Saturday, July 31, 2010


Sacha Guitry is why I like Criterion's Eclipse Series. Him specifically, but also what he represents in general. He now sits alongside Raymond Bernard [review], Larisa Shepitko [review 1, 2], and Hiroshi Shimizu [review] as filmmakers that I wouldn't have known about had Criterion not started their little boutique line. Eclipse is dedicated to highlighting films and filmmakers that may not have the name recognition to lead a big release, but whom could benefit from the rediscovery made possible by an affordable midline package.

Presenting Sacha Guitry is the 22nd Eclipse set, and it features four films from the acclaimed playwright turned cinematic auteur. According to the liner notes in the lead film, Guitry was the king of the Paris stage in the 1920s, and he dismissed film as a go-nowhere art form, limited by rickety technology and not capable of the poetry of live theatre. Once sound came into play, however, Guitry saw the error of his ways and, as they say, if you can't beat them, join them. After a couple of misfires, he landed on what would become his signature film.

The Story of a Cheat (81 minutes) was made in 1936, and Guitry wrote, directed, and starred as the adult version of his title character, known simply as the Cheat (or, in French, tricheur). As a child (and played by Serge Grave), the Cheat's first crime was to steal a few coins from the till of his family's store so he could buy some marbles. When he was caught, his punishment was to go without supper--on the night the eleven other people in his family were to accidentally eat a batch of poison mushrooms. The Cheat's dishonesty was rewarded, an ironic lesson in moral consequence.

As he grew older, Cheat got work as a bellboy, and then a soldier, and then a croupier in Monaco. In each, he tried to be honest, but wherever he went, the people he met tried to pull him into some kind of crime. He is almost implicated in the assassination of Czar Nicholas II, seduced by a pretty hotel thief (Rosine Derean), and hypnotized by a lady gambler (Jacqueline Delubac) looking for a fix. In the latter case, his willingness to go along with the scheme leads to failure, and when he is punished for stealing anyway, he decides to give in and become a real card sharp. Thus begins a long and lucrative career, ended only by yet another moral revelation.

The narrative is simple enough, but as in all things, it's the telling that is key. In a fascinating twist, Sacha Guitry's spectacular film employs the mechanics of silent film while still embracing sound. The story is framed by the older Cheat (Guitry in white hair and make-up) writing his memoirs, and the entire run through past history is narrated in voiceover by the memoirist. Any dialogue is spoken by Guitry, it is only mouthed by the other actors. The only times we hear other performers speaking is in interludes back to the café where, in the film's present day, the Cheat is laying his story down. There, he has poignant and ironic encounters that match up with what is happening in his manuscript.

This clever device could grow tiresome under the wrong direction, but Guitry's execution is lively and playful. His camera is lithe and probing, taking cues from the narration, and the combination of words and pictures pushes the story forward at a jaunty pace. Guitry uses still images, dissolves, and montage to move swiftly through time, never letting the tale rest too long in one place. The Story of a Cheat maintains a humorous air, garnering quite a few laughs, and settling at a pleasant punchline that is cute without being trite.

The neophyte director's way with mis en scene and his agility with the camera is reminiscent of the work of his contemporary, Jean Renoir, and it's no surprise that he apparently had fans in Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut, and Alain Resnais. From the very start of The Story of a Cheat, as Guitry takes us on a tour of his set and introduces us to his crew, it is clear we are in the presence of a seasoned raconteur who has discovered a whole new way to deliver his party anecdotes. Why only tell a small group when you can share the story with thousands? Or millions!

Clearly on a creative steak, Guitry followed this cinematic breakthrough with another formally ambitious film a year later. The Pearls of the Crown (1937; 105 minutes) is the technical opposite of Cheat. Instead of no dialogue, it has a veritable whirlwind of words. The story, which Guitry co-wrote with Christian-Jaque, begins with the question of how the crown of England got its three decorative pearls. Guitry, playing a writer named Jean Martin, is researching in his study when he finds the tale, and he begins to share it with his wife Jean (Jacqueline Delubac again; she was Guitry's wife off the set, too). At the same time, an assistant to the current King of England is telling the same story to his regent, while an aide to the Pope is explaining it to the religious leader in Italy.

