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Tuesday Foreign Region Blu-ray disc Report: "Le cercle rouge" (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)

I wrote this in February of this year: "[That] the Criterion Collection losing the licensing for over twenty library pictures, the current editions of which are going out of print, point[s] to something else happening: namely that the French production and distribution concern Studio Canal (a subsidiary of Canal +, which is wholly owned by the U.S. concern Vivendi) seems to be looking to establish itself as a viable brand in the manufacture and marketing of high-end home video. This was the joint that was effecting a Ran Blu-ray holdup. Various 'Studio Canal Collection' Blu-ray titles have been creeping out on certain European labels—I got a German version of Contempt and a British issue of Belle de Jour a little while and was favorably impressed with both. Those who follow video business were likely not surprised to learn that Lionsgate would be handling the manufacture and distribution of the 'Studio Canal Collection' Blu-rays in the U.S., but they weren't necessarily thrilled, either. The company does some admittedly interesting things with the Studio Canal and Canal+ holdings—that Andre Techiné set has some fascinating films, and its Jean Renoir Collection contains absolutely invaluable material...and I can go on. But looking through the product we find the requisite indifferent PAL-to-NTSC conversions and such. There was a recent Lionsgate debacle involving John Huston's The Dead, in which an entire reel was missing from the film as presented on DVD. Lionsgate fixed the problem and issued a new version—they would have to, wouldn't they?—but that such a snafu happened to begin with didn't exactly inspire the solidest consumer trust."

"We should recall, however, that high-definition video is a worldwide standard, so the whole PAL/NTSC issue and all the baggage it brings with it (frame rate, which mutates film length, for instance), doesn't apply. A high-def encode is a high-def encode, and you can region-code the finished product if you want, but if it's done correctly to begin with, it will travel well. Hence, the first three Lionsgate 'Studio Canal Collection' Blu-rays, having been mastered under Studio Canal's supervision, are getting to American audiences in the form signed off on by Studio Canal. These titles are the aforementioned Ran, the aforementioned Contempt, and Alexander McKendrick's delightful Ealing black comedy The Ladykillers. And to get the basics out of the way, I consider all three releases to represent very good news indeed."

I had to give the matter closer consideration after that, and concluded instead that these offerings were mixed blessings: there was a nasty flaw in a short section of the Contempt disc; the sometimes hot-pinkish fleshtones of The Ladykillers, while not, as it happens, necessarily a betrayal of the film's slightly-less-than-immaculate look from the start, apparently, was an acquired taste for some, to say the least. As enjoyable an experience as Ran was, there's something I can't put my finger on that bothers me about it; maybe it is the conviction, deep down inside, that a Criterion Blu-ray of the title just would have been better.

And since that time, Lionsgate's dometic release schedule of Studio Canal Blu-rays has not proceeded apace, seeing only the release of a rejiggered Blu-ray of Carol Reed's The Third Man and a high-def version of Jeunet and Caro's Delicatessen, both released in September. Certain parties we shall not name complained of excessive grain on the now out-of-print Criterion Blu-ray of Man, but apparently the Studio Canal version is such an unmitigated picture disaster that even that protester was forced to admit that too much grain isn't the worst thing that can happen to a high-def video rendering of a classic film. This is beginning to create the most frustrating thing that one can encounter about a brand: the pattern of no pattern, quality control-wise.

Because, truth to tell, the Studio Canal/Optimum U.K. Blu-ray of Losey's The Go-Between I recently procured not only looks great but presents the film in its proper aspect ratio, which the standard-def version I reviewed here did not, to my (at the time) ignorance (or carelessness). So there's that. I did not get a chance to look very closely at the French version of Visconti's Senso before my plasma display blew up last summer, and I'm going to need a bit of time with it because it features no English-language audio options or subtitles, but what I have gleaned from it looked pretty damn good. And the Canal/Optimum Blu-ray of Jean-Pierre Melville's wonderful 1970 heist epic Le cercle rouge, which is something my wife picked out for our first Movie Night after my plasma got fixed, bless her, really is all that: best looking version of the film I've seen in or out of a theater. Which the shots I took with a camera from off of my display don't really show, but extend an indulgence here...

To highlight the imperfection of the shot, I cropped it so as to leave in the borders of the display just so you don't think I'm trying to pass this off as anything but an enthusiast's whack at capturing a particular quality. That's François Périer as the compromised Santi, owner of French cinema's weirdest nightclub (really, check out the various floor shows depicted therein). Said quality being color—not on Santi per se but in the Johnny Walker Red bottle in the right side of the frame. The little details such as that, along with stuff like the real "good" grain of the night sky that silhouettes Alain Delon and Gian Maria Volonte as they go over some Paris rooftops by the Place Vendome about to break into the jewelry dealership they're about to knock off, are beautifully reflective of the film's grittily artful look (Henri Dacae was the DP).

This is a fascinating film not just for its pessimistic, almost Hobbesian perspective, but for its distinctive storytelling style—both taut and leisurely, taking a good two hours and twenty minutes to tell what's for all intents and purposes a pretty rudimentary heist tale, and for all that sometimes ruthlessly eliding certain plot and/or character points. It's a reflective but at the same time no-nonsense and blunt picture. At first Melville's frequent use of zooms seems a bow to the fashion of European genre pictures of the time—the year of this one is 1970—until one really looks at how the director uses them: not at the end of shots, as was largely customary, but in the midpoint of long takes, for emphasis, like an italics within a sentence. The zooms also signify, in a sense, a hallmark or emblem of the herky-jerky world its criminals inhabit, full of unexpected stops and reversals.

This is a Region B locked U.K. Blu-ray. Does that mean a U.S. version will come soon from Lionsgate...or not? The region coding hasn't been too much of an indicator so far. No announcement has come from the latter company, so for now this is only for the U.S. maven with a multi-region DVD player. The extras are worthwhile too, including an essay from Melville biographer Ginette Vincendeau and a good documentary about Melville and his real-life derring-do as a member of the French resistance. All reason enough to continue to monitor the Studio Canal Blu-ray situation on a case-by-case basis.

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