Offering the “touchstones of world cinema” at an affordable price, the Essential Art House collections from Criterion are a reasonable way to get good copies of great movies and the Essential Art House Vol. 5 may well be the best assemblage of films in the series yet. The fifth volume of Essential Art House features six wonderful films, all presented in movie-only DVD editions. There are impressive liner notes to each movie, giving novices and cinephiles alike revealing, invaluable information.
The set includes David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds, François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò, and Miloš Forman’s Loves of a Blonde.
If that list of pictures has you salivating, as it does me, this box set is a must-have and then some.
Lean’s Brief Encounter is one of those classic film romances that can’t be missed by serious lovers of fine cinema. A British filmmaker, Lean may well be remembered most for his big screen epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but Brief Encounter lets Lean dial it down. An adaptation of a Noël Coward play, this film shared the Palme d’Or at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival and features a knockout performance from Celia Johnson.
Fellini’s 8 1/2 is one of my personal favourite films of all time. The quintessential tale of creative dread, this picture marks a turning point in the tremendous career of Federico Fellini. The performances are masterful and Fellini’s fondness for Guido’s excesses make for great filmmaking. Nino Rota’s famous score guides the entire thing along to its conclusion and the opening traffic jam sequence is one of the finest in movie history.
Ozu’s Floating Weeds is actually a remake of his 1934 A Story of Floating Weeds. This film features dazzling colour cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa and that beautiful, meditative Ozu style. His trademark low camera placement is apt here, as the story of an actor reuniting with his son is told thoughtfully and carefully. Ozu’s reluctance to use colour probably worked in his favour, but Floating Weeds really is an artist’s vision and he makes tremendous use of the bright possibilities.
I first came into contact with Truffaut when watching his 1976 film Small Change, but Jules and Jim is probably one of the director’s most famous pictures. Truffaut’s use of numerous cinematic techniques is astonishing, giving Jules and Jim a revolutionary feel. Using frequent Godard collaborator Raoul Coutard turns out to be the right move, too, as his use of lightweight cameras helps guide this tale of a three-way romance through its paces.
Pontecorvo’s Kapò is a haunting picture about the Holocaust. It can be heavy viewing, sure, but it’s also essential in its steady resolve. Pontecorvo was an unapologetically political director and his daring take on the Holocaust is unforgettable because the Italian director refuses to turn away when so many others would have. To say that this movie is “unblinking” would be an understatement, but it’s Susan Strasberg as Edith who really draws the eye.
Forman’s Loves of a Blonde is billed as one of the “defining films of Czech New Wave.” Forman probably had more fame and success as a filmmaker in America, but his work here still earned him an Academy Award nomination. The movie is broken into three segments and follows Andula (Hanu Brejchovou) through the entire process of romance. Forman’s Loves of a Blonde could be considered a quaint film, light as it is, but it’s really almost a straightforward comedy of romantic error. Always tinged with cynicism, Loves of a Blonde is a delight.
As you can see, Essential Art House Vol. 5 packs a wallop. For those looking for an introduction to art house cinema, this is a great place to start. I maintain that this is one of the most diverse, interesting box sets in the series thus far and believe this set belongs in the library of any serious film lover.