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The moral furor that erupted when Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman began their much-condemned affair in 1950 did not, thankfully, hinder their productivity or their creativity. Despite the outrage, the two embarked on a cinematic collaboration that produced a series of excellent films in a relatively short period of time. While their marriage lasted until 1957, their final feature together was Fear (1954), out now on a new DVD from the British Film Institute. Though the film’s home video release is a welcome one—any Rossellini film made available is a good thing—the film itself pales in comparison to their earlier efforts.

Just as he had on many of his brother’s films, Renzo Rossellini provides the score, which here is instantly redolent with the sounds of a thriller. The opening likewise looks as if it’s a standard film noir, with a menacing city at night and headlights piercing through the at times barely visible surroundings. Fear begins with two different confrontations. Though left somewhat vague in terms of complete detail, trouble is evident right away as Irene Wagner (Bergman) and Erich Baumann (Kurt Kreuger) meet under what are clearly unnerving circumstances. Their relationship seems to be at an end, yet it remains passionate even in its dissolution, hinting at the love that once was and still may be. Not long after that, further tension is added in what is also noirish fashion, as Luisa Vidor, AKA Johann Schultze (Renate Mannhardt), emerges ominously from the shadows outside Irene’s home. She accosts Irene, who does her best to abolish the young woman by throwing some money at her, presuming her to be a beggar. Irene then enters her house where she encounters her husband, Professor Albert Wagner (Mathias Wieman), who is still awake working. So she is married … the plot thickens. The next day, Luisa shows up to the laboratory where Irene and Albert work (so much seemingly unnecessary attention is given to the poison he is toiling with that it can’t help but reemerge). Luisa, who turns out to be Erich’s jaded ex-lover, is aware of Irene’s affair. As she demands more money to keep quiet, the inescapable blackmail begins. Soon she is following Irene with a harassing insistence.

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Everything is essentially set up by this point: Fear is to be a story of secrets and lies within a gradually evolving web of deceit, which is itself melodramatically merged together in a suspenseful fusion. The problem is most of these narrative checkpoints are not particularly unique, and for much of the film, Fear displays little of the hallmarks that distinguish Rossellini’s better productions. There is, in the end, little to distinguish the film at all.

The other features Rossellini made with Bergman—especially the big three of Stromboli (1950), Europa ’51 (1952) and their best collaboration, Journey to Italy (1954)—all bore something exceptional, if not in their literal, superficial plot, than in their emotional weight, their complex themes, and their contemplative, existential tone. Some of this introspection is seen in Fear, by way of Bergman’s despair and dire confusion; she is exhausted, in a state of panic, and obviously at a crucial crossroads in her life. And it must be said that her performance does get better toward the end of the film, as her past and her now threatening present collide. Yet even with the twist near the film’s conclusion, which leaves us to question the motivations of several involved, certain sections of the film come on overly strong in their obvious attempts to instill various scenes with the underlying subject of the film, principally honesty. “Everyone in our house is honest,” says Albert after he discovers their daughter stole from their son. He and Irene then discuss the girl’s lack of courage to admit she did something wrong. Irene wonders if maybe she was ashamed. “I don’t want you to think I don’t know how to forgive,” reassures Albert. It’s so blatant that the theft is not the true topic under discussion that it all becomes a little heavy handed. Having seen the sublime subtlety of his prior works with Bergman, we know Rossellini can do better than this.

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Though the reveal at the end is admittedly somewhat surprising, the real question is, does it do enough to make what had transpired more interesting, or, most importantly, does it elevate the film as a whole? While it contributes to the former, it does not result in the latter. By the time it’s all over, we feel the wrong person is happy, the wrong person is sad, the wrong one relieved, and the wrong one guilt-ridden. The film’s conclusion, as Tag Gallagher puts it, leaves moral conflicts “glaringly unresolved.”

