a troubled guy trying to recover a sense of self-worth in Cedric Kahn’s lively adaptation of a character-driven Georges Simenon thriller.

Intimate Strangers An amiably kooky young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) enters an office and begins talking to a businessman (Fabrice Luchini) whom she has mistaken for a psychiatrist. The businessman finds her interesting and does not point out her error; they embark on a schedule of regular doctor-patient visits, and the two of them get so thoroughly involved in the improvised relationship that their strange, darkly funny story continues well beyond the point that the mistake and the deceptions come to light.

And those box sets of ‘unseen” experimental short films definitely deserve a closer look as well:

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941 This box set (seven discs, 155 films, 19 hours) is a monumental gathering of early and rare short films in a range of experimental and innovative modes. There are entire discs devoted to American surrealism, portraits of New York City and experiments with abstract imagery. A perhaps overly broad application of the term “avant garde” permits the inclusion of brief pioneer efforts by Thomas Edison, Edwin S. Porter, Billy Bitzer, D. W. Griffith, etc., all of which prove to be of genuine interest. But Unseen Cinema is especially noteworthy for its splendid, wide-ranging offerings of beautifully restored gems from the heroic between-the-world-wars period of avant garde art. There are generous and intriguing selections from the film work of artist Joseph Cornell and photographer Rudy Burckhardt. For example, the New York City films include little treasures like the Paul Strand-Charles “Sheeler Manhatta” (1921) and Jay Leyda’s “A Bronx Morning” (1936). The classic “Ballet Mecanique” (1924), a collaboration between American filmmaker Dudley Murphy and French artist Fernand Leger, appears here in a fully restored version, complete with a rendition of Georges Antheil’s original score. And it’s also very nice to see a couple of rare lyrical documentaries by big-name artists getting wider circulation at long last—photographer Walker Evans’ “Travel Notes” and playwright Lynn Riggs’ “A Day in Santa Fe.” But perhaps Unseen Cinema‘s biggest surprises for lovers of film art are in eye-opening experiments, little known and rarely shown, like Jerome Hill’s archetypal “Fortune Teller” and Henwar Rodakiewicz’s oblique “Portrait of a Young Man.”

Avant Garde: Experimental Cinema from the 1920s and 1930s This smaller, less costly set (two discs, six hours of film) has some overlap with Unseen Cinema, but it is a first-rate collection with a European focus. Even in the absence of key titles by Bunuel/Dali and Rene Clair, it boasts excellent editions of landmark work by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Germaine Dulac, Hans Richter and Robert Florey. Rare items that are especially welcome include one of Jean Painleve’s “surrealist” nature documentaries and two exceptional films from the much-discussed but little-seen Jean Epstein. And where else can you find all that alongside evocative music-and-montage shorts by old masters like Sergei Eisenstein ("Romance Sentimentale") and Joris Ivens ("Rain"), plus Pauline Kael’s favorite silent film, Dmitri Kirsanoff’s “Menilmontant” (France, 1926), with a new musical score?