Welcome to Criterion Corner, where the movies love you back. A column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, Criterion Corner runs twice a month, one installment featuring reviews of Criterion’s new releases, and the other an essay pertaining to Criterion culture. Follow @CriterionCorner and the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates!
If Criterion were ever to release an edition of the Arnold Schwarzenegger / Danny Devito classic Twins (and you gotta think it’s less of a matter of “if” than “when”), this September would have been the ideal time for them to do so. Criterion’s (relatively) small but (overwhelmingly) sparkling slate of releases this month seem dominated by narratives of unexpected dualities forced into violent battle with one another. You’ve got the first two films by Claude Chabrol, who practically invented the French New Wave by cinematically distilling safety and innocence and smashing them both together, the story of a global terrorist living in fear of being consumed by his own shadow, a man whose mortality is challenged by his appointment as the hand of death itself, and two women (or 3 Women. Or is it one woman?) with deceptively little in common are folded on top of one another so tightly that eventually the creases disappear (or as Tom Six might call it: Human Centipede 3: Women). Onwards, for reviews of Criterion’s complete September slate! Huzzah!
#579 THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (dir. Victor Sjostrom) 1921
The Film: Supplanting Haxan and Nanook of the North as the oldest film in The Criterion Collection, Victor Sjostrom’s The Phantom Carriage is certainly a title upon which Criterion can be proud to bestow that particular distinction, as this eerie gothic fable didn’t merely incite (and occasionally revive) Ingmar Bergman’s fascination with the cinema, it was also considered by Charlie Chaplin to be the greatest film ever made. Sure, Chaplin’s appraisal was made in the early 20s — a time before Chaplin had even seen the good Chaplin — but The Little Tramp’s enthusiasm seems to transcend an awed appreciation for the film’s (enduringly impressive) visual wizardry, suggesting instead that Chaplin was most struck by Sjostrom’s soul-shearing direction and deceptively complex morality.
Swedish cinema — particularly in the early days — is overrun by folklore, a trend that The Phantom Carriage both epitomized and guaranteed. The film begins beneath a sickly orange tint as a young Salvation Army worker named Edit (or Edith, but I prefer Edit) lies on her deathbed, stricken with tuberculosis. She insists upon seeing a man named David Holm before she passes, and dispatches someone to fetch him. Cut to a cemetery suffocated beneath a pale blue pall — three drunkards discuss Death, reciting (in one of the film’s numerous and unapologetic scenes of pronounced exposition) the story of how the Grim Reaper gallops around in his spectral chariot, driven by the soul unfortunate enough to die at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. And guess what — it’s New Year’s Eve! And one of the three drunkards? Yup: David Holm (played by Victor Sjostrom, himself) . He’s killed almost immediately afterward, and the brunt of the movie is then spent tracing his backstory. We see his troubled marriage and his cruel ways, the flashbacks revealing that Edit was so keen to see him because their paths had crossed one cold Swedish evening, and she had since been anxious to know whether her prayers for David to reform his ways had been heard.
Sjostrom’s streamlined adaptation of Selma Lagerlof’s novel has often been accused of didactisism, but methinks that such readings are a bit reductive, and overlook the cynicism with which the film ultimately answers its most pressing questions. This isn’t the story of a man being saved by God at the eleventh hour, this is the story of a man locked into the inertia of sinning — David can’t submit to kindness, lest he be forced to confront the evil of his collective acts. It would be overwhelming, and Sjostrom’s bracing performance as David — always directing the viewer’s eyes to his face despite the static camera — wordlessly articulates this conflict with every crazed expression. Sjostrom is so impressive in the role that Bergman would later have him play the lead in Wild Strawberries, perhaps the Swedish cinema’s most iconic protagonist. But Sjostrom’s David isn’t exactly imbued with the director’s clarity of vision. He isn’t able to express remorse for his actions until Death literally drags him away and (spoilers ahead) threatens him with the deaths of his wife and children. David knows full well the entire time that he loves his wife and is only making things worse with his boorish behavior, but it isn’t until he’s faced with a lifetime of ferrying the dead to the afterworld that he is able to seek forgiveness.
