DVD roundup July 2014: New European cinema releases
A selection of new, under-the-radar re-issues by Leos Carax, Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi
In this selection of DVDs there are four Polish films and two French works. Where three of the Polish movies are wonderful examples of what, in Poland in the seventies, was called the Cinema of Moral Anxiety, the French movies are by Leos Carax. Here was a director alongside Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson who was central to the eighties Cinema du Look: the idea that style often trumps substance. If Andrzej Wajda in The Promised Land (Second Run ●●●●) and Man of Marble (Second Run ●●●●●), and Krzysztof Zanussi in Illumination (Second Run ●●●●●), wring their hands over self and society, Carax paints the drainpipes red to bring out a loosely Godardian colour scheme in The Night is Young (Artificial Eye ●●●●). Boy Meets Girl (Artificial Eye ●●●●), also by Carax, has no colour at all, but instead plays up the melancholy of monochrome as young Alex (Denis Lavant) revenantly hangs around Paris. In The Night is Young, Carax again casts Lavant, this time as a character in love with Juliette Binoche and involved in a heist with her lover Michel Piccoli. Carax was always more than a stylist for style’s sake, and there are moments here that invigorate film form: especially the scene where Lavant first sees Binoche on the metro. We can see the scene’s influence in more recent Wong Kar-wai and Nuri Bilge Ceylan films. There is the ecstasy of being in love with cinema and its possibilities.
Wajda’s two films both heavily utilise the wide angle lens to capture their worlds. The Promised Land shows late 19th century industrial Poland and offers a grotesque, Dickensian account of grim lives and greedy bosses, while Man of Marble is a thrusting, enquiring study of a former hero of the Socialist state fallen from grace. In the latter Krystyna Janda is the pushy, young film student who is researching the life of a bricklayer (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) who’s shown beating world bricklaying records. Where in The Promised Land the major Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski is a leanly sly and ambitious bourgeois making money at the cost of lives, in Man of Marble the equally formidable but four square Radziwilowcz is a man of the people turned into the marble man. He becomes literally statuesque until he proves more troublesome than useful.
Unfortunately the lead actor in Illumination did not live long enough to become a figure of Olbrychski’s or Radziwilowicz’s magnitude. Stanislaw Latallo died in a mountaineering accident a couple of years after the film was made. He is cast here as a weak, slightly ridiculous figure, with a great sense of enquiry but a fragile sense of self. He drops out of his studies and tries to find various possible meanings in his life, moving from science to mysticism, psychiatry to mountain-climbing. Latallo wanted to play the role as if James Dean; Zanussi was looking for a mumbling, half-lisping figure, bespectacled and sexually uncharismatic. This is all moral anxiety and not much cinema du look.
The weakest film here is Escape from the Liberty Cinema (Second Run ●●), made in 1990 and borrowing from Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. The characters in the film within the film start to make up their own lines and talk back to the audience. Janusz Gajos is fine in the main role of a censor facing the compromises he has made, but the film feels more script-weary than world-weary.