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DVD Review: Renoir: Stage and Spectacle/Kieslowski DVDs

By Glenn Abel

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photo Two masters of European cinema -- Jean Renoir and Krzysztof Kieslowski -- found fame with a handful of films but produced bodies of work that go largely unseen and unappreciated, at least in the States.

A pair of celebratory DVD collections go beyond the obvious, finding one director radiant in the twilight of his career and the other potent and sure-handed as he first ventures into the feature-film medium.

Early this year, Criterion issued the definitive DVD of Renoir's 1939 classic "The Rules of the Game." Now, the label lightens up with "Stage and Spectacle" (retail $70.05), a boxed set that makes a trilogy out of the splashy Technicolor films Renoir made upon returning to Europe in the mid-1950s.

Renoir was in a mood to party. He'd survived an unhappy decade exiled in the Hollywood studio system. The director felt liberated, much like his homeland, France.

And so we have two bawdy celebrations of life and theater: "The Golden Coach," starring life force Anna Magnani (1953), and "French Cancan," a snappy and wise backstage comedy (1955). "Elena and Her Men" (1956) exudes romance with Ingrid Bergman as a savvy and desirable Polish princess toying with French politics. Plots are thin; spirits are high. All of the films are filled with boisterous, dizzying crowd scenes.

"The frames remind me of his father's paintings," Martin Scorsese says in an introduction to "Coach." "It's like standing in the presence of a great fresco and being overwhelmed. ... The use of color is extraordinary."

Alas, Renoir's palette has been withered. All of these (restored) films show their age. Witness the sustained flashing in "Coach," abrupt shifts in color tone in "Elena" and the oddly bleached-out scenes in "Cancan." But making allowances, the visuals remain magnificent, memorable. The films are all full frame. Mono audio is bright and serviceable.

Renoir, who died in 1979, loved talking about his work. Clips of him are featured throughout the DVD set. In an introduction to "Elena," he needlessly apologizes for the film, saying it was an experiment in using serious actors to play comedy. He made the film for his adored friend Bergman, whose career was in need of a light, accessible role. "I was mostly thinking of her," he said.

In the "Coach" intro, he tells how he built the commedia dell'arte farce around the compositions of Vivaldi. Renoir was content with a collaborator who died several hundred years ago "because he never protests." The concept soars when the Italian cast takes the great coach for a spin, Keystone Kops-style, to the pulsating strings of Concert in G.

The filmmaker sits with new wave director Jacques Rivette for a subtitled interview -- a monologue, really -- that's spread across the three DVDs. It's a terrific but long-winded lecture.

Here's Renoir on commercial moviemaking: "We pretend films are different because they have different stories. But from a human viewpoint they're just copies of each other. ... That's real monotony!"

He urges directors to study the hypnotic powers of the silent era's "great animals" like Greta Garbo. Cinematographers should look to the photography of "primitive films" like "The Great Train Robbery." "Technical perfection can only produce boredom," he cautions.

The BBC documentary on Renoir's career that began on "The Rules of the Game" DVD continues here, covering mostly the director's Hollywood years under the thumb of Darryl F. Zanuck and other studio chiefs. The making of the three joyous films found in this set serves as a happy ending, of sorts.

The actor Norman Lloyd, a longtime friend, recalls that late in life, Renoir was at peace with the awesome legacy of Auguste Renoir. "He (had) worked hard at distancing himself from his father -- but realized all that time he was trying to imitate his father."

Among the many remarkable moments on the four new Krzysztof Kieslowski DVDs is a bracing defense of the Polish director's early works by his friend, boss and collaborator Krzysztof Zanussi.

Kieslowski finally found international fame with "The Decalogue" and "Red," "White" and "Blue," but at first he was "leisurely, thoughtlessly dismissed" as a local artist, Zanussi maintains.

"He was as universal at the beginning as at the end," Zanussi says. "All of them were good. ... It is a tragic paradox of Krzysztof's life that he was long undervalued outside Poland."

Kino's four additions to its Kieslowski collection ($29.95 each) back up Zanussi's assertions. Kieslowski's writing and directing skills indeed seem to have arrived almost fully formed when he turned to features. Each of the films benefits from a powerful central performance. They are products of the 1970s and '80s, a time of vast sociopolitical changes in Poland, but are not timepieces or simplistic attacks on the communists. (Kieslowski "was not really a political person," his close friend and fellow director Agnieszka Holland says in the extras.) The color images (full frame, enhanced for widescreen TVs) and sound are adequate. Subtitles are clear. Each DVD contains videotaped interviews with key collaborators and a short film.

"The Scar" (1976) was Kieslowski's first feature, made as he decided to abandon documentaries for less risky fiction. Veteran Polish actor Franciszek Pieczka plays "an honest man in the system" charged by the party with building a fertilizer plant in a rural town. Kieslowski reportedly considered "The Scar" a failure -- despite Pieczka's fine work, the elegant script and the telling cinematography of Slawomir Idziak ("Black Hawk Down"). Kieslowski's art "was not yet metaphysical," longtime soundman Michal Zarnecki says.

"Camera Buff" (1979) brought Kieslowski his first international acclaim, taking the top prize at the Moscow film fest. It concerns a proud dad (Jerzy Stuhr) who buys an 8mm camera to film his newborn. The factory worker becomes obsessed with film, losing his old life to his new calling. When his wife announces she is leaving, the camera buff only can frame her departing figure with his fingers. Action! Some elements came from Kieslowski's life as a film student, biographer Annette Insdorf reports.

"Blind Chance" (made in 1981) explores three possible outcomes of a young traveler's attempts to catch a fast-moving train. Paranoia runs deep in this, the most political of these films (its release was delayed for years because of censors). Boguslaw Linda is terrific as the resourceful medical student slapped around by fate.

"No End" (1985), probably the best of these films, was assailed by the church because of its dark, numbing ending. The film was set in 1981, during martial law. With a setup out of "Six Feet Under," this was Kieslowski's most personal film, Holland recalls. "Audiences didn't know what to make of it." Grazyna Szapolowska plays a young widow who fights to find a reason to go on; a second story concerns the trial of an uncompromising political prisoner. Critics of the time complained it was really two movies. Perhaps. They're both well worth seeing.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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