The richness of the film’s locations and Sjostrom’s remarkable effects work are so self-evident that they demand less of a critical appraisal than they do an advertisement — the double and quadruple-exposures that allow the titular carriage to cut through the moral realm are so artful and well-conceived that they’re eye-popping even today, worth the price of admission in and of themselves. Worthy of more detailed discussion are the two scores Criterion has provided, one of which is rather traditional, the other being a brooding ambient drone by experimental duo KTL, but this review is already running way long, but if so inclined you can head on over to the Criterion Corner Tumblr for more detailed comments. Altogether, The Phantom Carriage is a stunning piece of silent cinema. Its structure is a bit ungainly and it certainly runs a mite longer than it should, but this haunting midnight tale is a rapturous bit of work, a landmark of the silent cinema that still shivers with the fear of death.
The Transfer: The booklet included in this release details the entire odyssey of The Phantom Carriage‘s meticulous restoration, which is as complicated an ordeal as you would expect from any film made in 1921 that still looks this great. The print is inevitably carved by lines and scratches and the whole thing flickers from time to time, but underneath the expected wear-and-tear is a gorgeous and bracingly clear image. This is a film that derives the brunt of its power from faces, in particular the broadly theatrical but critically shifting expressions that they wear like so many haunted masks. Criterion’s Blu-ray allows you to see every line in Sjostrom’s face as he struggles with the sort of pathos and remorse that few even attempted to wring from the silent cinema. This may not be the disc you bust out to show your friends how incredible 1080p looks, but The Phantom Carriage looks so good that Sjostrom’s film is able to fulfill the timelessness of its potential, as the oldest film in Criterion’s catalogue looks no worse than the rest of them.
The Extras: First and foremost is a Criterion-exclusive commentary by film historian Casper Tybjerg, which proves to be an illuminating listen, and one that’s likely to gently challenge your interpretation of the film. Not for nothing, but Tybjerg’s voice is hypnotic to the extreme, itself proving to be almost as forcibly immersive as anything in Sjostrom’s film. Criterion has also included an excerpt from Gosta Werner’s documentary Victor Sjostrom, in which Bergman inevitably shows up to wax poetic on his personal and professional affection for the man who inspired his love for film. More intriguing is Peter Cowie’s visual essay “The Bergman Connection,” an 18-minute adventure that nicely illustrates exactly what its title suggests, while also passionately defending the universal appeal of each man’s cinema. His notion that Bergman and Sjostrom relied on the supernatural to express the cinema’s capacity for transcending everyday life is particularly impactful.
The Best Bit: It’s hard to argue against such a great commentary track, but I definitely want to call some attention to a supplement called “Construction of Rasunda Studios,” a 4-minute collection of footage from 1919 in which Sjostrom and his peers can be seen constructing the space that would allow them to wrest such amazing sights from the story of The Phantom Carriage.
The Artwork: Yeah, raving about the design of Criterion’s menus swerves into some rather fetishistic fanboy territory, but it really has to be said that the little animation that plays out each time you fire up The Phantom Carriage is a work of art unto itself. From the cover art to the design etched atop the disc itself, this thing is a masterpiece of product design.
The Verdict: 89 / 100
#580 LE BEAU SERGE (dir. Claude Chabrol) 1958
The Film: Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge is widely considered to be the first film of the French New Wave, and while that’s a perfectly legitimate claim so far as I can tell, it does tend to overshadow the extent to which the film succeeds beyond the touchpoints of that narrow rhetoric. The story of Francois (Jean-Claude Bialy), a young man who returns to his frigid backwater village after an extended maturation in the big city, Le Beau Serge (“Handsome Serge”) is atmospheric and unabashedly emotional in a way that most films of the Nouvelle Vague were too compelled by destruction to achieve. To that end, it’s also uniquely concerned with a rural environment, whereas the rest of the movement is often characterized by its metropolitan subversions.
The film begins with a rickety bus rolling into town on a cold dirt road that hardly seems to have space to allow vehicles to travel the other way. Francois is aboard, returning home only to convalesce from a vague but supposedly serious illness, as if the rural trappings of his youth maintain some naturally restorative qualities. Francois is obviously curious as to how his hometown has changed over the years, but the brunt of his inquiries are reserved for his former best friend Serge (Gerard Blain), whom he soon learns has lapsed into a crippling fascination with James Dean and his brutish disaffection. Serge is a hulking little alcoholic, his dense brawn belying a sharp intelligence that hasn’t been dusted off in years. More depressingly for Francois, Serge is emblematic of the entire village, a broken place full of petrified potential. Stifling cycles of hopelessness seem to guide the years more than the seasons themselves — the local priest and doctor wear their assigned costumes but seem equally disinterested in actually saving anyone, and the pregnancies all seem to end in miscarriages, as if even the unborn are already disinterested in a confined life of petty small town drama. When the film begins Serge’s wife is pregnant for the second time, Francois arriving at the beginning of the cycle so that he’ll be nicely positioned to observe and attempt to prevent another round of despair — it’ll prove to be the perfect opportunity for the liberal city boy to help his former flock see the light and be saved from themselves.
