From DVD Beaver (posted June 2008). Some of these listings may be out of date — and in the case of Godard’s Histoire(s), superseded by subsequent American and/or Blu-Ray editions. — J.R.
Coming up with my favorite box sets from abroad is a far cry from compiling a list of my favorite films on DVD, foreign or otherwise, even if some of my favorite films are represented here. The problem is, as Mick Jagger puts it, you can’t always get what you want. To start with an extreme example, my favorite Hou Hsiao-hsien film is most likely The Puppetmaster (1993), but my least favorite of all the DVDs of Hou films in my collection happens to be the Winstar edition of that film. It’s so substandard —- not even letterboxed, and packaged so clumsily — that I’m embarrassed to find myself quoted on the back of the box, especially with the quotation mangled into tortured grammar.
I’ve aimed for a certain geographical spread as well as some generic balance: popular comedies, art films, experimental films, and one serial; DVDs from Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Admittedly, roughly half of my selections come from France, and a quarter of them, to my surprise, comes from a single label, Gaumont —- maybe because this blockbuster company seems to specialize in blockbuster box sets. But it’s hard to think of artists more dissimilar than Feuillade, Godard, and Guitry, so even here there’s pretty much of a spread.
After much hesitation, I’ve decided to omit one awesome French box set that lacks any sort of English translation — Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (on Arte Video) — even though I’ve unapologetically included another, Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas, as well as many others that have a few untranslated features. But, just the same, there are plenty of things that would make this missing item delectable even if you don’t understand a word of French, such as full-color reproductions of the letters, snapshots, and clippings Resnais sent to screenwriter Marguerite Duras while scouting Hiroshima locations, and three of Resnais’ major black and white shorts. As a former Parisian who spent part of my film education seeing many movies at the Cinémathèque Française without any sort of translation, I can still recommend this activity over not seeing some films at all.
The order of the list below is alphabetical, by title. I can’t guarantee that all of these are still in print or available–some are likely to be much harder to track down than others.
(NOTE: CLICK ON TITLES, COVERS OR UNDERLINED TEXT FOR LINKS)
|Compared to the Arte Vidéo boxset from France HERE||1) Buster Keaton: The Complete Short Films, 1917-1923
(Masters of Cinema, four discs + 184-page booklet) If you want a definitive edition of what some critics have called the purest examples of Keaton’s comedy, look no further. (James Agee, for one, wrote that “for plain hard laughter,” the Keaton shorts are even better than the features.) One of these early shorts — Moonshine (1918), codirected by “Fatty” Arbuckle — is incomplete, but the 31 other restorations are all intact, and they’re a joy to behold. And the accompanying book gives us, along with many illustrations, generous extracts from Keaton’s autobiography and several interviews as well as an extended critical roundtable on Keaton by three top-notch critics, Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Dan Sallitt, and Brad Stevens. Regrettably, I’ve only had room on this list for one set from the superb Masters of Cinema — an English series distributed by Eureka! that also offers essential works by Michelangelo Antonioni, Fritz Lang, Jean-Pierre Melville, Kenji Mizoguchi, F.W. Murnau, Mikio Naruse, G.W. Pabst, Luchino Visconti, and Orson Welles, among many others — but if you’ve never seen an example of their work, this release should provide an excellent introduction.
|2) Chantal Akerman Collection: Les Années 70/De Jaren ‘70 (Cinéart, five discs) Please note that this is the Belgian as opposed to the French set devoted to Chantal Akerman’s most radical period, an edition supervised by the filmmaker herself — which is the only one that has optional English (as well as Flemish) subtitles. The films included, all digitally remastered, are her two earliest shorts, Saute ma ville (1968) and La Chambre (1972), and her first five features — Hotel Monterey (1972), Je Tu Il Elle (1975), Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), News from Home (1976), and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978).|
The extras are quite remarkable — in most cases, major additions to Akerman scholarship: recent long conversations between Akerman and Babette Mangolte (her cinematographer on Jeanne Dielman), Aurore Clément (her lead actress in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna), and her mother Nathalia; a short 1996 interview with Akerman taken from the French TV documentary Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman; and, best of all, a feature-length 1975 documentary about the making of Jeanne Dielman, including some fascinating video footage of Akerman working with the title star, Delphine Seyrig. (This was made during a period when video reportage of this kind was still in its infancy, so the image quality here is fairly primitive and rough-hewn, but the interest of the content more than makes up for it.).
