Interlude; La Danse; The Darkman Trilogy; Wagner; I Know Where I’m Going! & A Canterbury Tale; The Princess of Montpensier

Madman have for many years now been releasing films by Douglas Sirk, the grand old master of melodrama, and are now down to what can favourably be called some of his lesser work. Interlude was made in 1957, a few years before Sirk would leave America (and filmmaking) forever (but not before making one of his best pictures, Imitation of Life). This film, set in Salzburg and Munich, tells of a whirlwind romance between an impressionable young American woman and a world-renowned European conductor, and the complications that arise when other romantic interests enter the frame.

The acting is in parts sketchy, and some of the dialogue is a tad on-the-nose, but the cinematography (even as it’s here presented, rough around the edges—the picture lacks vibrancy and obviously hasn’t been restored, or at least hasn’t been intensely retouched) is impressive, at least inasmuch as it reveals the full scope and breadth of the original images as Sirk intended them to be seen. Bearing this all in mind, this is one, perhaps, only for Sirkian completists. Released under the banner of Madman’s always spectacular cinephile-focused Directors Suite label, the film unexpectedly includes a bonus disc, about which more in the note at the foot of this post.

Due probably as much to its warm reception at last year’s film festival as to its wide appeal, La Danse: the Paris Opéra Ballet is the first film by documentarian Frederick Wiseman to see the light of day on DVD in this country—a disheartening statistic, given that he’s been in the game since the late ’60s. (Judging by some brief research, not even his début, the critically admired Titicut Follies, is available to rent or own in New Zealand, although it can be purchased online from his website. But I digress…) This 152-minute opus looks at the inner workings and oft-hidden machinations of the world’s most famous (and one of the world’s oldest) ballets. Through Wiseman’s trademark passive exploration, the film examines the rehearsals, warm-ups and performances of seven ballets, the most exciting (for this reviewer at least, ahead of Wim Wenders’ much-anticipated documentary on the choreographer this year) being Pina Bausch’s Orphée and Eurydice. Wiseman is here fascinated by every facet of the opera, from administrators to performers and all those in between; the result is nothing short of intoxicating.

Now for something completely different: Sam Raimi’s Darkman trilogy terrified me when I accidentally watched a bit of the first one (at least I think it was the first one) on TV one night when I was about 8 or 9. I mean, come on, a scientist of some description (pictured above) who destroys his face by dissolving most of it in a new kind of skin treatment (mostly just acid, apparently) and gets around wrapped in bandages? Scary as hell. Permanently disfigured and looking for all the world like H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man, our hero in these action-filled, explosive adventures is played by (an of course largely unrecognisable) Liam Neeson. Interestingly (and happily), Coen Bros. favourite Frances McDormand also has a major role.

Turns out, of course, that these films aren’t actually scary at all, though; they’re actually quite brilliant in a pulpy, B-movie way—which was, one learns, always Raimi’s intention: the films were adapted from a short story (and later a rejected screenplay which was at the centre of bitter Hollywood production disputes and in-fighting) that Raimi wrote which paid homage to Universal’s horror films that were a staple for the studio in the 1930s. (The use of all three old Uni logos at the start of the first film, though it may have been standard for films of its era [1990], is the first of many nods to those gurgling black-and-white mummies and howling werewolves of yore.) Brimming with atmosphere and borne of an almost pathological comic-book obsession—evident in everything from the acting and the line delivery, right through to Danny Elfman’s superb score, of which special mention must be made—these films are a treat for (film) geeks and (comic-book) nerds of all stripes. Issued here without fanfare, as they perhaps ought to be, these unadorned discs contain no special features aside from each film’s trailer.

Although its outré direction becomes grating, and though at nearly eight hours its excessive length may try the patience of even those viewers with all the stamina in the world, Tony Palmer’s Wagner—an epic film meditation on the life and work of the great(est?) German composer shot across Europe and made at what one must assume to be terrific expense—contains some of the most fascinating and at times terrifyingly vivid performances ever committed to celluloid. Chief among them is, of course, Richard Burton’s lead portrayal; a bravura performance in every sense of the word, the role was, he said, the one he was “born to play.” This film, in fact, proved to be one of Burton’s last; what a way to go out. “I don’t write operas, I write music-dramas,” says the composer at one point. Palmer’s film certainly deserves to be called a music-drama of its own; a more thorough exultation of the life of a composer—indeed, of musical artist—would be more difficult to find.