An apparent study of dualities, Le Beau Serge is a captivatingly organic piece of work, replete with rich locations, supple lighting, and characters who seem convinced of their destinies but unsure of their next move. It’s all so transportive and romantic that it’s tempting to become narcotized by the film’s immediate charms, but Chabrol provides his audience a pillow only to muffle the sound of shooting them in the chest. As the lighting becomes harsher and the odd, homespun elements (Francois and Serge sharing the same lover) take on a much darker quality (incest, rape), Chabrol’s trap becomes clear, and Francois and Serge are unified in the same malaise despite the roles to which they so desperately cling. The exclamation points of grand orchestral music that seemed so out of place in the film’s first half finally begin to make sense. Ultimately, and despite a crafty tour de force of a final sequence that seems to throw everything on its ear, Chabrol presents moral characteristics as being too fluid and transferable to allow for Francois to become the Christ figure to which he aspires, or Serge to completely submit himself to the life of an abusive lout. Apathy can be fun, the film seems to argue, but it can never be complete.
The Transfer: The transfers on these Chabrol films are breathtaking, making for some of the best-looking Criterions of the year. It’s not that the image is scrubbed and pristine — although the source materials for these films have been exceptionally well-preserved — but that the textures are so exquisitely preserved and seem to be in step with the content of the films themselves. When Francois looks at Serge as if only he can understand him and Chabrol cuts in close, Serge’s face is meticulously clear, almost shimmering. Conversely, when things are a bit more unsure and Chabrol stays wide, the image obediently follows, the healthy grain structure revealing itself in frames that buzz with a bit more anxious energy. In other words, Le Beau Serge looks better than you could ever reasonably expect, even by Criterion’s lofty standards.
The Extras: In deference to context, Criterion has loaded the brunt of their Chabrol extras on to this disc, meaning that even those people who vastly prefer Les Cousins will feel compelled to snag Le Beau Serge, too. First up we have Guy Austin, who literally wrote the book on Chabrol, leading us through a staid and occasionally somnambulant commentary track. It’s informative stuff, and particularly appreciated given the film’s moral complexity, but it’s a bit too dry for the world-changing energy that courses through Chabrol’s debut. Claude Chabrol: Mon Premier Film is a 51-minute doc from 2003 in which filmmaker Francis Girod revisits Sardent, the town in which Le Beau Serge was shot. It’s fun and hugely watchable from start to finish, especially because it’s peppered with interviews of Chabrol himself, who is as humble and jovially eager as ever. The childhood pictures of Chabrol included in the doc are priceless, confirming Chabrol as the most gamely photogenic of auteurs.
The Best Bit: L’Invite du Dimance — a 10-minute, 1969, VHS-quality episode of a French TV show in which Chabrol revisits the town in which he shot Le Beau Serge opens with Chabrol lost in boisterous song, immediately cementing this supplement as the disc / month’s best feature. The 9:45 that follow are also eminently watchable, I guess, as the extent to which Chabrol’s characters shaped the environment of his film becomes clear.
The Artwork: The cover art that unifies Criterion’s twin releases for these two films nicely illustrates the dynamic between Chabrol’s opening statements as a filmmaker, the jagged triangles of F. Ron Miller’s design confirming that Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins fit into one another like the teeth of a zipper. The triangle, of course, takes on a deeper significance once viewers acquaint themselves with the emotional geography of these two movies. Miller’s work provides a rare example of graphic design both improving that which it represents, and then in turn being improved by it.
The Verdict: 85 / 100
#581 LES COUSINS (dir. Claude Chabrol) 1959
The Film: Chabrol’s second feature (albeit the one he wrote first) doesn’t expand on Le Beau Serge so much as it fills in its blanks. Les Cousins allows Chabrol to hammer home Le Beau Serge’s notions of fluid morality and social superiority by reusing the same core group of actors, but dramatically reversing their archetypes while maintaining their origins. Gerard Blain reprises his role as a country bumpkin, but in Les Cousins his character Charles isn’t a stocky oaf like Serge, but rather a studios young man determined to do his parents proud, arriving in the bustling city of Paris a few days before he’s scheduled to take the exam that will determine both his career and his prospects for social advancement. Jean-Claude Bialy is once again a sophisticated metropolitan type, but this time around his character (Paul) is a diabolical fellow less interested in saving his friends than he is in dragging them to hell right along with him. And Claude Cerval, who plays the pimp-like Clovis? Yeah, he was the village priest in Le Beau Serge.