|3) The Chelsea Girls: un film di Andy Warhol (Minerva Video, two discs + 66-page bilingual booklet) The challenge here was how to transport Andy Warhol’s most commercial experimental feature to DVD without losing its most essential aspects. Shot in 16 millimeter between June and September 1966, the film consists of a dozen reels adding up to 394 minutes or about six and a half hours. But, as projected, the film lasts only half that long, 197 minutes, because it’s designed for simultaneous double-screen projection, usually with one reel projected with sound and the other reel projected silently.|
How shifting or fixed the arrangement of reels is supposed to be is a matter of some dispute. According to Warhol critic Peter Gidal, “color film is projected on the left, black-and-white on the right,” and “the two projectors are not synchronized and therefore at each showing the left screen image and the right screen image correspond differently.” According to Stephen Koch in another book about Warhol, “Tradition, rather than Warhol himself, has established the standard sequence of reels,” and according to Jonas Mekas, who established precise split-screen projection instructions, reel #2 on the left is supposed to start five minutes after reel #1 on the right, and the stretches of silence or sound or the occasional sound mixes between two reels are all predetermined.
The letterboxed version offered here seems to strike a rough compromise between these various versions. In a few cases we see a particular diptych twice, enabling us to hear the sound of each reel in turn while the adjacent reel runs silent. (There are 16 chapters in all.) There’s also a second disc of extras that includes Mekas’s 1982 Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol, a 2003 dialogue between Mekas and Paul Morrissey, and three additional bits of English-subtitled commentary by pontificating Italians —- Enrico Ghezzi, Mario Zonta, and Achille Bonitao Oliva. (Ghezzi, in homage to Warhol, speaks in a split-screen himself!)
|4) Coffret Charles Chaplin 10 DVD (mk2 éditions/Warner Video, ten discs)
Why, you may ask, include the French edition of this remarkable package when it’s also available as a region-1 set in the U.S.? Because a great deal of care and attention went into the French set, and the differences count.
Both versions, of course, include all of Chaplin’s features apart from The Countess from Hong Kong (the last and least of them), as well as the seven shorts comprising The Chaplin Revue, and also many remarkable extras, such as commentaries by other directors about individual Chaplin films — most notably, the Dardenne brothers on Modern Times, Claude Chabrol on Monsieur Verdoux, and Jim Jarmusch on A King in New York. So this is obviously a box set worth having in any form. But it’s more worth having if the packaging allows you to appreciate what’s there.
Consider the handling of a fascinating extra that’s included with Chaplin’s 1923 A Woman of Paris —- an elaborate, half-hour amateur film of 1926, a spoof called Camille, made in New York by one Ralph Barton and probably featuring more famous people on both sides of the Atlantic (over 50 of them, in fact) than any other home movie ever made. This was at the height of Prohibition, so there are loads of gags about people getting soused. The title heroine is played by Anita Loos, the flapper author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and prominent parts are also taken by her director husband John Emerson as well as Chaplin (who performs an encore of his famous Dance of the Rolls from The Gold Rush); other prominent actors include Paul Robeson, Ethel Barrymore, and Dorothy Gish. [2015 note: To see this film on YouTube, go HERE.]
The French edition of the DVD includes an elaborate guide to who plays whom and when — enabling us to discover, for instance, that speakeasy owner Gas House Charlie is played by Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson is the “ruined archeologist,” H.L. Mencken is a Prohibitionist and Clarence Darrow is a Prohibition agent. Sinclair Lewis plays the allegorical figures Love, Hate, Despair, Adultery, and Greed, while Alfred A. Knopf, in costume and makeup, is Abdul-el-Hamman, a white slave trader — none of which we’re likely to figure out if we have only the U.S. edition to go by, where the packagers couldn’t care less about any of this.
