Sunday, July 4, 2010

DVD debuts from Antonioni and Cavalier -- LE COMBAT DANS L'ILE and RED DESERT

Oh, yeah -- the orange hair/green coat movie! Watching RED DESERT again after many years, and finding this first film in color from landmark director Michelangelo Antonioni, not as you had hoped better, but actually worse than you'd remembered is a frustrating experience. The new, up-to-snuff Criterion transfer marks my third time viewing this movie; there will not be a fourth. Originally appearing in 1964 and found wanting by many critics and foreign film viewers here in the U.S., the film is prescient in its indictment of corporate pollution, but defective in most other ways.  There is amazing lack of chemistry between its two stars Monica Vitti and Richard Harris: He seems utterly bored, while she, playing a woman suffering some sort of breakdown, decides to "act" for a change, and the result is affected and finally embarrassing.

Vitti (above and on poster, top) was best at looking exotically beautiful (L'Avventura, L'Eclisse, and even as the blank, comedic heroine of Modesty Blaise). Here, she's at sea (sometimes literally) as a wife and mother under duress. Her hair color shows more variety than her emotional palette. (What could this mean? With all of Antonioni's attention to hand-rendered color detailing, was the director trying to tell us something about Vitti's continually changing hair-colors modifying her moods?)

There are occasional interesting spatial planes and glimpses of how human beings look in relationship to each other and to their environment (above), but this is a movie in which connections are barely forged and questions tend to go unanswered -- or answered with a lie.  Bourgeois boredom is on display again, with a would-be orgy failing to take place because the room is too small to comfortably hold its inhabitants.

Red Desert is a beautifully designed movie, all right, but to little point.  Even its dialog is affected -- very "of its day" -- sounding initially meaningful but running on empty.  A perfect example is its final exchange regarding what to take with you when you move. Though Vitti's character appears to have registered not one solitary thing during the entire movie, "You're part of me now," she explains to Harris (shown above) at the finale.  Yeah, right.  This was not Antonioni's finest hour.

Alain Cavalier makes odd films that keep us viewers at a distance, but they are not without their charm and/or moody allure. Most recently his film Irène was part of last year's BAM French fest, and now an early movie from 1962 LE COMBAT DANS L'ILE has come to DVD, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films. Retitled Fire and Ice for the international English-speaking market, the change of moniker makes little sense, as the original title translates to "The Fight on the Island" -- which is exactly what the film's finale gives us, though it takes its sweet time getting there.

Initially, we meet gorgeous married couple Romy Schneider and Jean-Louis Trintignant (both at the absolute height of their extraordinary looks).  She has given up a career in the theater for him, which he barely appreciates.  But, then, he's part of a right-wing extremist group that is planning some violence.   How and why this happens and the results of it all are surprising, perhaps, but bear not much meaning to the movie as a whole -- which seems finally more to do with love and art and making a final stand against the bad guy.

Also on view is Henri Serre (above with gun -- who played Jim in Jules et Jim the same year, and appeared in The Fire Within the next) as the "other man."  Serre is as impressive emotionally as he is physically and so ought to be better known on our shores but oddly enough is not.  Here, he pretty much steals the movie from under his co-stars' feet.

Cavalier is given, at least with this film, to using narration rather heavily (a popular trend in 1960s French film), which does not help things much, as it seems more of an affectation than a necessity. But his camera (the cinematographer is Pierre Lhomme) captures some lovely moods, backstreet shadows, rain, light.  And Schneider is, as ever, charming and lovely; ditto Diane Lepvrier, who plays her new friend Cécile.

But all this is frou-frou against which the film, it's plot and point never materialize sufficiently.  Le combat dans l'île is pretty much for dyed-in-the-wool film buffs only.

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