Les Cousins is much more emblematic of the French New Wave than its predecessor, opening with Charles arriving in the big city and being immediately swallowed by the wild, swinging lifestyle of his host and cousin, Paul. It doesn’t take very long for Charles’ blue-collar determination to clash with Paul’s sex-fueled and carefree existence, at least under the surface. Charles is smitten with a girl named Florence as soon as he meets her (and he instantly tells her as much), but Florence — the kind of fetching brunette that can make a guy lose his head and all the dreams inside — belongs to a very different tribe. It may have been meant to be, but not so long as his good buddy Paul is around to run interference.
Les Cousins is a much zippier affair than Le Beau Serge, its sinister charms the product of meticulous and exuberant production design where Chabrol’s first film carved its mood from whatever the doldrums of France had to offer. It’s a film buzzed on the urban energy that would come to typify the Nouvelle Vague, engendering the feeling that anything could happen simply because the characters might want to disrupt the rhythms of common life. The core characters are just as locked into their various roles as those from Le Beau Serge, confined to the inertia of their hard work / amoralism / sex pottiness largely in part because they’re convinced that they are. Chabrol’s bold and confrontational direction seems to be arguing otherwise, as if the camera is determined to pull Paul, Charles, and Florence from their paralysis — Chabrol’s lensing is alive and increasingly loopy (anticipating the more hedonistic moments of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which would be released the following year), and his staging is often pronouncedly theatrical. Les Cousins is capped with a patient finale every bit as devastating as that which ends Le Beau Serge, but — while the two films certainly cohere into a sum greater than their individual parts — I’m tempted to think that Chabrol’s first work is ultimately superior to his second, as the inter-generational despair that buries the town of Le Beau Serge evolve right until the very end, while Les Cousins eventually settles into a stagnant third act that never affords its trio of lead characters even the meager hope that they afford themselves.
The Transfer: Criterion’s transfer of Les Cousins was taken from the same Gaumont source materials as Le Beau Serge, and so the glowing praise I heaped upon that disc applies here, too. Les Cousins is the more visually consistent of the two films, so the quality of the transfer might be a bit less jarringly impressive, but it’s nevertheless a wonderful example of what the right people can do with Blu-ray technology.
The Extras / The Best Bit: The best feature on this disc is the only feature on this disc, but it’s a good one. Adrian Martin, coeditor of Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, provides an audio commentary both vibrant and amusing. He seems to be having a good time with it, reading from notes but also taking things as they come, rediscovering the joys of Chabrol’s film as he highlights them for the viewer. Martin’s expertise spans across every conceivable arena of Chabrol’s work, and he explores pathos and gossip with equal relish. One of the more enjoyable Criterion commentaries in recent memory.
The Artwork: See above.
The Verdict: 83 / 100
#582 CARLOS (dir. Olivier Assayas) 2010 – PICK OF THE MONTH!
The Film: (Note: Much of this review was originally published on Cinematical last year). Originally conceived for French television (where it aired earlier this year after premiering at Cannes) as a three-part miniseries, Olivier Assayas’ 5.5-hour Carlos follows the rise and lateral drift of Illich Ramirez Sanchez (a.k.a. Carlos), the infamous Venezuelan ex-patriot who contrived to play as pivotal a role in the Cold War as he possibly could, most memorably leading a hostage-taking assault on the 1975 OPEC conference in Vienna. The expansive portrait begins in the 1960s with Carlos (Edgar Ramirez) as a dissatisfied Marxist looking for some action to further his vague revolutionary ideals, and erratically canvases thirty years in its detached depiction of how this faux-revolutionary was really most committed to perpetuating the cult of his own personality.
Assayas chronicles Carlos’ formative years with a relentless energy, bouncing around from one episode to the next as Carlos dips a toe (and then dives head-first) into the underground. The lithe and jaunty camera is almost always in motion, achieving an inert velocity as it observes Carlos spearhead various operations and bombings — Assayas’ dogged desperation to keep up with his subject brilliantly exposing Carlos’ actions as those of a man with a greater need for action than he does for meaning. To that end, Assayas’ dormant capacity for pulse-pounding thrills rears its head in a big bad way, and the filmmaker has great fun punctuating Sanchez’s transformation into Carlos with various raids, explosions, and naked women. And oh, the naked women. While Carlos eventually ties the knot with the most naked of them all (Nora von Waldstatten as the gorgeously feeling, feline, and ferocious Ms. Carlos), we blankly witness him indulge in enough hedonistic, James Bond-inspired behavior to be suspicious of the revolutionary ideals he spouts at his comrades and hostages.