What follows is a multi-lingual historical comedy, detailing the rivalries of France's Francois I, England's Henry VIII (Lynn Harding), and Italy's Pope Clement VII (Ermete Zacconi). Guitry, who plays Francois I himself, deftly jumps back and forth, creating an assured, fast-paced rhythm that links all three countries in both timelines. The story also travels across Europe and Asia as Clement sends a poor servant off on what is supposed to be a wild goose chase to find five identical pearls to match the two he already has. This leads to seven pearls in all, four of which end up on the Crown, the other three stolen by an English crook. The second half of the movie features the trio of storytellers converging in England before heading off in different directions, each to find one of the missing baubles.

Guitry plays a total of four roles in his film, including Napoleon III and a French aristocrat named Barras. Delubac also plays Marie Stuart, Queen of Scotland, and Josephine, the wife of Napoleon I (Emile Drain). There are a lot of pieces to this romp through history, yet Guitry's perception is so clear, one never gets lost in all the jumping around. The Pearls of the Crown also has a pervasive sense of whimsy, and so it's fun from start to finish. Even with all the pomp and circumstance of the historical settings, my favorite bit is in the modern context, when Jacqueline Delubac is confronted by one of the owners of the pearls, whom she has been following. As per her husband's instructions, she only responds to the man with adverbs. It's a scene that would be perfectly at home in a Preston Sturges movie.

Made the same year as The Pearls of the Crown, Désiré (1937; 97 minutes) is a comedy of the social classes, a farcical The Rules of the Game with the writer/director playing one of the members of the downstairs crew. Guitry stars as Désiré Tronchais, a new valet in the home of former actress Odette Cléry (Jacqueline Delubac). It's a place that could use a little shaking up. In the very funny opening scenes, the chambermaid (played by Arletty, who was also the Queen of Abyssinia under all that blackface in Pearls) lays out how perturbed she is by her boss, whose passive aggressive grousing the girl sees right through.

Désiré enters the scene as preparations are being made to go on holiday, but his scandalous past as a ladies man follows him. Odette is in a relationship with a government minister (Jacques Baumer), who will not marry her as long as he is in his position. A woman of propriety, Odette tries to dismiss Désiré when she learns he seduced his prior employer (Genevieve Vix), and only lets him stay after he swears he is not attracted to her. She swears likewise, but once they are at the country home where Odette and her man, Felix, spend every summer, the two start dreaming about one another. Loudly. Désiré is heard by the maid crying out for Odette in his sleep, and Felix hears Odette calling for Désiré. Avoidance, innuendo, and misunderstanding follows.

Compared to the other films, Désiré is fairly conventional, but it is so slickly made that it doesn't matter. The writing is ribald and witty, and Guitry's frank views of eroticism and romantic love make swell fodder for his up-ending of the social comedy. Here, the very act of being servile is its own emotional--and, at times, sexual--reward, and it pains Désiré to step out from his role as valet to instruct the woman who should be ordering him around. Delubac is delectable as the society lady, and Arletty is quite funny as the much looser maid. She plays her as if she just stepped in from singing in a saloon, emphasizing that when it comes down to it, these lower class folks are a lot more fun.

Désiré and the final film in the box, Quadrille (1938; 95 mins.), were both adapted by Guitry from his own stage plays, and Quadrille provides the cosmopolitan personality with a role that allows him to be his most sophisticated and droll. I haven't mentioned it yet, but Guitry's screen presence is quite winning, and he grows more assured with each film. Quadrille even provides him with a tremendous verbal sparring partner. Gaby Morlay (Le plaisir - review) plays Paulette Nanteuil, the long-term mistress of Guitry's newspaper editor Philippe. She is a stage actress, and as befitting the job, is flighty, but also loving and a bit of a scamp. When she meets American film actor Carl Herickson (George Grey), he asks her for her autograph, since she's the only one in the room that doesn't ask for his. She signs his paper “Claudine André,” who just so happens to be her best friend and a reporter who, at that moment, is upstairs waiting alongside Philippe to interview Carl. (Claudine is played by Jacqueline Delubac.)