Perhaps my favorite extra on any DVD appears on the region-1 DVD of D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921). It’s a radio eulogy for Griffith delivered by Erich von Stroheim when Griffith died, and it ends with Stroheim bursting into tears. Imagine how diminished this speech might be if Kino Video had decided that it didn’t matter who delivered the speech, and therefore didn’t bother to mention it. That’s the kind of treatment we get on the American edition of this box set.
|5) Fantômas(Gaumont, two discs + 32-page booklet) For me, the most enjoyable movies made by anyone during the teens are the French serials made for Gaumont by Louis Feuillade — especially Fantômas (1913-1914), Les vampires (1915-1916), Judex (1917), and Tih Minh (1919). (Barrabas, which he made just after the teens, in 1920, is also quite wonderful.) Tih Minh, my favorite, hasn’t yet made it onto DVD, even though it’s been restored, but both Les vampires and Judex are available in fine editions in the U.S. Fantômas is available in both France and the U.K., in editions that appear to be similar (the cover design is the same), but I can’t vouch for this, because I have and treasure only the French version. (Artificial Eye, the distributor of the English version, has generally been reluctant to send me review copies of their releases, unlike the British Film Institute, Masters of Cinema, and Second Run. According to English Amazon, their edition has the same running time as the French, but I don’t know if it has all of the same extras.)|
Properly speaking, Fantômas isn’t a serial in the same way the others are, because it consists of five feature-length episodes rather than ten or a dozen short episodes, and some of these are relatively independent of one another. (Their source is a series of 32 extremely popular novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre that started appearing in 1911.) But insofar as these episodes follow the exploits of a master criminal who goes under various disguises and has a secret gang, Fantômas clearly offers a prototype that the subsequent Feuillade serials would draw from in various ways.
The fabulous Gaumont box set has almost as many tricks up its sleeve as Fantômas himself. Go to the first menu on either disc, and after you hear a footsteps and a key unlocking a squeaky door in the darkness, three closed doors appear, asking you to choose one. Five of these six doors stand for separate episodes; the sixth leads to further extras. Then the following menu in the first five cases presents you with a room containing a desk, with half a dozen objects to choose from with your remote control — objects that are near the desk or on top of it or inside one of the drawers. One of the items on top of the desk is a reel of film, which leads you into the episode itself (beautifully tinted, with an effective orchestral score); all the others lead you into various hidden bonuses. (My favorite of these is a bit of magical footage that shows you Fantômas morphing through the spectrum of all his secret identities, within a few seconds; some of the others are short texts or period illustrations relating to the novels.).
|6) Histoire(s) du cinema (Gaumont, four discs) (Cinefil Imagica, five discs; www.cinefilimagica.com)
I have two separate editions of Jean-Luc Godard’s intransigent and beautiful magnum opus. The first one that appeared is the second one cited above, and the most expensive box set I’ve ever purchased from anywhere — even though it’s boxed fairly modestly, like a set of CDs. It has better sound and image, and an amazing feature that enables you to reference any moment in this eight-part video with your remote control, leading you to a citation (of the film a clip comes from, the name of an artwork, and perhaps even the source of each verbal quotation). The only glitch, and it’s a major one, is that this feature is all in Japanese, and the only optional subtitles available on this Japanese set are also in Japanese. In fact, I’m not even sure if the URL cited above will take you to this set. (For that, you’re probably better off going to the Japanese branch of Amazon. – Ed. see HERE)
The Gaumont version, on the other hand, has optional English titles, though these are relatively spare, focusing basically on the same portions of the text that Godard has published in various languages in books included with the soundtrack of Histoire(s) du cinema on CDs. As I’ve pointed out before on this site (HERE), there is no completely satisfactory way to subtitle this multilingual work, especially because no one, including French speakers, can follow all of it, and even trying to translate most of what gets said or printed would itself create an impenetrable jungle for us to navigate. So this version is pretty acceptable, although it’s a pity that Gaumont didn’t take the trouble of subtitling any of the extras, which include Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s feature-length 2 X 50 Ans du Cinéma Français and two separate press conferences at Cannes, in 1988 and 1997 — apart from French subtitles to the portions of the 1988 press conference that are in English. By the way, there’s a third version of Histoire(s) du cinema, again with English subtitles, that Artificial Eye is supposed to be bringing out soon (HERE), if it hasn’t done so already. [2015 note: For the belated U.S. edition, go HERE.)