It’s high-wire filmmaking leagues removed from Assayas’ pleasantly languid Summer Hours, and it’s placed squarely on the broad shoulders of Edgar Ramirez. The Venezuelan actor looks like Roger Federer gone rogue, and dives into the role with sustained gusto, unafraid to portray Carlos as an unnervingly flat and explosively vulnerable man on a mission of his own design. Carlos makes for one of the most vain characters in recent cinema, a self-mythologizer on par with Scott Pilgrim (but with a different taste in hats), and it’s only because Ramirez is so quick to abandon his vanity as an actor that he’s able to infuse the legend with the magnetic verve required to make an involving film about such a self-involved guy.
Assayas humanizes the modern freedom-fighter in much the same fashion that Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette provided royalty a dimensionality that the facts of history tend to forbid of its cinematic depictions. His 319-minute film may occasionally fall victim to its own torpor during the anti-drama of its final episode, but Carlos is nevertheless a revealing look at self-diagnosed purpose – political or otherwise – and just how quickly time renders heroes as martyrs, and exposes revolutionaries as egotists. Carlos understands that history is made by people who we make into legends, and it lays that out with guns blazing.
The Transfer: Carlos looks good. Practically perfect, in fact. But then again, what did you expect? Carlos was shot in the last 2 years, and shot beautifully by Assayas’ two cinematographers — Criterion’s transfer preserves the deliberate tonal discrepancies between their work. Assayas elected to shoot on 35mm (despite the globe-trotting breadth of the project), and his confidently stylized use of the format allowed for a nuanced HD transfer that feels like a well-preserved portrait of the 70s, from the 70s. Some explosion, when preserved digitally, betray the project’s strained budget, but having Nora van Waldstatten in 1080p more than compensates for any such quibbles.
The Extras: When Criterion releases such a recent film, the extras are usually few and far between, as if there hasn’t been sufficient time for lore to accrue. But it seems as if the sheer scope of Assayas’ film — when combined with Carlos’ position as a historical figure — spurred Criterion to go all out, as they’ve created a lavish 2-disc set that’s bursting with great supplements. A 20-minute feature on the filming of the OPEC raid is an illuminating watch so far as it illustrates the surprisingly warm and calm working dynamics that characterized the production as a whole. The OPEC scenes provide a particularly exciting window to these things, but the feature doesn’t offer any particular insight as to how Assayas chose to broach this notorious event. Fortunately, Criterion devotes an entire 43-minute video interview to Assayas, in which the filmmaker is free to wax poetic on anything else you might want to know. Edgar Ramirez stars in his own 20-minute interview, a thoughtful testimony that suggests how the actor was so comprehensively able to embody this infamous figure. There’s also an hour-long French documentary about the life of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the wealth of archival footage in which provides a nice real-world counterpoint to Assayas’ sexy fictions. There’s a 1995 interview with German militant Hans-Joachim Klein (who rocks a disguise that is, um, less than convincing). And that’s it! Just kidding! There’s also feature-length documentary called Maison de France which recounts the 1983 bombing that Carlos orchestrated against the titular building in West Berlin. It’s an engagingly well-crafted document, but only the most committed Carlos freaks need apply.
The Best Bit: Cinematographer Denis Lenoir. The wide-eyed Frenchman provides approximately 8 minutes of selected-scene commentary, a fascinating feature that’s as cruelly brief as it is dense with insight and fun reveals. His candid discussion of the aesthetics and geometry of Assayas’ directorial approach is great, peaking with asides on frame balance and the sexual politics of lighting (of the Nora Von Waldstatten nude scene: “This scene was, uh, very interesting for me”). Lenoir also pops up in an interview on the second disc, which quickly becomes an oratory on 2-perf film, blown-out lighting, and how most DPs pan way too fast.
The Artwork: Criterion’s release is adorned with a slightly modified riff on Sam Smith’s note-perfect poster for the film, a hazy still which captures Carlos’ unique swagger and the enormity of his image. Criterion has tucked a thick, beautiful booklet inside of the digipak, the copy of which mercifully includes a timeline of Carlos’ life and exploits.