From here, Quadrille transforms into either a farcical sex comedy or a cynical satire on romance. Or really, both. Carl seduces Paulette, Paulette confesses to Philippe, Philippe professes his love for Claudine, Claudine has already made a pass at Carl, etc. Deals are made, others are broken, and Guitry throws out some pretty sharp barbs about the nature of love and women and the whole shebang. The morning-after scene when Philippe finds Paulette in Carl's hotel room is a magnificent dance of words, as Paulette lobs up her manipulations and Philippe bats them away. It's all terribly civilized. Claudine is the most inscrutable of the cast, it's hard to figure what she's playing at most of the time. She starts off as the innocent bystander, but as the song once said, not that innocent.

Quadrille is a very talky movie, as is Désiré (Guitry gives himself some real mouthfuls in the latter). Yet, they don't show the dustiness of the stage. Guitry finds and takes advantage of every opportunity to move his camera. He builds comedic tension, for instance, by cutting back and forth between Claudine and Philippe waiting for Carl and Carl hopping, skipping, and jumping in their direction. Not long after, he turns the conceited actor's very act of undressing into a sight gag, panning the camera back and forth across the hotel room to follow his discarded clothes.

Front to back, Presenting Sacha Guitry - Eclipse Series 22 is energized with mirth. These are tremendously light-hearted movies that, though never shallow, never let the deeper themes and ideas tug at the smiles Sacha Guitry is so intent on putting on his audience's faces. The tone of these pictures reminds me of another Eclipse Box, the eighth: Lubitsch Musicals [review 1, 2, 3. Both Sacha Guitry and Ernst Lubitsch come from a stage background, and both enjoy life and the scoundrels that humans can be when pursuing happiness and love. They are easy movies to watch, you'll likely tear through the sets in no time at all. The only complaint I have is that there isn't more.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Geez, things are tough all over.

Unemployment, immigration, domestic strife--turn on any American news broadcast today, and you're likely to hear about all three of these things. These are also topics of concern in the 2007 French drama, The Secret of the Grain. The fact that such difficult problems still linger three years later--and, indeed, may be worse and more widespread--makes the film all the more potent. And even more sad.

Written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, The Secret of the Grain is the story of a large Arabic family living in a portside town in France. The head of the clan is Slimane (Habib Boufares), a soft-spoken dock worker who has toiled in the same place for nearly 40 years. Unfortunately, the company he works for got bought out in the 1990s, and they are ignoring Slimane's service from before they took over and are trying to edge him out with a cheap pension. It's not enough to just try to make a living for one's family anymore. Every time a man turns around there is something there to cut him off. Work needs to be done faster, cheaper, and under more rules and regulations than ever before.

Slimane lives on his own in a hotel where other immigrants and older workers live. He is long since divorced from his wife, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), and he is having a casual affair with the hotel owner. His daughter Karima (Faridah Benkhetache) is married to one of his co-workers, Jose (Olivier Loustau), who is also feeling the pinch from the dwindling workload--more tourists are visiting the area than fish and boats are going out. (In fact, there is too much fish around. Slimane's hook-up has overloaded everyone he knows; Souad's freezer is full of mullet.) One of Slimane's sons is a tour guide on a boat that shows people where work used to get done, and he's in a tempestuous relationship with a local woman, one who will turn out to be more important than he realizes. Majid (Sami Zitouni) is married to a Russian woman (Alice Houri), and she's constantly expected to accept his infidelities to fit in with the group.

