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reviewed by Donald Melanson
april 12, 2004

Director: Jean Luc-Godard
Studio: Fox Lorber

Although Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows is generally considered the first of the French New Wave films, it was Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard that got people really excited. Like Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane, it can be difficult for an average film viewer today to see just what was so revolutionary about it. But a quick study of films before and after the French New Wave reveals just how important the movement was, and Breathless in particular.

On the surface, the plot of Breathless is as conventional as any classic Hollywood film. A man is on the run in Paris after killing a cop, finds and old girlfriend to hide out with, and must find enough money for a trip to Italy before the police close in on him. But it's not the story that makes Breathless such a vital film, it's the way it's told.

In Breathless, we see all the hallmarks of the new wave - long uninterrupted shots, jump cuts, and loads of cinematic references. The latter evidenced in one of the film's most famous scenes, where Jean-Paul Belmondo's character studies a photograph of Humphry Bogart, then imitates the expression - an expression later repeated throughout the film.

All of this is explained far better than I am able to do by film critic David Sterrit in a wonderful commentary track on the DVD. Like Roger Ebert's on the Citizen Kane disc, Sterrit crams so much information into the film's running time that it almost takes a second listen to absorb it all.

Unfortunately there's no other special features besides the commentary, but the picture quality is great and the sound is presented in its original monaural state. Any film lover needs this disc in their collection.

Russian Ark
Director: Alexander Sokurov
Studio: Wellspring

Russian Ark is a bold filmmaking experiment. The idea is a daunting one for any filmmaker - film a feature-length movie in one take, in one continuous shot - something never done before. But this is not a small, no-frills, proof-of-concept film. It is as big and extravagant a production as one can imagine being possible given the restrains.

Filmed in the expansive Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, with a cast of 3,000 and three live orchestras, Russian Ark is a meandering journey through 300 years of Russian history. We see the film through the eyes of an unidentified narrator, who floats through the museum accompanied for much of the film by a companion, identified only as a French Marquis.

Even without the gimmick of one continuous shot, Russian Ark would still be a striking and visually impressive film, but the fluidity of the camera greatly adds to its dreamlike pace.

Needless to say, this is not a film for everyone. It is art for art's sake. If you appreciated films like Mike Figgis' Timecode, you'll no doubt be in awe of Russian Ark. But if plot is your primary concern, it may well put you to sleep.

Wellspring's Masterworks Edition DVD of Russian Ark is a fine presentation of the film, with superb picture and sound and a good assortment of special features. Of particular note is the forty-minute documentary on the making of the film, appropriately titled "In One Breath".

Director: Costa-Gavras
Studio: Wellspring

The political thriller is a genre with relatively few great films. Costa-Gavras' 1969 film Z is one of the best. Based in part on the 1963 assassination of Greek doctor and politician Gregorios Lambrakis, Z is not just a political thriller, but a political film. It takes a side and wants to convince the viewer that it is the right one.

Gavras is completely up front about his position, opening the film with a title that states that any similarity to actual events, or persons living or dead is not by chance - it is deliberate.

It is not surprising the film became such a favorite among left-wing groups. Gavras' depiction of the right-wing government and corrupt police force is biting. Yet one does not need to be familiar with the historical context of the film to appreciate it. The film never directly identifies where it is set (only somewhere in the Mediterranean) and most of the characters aren't even given names. Those familiar with the actual events will immediately pick up on them, but the characters created are fully-realized enough that the film stands on its own as a dramatic work.

The film looks incredibly good on DVD, with a sharp picture and vivid colours, doing full justice to Raoul Coutard's cinematography. Also on the disc is a commentary by Costa-Gavras (in French with English subtitles), an interview with Gavras and a demonstration of the restoration done to the film.

Donald Melanson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Mindjack. He also writes about movies on his film blog.








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