There are also errors in terms of practical detail, as when a scene begins while Bergman sits in her car: there is a brief beat while she is immobile for no apparent reason (presumably waiting for a call to “action”), then she suddenly drives forward, only to come to a stop a few feet away. This jerky type of discontinuity is not unheard of for Rossellini. In fact, there are several similar examples in his neorealist masterworks. But in their defense, Rossellini’s filmmaking methods and production capacities then were far different than they were by 1954, and one could even argue that such lapses in editorial smoothness worked in the service of his quest for an unaltered, unbridled realism. With Fear, it sometimes just seems sloppy.

Where Fear does stand out is in its imagery, thanks chiefly to the versatile cinematographer Carlo Carlini, here working with the German Heinz Schnackertz. From the opening night in the city to the sequences in the tranquil countryside, there are few moments when the film doesn’t at least look impressive. There are times, too, when Rossellini integrates some unexpected camera movement, giving the film a few brief, though notable, bursts of stylistic vitality.

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As is detailed in the booklet accompanying the BFI release, Rossellini shot two versions of Fear, a German version (known as Angst, maintaining the title of the Stefan Zweig source novel), and an international version, which is what is contained on this disc. Shots and editing patterns differ between the two, and the first Italian version (known as La Paura) corresponds to the international release. Rossellini left the film’s post-production to his assistants, and once released, it was severely panned by critics and played in Rome for just three days. Further complicating matters, the film was later cut and released, without Rossellini’s consent, into a shorter version called Non credo più all’amore (I No Longer Believe in Love), then into a version called Incubo (Nightmare). This multifaceted back-story in many ways mirrors the resulting film, which is also a composite of features not always working together in successful unity.

Fear is an excellent example of a filmmaker done in by their prior, far superior work. Rightly or wrongly, it’s difficult not to judge the film based on what we know Rossellini and Bergman could accomplish, and fortunately, better films were still to follow for both, even as they went their separate ways. So while Fear is worth taking a look at, it is not representative of the best the two had to offer, and it generally exists as work primarily for Rossellini or Bergman completists.

‘Night and the City’

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Harry Fabian is probably the best at what he does, even if he is never very successful. Richard Widmark’s character in Night and the City, out now on a gorgeous new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, is a low-level con who works wherever he can, however he can, doing whatever he can to make a buck. He enters Jules Dassin’s 1950 film noir classic on the run; he will always be on the run: always hustling, always running. Sincere though his half-baked plans may be, he is perpetually—pathetically—down on his luck. He has the ambition, there’s no doubt about that, and as he shrewdly stumbles past one obstacle after another, it becomes almost humorous in the way he manages to charm his way through life, always just by the skin of his teeth. He cooks up a new scheme like other people change clothes, continually insistent that he can’t lose. But such a heedless methodology, damning the consequences of his actions and the impact on those around him, leads to a personality torn by conflicts of self-preservation, self-destruction, and self-deception. Harry incessantly lies to others, but even more frequently, he deludes himself at every turn.

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Still, he never gives up or gives in. He proceeds forward, certain of his objectives and his abilities. In this unwavering perseverance, Harry is indeed without equal. His optimism and blind determination enable him to spin almost anything in his favor, even the most seemingly hopeless and useless. What’s more is that his excitement is oftentimes contagious. That’s one reason Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) keeps hanging around, entertaining Harry’s wildly fluctuating notions and routinely bailing him out of trouble: for all of his faults, there’s still something likable about the guy.

Happening upon a wrestling match and overhearing the contemptuous comments by wrestling legend Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko), who condemns the state of the sport as being beneath his protégé Nikolas (Ken Richmond), Harry finds an opening and jumps right in. Without so much as a moment’s hesitation, Harry feigns interest and knowledge in wrestling and approaches Gregorius with the prospect of entering into a business venture together, ostensibly to return wrestling to a more respectable standing (seriously). As this plays out, Harry finds himself in the midst of not just competing wrestling campaigns but a corresponding family feud. Currently ruling the business of wrestling promotion in London is Kristo (Herbert Lom), Gregorius’ son, who is himself touting his main attraction, The Strangler (Mike Mazurki). With different strategies and ideologies, Gregorius and Kristo butt heads—and Harry is always there to make the most of it.