Abdellatif Kechiche has created a moving portrait of cultural identity. Language, family, employment--these are the things that define us and keep us together. At one point, Slimane's daughters stand up for the old man, noting the years of sacrifice he put in to make sure his children had a good life. This comes out during a wonderful scene at the family dinner table, where the father is notably absent. Here we see how the family connects and relates. Souad making her couscous is enough reason for everyone to get together and enjoy their common heritage. There is even a discussion of what it means that one of the husbands (Bruno Lochet) doesn't speak Arabic; is it possible he's less involved, or is that just the nature of our mixed world? Kechiche cuts from this vibrant scene to one of poor Slimane seemingly sitting all alone, eating a meal by himself.

Eventually, when it's clear that things aren't going to change for him, Slimane hatches a plan to open his own restaurant. He buys a ship in disrepair and plans to turn it into a floating eatery specializing in fish couscous (the original title of the film was La graine et le mullet)--couscous his wife will cook and his children will serve. Majid and his younger brother Riadh (Mohamed Benabdeslem) will help renovate. Slimane enlists the daughter of his mistress (Hatika Karaoui) as his confidant and spokesman. A man of few words, he needs the loquacious Rym (Hafsia Herzi) to tell people what he's after. The Secret of the Grain is as much Rym's movie as it is Slimane's. The young actress has a certain spark that lights up the screen, yet it's nothing she has to try at or force. She represents the younger generation, a girl with different ideas, and part of an extended family, not part of Slimane's main unit. All of the women in The Secret of the Grain take charge and speak out for themselves, far from the cliché of wilting Arabic women that we cling to in the U.S.

Kechiche's family album reminds me a lot of another recent portrait of mismatched immigrant families living in France, Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum [review]. Both Rum and The Secret of the Grain are shot in a no frills, pseudo-documentary style, with no imposed aesthetic and realistic acting. Kechiche doesn't necessarily go with long takes, but he does let conversations roll on, and his editing style creates the seamless illusion that it's all done in one go. Much of his framing is tight. If the family is packed around the table, he gets right in between them; if it's an intimate moment, he gets as close to his players as they get to each other. Dialogue is loose, and there are no standard movie mannerisms.

This doesn't mean there is no drama, however. Like Denis, Kechiche creates a strong narrative, establishing a dynamic that owes a bit to Ozu and a bit to the British Kitchen Sink school. In a way, The Secret of the Grain steals the Kitchen Sink drama back from the jokey stories of unemployment schemes that dominated British cinema in the 1990s. Whereas The Full Monty, Calendar Girls, and their ilk relied on gimmicks and thus have aged poorly, The Secret of the Grain is more timeless in that it doesn't make full use of modern convention. Kechiche's story could be set any time, really. The problems, and their solutions, are rooted in a reality that won't degrade.

The Secret of the Grain's narrative culminates in a big party. Slimane has invited the bankers, city officials, and local restaurateurs to come out and taste his food. They haven't exactly warmed to giving him the loan and the permits he needs, so he's going to show them what he is capable of and let the couscous do the talking. Naturally, this night isn't going to go exactly as planned. Jealousies will come to the surface--the mistress resents Slimane asking his ex-wife to do the cooking, Julia finds out Majid is at it again--and there will be mishaps in the kitchen, including missing couscous. Kechiche toys with our hopes and frustrations, tugging us back and forth, offering possible ways out, leading to a surprising crescendo: Rym performs a sexy bellydance that hypnotizes angry diners into forgetting their hunger. Riding the rhythm of the music she dances to, Kechiche and editor Ghalya Lacroix cut back and forth between Rym and Slimane's search for the lost couscous, and also detouring to show us other doors as they close. In a sense, we are watching youth blossom as old age takes its last gulps of air, but in a bold move, Kechiche leaves us wondering exactly what that will mean. Will the future be in the hands of the kids who have no respect for tradition, the ones who tomcat around and steal, or will it by with Rym, who dances in an old style and inspires people to do better than they even expected of themselves? Or could this just be life as it's always been, on and on it goes?