The Verdict: 92 / 100
Note: Hearing-impaired viewers should be advised that Criterion does not provide subtitles or closed-captioning for English-language dialogue with their multi-lingual releases. It is very uncool.
#178 MY LIFE AS A DOG (dir. Lasse Hallstrom) 1985
The Film: I’ve been convinced that I intensely dislike My Life as a Dog for years. It seems like a bizarre target for cinephilic ire, so gentle and gracious with its sad truths. When Criterion announced that they’d be releasing the film on Blu-ray, I was equal parts agitated and confused. But now that I’ve been forced to re-watch Lasse Hallstrom’s breakthrough film — as elusive and unapologetically devastating a coming-of-age film as has ever been made — I have no choice but to conclude that I was too young to appreciate it the first time around, and too frustrated with the consistently useless work Lasse Hallstrom has churned out since to bother giving My Life as a Dog its proper due.
A muffled drumbeat of disarming tragedies, the film charts the rather tumultuous adolescence of young Ingemar, a Swedish boy with an open face and a head of hair that seems to stand upright in a permanently fritzed state of wonder. Ingemar and his brother are becoming too much of a handful for their mother (who, unbeknownst to the children, is dying), and so they’re separated and sent to stay with different sides of the family. Lots of nice folks die their quiet deaths in the 100 minutes or so that follow, a journey so psyche-destroying that Ingemar quickly begins to crawl on his knees and bark like a dog, conflating himself with the hound Laika, who the Russians shot into orbit only to become the first animal to die in space. It really is a beautiful film, its stout refusal to succumb to the sadness of its events making for a transformative childhood drama that’s as scarring as it is hopeful. No, Lasse Hallstrom hasn’t made anything even half as bold and tender in the 26 years since (his last journeyman job was helming a Nicholas Sparks adaptation), but his subsequent string of failures only make My Life as a Dog that much more bittersweet.
The Upgrade: My Life as a Dog isn’t one of those films that seems dependent on the quality of its presentation, and yet Criterion’s Blu-ray is a pretty remarkable testament to the power of the HD format. Using the same source materials from which they struck their DVD some eight years ago, Criterion has made a Blu-ray that looks light years better than it did in standard definition. It hardly looks like the same film — the Blu-ray is filled with warm, deep colors and a healthy degree of film grain where the DVD is comparatively muddy and soft. It’s a beautiful image, and given the film’s timeless quality allows Lasse Hallstrom’s film to negotiate an ideal new life as an experience both quaint and being vital.
#230 3 WOMEN (dir. Robert Altman) 1977
The Film: The story goes that Robert Altman saw 3 Women in a dream, from its premise down to its casting and product-placements… well, at least the first two. After seeing 3 Women, the supposed origins of the film seem less self-mythology than they do self-evident. Altman kicks things off with a series of ghastly creatures painted along the bottom of a swimming pool, jagged-toothed serpents that distort the qualities of their genders until their every hint of sex is made menacing and grotesque. We’re soon introduced to the long and desperately fetching Millie (Shelley Duvall) and her new co-worker Pinky (a wide-eyed Sissy Spacek), who tend to the water-logged residents of a senior center in their arid Californian town. To know that Millie and Pinky share the same world as those curled bald monsters is tension enough, but the film begins to mine some truly unnerving territory when it becomes clear that the drawings are designed to be windows, not threats. Altman’s most agreeably difficult film (but one that’s far too compelling for its dream logic to ever become frustrating), 3 Women plays to me like something of a precursor to Mulholland Drive, a fierce and horrifying study of unmoored sexual identity that’s so dense with tense beats and haunting imagery that its story — despite ultimately leaving its audience with a residue rather than a resolved plot — is as difficult to shake off as it is to pin down.
The Upgrade: I know I sound like a broken record, but Criterion’s Blu-ray is impeccable, its razor-sharp clarity allowing the film’s more horrifying imagery to cut to the bone unimpeded. As a result, 3 Women is given the ultimate opportunity to overcome its occasionally dated moments / fashion, as the foreboding mood is too sharp not to penetrate, and the ids fermenting inside of it pour right through the cracks. For the first time, 3 Women is so sharp that I’m half-convinced you might actually see something if you keep staring at that flaming pile of tires.
Coming up next month: Salo. In high definition. Run for your lives. Also: other stuff that is less likely to make you projectile vomit, including the classic Japanese ghost story Kuroneko and the classic American half-panther half-woman story, The Island of Lost Souls!