Each month, the Paste staff brings you a look at the best new selections from the Criterion Collection. Much beloved by casual fans and cinephiles alike, The Criterion Collection 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, and check out some of our top titles this March:
Director: Martin Scorsese
The Age of Innocence is a remarkably greedy film and a remarkably painful film, which is probably why Martin Scorsese, chronicler of self-destructive boxers and gangsters, decided to shoot it in the first place. However much he loves his mob tales, his stories of mooks and made men, he loves inner conflict and self-inflicted torment just as much. Maybe that’s a tough pitch. Maybe “inner conflict” and “self-inflicted torment” don’t sell very well when contextualized in a story about a wealthy social elite coming to terms with his unexpected attraction to his well to do wife’s more liberated cousin, especially when the elite is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, the wife is played by Winona Ryder and the cousin is played by Michelle Pfeiffer. This is a beautiful movie stacked with a beautiful cast, photographed with sumptuous excess that verges on rapacious. Scorsese wants what he wants and he takes it.
That’s surprisingly apropos for a film about a jaded aristocrat who falls in love with Ellen (Pfeiffer), kin to the aristocrat’s betrothed, May (Ryder): Newland Archer (Day-Lewis), too, wants what he wants when he realizes that what he wants is Ellen. As their infatuation grows, The Age of Innocence hums with desire and throbs with the ache of futile longing. There’s little to Scorsese that stings more than wrestling with oneself, and that dynamic, dramatized through an impossible love, is key to the film’s lingering, melancholic power. —Andy Crump
Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Faithful to Bertolt Brecht’s debut play but restlessly transported from 1918 to the classist morass of late ’60s West Germany, Baal represents director Volker Schlöndorff at his basest. Following outsider poet Baal (prolific director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a dumpy vessel of unhinged swagger), who we first see furiously smoking as he stumbles down a nondescript country path, the film loosely charts the artist’s brief rise and fall, at least to the extent that we begin with a high-society party thrown for him, filled with rich people admiring this working class weirdo who “sings” poems to truckers, and end with his drinking himself to death, not long after, in literal obscurity, discovered by other working class laborers pretty much fed up with Baal being such a raging asshole. In fact, throughout, Schlöndorff revels in the contradictions that Baal manifests: His language is so clear and preternatural, yet Schlöndorff films the man’s poetic revelry in cloudy, handheld 16mm; Baal seems to have no trouble bedding beautiful women even as he humiliates them, yet everyone knows how ugly and gross he is. In the end, as Baal begs some lumberjacks to be with him while he dies so he doesn’t die alone—and then does die alone, crawling to his grave (a bush)—Schlöndorff seems to be interrogating the idea of “obscurity” itself, portraying his genius garbage human as a mighty mind perhaps wasted on his lack of audience. Or not—Baal does not seem to care that his audience is mostly made of drunks and lower class grunts, creating poetry simply for the sake of itself, completely abandoning all pretense of “obscurity” at all. And yet, Baal died alone, his work never really celebrated, most likely lost forever. Can art exist for itself if its existence ends with the artist? —Dom Sinacola
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s face is in your brain, whether you’re aware of it there or not. Its contours and stipples, topped by hair shorn of substance or style—her head centered by two wide eyes rimmed with tears, always in some sort of superposition between ecstasy and misery—consumes boundless space in Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer’s silent masterpiece, seemingly suspended over the long course of history between now (whenever now happens to be) and when Dreyer first envisioned this immersive, expressionist experience. Dreyer wrote of his film, “What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past,” and then explained further, “A thorough study of the documents from the rehabilitation process was necessary; I did not study the clothes of the time, and things like that. The year of the event seemed as inessential to me as its distance from the present.” Though The Passion of Joan of Arc Dreyer based on the 1491 transcripts of its titular saint’s trial for heresy (the director welcomed by the Société Générale des Films to make a film in France, his choice of subject bolstered by France’s canonization of Joan of Arc after World War I), he provides little visual detail or historical context. Instead he submerges the viewer in Joan’s perspective, keeps his hand on our heads as we drown in the torment of what she’s subjected to, rarely releasing his weight except for in the film’s final moments, when Joan’s brutal execution at the stake unleashes violence throughout the citizenry. But mostly: that face, awestruck throughout time. Most notably, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie, the director watches as his protagonist, Nana (Anna Karina), watches Joan of Arc, lighting her tear-streaked face in close-up as she experiences something of the same images before her. Godard reflects Falconetti’s face in Karina’s, spanning more than three decades as if they’re nothing. There is perhaps no better ode to the power of what Dreyer achieved: Timelessness borne by the tragedy of our all too weak, all too human, flesh.
Of course, the Criterion restoration of The Passion of Joan of Arc is nothing short of breathtaking, offering up three soundtracks to accompany the silent film—a dramatic surprise is the contribution of Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley—as well as a video essay discussing the many ways one can watch the film, especially regarding the director’s intended frame rate, the film itself provided by Criterion in both 20 and 24 fps. Other highlights include a booklet with the libretto for a performance of Voices of Light, Richard Einhorn’s most popular score for the film, and a 1995 interview with Falconetti’s daughter, but the edition’s true accomplishment is the crispness of its restoration, bringing every crease and pore and quavering tear of Falconetti’s beautiful face to intimate life. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Ken Russell
The title of Ken Russell’s adaptation of the old D.H. Lawrence novel reads “women in love,” but you could put the emphasis on “men” without muddying up the story’s intentions. Granted, Women in Love is foremost about two women, the sisters Brangwen, Ursula (Jennie Linden) and Gudrun (Glenda Jackson), both relishing their freedom from romantic commitment until commitment comes calling. Ursula takes a fancy to the raffish Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates), Gudrun to the considerably more prototypically British Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), and suddenly the sisters find themselves engaged in acts of self-interrogation. Their beliefs and wants and desires, and even their sense of selfhood, are called into question by their crushes.
Love makes us do funny things. We go skinny dipping at town-wide picnics, unashamedly and nearly in plain view of all in attendance; we dance before herds of cattle despite the risk to life and limb; we traipse through the woods, argue and then make love on the bare ground, and we recite innuendos about figs and vaginas for the dual purpose of gross flirting and social discomfort. (Occasionally we even get married, against our better judgment.) But when we’re in love, we’re forced to consider ourselves in light of that love, and to consider what we need from love in the first place. Women in Love argues that love has many forms while making a sober acknowledgment of hard truths: Romantic love is sufficient, and yet it’s not enough. —Andy Crump