Criterion brings The Secret of the Grain to DVD as a two-disc set, with the second disc being full of illuminating supplements. Much of these extras are interviews, new and old, with cast and crew, including Abdellatif Kechiche, Hafsia Herzi, and the musicians who played in the party scene. Naturally, some attention is paid to Herzi's memorable performance, and there is a short film called Sueur that is an extended re-edit of the movie's dazzling bellydance.

Watch the trailer for The Secret of the Grain.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

THE RED SHOES Reissue/Revisited - #44

The following review is of the technical aspects of the new double-disc set of The Red Shoes. I reviewed the film already, and you can read the text for that here.

A couple of months ago I had the extreme pleasure of getting to attend a theatrical screening of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes in advance of a rare reparatory run. The movie was touring the world, touching down in a few lucky places to give cinephiles a chance to see the new digital restoration of the 1948 movie on the big screen. This new print came on a wave of a lot of positive buzz. The UCLA restoration team went back to the start and worked with the earliest archival building blocks to put The Red Shoes back together in as close of a way as possible to the original printing, and then followed that with a computer scrub up, going into the movie and cleaning it frame by frame with digital toothbrushes and binary-based soap.

The result was stunning. As I wrote in my earlier review, it was like seeing The Red Shoes for the first time. Now that the movie has come back to DVD, being reissued by the Criterion Collection using the new materials, I can enjoy the thrill of the dance all over again. As can everyone else.

The new double-disc The Red Shoes is put together as a celebration of the classic ballet picture--and no better cause for celebrating could there be. As hoped, the DVD looks wonderful, providing a proper showcase for the restoration so home viewers can see this movie as it was intended to be. The first disc even starts with a demonstration of the full process of bringing the color back to the cheeks of this delicate beauty. It's hosted by Martin Scorsese, and he takes us step by step through the various stages of cleaning up The Red Shoes. For instance, who knew some of the problems with older prints was due to mold?

Beyond Scorsese's demonstration, it's pretty easy to see how different this DVD could look by just watching the documentary about the movie on the second disc. The clips in the program are pretty representative of what viewers are used to seeing. Also, by way of illustrating my point, below find a couple of comparisons using screengrabs I took on my computer:







There are many differences between the picture on the older Criterion DVD, released eleven years ago and the new one. Sharpness of detail, consistency of color, even tiny scratches and flecks of debris--all of this has been improved, the image cleaned, the flickers in the Technicolor stabilized.

In addition to the restoration featurette, Martin Scorsese also shows up on the DVD audio commentary and his extensive collection of Red Shoes memorabilia is used for a gallery on DVD 2. Both of these features are carried over from the earlier Criterion. The full-length commentary is well worth a listen. It was put together by Ian Christie, and in addition to the soundbites from Scorsese, he draws from audio interviews with actors Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and composer Brian Easdale. This creates a far more nuanced portrait of the production than we usually get from a single commentator.

Other holdovers from the earlier edition are a gallery of press materials and a truly enchanting animated program using the painted storyboard's Hein Hecktroth used to lay out the dance sequences. Viewers have the option of watching this with a screen comparison showing the actual filmed sequences. There is also an alternate audio track that features actor Jeremy Irons reading the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale on which the ballet was based. Additionally, Irons lends his voice to an audio track for the main feature, allowing viewers to watch portions of The Red Shoes while listening to him read from the novelization the Archers wrote decades later.

As a side note for collectors, a Powell and Pressburger filmography has not been carried over from the previous edition, perhaps because now there are many more of the team's films on DVD than there were when the 1999 disc was released and was demed unnecessary. It may also be a rights issue. This extra was by no means essential.

To replace this, Criterion does offer two new bonus features, both of them on DVD 2.

The first is a documentary called "Profile of The Red Shoes." Made in 2000, it gathers together surviving crewmembers and some of the film's admirers to talk about the movie's unique history. It's short, but absent of filler. It gets right into the thick of it and is full of good stories, such as the details of Moira Shearer's involvement in the movie and the revolutionary idea of having a painter as the set designer.

