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Sunday, 24 July 2016

On Blu-ray - David Hare reports on the new edition of Alain Resnais' MURIEL (France, 1963)

I have very mixed feeling about the new Criterion Blu-ray of my favorite Resnais, and one of my favorite movies of all time, Muriel (1963). On the one hand it's nice to see the film returned to the correct aspect ratio mask of 1.66. NIck Wrigley's decision back in 2009 to mask the AR to 1.78 on the otherwise good (for its time) MoC PAL DVD was an error about which I argued with him, and lost. That then new telecine, done with Resnais' own supervision despite being technically limited in comparison to the new 1080p Blu Ray got so many other things right. One was the color timing which although on the warm side was relatively "neutral" with true whites through the spectrum to black and with true primaries. Like most PAL telecines of the day the color temperature (not the same thing as timing which is performed by a colourist technician to match shots through the length of the transfer for consistency) had the minute bias to red, a common practise of telecine transfers from the era. 
Now the new BD, and by association I suppose the new 2K (which I've not seen), is a real problem case. The technical aspects of the transfer are very well handled. Emulsion cleanup, grain management (very beautifully rendered and consistent with highly lit 60s European Eastman stock filming); stability to address any shrinkage issues, and detail and apparent image sharpness. All these are well managed but something has happened with the color timing. At first glance the image appears to have no true white rendition, and where whites are being filmed (like the interior apartment wall and some flashback exteriors) the image renders them from cloudy cream to yellow. 
I would safely guess the techs have introduced more yellow layer at the scanning stage to compensate for ageing and fade and loss of yellow layer. But they've done too much. It looks as if corrections in color timing have then been applied throughout at the grading stage, after the initial 2k scan to address the newly introduced yellow push but the result leads to a loss of pure white and a sort of dark undercoat that bathes the entire transfer like a filter. The image is no longer "clean" but looks like another sort of film stock, like Geva or Ansco, very far removed from first release Eastman prints which displayed an entirely "natural" un-pushed or unfiltered appearance. The original image was likely shot on Eastman 5248 stock but i cant confirm this. 5248 was not only responsive to a range of low and mixed lighting setups but was relatively fade proof and quite neutral in printing, unless you "pushed" the printing in the timing process, as Godard and Raoul Coutard did on Weekend (1967) and Losey and Gerry Fisher did on Accident (1966) for instance. 
Let me quote from the director himself at the time of first release: "No filters, nothing. Just complete simplicity. But it was in a way too because we had the feeling that in real life there are a lot of colors that we don't perceive, and that in Muriel because of the editing (there are a lot of shots, nearly 1000) we would get some kind of effect. I wasn't sure what, but I had the feeling that the color would become sometimes very aggressive, and so we just shot it." and later in the same James Monaco book: "The effect is especially surprising to professionals because the walls in Helene's apartment where much of the action takes place are pure white and it is very difficult indeed to shoot white on color stock." the latter quote from Monaco and the earlier quote from Resnais. (And thanks to Jim Steffen for the sources.) 
Masters of Cinema copy
Here are two grabs from the MoC PAL disc which should be obvious for their high grain and relatively soft resolution, and two from the new Criterion BD.  Click on the images for expanded vision. I wish I could be happier about the new "restoration" but I'm not. This great film seems destined to endure one botched incarnation after another going right back to its original NTSC Fox Lorber disc which vertically pinched the telecine image making the actors' faces unnaturally thin. I will add for those in the loop, the new scan and post house work was done by Lab Eclair. That's enough for some to shake their heads and mutter "not again". It did me when I first
Masters of Cinema copy
read about them, and alas the results confirm my worst fears.
Criterion copy

Criterion Copy

Let's just say Eclair seems to perform so many of its scans and masters with absolutely no reference to any primary archival reference or answer print. It's even as though there was an intentionally revisionist ethic running through their work on 60s to 90s French color films to simply push the yellow and gray and create some overwhelming color style in the teal and orange mode that bears no relationship to original prints. I would cite their atrocious Pialat masters for Gaumont as a good example, but the list goes on and on. This sort of simply bad work would rarely happen now at a major US post house especially not one dealing with an outfit like Criterion. One person close to home has suggested to me the possibility these scanning mishaps are the outcome of sheer necessity because Eclair's scanner has not been re-calibrated for accuracy to basic BT.709 color spacing for Blu-ray encoding for several years (let alone the new UHD/4K/HDR and DCP standard of BT.2020.) It's not up to me to rescue French cinematic patrimony but at some stage soon, someone in the business has to confront them on this and get some answers. The Eclair facility simply cannot be relied upon to deliver a consistent product.

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