Criterion Collection Viewing: Week 2

For those that might not have heard of the Criterion Collection, it is a DVD/Blu-Ray distribution company that acquires, restores and beautifully packages “classic”, “important”, foreign and American films with a focus on art-house and hard to find releases. I’ve been a fan for quite some time and recently had an urge to explore their collection more deeply. You can find my post for my first week of viewing here. 


“Le Feu follet” (‘The Fire Within’) is an introspective depiction of a man nearing the end of his rope. It is directed by Louis Malle (Zazie dans le metro) and stars Maurice Ronet as Alain Leroy, a depressed recovering alcoholic who spends his time in a clinic, even though his detox has long been over. He stays because he can’t bring himself to face the real world in fear of what he might become. On a large mirror within his room are the worlds July 23. Surrounding it are pictures of a beautiful woman. She is his wife, Dorothy, who couldn’t stand his drinking and lives in New York, where he had lived before his alcoholism. But life, love and his demons became too much so he returned to France to get treatment.

The film opens with him in bed with an old friend. He attempts to star into her eyes, to find a connection, a fleeting moment, that first gaze. But alas he finds nothing. She begs him to return to New York, but he can’t for he has other plans. Later in the day his therapist pleads with him to reach out to his wife, to re-enter the world. This too is a task that he finds hard to do. Bored, he hums to himself and walks around his room. He finally sits down at his desk, opens his briefcase and removes a gun. “Life…” he says as he holds it to his mouth “…flows too slowly in me. So I speed it up. I set it right…”…but not quite yet.  Moments later as he gets into bed he declares “I kill myself tomorrow.” Suddenly the date on the mirror gains new meaning. He plans to end his misery, and had been planning to for some time.

But before he does the next morning he takes one last trip to Paris. Whether it is to say one last good bye to those he knew or find reasons to go on he doesn’t seem too sure. Sadly he finds no answers among friends, they have changed or their actions seem more pointless, unremarkable or dull as ever. One has settled down, rooted himself with a wife and children and finds interest and solace in the mythology of civilizations long lost. Another lives carefree with poets and thinkers, but seems bored and has her regrets. The last bunch he visits, though wealthy and important, are also leading lives that contain little happiness and have relationships that are falling apart.

His misery continues to grow as the memories of the man he once was, a life he now sees as wasted, all flood back. Instead of reconnecting, the hole in his soul just grows larger as he feels less and less able to connect with or “touch” the world around him. It is truly a sad and thoughtful experience. The sort that makes you think and make your own self evaluations. All of this is supported by fantastic dialogue and a wonderful lead performance and I really loved every minute of it. Highly recommended.

“Vampyr” is a surreal and chilling film by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a director who also made one of my all-time favorite films “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. “Vampyr” is a turn in a very different direction stylistically compared to that film. Here is not only his first use of sound but also whereas ‘Passion’ is a serious and easy to follow depiction of the trail and execution of Joan of Arc, “Vampyr” is a haunting tale of vampires and ghosts that blends dream and reality.

Dreyer does a fantastic job in establishing a very eerie atmosphere right from the start and it only continues to grow stronger through his brilliant use of lighting and shadows. One scene in particular was as admirable as it was creepy where human shadows are seen walking along the walls, with no actual actors to be found on screen, to represent ghosts. These ghosts are the prisoners of a vampire, who is terrorizing a local family.

When watching one must remember that the perspective of the film is through that of a young man who visits the village, and winds up trying to help the family. The often hazy and dreamlike look of scenes bring into question the ‘sanity’ of this character, especially towards the end during a premature burial sequence that makes us question what is happening. Dreyer purposely shot the film very grainy and foggy to create this distortion.

The whole experience is absolutely hypnotic though challenging. Some might find the film to be a bore, or too art-house for their tastes. These complaints would be justified because it is a strange and enigmatic film. With that said, even those who can’t get over the lack of heavy dialogue, slow pacing and editing would be stupid not to admire the technical feats and just utter bizarreness of it all. Recommended.

