The Criterion Collection is an American video-distribution company based in New York City but ask a film buff, what this small enterprise means to him/her? Well, calling it a cinephile’s institutional equivalent to the Roman Catholic Church is understating its significance. It is the holiest of institutions, where the most essential and substantive classic and contemporary films are made available to us, film aficionados, through DVD, Blu-ray or online streaming. The films are uncut and available in their original aspect ratio, like their hallowed makers intended their audience to see and marvel.
When I discovered the Collection in 2005, it was like the Second Coming. It completely changed my perspective on film and film-making and I began to see the classics in a new light. Several releases include supplements like audio commentary, deleted scenes, scripts and storyboards. Therefore, the Criterion Collection is one of the most substantial and noteworthy film treasuries, revered by film buffs and wannabe film makers alike.
Each month, I intend to review and reflect upon Criterion releases that I cherish and relish. So, here are this month’s 5 must watch films from the Criterion Collection.
1. Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
Perhaps Robert Bresson’s most idealistic film, it is a poignant parable about mankind’s indifference to suffering. A highly evocative and corrosive film that follows the lives of a diligent donkey and its custodian, a timid farm girl. With Biblical and existential symbolism, the story depicts the pair through different stages of their lives from their tender childhood to a more fiendish adulthood. Both are subject to unrelenting cruelty and abuse at the hands of others and suffer for the sins of the world into which they’re born.
Bresson’s minimalist and subtle style demands the viewer to invest emotionally in the cinematic experience. Jean-Luc Godard put it perfectly when he said, “Everyone who sees this film will be absolutely astonished…because this film is really the world in an hour and a half.”
2. Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
Naked provides social commentary on a country still reeling from the upshots of an era of Thatcherism. Mike Leigh’s most uncompromising and brutally agonising tale follows a manic depressive, misanthropic vagabond on his grim journey through London’s underbelly. Right from its quite revolting opening scene to its ominously ambiguous ending, the film makes for an uncomfortable yet engaging watch.
The film captures the mood and nakedness of the post-Thatcher British underclass, in a brutally honest manner.
David Thewlis is sinfully good as Johnny, one of British cinema’s most fascinating, authentic, complex and memorable characters. Wild, well-versed and worldly, Johnny’s wit and enticing demeanour won me over despite his rather questionable behaviour and actions. His nocturnal travails and conversations as he leaves behind a trail of destruction and chaos, make for a compelling and stimulating drama.
3. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
Death is life’s greatest inevitability. The reason I share a very strong emotional attachment to The Seventh Seal is because I came across it at a time when I was really struggling with my purpose, ambition and religious beliefs. My beloved grandmother had just passed away and the vivid memory of that horrible day continually played in my head like a terribly grim film without any music or audio element. I was overawed by it and needed a distraction. A distraction I found in this little, exquisitely crafted Bergman gem. Watching the film was not only a welcome distraction but a profoundly enlightening experience. The film’s speculative nature helped me question God’s legitimacy and cast doubt on the religious beliefs I previously held.
Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is a curious metaphysical examination set in the nightmarish landscape of the Great Plague. The protagonist, Knight Antonius Block faces an existential crisis terrified at the prospect of nothingness after eventual death. We see him on a despairing journey to search for proof on the existence of God and his life’s purpose and meaning. And well, you guessed right. It’s a futile one. Existential themes and religious scepticism are prevalent throughout the film. Nietzsche’s famous quote about God’s death is implicit in several scenes, especially during the condemned witch’s unavailing cries of despair. Despite the film’s largely serious overtones, it has its fair share of satirical and comical undertones. But yes, pretty dark ones.
4. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
It is amazing how a film can draw you into the emotional and personal lives of strangers. What’s more amazing is how a romantic film can be so incredibly sensual and elegant without any scenes of a sexual nature. How did Wong Kar-wai transform a run-of-the-mill story about intimacy and longing into the “consummate unconsummated love story of the new millennium”?
- Beautiful, bright colour schemes.
- A recurrent, melancholy cello refrain
- Abstract but stylish cinematography
- Brief slow-motion shots of Maggie Cheung doing literally anything from getting noodles to walking around the house
With this, Wong Kar-wai turns a seemingly ordinary story of two neighbours (Chow and Su) whose spouses are having an affair into one of the most beautiful and seductive films ever made. Chow and Su’s relationship is equivocal as they hardly make eye contact or acknowledge each other’s presence. We are left to wonder if they don’t intend to take their relationship further to prove their disparateness from their cheating spouses or they are both waiting for the other to act. Yet, a film so quiet and sublime says more than mortal words can encompass. Each scene in the film flows into the next so effortlessly due to Wong Kar-wai’s brilliant use of music and imagery.
5. Vivre Sa Vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)
It is a well-publicised fact that Vivre Sa Vie was more than just an experimental project of Jean-Luc Godard. It had personal implications as it was Godard’s attempt to save his turbulent marriage to Anna Karina by showcasing her acting talent. His wife intended to leave him for a Danish actor and her infidelity hurt Godard. So, it’s easy to draw parallel between Godard’s own life at the time and the events of Vivre Sa Vie.
This is actually Godard addressing Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” directly to Anna Karina in the film. He notes “It is our story – an artist who paints a portrait of his wife.”
Inspired by Bertolt Brecht, he divided his film’s narrative into twelve distinct chapters (tableaux). The film’s got something for everyone. Sex, dancing, jukebox music, guns, police, philosophers, pimps and prostitutes to existentialist themes. The whole deal.
Nana has tears in her eyes watching Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Pure cinematic brilliance.
The film begins with Nana (Anna Karina) leaving her husband blaming him for preventing her from fulfilling her ambitions as an actress. Strapped for cash, she turns to casual prostitution which soon becomes a full-time affair. She takes up a young man as her lover and intends to evaluate her life and her choices but (Spoiler Alert!) unfortunately meets a tragic end. Yes, I feel you. Even I always felt Nana deserved a much better ending than the one written by Godard.
In Vivre Sa Vie, Godard plays around with his cinematic style and technique. After Nana’s sincere discourse with the philosopher about the limits of words and language, in the following scene, he illustrates their points by removing the audio and instead overlaying images with his narration. Yet, despite its imperfections and Godard’s tough-minded approach to Nana’s character, it still remains one of the greatest character studies in cinematic history.