The second extra is a recent video interview with film editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, the widow of Michael Powell and one of the leaders of the efforts to have the Archers filmography restored. This piece was shot at Cannes last summer, where the restored The Red Shoes was being shown. A longtime Scorsese collaborator, she also talks a little about Shutter Island [review], which was still in production, including Marty's homage to the staircase scene from The Red Shoes.

I know DVD collectors are always worried about getting screwed when they double-dip on a movie. Too often we've been given upgrades that aren't much of an upgrade at all. Such is not the case with The Red Shoes or, for that matter, it's companion release, Black Narcissus [review]. Buy these new discs with confidence. If you're now a Blu-Ray consumer, both of these films are also being released in that format, and I guarantee you there hasn't been a better reason to re-buy a movie on Blu-Ray than The Red Shoes.

This is truly essential cinema, and no film library is complete if The Red Shoes is absent from its shelves.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


"There's something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated."

Criterion is about to re-release two of its earliest Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger DVDs, and while the much vaunted restoration of The Red Shoes is gobbling up most of the press clippings [read my review of the theatrical print here; the DVD review here], I sincerely hope Black Narcissus won't get overlooked. Because despite the lack of pre-publicity for this particular restoration, the new DVD transfer for Black Narcissus is astounding. The storybook Technicolor has such marvelous hues and textures, it's like the Archers--alongside cinematographer Jack Cardiff--have invented a world as illusory and new as James Cameron's Avatar [review], only they did it more than 60 years ago and with a completely different spiritual message. To have a DVD that finally shows us the natural pigments and the level of detail intended by the filmmakers is a great boon.

Compare the above: top image is 2010, bottom image 2000

Released in 1947, Black Narcissus is based a novel by English author Rumer Godden, who is maybe best known for The River, her memoir about spending time in India as a child (later made into a film by Jean Renoir). For Black Narcissus, she takes readers high into the Himalayas to tell a story of an order of nuns assigned to a temple 8,000 feet in the air. They have been invited by the local ruler, a peacock they refer to as the Old General (Eamond Knight), though there is some doubt that it's the best place for a convent. A group of monks tried to set up shop the year before and barely made it through a couple of months.

The nun put in charge of this new cloister is Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), and it will be her first leadership assignment. Accompanying her are four other sisters: Philippa (Flora Robson), chosen for her gardening skills; Briony (Judith Furse), who is strong and experienced in medicine; Blanche, a.k.a. Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), popular for her kindness; and the troubled Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who needs a change of pace to get her head in order. The mountain castle is the wrong place for it, however; none of the women are prepared for the way the new environs will change their lives.

Top: 2010, bottom: 2000

The Old General's castle--which, ironically, is where he used to keep his harem--sits above a valley, and the nunnery will serve the village below, providing a school and health clinic for the locals. The people lead simple lives, most of them work in agriculture. On one side of their moral spectrum, they have a holy man who occupies a high point near the castle, where he sits and meditates day in and day out; on the other end is the only Westerner in the area, a man named Dean (David Farrar). Mr. Dean is the one who tried to warn the sisters away, but if they are going to be there, he is going to give them a hand when he can--sometimes whether they like it or not. He's not afraid to tweak their piety for a laugh.

A story like Black Narcissus will usually go one of three ways: the nuns can either change the people they have come to help (bringing the heathen salvation/taming the savages), or the people can inspire a change in the missionaries instead. The mawkish third option is that both might happen. Powell and Pressburger go for a fourth option, choosing instead to make the locals only a small part of the story. The natives of the area are a product of their environment, and it's the environment that will change the nuns. The sisters have come from an order that believes hard work is the way to salvation. Toil distracts the mind from earthly things, leaving more brainspace for God. The culture clash is more mystical than social, as emphasized by the Archers layering Western religious music over Eastern religious imagery. The mountain retreat is isolated and magical, like a version of the fabled Xanadu, and in its nest, the nuns will surrender to their interior desire. Isolation creates distraction rather than fostering peace. Philippa, for instance, plants flowers instead of vegetables, choosing beauty over nourishment.