“The Exterminating Angel” by Luis Bunuel is a unique and often surreal assault on the bourgeois that is truly hard to explain. Its plot involves a group of upper class socialites who attend a dinner party, but when it starts to get late and time for everyone to depart none of them can seem to exit the room. It is through this simple action, their imprisonment, that Bunuel begins to dissect human behavior in a society that places etiquette and status over humanity. Their inability to leave, as if on a subconscious level none wish to be the first to go, represents the importance they place on other opinions and not wanting to be rude over all else. This sets the stage for Bunuel’s grand experiment. Locked up together we watch how they slowly lose their sanity and we see their true savage nature emerge. They are helpless without their servants, who left without explanation before the party. The whole film is a truly interesting experience, at times slow but still entertaining. It is hard to know what to take away from the whole thing. Bunuel himself said there was no true explanation for the events in the film, but his social commentary is pretty clear at times.  Recommended to those interested, but not a must watch.

“Zazie dans le metro” was Louis Malle’s new wave “comedy”, and I use the term lightly, about a young girl’s journey through Paris while visiting her uncle.

Malle employs every possible comedic gag in the book which quickly grew tiring. It is all very sporadic and loony. If looked at as if the hijinks are nothing more than the overzealous perspective of Zazie, who views the adult world as a carnival, then maybe it makes sense and is even a brave and cynical farce. Sadly it is hard to see things that way and even harder to sit through because the shtick gets old so fast. It is just way too hectic and fractured to keep ones attention and never really funny or insightful enough to even recommend.

Malle directed one of my top ten favorite films, ‘Au revioir les enfants’, which is completely different in tone and style, so I was really let down. This is perhaps the first in the series that I strongly cannot recommend.

“The Phantom Carriage”, starred and directed by Victor Sjostrom, was a film that heavily influenced Ingmar Bergman. So much so that he would end up casting Victor as the lead in my all-time favorite film ‘Wild Strawberries’, something I did not know until after I saw this and totally blew my mind in the best possible way.

As for the film, well it is somewhat simple. At the end of every year, the soul of the last person to die must take the reins of the Phantom Carriage, becoming Death. For the next full year that soul must walk the Earth collecting the bodies of sinners. The film opens on New Year’s Eve as the main character gets into a fight which leads to his untimely death. He is unfortunately the last person to die. Before he has to take Death’s place he is forced to visit those he wronged and we view his past mistakes and sins, most of which were perpetrated under the influence of alcohol. It all leads to a somewhat predictable but uplifting finish that sort of turned my off.

Based on its story and acting alone I wouldn’t have been impressed with the end result but on a technical level the film is a marvel. Double exposure was used with multiple layers to allow ghosts and Death to walk in three dimensions, behind objects in the foreground yet seen as transparent in front of objects in the background.  For a film that came out in 1921 it truly is remarkable. For this alone I’d recommend it, but its eerie, though unremarkable, story and tone and influences on directors like Bergman make it a must watch.

“Elevator to the Gallows” was a competently directed crime thriller, and also Louis Malle’s first feature film. It stars Maurice Ronet (“The Fire Within”) as Julien Tavernier who is having an affair with his boss’s wife Florence, played by Jeanne Moreau. Together they plan to kill her husband and run away together. Julien manages to achieve this goal and make it look like a suicide. He seems to be in the clear and ready to leave but notices he left a piece of evidence that could be used to realize it was a murder. He runs back into the building and takes the elevator, but halfway up it shuts down. That is because the building is closed down, with no knowledge of him still being inside, and the power shut off. While he is stuck and trying to figure out a way to escape, a flower girl with knows Julien and her criminal boyfriend steal his car and under his name check into a hotel. The two end up getting into trouble that leads back to Julien, and as the police search for him he is still stuck inside the elevator. The result of it all is an at time suspenseful and well-acted thriller that just has some really stupid moments and takes more than a few missteps at the end which really hurt it. One of those missteps is by far one of the stupidest decisions and changes in attitude I’ve seen in two characters in a long time. Sadly it isn’t clever enough to be entertaining and make up for this. What is worse is that it could have been a lot better. Don’t recommend.