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In order to embark on his new Fabian Promotions undertaking, Harry needs financial backing. And so, while all of this wrestling/family drama is happening, Harry also gets in the middle of Helen (Googie Withers) and Philip Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), husband and wife owners of a “naughty” nightclub who have their own fair share of domestic issues.

As Night and the City progresses, jealously runs into greed, ambition meets deception, and one double-dealing move encounters a newly revealed double cross. Before he knows it, Harry is in over his head on any number of different fronts.

For a while though, when the wrestling project seems to take off, Harry wastes no time in gaining a cocky swagger, waltzing around as the newly minted expert on the sport and gazing lovingly at his nameplate stating “Managing Director.” Just as he always wanted, Harry has become somebody, if just in title only. As this is textbook film noir, however, it quickly becomes clear he can’t stay at the top for long. Desperation sets in and in the very individuals whom he had previously found a degree of sympathy and tolerance, he now finds impartial cons who are preoccupied by their own similarly shady wheeling and dealing.

As integral as it is to the plot of the film (and it’s an oddly unique narrative strand to be sure), wresting is really just incidental. Harry’s headlong approach toward this endeavor could have easily been replicated anywhere else in any number of undertakings. The wrestling scenes and the associated family squabbles are undeniably necessary to what transpires in the film, but that side-story, however impactful, is nonetheless the least interesting aspect of the movie, especially when compared to Harry’s more personal demons and dilemmas.

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Gene Tierney, who from Laura (1944) to Leave Her to Heaven (1945) to Whirlpool (1949) had made her presence known in a string of excellent, penetrating performances, is tragically underused here. While a relatively minor character, her Mary undoubtedly still emerges as the most sympathetic. Her relationship with Harry is complex and coarse, and it’s truly painful to watch as he violently dismisses her and steals from her with an utter disregard, scorning the one person who genuinely cares for him. He attempts a degree of redemption at the film’s conclusion, but it’s too little, too late.

Widmark, on the other hand, was really just getting started with his career, and he goes all out in Night and the City. He’s working very hard here. His physically and mentally exhausting quest for “a life of ease and plenty” takes its toll (evidently so on this new Blu-ray, where the 4K restoration is so detailed that the glistening sweat on Widmark’s face is shown to be persistently streaming). Widmark is manically go go go from start to finish: excited, energetic, anxious, and expressive. Yet despite his outward confidence, his vulnerability shows through as others mock his pipe dreams that never come to fruition, and at certain points, he nearly breaks down in tears when confronted by their cruel dismissal. Everything for Harry culminates in a beautifully lit and arranged final sequence, where he is literally like a deer in the headlights as his world comes closing in.

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Under suspicion during the communist witch-hunts at the time, director Jules Dassin shot Night and the City in London at the behest of Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Fox studios. Aside from being part of an international post-war deal that Hollywood had with English corporations, this was also so that Dassin could work away from the dramatics (and theatrics) of McCarthyism while still being employed by Fox. Though the postponement of personal tribulation for Dassin was in vain, Night and the City’s nontraditional film noir setting in London turned out to be ideal for the director, who had in films such as Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) exhibited a comparably concentrated use of location. Here, the noirish London alleyways are as confining as their American counterparts, the nights as menacing, lights as luminous, shadows as absorptive, the towering buildings as encroaching, and the nightclubs every bit as disreputable. Deep focus photography opens up this nocturnal world, with treachery and violence lurking behind every concealed corner. In their international application of noir imagery and themes, Dassin and German cinematographer Mutz Greenbaum compose a textured visualization of a dangerous, vibrant cityscape, and Franz Waxman’s pounding score further heightens the intensity.