For Sister Clodagh, this new space brings back memories, and we see flashbacks to her life in Ireland before joining the faith. She dreams of a past that is equal parts hurt and nostalgia, and though we only see snippets of what happened, we sense that any happiness in the events are short lived. One of the flashbacks even ends with Clodagh disappearing into darkness, swallowed by the sky, an image that prefigures the final shot of Black Narcissus, when the castle disappears into the clouds.

Whatever is eating at Clodagh, it isn't helped by the presence of Dean. The rugged man of the wilderness is a most masculine figure, and his magnetism is irresistible to both Clodagh and Ruth. This central triangle forms the crux of the movie's plot. By comparison, the side story of the local girl (Jean Simmons) that Dean might have romanced and the Young General (Sabu) who stirs things up with his fancy clothes and perfumes almost seems like an afterthought. There are themes here reminiscent of the Audrey Hepburn drama The Nun's Story, in that a religious woman sent to a remote outpost has her faith challenged and her heart stirred by the man of action she meets there. Unlike that film, however, Black Narcissus offers us two examples of how different believers deal with temptation. Clodagh resists and grows stronger, whereas Ruth gives in and loses her way.

And I mean that literally. From the get-go, Ruth is presented as the one out of sorts. She belittles the village children and is so pale and sweaty, she looks like she is going to die in her habit. Her lust is presented as a literal fever, one that only increases the longer she is in the mountains. Dean shows her an early kindness, and that's all she needs to fixate on him. The fact that she's covered in blood when it happens--an early introduction of a red color scheme associated with the character--should be an indication of what kind of figure she will come to represent. Black Narcissus is a romance cross-bred with a horror film, and its melodrama has as much in common with the histrionics of Hitchcock's Rebecca [review] as it does any of Douglas Sirk's soapy tearjerkers. The women are from an order where the nuns renew their vows every year, and Ruth doesn't re-up when her time is through. Instead, she puts on a dress and make-up smuggled from the city thinking that she will be able to stay with Dean. When he refuses, she blames Clodagh for stealing him and goes after her rival.

There are intimations that the wind and the altitude have infected Ruth's sanity. There is also an understated element of magic at work. A young child's death has turned the villagers against the nuns, believing the medicine they gave her to be responsible. When Ruth goes over the brink, the local men are playing their drums, holding a ritualistic vigil...but for whom? Earlier in Black Narcissus, they did the same thing when the Old General was on his deathbed, and they only stopped when he died. At the time, the noise got on Ruth's nerves. Is it now compelling her to have this psychotic break?

When Ruth gets dressed up for her new freedom, both her frock and her lipstick are red. She also lets her fiery hair out from under her white habit--and it's probably worth noting that Clodagh has red hair, too, making them twins after a fashion. The more deranged Ruth gets, the more red her eyes get, culminating in a close-up that shoes them rimmed with crimson and shining with insanity. She also passes out when Dean rejects her, and the shot is framed from her point of view as the entire screen goes blood red. The filmmakers use red for all its various connotations: passion, heat, life. Color is almost like an added element of nature in this opera; it signals change, hence the colorful transformations of the season. Red marks Ruth's change, but her final metamorphosis comes when she finds Clodagh alone and unprotected. Ruth is so drenched in humidity and sweat, her dress and her hair have turned as black as the shadow that surrounds her. As black as the shadow that devoured Clodagh in flashback.

The visual design of Black Narcissus is as beautiful as any the Archers ever created, rivaling even their stage-based dramas The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman. The vast landscapes they dream up and invent on the backlots of Pinewood Studios are glorious in their detail and realism. Using every tool at their disposal, including trompe l'oeil matte paintings, they create distance and depth. The seclusion of the nunnery is made very real by the magnitude of the mountains that surround them and the terrifying drop that awaits them at the edge of their property. When Clodagh stands at the bell tower, the cliffside goes all the way down into the valley, but we can't even see the bottom. We're too high, and there are too many obscuring clouds. It's an illusion as believable as any of the CGI cities Christopher Nolan builds in Inception [review coming Thursday]. The mind boggles at what the Archers might have done with computers at their disposal. The digital age is certainly being kind to them, as the gorgeous image quality of this DVD will attest.