|7) Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Classics from 1983 to 1986 (Sino Movie, four discs + copiously illustrated 52-page booklet in Chinese with some foldout pages) Some of my choices here are partly inflected by the degree to which some box sets qualify as beautiful objects. This is certainly the case with this gorgeous and compact collection from Hong Kong, containing The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984), A Time to Live A Time to Die (1985), and Dust in the Wind (1984) — to quote the four titles just as they’re written on the box encasing the elegant fold-out container. All these films are impeccably letterboxed and furnished with optional English subtitles, so I couldn’t care less that the menus, apart from the films’ English titles, are all in Chinese. This is still very user-friendly, and the booklet attached to the foldout container, like the color illustrations on the discs themselves, is a pleasure even when one can’t read the words.|
|8) Orson Welles’ Macbeth (Wild Side Video, three discs + 80-page booklet in French) Macbeth may be my least favorite among Orson Welles’ three feature-length Shakespeare films, with neither the mystery of his Othello nor the human majesty of his Chimes at Midnight. But when it comes to a definitive DVD edition of any Welles film, I don’t think there’s any contest. This has everything you’d ever want to have: both versions of the film (released respectively in 1948 at 114 minutes and in 1950 at 85 minutes; both, one should stress, are Welles cuts, even though the second one was occasioned by Republic Pictures asking him for a redubbed and shortened version); a newsreel recording of the last four minutes of Welles’ 1936 “Voodoo” Macbeth, staged in Harlem (which is the only sound-film record that we have of any Welles stage production); and the full 78-minute audio version of the play done for 78 RPM records in 1940, with a cast of Mercury Theatre players and a Bernard Herrmann score) — all of which is impeccably restored. Then there’s more than an hour of additional extras that are in unsubtitled French, although the illustrations in some cases are likely to hold your interest. Most of these are discussions done separately by Jean-Pierre Berthomé and François Thomas, the two foremost French Welles scholars — whose excellent and very up-to-date book, Orson Welles at Work, which they wrote together, was published in English translation earlier this year.|
|9) Rendez-vous à Bray (Boomerang Pictures, two DVDs + one CD + 88-page paperback novel in French, Julien Gracq’s Le Roi Cophetua, + 36-page bilingual booklet in French and Flemish) This is surely the most obscure item here, but it’s such a lovely film — made in Belgium in 1972–and it receives so much loving care from the friends of the late writer-director André Delvaux that it deserves to be much better known. For one thing, it’s surely one of the most erotic films ever made, featuring both Anna Karina and Bulle Ogier at their most attractive. For another, it’s steeped in nostalgia for more or less the same era when Louis Feuillade’s serials were being made.|
| Try to imagine a quiet blend of Jules and Jim and Gertrud filmed in color (the cinematographer is the great Ghislain Cloquet, who also did superb work for Demy, Bresson, Polanski, and Penn)and you’ll start to get some idea of the mood of this adaptation of a novella by post-surrealist writer Julien Gracq. Most of it charts a mysterious night in 1917 spent by a Luxembourgian pianist and music journalist (Mathieu Carrière) who’s been summoned by a friend, a soldier and composer (Roger van Hool), to his house in a Paris suburb. The friend inexplicably never appears, but the woman (Karina) who prepares dinner, whose identity is never clarified, eventually takes him to bed. There are also several flashbacks involving the two friends as well as the soldier’s girlfriend (Oger), a character who doesn’t exist in Gracq’s story.
Most of this box set, an exquisite labor of love, is in French, Flemish/Dutch, and English — prepared with Delvaux’s input just a few weeks before his death. Philippe Raynaert’s graceful 24-minute intro spells out the contents, designed to show Delvaux’s close involvements with painting, music, literature, and cinema. All of these are evident in the feature, explicated in Raynaert’s lecture, and further represented, respectively, by Delvaux’s half-hour With Dieric Bouts (1975); his 20-minute Moviola (1985) about Frédéric Devresse (a composer he often collaborated with) plus a CD with music (including Brahms and Franck) and dialogue from the film; the Gracq story, published with a preface by Gracq about Delvaux; and Delvaux’s seven-minute 1001 Films (1989), dedicated to Jacques Ledoux, the former director of the Belgian Cinémathèque. (Delvaux used to perform piano accompaniments to silent films there — as the hero of Rendez-vous is seen doing in one of the flashbacks, at a commercial screening of Fantômas, no less.) There are also a couple of TV documentaries about the film’s production from the 70s.