That score, however, is just one element of Night and the City’s complicated post-production and distribution. Because of the aforementioned agreement between Fox and their British counterparts, two versions of the film were released, the 95-minute American version (which all of the above refers to) and the 101-minute British version, which Criterion also includes on this disc. Among the differences is a wholly distinct score for the UK cut, composed by Benjamin Frankel. There are other alterations as well: dialogue, shot design, structure, and even some character development. No matter which version you look at though, as Paul Arthur states at the opening of his essay, “Night and the City: In the Labyrinth,” “On film noir’s unparalleled roster of resonant titles—Kiss of Death, Out of the Past, and Where Danger Lives, to name three—none is more emblematic or iconographically cogent than Night and the City.”

‘Day for Night’

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From Fellini to Fassbinder, Minnelli to Godard, some of international cinema’s greatest directors have turned their camera on their art and, by extension, themselves. But in the annals of great films about filmmaking, few movies have captured the rapturous passion of cinematic creation and the consuming devotion to film as well as François Truffaut’s Day for Night. While there are a number of stories at play in this love letter to the movies, along with several terrific performances throughout, the crux of the film, the real star of the show, is cinema itself.

Prior to Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Truffaut was arguably the most fervent film loving filmmaker, wearing his affection for the medium on his directorial sleeve and seldom missing an opportunity to sound off in interviews or in his own writing about what made a great film great (or what didn’t — see his seminal essay on “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema”). Never one to rest on his laurels, Truffaut put into practice what he preached, with terrific films like The 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and Jules and Jim (1962). Yet while many of his Nouvelle Vague compatriots were around this time seeking ever more radical approaches toward cinematic style and storytelling, Truffaut seemed to be getting rather more traditional as the 1960s progressed, and though once a critical darling, he was now starting to fall out of favor. Partly to remedy this, in 1973, he turned to what he knew best: the movies. And the result was Day for Night, a much loved, widely awarded, and truly joyous work about the trials and triumphs of making a film and the extraordinary power of motion pictures as objects of affection and obsession.

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There are several fancies and flings that make up the plot of Day for Night, a film Truffaut considered a comedy. As a film crew arrives at the Victorine studios in Nice to make a seemingly prosaic melodrama called Meet Pamela, there are enough off-screen dramas to give the fictional story a run for its money, with romantic advances, flirtations, and all sorts of scandalous behavior one even still associates with “movie people.” Primary among the characters and their respective issues are: Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), a British star who recently suffered from a nervous breakdown and is now married to an older man, Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), who also happens to be her doctor; Severine (Valentina Cortese), an aging actress who struggles with her alcoholism and, subsequently, her lines, much to the frustration of the other cast and crew; and Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud), an amorous young man who appears to revel in the complications of love as much as he suffers from them. Holding everyone together—as well as the production of the film within the film—is, fittingly enough, the director, Ferrand, played by, fittingly enough, Truffaut himself.

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Of all the actors—the real ones—Léaud and Bisset are the most widely recognized and dynamic, though it was Cortese who walked away with the most acting awards. Léaud, Truffaut’s protégé and surrogate since The 400 Blows, plays Alphonse similar to his Antoine Doinel character in Truffaut’s cycle of films following that young man: impulsive, hopelessly romantic, and fragile (not unlike Léaud himself at the time). For her part, Bisset was the more famous name, having gained an international stardom thanks to films such as The Knack… and How to Get It (1965), Roman Polanski’s brilliant Cul-De-Sac (1966), Casino Royale (1967), Bullitt (1968), and Airport (1970), and here she does a wonderful job conveying Julie’s interrelated vulnerability and allure. While not to take away from these actors, the romances and struggles of those involved in the making of the fictional film, nor the emotional engagement that develops between the audience and the characters, nearly all of whom appear as generally decent individuals, this still isn’t what Day for Night is all about.