The music in the film was recorded specifically for the occasion, under the baton of Sir Georg Solti at the height of his powers. In opposition to its less than appealing physical packaging (the hard-plastic case is unusually cumbersome for a Madman release), both the sound and picture have been beautifully restored—at least in comparison to screenshots and written accounts of the quality of older versions found online. The feature is split across three discs, with two lengthy bonus documentaries—fittingly, one (“In From the Cold?”) on Burton, and one of equal stature (“Parsifal: the Search for the Grail”) on the composer—rounding out the five-disc box set. (nb: A more in-depth review of this film will likely be posted on this site later in the year, after the yearly hub bub of the film festival has died down.)

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger were the dream-team of post-war British filmmaking. It’s hard to imagine a similar director-producer partnership flourishing—let alone enduring for as many years as did theirs, spanning the six decades between 1928 and 1978—in today’s largely bankrupt cinema climate. Made for the Rank Organisation, and many under the banner of their production company The Archers, Powell & Pressburger’s were arguably the ‘event’ films of their time, at least on that side of the Atlantic; their partnership reached its zenith with Black Narcissus (1947) and is seen in most glorious full flight in The Red Shoes (1948), easily the most celebrated of the duo’s 19 films together.

Two Powell-Pressburger films that are often overlooked, though, are A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945). Both are now seeing release on DVD, with stellar picture—superbly restoring Erwin Hillier’s cinematography (these were his only two collaborations with Powell and Pressburger) as close, one imagines, to pristine—and sound quality for films of their age, and the Directors Suite’s usual booklets containing semi-academic article-essays that survey the production and reception of each film. A Canterbury Tale, as its name directs, takes its title from Chaucer’s story collection; the setting, though, became contemporaneous with the film’s production, with Britain in war-time standing in for 14th century Britain. At its most basic, this is a crime story—about a man who gets off the train at the wrong stop, is stranded and becomes involved in tracking down a mysterious bad guy. I Know Where I’m Going!, with its clumsy-seeming (to us, nowadays at least) title and old-fashioned romance, is a little harder to get into, though no less enjoyable; interestingly, some of the more fantasty-driven elements in the fabric of this make it an obvious stop en route to P&P’s later full-blown spectacles.

Of the assortment of films thrown together here by happenstance and the randomness of release schedules, Bertrand Tavernier’s latest film The Princess of Montpensier is certainly the most visually ravishing. A lush historical romance about a 16th century princess, Marie de Mézières, arranged to be married to a man she has never met but in love with someone else, the film’s greatest asset is its camerawork and cinematography, which is superlative, matching and at times even surpasses the sometimes overly dramatic portrayal given by the (also ravishing) lead actress, Mélanie Thierry. The costuming, as you might expect of a French costume drama, is made all the more stunning by (again), excellent technical work behind the camera. If Tavernier seems at times distracted by his surroundings and a little disinterested in, say, narrative, it’s probably (in this writer’s opinion) intentional: this is as much a film to look at as it is to become passionately involved with story-wise.

The above titles are available this month on DVD from Madman.

Various special features are included with each disc; at minimum a trailer. The Sirk film, impressively, boasts an additional disc containing John M. Stahl’s 1939 film When Tomorrow Comes, upon which Interlude was based. Also on that bonus disc: a featurette entitled Beyond Melodrama, in which Kathryn Bigelow espouses the virtues of Sirk and explains his influence on her own work.

The discs for Darkman and Wagner are of a disappointingly low quality for Madman, both in their screen-image presentation and in their physical packaging, although the Wagner film, which would have looked superb on Blu-ray, looks better than it might otherwise have. The two Powell-Pressburger films are exemplars of the distributors’ Directors’ Suite label, accompanied, as are most of the DS releases, with booklets containing insightful, accessible scholarly essays.

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