|10) Sacha Guitry L’Age d’or 1936-1938 (Gaumont, eight discs) By far the heftiest piece of merchandise being considered here, this is a big box containing no less than nine features on eight discs, which is all the more remarkable when one considers that writer-director-actor-personality Sacha Guitry-yet another celebrity who turns up in the silent Camille included in the Chaplin box set — made all these films between 1938 and 1939! I haven’t yet been able to determine whether he was also doing any theater during the same two-year stretch, but even if he wasn’t, one certainly couldn’t fault him for being unproductive. For the record, the nine features included here, all provided with optional English subtitles, are Le Nouveau Testament, Le Roman d’un tricheur (many critics’ favorite), Mon Père avait raison, Faisons un Rêve, Les Perles de la Couronne (my own favorite, at least among those I’ve seen so far, and, as a trilingual wonder that unfolds almost simultaneously in French, English, and Italian, a genuine tour de force), Le Mot de Cambronne, Désiré, Quadrille, and Remontons les Champs-Elysées. There are also loads of extras, all unsubtitled, including interviews with such filmmakers as Olivier Assayas, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and François Truffaut.|
When I ordered this set last Christmas, my reasoning was that I was about to retire from my 20-year stint at The Chicago Reader and therefore would have plenty of time to plow my way through this collection, improving my French in the process. Now it’s half a year later, and I find that I’ve become far too busy writing articles like this one to even make a proper start. But hope springs eternal.
|11) 16 Films de Luc Moullet (Blaqout, four discs) Luc Moullet remains one of the great, undiscovered glories of French comic cinema as well as one of the key Cahiers du Cinéma critics who became a filmmaker (and, unlike virtually all his colleagues, is still a film critic today). But he’s always stood apart from his fellow critics as well as his fellow filmmakers — as a left-wing anarchist, proud of his working-class and rural background (and still keenly interested in some Hollywood directors associated with the right, such as Cecil B. De Mille, Josef von Sternberg, and King Vidor); as the only Cahiers critic who defended Luis Buñuel in the 50s, before he became fashionable; as a minimalist director whose aesthetics, economics, and ethics have always been closely interrelated; and as an occasional deadpan actor in his own post-Keaton, post-Tati comedies. It’s typical of what might be called his radical modesty that even the title of this director-approved collection is inexact; there are actually eight films here, at least if one counts the two short features comprising the fourth disc, both counted as bonuses — Moullet’s The Sieges of the Alcazar (1989) and Gérard Courant’s The Man of the Badlands (2001) a documentary about Moullet.|
|The official six are Brigitte et Brigitte (1966), Les contrebandières (1967), Une Aventure de Billy le Kid (1970), Anatomie d’un rapport (1975), Genèse d’un repas (1978), and Parpaillon (1992). All eight of these have optional English subtitles except for Billy le Kid — a crazed western starring Jean-Pierre Léaud and seemingly inspired by both A Duel in the Sun and a fever dream — and in that case, Moullet includes his own English version of the film, A Girl is a Gun. These are just about all of Moullet’s major features. (The sole exception is his 1987 La Comédie du travail — already released separately by Blaqout, unfortunately without any subtitles.) They include even his best noncomedy, his 1978 Origins of a Meal, a powerful political documentary that tells you where three simple food staples come from. An even more ideal box set would include Moullet’s best shorts — three of which are available elsewhere on DVD (at least if you look very hard), in separate collections, again without subtitles; and, to cite Agee on Keaton, “for plain hard laughter,” these are even better than the features. But this collection is still a nearly perfect introduction to his work. (If you want to explore some of these films separately, Facets Video has issued them in pairs on single region-1 discs. Ed. see HERE) I’d recommend starting out not with Courant’s documentary but with The Sieges of the Alcazar — a sweet and hilarious tale of a sexual grudge match in the 50s between a male Cahiers du Cinéma critic and a female leftist critic for the rival magazine Positif, which takes place at a small neighborhood cinema playing a Vittorio Cottafavi retrospective. You might even call it a A Duel in the Sun writ small. Apart from offering loads of badly dubbed clips and the theme song from Rio Bravo over the credits, this appears to be a near-definitive account of the rituals and agonies of French cinephilia during that period.|
|12) Le vent nous emportera (The Wind Will Carry Us) (MK2 éditions, two discs) Here’s something else you can readily find in the U.S.; New Yorker Video offers a ho-hum version of it. But I’m mainly listing this French double-disc edition of my favorite Abbas Kiarostami feature (1999), his last to date to be shot on 35-millimeter, with optional English subtitles on everything, because of the two documentaries it includes on the second disc — A Film Lesson by Abbas Kiarostami, 52 minutes long, and, even more, Yuji Mohara’s 90-minute A Week with Kiarostami, which in some ways is the most informative and revealing “making of” documentary I’ve ever seen. And this two-disc set is the only place I’m aware of where you can find it. [2015 postscript: If you’d like to forego this extra, but hear my own audio commentary to this film on a U.S. edition, with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, go HERE.]