“Solaris” is a haunting and poetic exploration of our consciousness and human nature. An enigmatic, visually hypnotic and beautiful science fiction film that has been called Tarkovsky’s response to “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

In the film an oceanic planet was discover and named Solaris. A space station was sent into its orbit to study its unusual surface. When they can’t seem to find anything remarkable on the planet, and after a pilot dies flying over the surface, the agency running the research begins plans to pull the plug. But lately the transmissions they have been receiving from the three remaining cosmonauts stationed above Solaris have been mysterious and nonsensical. It is decided that Kris Kelvin, a scientist and psychologist, be sent to the station to evaluate the mental and emotional crises the men aboard the station seem to be experiencing; and report back on whether the progress being made over Solaris and the state of the crew is in a condition that warrants a continuation of the whole program. Before he goes he spends his last days at his fathers, which holds many memories of his childhood and wife, who committed suicide years before. While there Kris has trouble connecting with his father, even though by the time Kris returns his father will likely be dead, so he leaves with no real goodbye.

When he arrives on Solaris the crew is in worst shape than he expected. One of them, an old acquaintance of Kris, had killed himself sometime before Kris’s  arrival. The other two, Dr. Snaut and Dr. Sartorious, can’t seem to provide any logical answers. They speak of hallucinations that are all too real, and warn him to remember he is no longer on Earth. Kris does not know what to make of it all; that is until he experiences it firsthand. That night he awakes to find Hari, his ex-wife who killed herself years before, sitting in the chair in front of his bed. Shocked, but not willing to lose himself, Kris speaks with her. He is unsure if he is dreaming, if it is simply a hallucination or some sort of alien entity. His first instinct is to get it off the ship, so he tricks her into a spacecraft and blasts her off the station.

Snaut explains to him that his actions were of little use and on the next night Hari reappears. To his best knowledge Solaris seems to be a living entity with the ability to rematerialize memories. The results are not human, but possess some memory of who they were. Perhaps the most shocking fact about them is that they cannot be killed. Burn their blood and it regenerates itself, when Hari cuts her hand the wound vanishes minutes later. Sartorius believes the only way to rid themselves of these “guests” is by blasting Solaris with heavy radiation, though they agree that this option be a last resort.

Kris tries to keep control around Hari but the memories of her and the regrets he has that resurface, not being there for her or expressing his love when he had the chance, cause his mind to slip, putting more of himself into the recreation of Hari. This only makes it harder to decide whether they should continue to try communicating with Solaris or destroy it.

“Solaris” is one of those films that leaves the viewer with so many questions and it isn’t all easy to digest and yet remains unbelievable mesmerizing. In its exploration of love, conscious, reconciliation, science and regret it becomes a deliberately slow moving and meditative experience. For nearly three hours I could barely move, I was transfixed by the story and the questions it asked. Can we escape our irretrievable past? Are we trapped by our guilt and sins? It is fascinating how Tarkovsky explores this idea of how easily we lose our grip on who we are when faced with the presence of an unknown and superior force and begin to focus our attention inwards causing the unremarkableness and inconsequentiality of being human to become so apparent compared to the rest of the universe. It really is an interesting counter argument to Kubirck’s “2001:  A Space Odyssey” and its evolution of man even against a force superior to our own.

It could easily become a new favorite upon another viewing. With that said I can’t recommend it to everyone. It is exactly the sort of foreign art-house film that can easily polarize and be labeled pretentious. If you have any interest in it, or more specifically if you want to explore Tarkovsky’s filmography, I’d recommend starting here.


As always thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the reviews. Please leave any comments (good or bad) below.

One response to “Criterion Collection Viewing: Week 2

  1. Dreyer’s Vampyr is my favorite from this new batch of Criterion titles. While I thought Dreyer did a wonderful job with his very first sound film I thought it were the sequences when he went back to silent film techniques that I thought the surreal nature of the film really shone through.

    Vampyr is definitely a must-watch and done so with Murnau’s Nosferatu and Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as part of a triple-billing of German Expressionism. Bonus is the fact all three are horror films which would set some of the rules many gothic films from then to now would use.


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