Of course, in a movie of this kind, color is not just part of the background, but also part of the politics. Black Narcissus walks a fine, antiquated line between treating different ethnicities with respect and slipping into racial clichés. Seeing Jean Simmons and Esmond Knight in brown face is a little hard to get used to, and the script never quite gets past treating the villagers as "the other." Dean's description of the locals at the start of the picture is respectful, but he's typically colonialist in action. Yet, there are subtle moments where prejudiced points of view are satirized and even ridiculed. When Ruth, for instance, insists "they all look alike," there is an undertone that makes her seem ridiculous, even if no one ever comes out and says it. Even more subversive is seeing the nuns teaching the children English using symbols of imperialism. Namely, a chart of weapons! In the sly smile of the young translator Joseph Anthony (Eddie Whaley Jr.) are the early sparkles of revolution.

That said, for everything that is below the surface, the most memorable undercurrent will be the unrealized romance between Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh. In typical movie fashion, the two are at odds from the start, trading barbs that are at turns humorous and rueful. Dean can't stand Clodagh's being clueless, she can't stand his rough manner and carousing. Yet, the stronger she grows and the more he reveals himself as capable and empathetic, the closer they become. There are some smoldering looks between them, and some heartbreaking ones, as well. Like socially restrained lovers in a Merchant Ivory picture or an Edith Wharton novel, they can't act on their feelings, and so it's all in the tone of their voice and eye contact. David Farrar, who was also in the Archers' production The Small Back Room [review], is charming and funny, but he also has an earthy gravitas. His best moments are not when he is playing the rake, but when he is having to choke on the emotion he doesn't want to admit is there.

If I had to choose, I'd say this movie has my favorite Deborah Kerr performance. I like her as Sister Clodagh even more than I do in An Affair to Remember [review] or The Innocents. There is a weird thing about art in that restrictions are often the key to inspiring the artist to stretch. Throughout Black Narcissus, Kerr is locked in her nun's habit. It leaves her with only her most essential tools: her face and her voice. Clodagh is a woman who is trying to maintain a holy image, who is always trying to look as if she is together. That in itself is easy enough, but the emphasis here should be on the word "trying." There is always more informing what she does than what we can see, and Kerr fantastically brings the nun's internal conflict to life. Her past and the things she denies are always with her. There is visible doubt in her eyes, a tremor in her voice. For as subtle as this all is, Kerr is also able to sell the more exaggerated dramatics of the final act.

Perhaps it's the quiet of the earlier bits that lends credibility to the louder technique of the later ones. It certainly sets the stage for an effective finale. Powell and Pressburger have paved the way for an exit that passes us back through the veil. We depart from the magic of the mountains back into the real world, having taken a journey with their characters to someplace beyond what is familiar. We can hit stop on the DVD and return to our normal lives, but as David Farrar's last look into the camera suggests, we will probably be forever changed by what happened on this altogether unreal plane.

In addition to the new transfer for Black Narcissus, which was overseen by Jack Cardiff and Michael Powell's widow, the renowned film editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, Criterion offers up several new extras to make a new purchase worthwhile, whether you go with the standard-definition reissue or the new Blu-Ray. I believe a couple of the extras come from a French DVD edition of Black Narcissus. They both feature filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who is a fan of the film. He provided an introduction to the picture and also shares his thoughts of the movie and Michael Powell in a featurette entitled "The Audacious Adventurer."

Another new extra is a short documentary called "Profile of Black Narcissus," which takes a look at the picture as a whole while also covering some of the same ground and using some of the same source material as a holdover from Criterion's 2000 DVD, the Jack Cardiff tribute "Painting with Light." Also leftover from before is the excellent audio commentary featuring Powell and his biggest fan, Martin Scorsese.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.