This is a film about filmmaking, and Truffaut never looses sight of what he’s really after. “I won’t reveal the whole truth about filming,” he said, “but just some real things that happened in my past movies or in other movies.” The allusions to cinema, as an art and as Truffaut personally connects to it, are plentiful and varied. The title itself, of course, derives from a filmmaking technique, and the film is dedicated to the legendary and luminous Lillian and Dorothy Gish. On a self-referential note, Truffaut and Léaud as director and actor undoubtedly carries on-screen weight based on their real-life relationship (this was their seventh collaboration), and Truffaut rarely passes up a chance to incorporate nods to a few of his own favorite films and directors, with Citizen Kane lobby card dreams and a bounty of film-related books on figures such as Hawks, Hitchcock, Dreyer, Rossellini, and Godard (this last one ironically so given Godard’s venomous attack on Truffaut after seeing Day for Night, calling his former Cahiers du Cinéma comrade a liar and a sell-out).

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Though brief, this book scene in particular is one of the standout moments in the film, for the very reason that it does draw such explicit attention to the esteem in which Truffaut holds these filmmakers; playing over it is Georges Delerue’s music (part of his score for Truffaut’s Two English Girls [1971]), giving the dropping of titles and names a stirring acknowledgement of admiration. A second key moment that likewise expresses a more technical movie love is a whimsical montage of film creation, with Truffaut focusing on camera tracks and cranes, dollies, lights, clapper boards, actor situating, and prop placement. It’s a lovingly composed sequence of  assorted facets of filmmaking, a symphony to the craft and the art of cinema. Similar to this are moments that spotlight the artifice of filmmaking: stunts, false interiors, fake snow, even the process of “day for night” shooting is illusory. How can reality ever hope to compete with such adept trickery?

Having said all this, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Criterion Collection has gone above and beyond with their new Blu-ray release of the film. In addition to a visual essay by :: kogonada, there is an interview with Dudley Andrew, where he discusses in further detail the animosity that developed between Truffaut and Godard, and a short documentary on Day for Night featuring the always eloquent Annette Insdorf. Archival footage is also included, alongside a slew of interviews with no less than nine figures, including Truffaut, assistant editor Martine Barraqué, editor Yann Dedet, and actors Jean-Pierre Aumont, Nathalie Baye, Jacqueline Bisset, Dani, and Bernard Menez.

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There is also an essay by David Cairns titled “Day for Night: Are Movies Magic?” This is in reference to a question frequently posed by Alphonse, where he wonders if women are magic. But Cairns follows that with his own question regarding Day for Night: “Are movies magic? By peeling away the layers of performance and craft, Truffaut seems to be asking that question, and finding that even when we see the celluloid unspool and the soundtrack frizz, hear the offscreen arguments, and experience the plans gone awry, some essence of the wondrous remains.”

François Truffaut still worked for another decade or so following Day for Night, before he passed away at the tragically young age of 52. But more than any of his later films, this is the one that comes across as a true final testament.

‘Two Days, One Night’

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Are there any filmmakers working today with a better recent track record than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne? From their 1996 feature La Promesse, to Two Days, One Night (2014), available now on a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, the writing/directing duo have made seven classics of contemporary world cinema in a row, all of which were also among the best of their respective year of release. There have been six films up for the Palme d’Or, resulting in two wins (as well as five other Cannes awards), five César nominations, a host of critical accolades, and dozens of other honors spanning the globe (though curiously, no Oscar love for the brothers). Two Days, One Night, itself the winner of 40 international awards, is just the latest to follow this exceptional trend. It’s a film utterly unique in so many ways, yet perfectly consistent with the Dardenne filmography.

