Best of Criterion’s New Releases, November 2019

Movies Lists Criterion Collection
Best of Criterion’s New Releases, November 2019

Each month, Paste brings you a look at the best new selections from the Criterion Collection. Much beloved by casual fans and cinephiles alike, Criterion has for over three decades presented special editions of important classic and contemporary films. You can explore the complete collection here.

In the meantime, because chances are you may be looking for something to give the discerning (raises pinkie) cinephile this month, find all of our Criterion picks here, check out some of our top titles this November, and, hey, maybe sign up for Criterion’s Criterion Channel to stream many of the titles we talk about here.

betty-blue-criterion.jpgBetty Blue
Year: 1986
Director: Jean-Jacques Beiniex
A formative film for what was designated a few years later as cinema du look, Jean-Jacques Beiniex’s third feature, based on Philippe Djian’s 1985 novel, operates much like its genre cousins do, writhing within contradiction and reveling in what that tension reveals. Pornography vs. eroticism, commercialism vs. art, fantasy vs. sociopolitical reality—through the love affair between an aspiring writer and ersatz handyman, Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade), and the much-younger Betty (Beatrice Dalle in her breakout role), a beautiful woman one slavering old man refers to as lifted from the pages of Playboy, Beiniex explores what kind of havoc the male gaze can wreak, not only on a person standing at the brink of a lifetime of severe mental illness, but on all women, all the time, forever. Though he never shies from the pride he gathers from men ogling his new girlfriend—economically, he’s far from an alpha, so he’ll take whatever power he can get (ironically echoed in Betty’s repeated refrains that Zorg is so much better than the menial labor to which he casually commits)—Zorg also convinces himself that this is love, even though he rarely acknowledges Betty’s opinions about him as valid, consistently surprised and delighted when she shows any sort of acumen beyond attracting the attention of men. The more erratically she acts (assaulting two different strangers, running bloody and desperate through the streets of a quietly provincial French town, eventually committing an act of violence on herself that would be symbolic were it not so tragic), the more infatuated Zorg becomes, finding in Betty the will to buck societal convention, to embrace their adventure together, waving away her behavior as the exigencies of her menstrual cycle, the voices in her head the work of the wind.

In retrospect, the armchair diagnosticians of today would be able to pick out the signs of bipolar disorder at first glance, but Beiniex, through Zorg, indulges the many fantasies Betty represents—represents for all men, really. With cinematographer Jean-François Robin, with whom Bieniex worked on a number of commercials, the director courts the burgeoning couple with vibrant colors, surreal sunsets and the notion that for such young, beautiful, cum-filled people, life provides nothing but fantasy. A late-film armed robbery, in which Zorg dresses up as a woman to steal enough money to (he hopes) unshackle Betty from her depression, happens suddenly, as if in a dream: It is never explained where Zorg got the gun, or where he came up with the scheme, or why the weirdly super-horny bro-ish guard becomes so easily seduced by the woman who is clearly not one; for an amateur criminal, the scheme goes off without a hitch, Zorg emboldened by both his love for Betty and by the crass ineptitude of most men in the movie. Then again, Betty is clearly in crisis, and no matter how much Zorg says he loves her, he’s inherently unable to understand what she’s enduring. How much pain she’s in. She represents a utilitarian ideal—a symbol of power, and of status, and of virility, as well as the venue by which he achieves a sort of ideal for himself. Once Zorg receives a letter from a publisher interested in his writing, Betty’s life no longer holds that utility. Tragedy, of course, ensues. Similarly, Zorg dressing as a woman is a useful way to manipulate the men in the way of his money. Similarly, every woman in the film is a vessel, a representation struggling within the confines of what they’ve been cast as. Similarly, Beatrice Dalle is captivating, but not because of her charisma, though that’s effortless, but because within the many gazes she inhabits, she is everything to everyone, and yet beams with something more, something irrevocable, something that is a fully realized someone held at a private distance from our, all of our, grossest desires. —Dom Sinacola

now-voyager-criterion.jpgNow, Voyager
Year: 1945
Director: Irving Rapper
Bette Davis melodramas are defiant tales of female independence hidden under the veneer of traditional Hollywood tragedy: the unfortunate fates that befall wholesome women who don’t deserve their grief. Her character in 1939’s Dark Victory loses her fight against a fatal disease that unceremoniously knocks on her door, but Davis’s unique brand of infallible confidence makes sure she goes out on her own terms. Similarly, Davis’s character of Charlotte in Now, Voyager, a classic tearjerker that wears its credentials as a mid-century melodrama on its sleeve, begins her arc as a meek spinster kept that way by her mother (the great Gladys Cooper with a chilling performance) whose ninja skills in passive-aggressive abuse makes Miss Havisham look like Carol Brady. On the verge of a nervous breakdown due to her chronic loneliness, Charlotte is sent to a sanitarium, and with the help of the empathetic Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains, whose chemistry with Davis creates some of the most affable moments of the film) helps her rediscover her “inner woman.” The self-assured Davis we know and love comes out, ready to stand her ground against her mother and fall in love with a married man (Paul Henried) who’s crazy about her.

