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DVDs. Chabrol, Oliveira and More

Criterion releases Chabrol’s first two features, while The Strange Case of Angelica is out from Cinema Guild. Plus, more new DVDs.
Le beau Serge

Le beau Serge

"The story of Les cousins could be straight out of one of the Balzac novels that the film's lead character Charles peruses at a second-hand bookshop," suggests Andrew Schenker in Slant: "Ambitious provincial comes to Paris and receives his moral education in the hotbed of corruption and/or decadence that characterizes life in the capital. In Claude Chabrol's film, his second directorial effort following his 1958 debut, Le beau Serge, the milieu in question is the debauched world of students, young women, and older hangers-on that the director delineates with superb specificity of detail and a virtuoso display of sickening verve." Criteron's presentation, he adds, "is a fitting testament to the late director's brilliance."

Criterion's also releasing Le beau Serge today and the essays by Terrence Rafferty that accompany each have been posted in Current. When Le beau Serge premiered out of competition in Cannes, notes Rafferty, "a fellow critic at Cahiers du cinéma, François Truffaut, wrote: 'Technically, the film is as masterly as if Chabrol had been directing for ten years, though this is his first contact with a camera.' The critical discourse of Cahiers, as practiced by Truffaut, Chabrol, and their colleagues, who included Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette, tended toward hyperbole, but in this instance, Truffaut may actually have understated the case. Le beau Serge, completed when Chabrol was just 27, has the look and the temperament of a film made by someone 20, even 30 years his senior. It's a movie about the young by a director with a precociously old head."

Les cousins

Les cousins

Rafferty opens his piece on Chabrol's followup with another quip from the same crowd: "Jean-Luc Godard, lover of paradox, once characterized Claude Chabrol's Les cousins (1959) as 'a deeply hollow and therefore profound film,' a pronouncement, like so many of the pithy mots Godard used to reel off in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, that is at once outrageously false and weirdly true." The two films actually "made a nicely complementary matched set, the second being — not to get too Godardian about it — both lighter and infinitely darker than the first…. The stories are mirror images of each other: Le beau Serge is about a young man from the city (Jean-Claude Brialy) visiting a friend (Gérard Blain) in the country, Les cousins about a student from the country (Blain) coming to stay with his cousin (Brialy) in Paris, and in each, the new environment proves too much for the luckless visitor. It's no surprise, in Le beau Serge, to learn that a rural village can be a closed social system, unforgiving to those who can't adapt to its long-cherished ways. City life is assumed to be more flexible, more accommodating, but in Les cousins, it is nothing of the sort. The Paris Chabrol shows us here is just another, and perhaps deadlier, kind of village."

"Le beau Serge doesn't flinch from showing the meanness of blighted lives, but it's also, surprisingly, close to Bresson in its depiction of the search for spiritual redemption," finds Nelson Kim at Hammer to Nail. "Les cousins marks the full emergence of Chabrol's distinctive sensibility: a tragedian who disguised himself as a mocking social satirist and (in his later work) a maker of coolly elegant thrillers…. Serge is an impressive debut, and it's still highly watchable today. Cousins is something more — a great film."

"In his commentary track for the Les Cousins DVD, Adrian Martin chalks up Chabrol's status as the New Wave's odd man out to the inconsistent nature of his career, as well as his essentially straightforward approach to cinematic storytelling," notes Bill Ryan, for whom Chabrol remains a favorite: "Has there ever been a greater depiction of the short, shocking road from every-day asshole to self-justifying murderer than Chabrol's deeply troubling Pleasure Party? Chabrol's interest was focused far more on the dark psychology of crime and violence than on any element of cops and criminals procedure, and in this way his source for literary adaptation tended towards complimentary writers, such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. La cérémonie, Chabrol's adaptation of Rendell's A Judgment in Stone, proved that both artists shared a removed interest in and cold fascination with human disaster."

Updates, 9/22: "Alfred Hitchcock was his idol," writes Sean Axmaker, "but it wasn't the mechanics of suspense the interested him, it was the human equation: guilt, jealousy, obsession, the impulse to violence and crime and vengeance, the deflation of regret and loss. It all begins with these two features, which predated Truffaut's The 400 Blows by mere months. True to form, they quietly established the arrival of a new talent, while Truffaut and Godard (with Breathless) caused a seismic shift."

And at the Playlist, Oliver Lyttelton's guide the "Essentials" from Chabrol's filmography.


The Strange Case of Angelica

The Strange Case of Angelica

"One of Oliveira's specialties, as befits his age, is the long view of history," writes Dennis Lim in the Los Angeles Times. "[H]is 2003 film A Talking Picture (on DVD from Kino), starring John Malkovich as the captain of an ill-fated ocean liner, attempts nothing less than to trace the birth (and contemplate the death) of Western civilization. And he continues to find new variations on his beloved theme of frustrated love, as in the Luis Buñuel update Belle Toujours (2006, New Yorker DVD) and the droll romantic fable Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (2009, Cinema Guild DVD)…. Hushed and meditative, The Strange Case of Angelica [out from Cinema Guild] is also complex and unpredictably alive. As in most Oliveira films, the narrative pauses for a leisurely philosophical dialogue or two, and there are playful detours into a wide range of subjects: particle physics, climate change, witchcraft, the metaphysics of photography."

Sean Axmaker notes that "silent Russian comedies are harder to find than, say, rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories. For that reason alone, the 1924 The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom stands out, a lightweight, fun-loving romantic comedy set on the bustling streets of Moscow where three suitors vie for the attentions of lovely Zina, the cigarette girl of the title (played but Yuliya Solntseva, most famous for playing Aelita in the 1924 science fiction lark Aelita: Queen of Mars)." Out from Kino.

Gary Kramer introduces an interview at Slant: "Canadian provocateur Bruce LaBruce follows up Otto; or, Up with Dead People with L.A. Zombie, coming out on DVD from Strand Releasing this Tuesday. The mostly wordless, hour-long film stars French porn star François Sagat as an alien who arrives in Los Angeles and resurrects various guys he meets by penetrating them with his elephantine alien penis."

DVD roundups. Noel Murray (LAT), Slant and a very, very large roundup at In Review Online.

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