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Teaming with Marion Cotillard, who did receive an Oscar nomination for her role in Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes were collaborating with their highest profile star to date. But as is their tradition, they maintain a low-key approach toward style and storytelling, with an unobtrusive aesthetic, a limited location, a narrow time-span, and a narrative that is powerfully intimate, universally relevant, and sometimes painfully honest. This time, the plot follows Sandra Bya (Cotillard) over the course of a weekend, as she seeks to persuade her 16 coworkers to support her keeping her job rather than them receiving a bonus. While Sandra was on medical leave, the supervisor of her solar panel factory decided the crew got by just fine without her, thus rendering her position unnecessary. In her absence, a vote was held to either have the company pay to keep her job, or pay each of the other employees an annual bonus for some additional work. Following the 13-3 decision in favor of the bonus, Sandra makes her rounds, often with her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), attempting to sway opinions before a Monday-morning recount. Despite its absence of conventionally suspenseful tropes, as Girish Shambu describes it in his essay, “Two Days, One Night: Economics Is Emotion,” the film is, nevertheless, “a model of that familiar form, the ‘ticking-clock thriller.'”

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The solar panel business here is an operation just small enough for close relationships with coworkers to be casually developed, which subsequently leads to complex personal motivations and feelings regarding the decision. At the same time, it is also just small enough that divisions can easily breed animosity. (And as the brothers point out in an interview on the Criterion disc, such a business is also just small enough to avoid unionization, which presumably would have restricted such a ballot-based procedure.) As with most of the Dardennes’ work, there is a singular focus of narrative attention, a primary 1-3 characters or so who are so prominent, so dynamic, and are usually performed with such complete conviction that it is often easy to overlook the larger issues at hand. This is somewhat the case with Two Days, One Night, where the socioeconomic themes are clear and present yet are also rather secondary. Though Shambu does make a strong case for the film as an examination of the post-2008 financial crisis and a concurrent capitalistic critique: “Like all of their films of the past two decades, Two Days, One Night feels urgent and jolting because it holds a mirror up to life lived in our current global economic regime. And this time around, the picture they paint acquires a redoubled resonance in the ongoing aftermath of the financial crisis.”

Still, such issues may drive the narrative and give Sandra her motivation (and give the film its wider cultural relevance), but her personal drama as a result of this catalyst overshadows what started it all in the first place. Luc Dardenne talks of the film as depicting the “solitude of the worker,” insofar as it illustrates the isolation of a lone figure within the larger framework of a corporate mechanism, and while he is undoubtedly right about that, such a statement also speaks to the way the Dardenne brothers’ films can hone in on individuals, and individual concerns, which may otherwise be buried or ignored within a larger social construct.

Solidarity is another of the ever-present themes that run throughout the Dardennes’ work. It takes on various guises—as in families sticking together, friends uniting, lovers bonding, etc.—but here the emphasis is on a professional solidarity. It works two ways though. On the one hand, it is, at the most obvious, about standing with a colleague, coming to his or her defense and aid. But it is also about the simple act of understanding. And even that has two branches of action. First, it is about Sandra’s coworkers, whom she pleads with for their understanding of her struggle. Second, it is also about her own evolution of discovery when seeing where they are all coming from, especially those who are reluctant to give up their bonus as a result of their own financial dependency. Having the shoe on the other foot isn’t always easy, but it is usually enlightening.

‘Mesmerising’: Marion Cotillard as Belgian factory worker Sandra with screen husband Fabrizio Rongio

Again like those in so many Dardenne films, Sandra subsequently undergoes a life-changing journey in a matter of hours, and grows immensely in her transformation from weakness to strength. It doesn’t always look good for the young woman, most evidently as the tightly restricted interiors intensify and accentuate her psychological instability (she is nearly always on the precipice of a complete and devastating breakdown, coming mortally close at one point), but there is an underlying perseverance that keeps her efforts tinged with optimism.

Giving emotional credence to the representation of various intertwined lives and their specific scenarios are the actors in Two Days, One Night, all of whom are excellent. Cotillard is certainly the heart of the film, and hers is a powerhouse performance, one of her best, but the supporting cast is also brilliant, broadening the scope of the picture to illuminate those on the periphery of Sandra’s plight. Each supporting player does a remarkable job bringing his or her character to life despite minimal screen time, which results in not only Cotillard having extremely capable counterparts, but also adds to the viewer’s sympathy for even those who decline Sandra’s appeal.