The film’s gender and sexual politics are of course as dated as one might imagine; it certainly believes that the only acts required for a woman to transform between an “ugly and fat” spinster to a sultry sex magnet is to take off one’s glasses and let one’s hair down. Also, no matter how independent Charlotte becomes, her happiness is always tied to her relationship with her male romantic interest. However, it’s Davis’s cocksure performance that transcends the material, presenting a timeless allegory for a woman’s self-survival.

Criterion’s new HD transfer is incredibly clear and crisp, with very little digital scrubbing that retains Now, Voyager’s soft focus look, a staple of old Hollywood melodramas. It’s full of vintage and new extras about the making and the meaning of the film, but the real treat here is a full one-hour 1971 Dick Cavett episode where Davis lets loose about her experiences during production. —Oktay Ege Kozak

all-about-eve-criterion.jpgAll About Eve
Year: 1950
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
All About Eve is certainly a joy to watch thanks to its witty dialogue, the visceral cat-and-mouse tension between its two protagonists, the glitz and glamor of show business organically mixed withsoul-sucking muck, as well as writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz’s then-revolutionary post-modern touches (like relying on multiple narrators and a giddy transcendence of the fourth wall). But what keeps this six-Oscar-winner (including Best Picture) masterwork timelessly relevant lies in its unfettered study on the transitory nature of art. As good as you might be with your craft, there will always be someone better—and even if you’re the best, another, hungrier, more devoted “best” will eventually replace you.

Renowned and beloved theater star Margo Channing (Bette Davis, whose intensity is so potent she’s always on the verge of reaching out of the screen and clawing your eyes out) learns this lesson the hard way, as she allows a mega-fan named Eve (Anne Baxter) to become her assistant as a cover for a 24/7 fluffer for her unquenchable ego. Mankiewicz slyly frames Eve around the edges and the backgrounds of the frame during the first act, visually mirroring the theater big shots’ view of her as a nobody. The only reason our eyes veer toward her is because we’re told during the flash forward prologue that she will eventually upstage Margo as her new, hot, young, and most importantly ambitious replacement. The surface-level key to this fable seems to revolve around Eve’s genuine love for her art substituting Margo’s cynical and tired scorn for her craft. Yet Eve’s bubbling narcissism and addiction to applause is the arc that gives the film’s themes its depth, supported by Baxter’s subtle performance.

The extras in this two-disc set are so bountiful you might have to set apart a whole day to get through them, but the biggest treat here is an insightful and entertaining 106-minute documentary about Mankiewicz. —Oktay Ege Kozak

cold-war-criterion.jpgCold War
Year: 2018
Director: Pawe? Pawlikowski
In one scene, Cold War announces itself as unforgiving: Joanna Kulig’s big dance number at the film’s one-hour mark, a swinging, sashaying, spiraling hop through a smoky Parisian bar, where she gambols and twirls from one partner to another as the weight of the world slowly bears down on her. She’s a contemporary Anita Ekberg, making a bubbly, vain attempt at finding at least a brief moment of joy for her character, Zula, in an otherwise joyless world. The camera, guided by ?ukasz ?al at the behest of Pawel Pawlikowski, spends most of its time hanging over all, both a celestial force and a crushing anvil. Every line spoken feels like a missive or plea to the heavens, but here, prayers are useless.

As far away from home as Zula flees with her lover, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), Poland steals them right back. Blame the star-crossed pair, too: Hard as they try, they can’t get it right—“it” being their careers, their relationships, their own hearts. Watching the two in various states of union and disunion is romantic agony; Cold War is Pawlikowski’s ode to his parents, and to think that this is the story he spun from their lives is to realize what hurt he grew up with and inherited from them through experience. The narrative he constructs is equally as suffocating as it is sensual. Bound as one, it’s altogether remarkable. This is one of the decade’s great films. —Andy Crump

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