In a nearly hour-long Criterion conversation with the Dardenne brothers, it becomes clear, in a way, just why their films are so special. First and foremost is their methodical direction, and they insightfully elaborate on their careful attention to the staging of characters within their setting, the placement of props, and their choice of camera angles, distance, and movement. I say “in a way,” however, because despite these explicitly voiced explanations of technical practice, it all still seems so deceptively naturalistic. Even with an extensive rehearsal period (five weeks according to Cotillard, who says the time is integral to the rhythm and authenticity of the film), nothing at any time appears contrived. “Organic” is a word that comes up often in the Criterion interviews, as the brothers and their actors speak of character actions and traits naturally occurring during these rehearsals or the actual shooting. And as is pointed out by Rongione, who has himself appeared in five Dardenne films, many incorrectly assume those appearing in the brothers’ movies are amateurs, which further suggests a truthful quality one generally attributes to non-actors.

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Assisting this fundamental creation is the fact that especially in Two Days, One Night the Dardennes frequently compose in sequence shots, where a single take follows characters in close proximity, recording the good and the bad, the exciting and the banal, all the drama and action, or lack thereof, as it steadily, realistically unspools. In this formal design is the tension of the everyday. Shambu cites Dave Kehr, who writes, “Though the Dardennes’ films are scrupulously naturalistic, they all belong to the suspense genre, though it is a suspense of character, not of plot. It is not so much a question of what will happen next as of how the characters arrive, or fail to arrive, at a decision to act.” By not cutting, by not drawing back during times of potential distress, the brothers ratchet up the anxiety with the certainty that we will bare witness to whatever the characters decide to do, or not do.

For directors who have such a uniquely consistent worldview and filmmaking style, several of the bonus features on the Criterion disc allude to a surprising number of multimedia influences. The brothers alone draw a connection between their films and reality television, they pay homage to Satyajit Ray’s The Big City (1963), and they profess an admiration of Cesare Zavattini’s Neorealist ideals (this is where the sequence shots come into play). And in his visual essay, Kent Jones refers to Eisenstein and Rossellini when discussing the Dardenne brothers and their cinematic points of reference. With Two Days, One Night in particular, I would also say there is also something of 12 Angry Men (1957) in its essential narrative construction, in that both films follow the efforts of one as they try to convince and sway others.

But perhaps the most astute comparison is when Jones cues up a statement by Jean Renoir. Remember it was Renoir who uttered his often-quoted quip from The Rules of the Game (1939)—”Everybody has their reasons”—which itself is apt when it comes to the cinema of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. In this case, though, Jones brings in another quote from the famed French filmmaker, one that similarly gets to the crux of the brothers and their work, and hints at why their films are so powerful and so full of captivating energy. It comes down to reality, and reality, says Renoir, “is always magic.”

‘The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein’

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Since May of this year, I have embarked on an ongoing exploration into the cinema of Jesús Franco. After first viewing Justine (also known as Deadly Sanctuary), one of seven Franco films released in 1969 (his filmography boasts 203 directorial credits from 1957 to 2013), I sought out more of what this infamous Spanish auteur had to offer. Like Justine, some of these films have been extraordinarily entertaining: The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973), Female Vampire and Women Behind Bars (both 1975), and Bloody Moon (1981). Others, however, have been downright atrocious: Emmanuelle Exposed (1982) and Red Silk (1999), one of the worst films I have ever seen.

The latest addition to what is now a 25-films-and-counting “Summer of Jesús Franco” is The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, available on a new Blu-ray edition from Redemption Films, which has released several other Franco titles. Neither top notch, nor bottom of the barrel, this 1972 feature—one of nine he released that year—is a decidedly middle of the road Jesús Franco film, with a fair amount to admire and plenty to ridicule.

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A common complaint (or excuse) regarding many Franco films is that his plots are usually inessential. It’s true that many times the narrative is unimportant at best, utterly incomprehensible at worst, but this seems to be an unfair disregard. No matter how muddled the plot—as in the way it is all presented—there is always a larger story to be told, and The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein is an excellent case in point. The basic premise revolves around the murder of Doctor Frankenstein (Dennis Price) and the theft and revitalization of his monster, which is then used to kidnap virgins for the evil Cagliostro (Howard Vernon) in order to fulfill his desires and his experiments. Said experiments concern the creation of a new race of perfect women: a “combination of beauty and submission.” Assisting Cagliostro is Melisa (Anne Libert), a squawking vampiric creature who is half woman half bird, mostly nude and with talons. Standing in Cagliostro’s way is Doctor Seward (Alberto Dalbés) and Frankenstein’s daughter, Vera (Beatriz Savón), who takes over the reigns of her father’s operation. Observing much of this is a largely silent horde of cultish individuals who hover hauntingly in the background.

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As he did with Count Dracula (1970), Franco incorporates several standard conventions to acknowledge the literary source as well as its various cinematic incarnations. Unlike Count Dracula, here these conventions are but mere jumping off points for a far more eccentric take on the familiar story. In this extreme departure from prior Frankenstein tales, there nevertheless remains a recurrent exploration of reanimation, its scientific foundation (a magnetic life ray in this case) and its purpose (to get information from a “dead” person and to have a controlled being at one’s disposal). Even Cagliostro himself is some sort of deceased individual who periodically returns from the hereafter to wreck havoc. Into this, Franco liberally dispenses his own thematic predilections of sex, sadism, and violence, occasionally all in the same scene or even shot.

Like most Franco films, Erotic Rites was shot on the cheap, and while this financial deficiency is readily apparent, as in the spray-painted silvery coating of the monster (to presumably make him metallic?) as well as in some hilariously bad special effects (a sulfuric acid attack that makes no sense whatsoever), the director keeps things dynamic if not always convincing. Franco employs an irregular stylistic fluctuation of technique, with shifty, unstable zooms and erratic hand-held pans. But what one sees in some of his films, and again, Erotic Rites is a good example, is a more controlled and thoughtful incorporation of striking camera angles and creatively psychedelic lighting. Certain shots even have an enchanting gauzy sheen or an effectively disorienting wide-angle perspective. In contrast to the more shoddy technical facets of certain Franco movies, this type of surprisingly arresting imagery indicates, at least as far as I can tell, a more evident interest in the material and a more earnest attempt to make something very good if not great. And even if it all doesn’t come off every time, Franco deserves credit for his imaginative resiliency and his total lack of conventional restraint.

Erotic Rites (1)

Complimenting these visual techniques is the music, composed by Daniel White, who worked on a number of Franco features including Oasis of the Zombies (1982), a commonly maligned Franco film that nonetheless remains one of my favorites. It’s an odd concoction of abstract instrumentals and incongruent noises. Most notable are some genuinely catchy riffs that recall the director’s own jazz compositions.

As for this particular Blu-ray release, there is good news and bad news. On the plus side of things, this is the uncut version that Franco preferred. While there is some minor gore, more pronounced is the gratuitous nudity (admittedly also minor compared to some of his work), and all of this is fully intact. The downside is that the alternate version—generally known by the film’s original title, La maldición de Frankenstein, somewhat longer, and edited for nudity and violence—has scenes featuring Lina Romay in her screen debut. The beautiful and amazingly audacious Romay would become Franco’s muse, starring in dozens of his films. She would also be his life partner and, eventually, his wife. Though her scenes in La maldición de Frankenstein apparently have little to no relation to the actual plot of the film, her presence in every Franco feature that I’ve seen (save for that Red Silk catastrophe) has elevated the enjoyment level considerably. Even if irrelevant to the story, perhaps that would have also been the case here.