Tuesday 29 October 2019

On Blu-ray - David Hare rages about a new edition of Marcel Carne's DRÔLE DE DRAME (France, 1937)

"England as imagined by a Frenchman"
Marcel Carné’s second feature, and his first masterpiece, was Drôle de Drame from 1937 (following his feature debut, Jenny in 1936.) The American title for the picture is Bizarre, Bizarre which doesn't quite capture it. Perhaps something closer to "Laugh till you Cry”, although the original title is basically untranslatable. 
Like 1936's Jenny the setting is England (as imagined by a Frenchman.) But unlike that film's Prévertian dark narrative with a mother who's basically a high class pimp, and her naïve daughter, the mode for Drôle is high farce.
This wonderful picture is like an exhaustive textbook which opens a door to the cream of 30's French cinema. Beginning with a cast from heaven, following the screens, the first appearance of the titanic star of Grémillon’s La Petite Lise (1931) and L'Herbier's 1930 L'Argent, the immense Pierre Alcover, here in drag going undercover as the chief inspector in a mystery sting. 
"master comédien Louis Jouvet"
Next, one of the cores of the show, master comédien Louis Jouvet impersonating a puritanical Anglican Minister, the hypocrisy running in his blood with an accent and speech pattern that insists you learn French just to hear what he does with the ends of sentences. It's one of the most amazing performances in French cinema. 
"mousey Michel Simon"
Then the timid brother, played by a mousey Michel Simon, a fresh faced début by pretty boy Jean-Pierre Aumont, and not least, the superb Jean-Louis Barrault as a crazed killer of murderers who initiates and then joins the mayhem. The pearly white bum in the final screen is also his. 
This is just the male cast. Françoise Rosay leads the women. The crew is comparably superb. Score by Maurice Jaubert, Photographed by Shuftan, Production Design by Alexandre Trauner, Henri Alékan in an early gig as assistant cameraman. The screenplay by Prévert and Carné is adapted from a novel by Storer Clouston and must be Prévert’s sole excursion into low or high comedy. It's a doozy. 
"pretty boy Jean-Pierre Aumont"
The picture is so exhaustively funny for its internal references and for the sheer stylistic weight Carné encourages from each individual performer to amplify their personal styles (physical and vocal) to the max, it may seem a little overwhelming at first. The dialogue alone in its multiple regional and personal variations of line readings is worth going back to Alliance for all those French courses you used to avoid back when.
"superb Jean-Louis Barrault"
In any case the picture comes with my recomm-endation as Carné’s first fully realized masterpiece, followed next year in 1938 by the sublime Boulevardier piece, with Jouvet again, and Arletty, Hôtel du Nord
This disc marks effectively the last of Carné’s features to make it to Blu-ray. It should but doesn't supersede an older MK2 DVD and its American port on the now defunct HVE label over 12 years ago. I am sorry to say the translations of Carné’s movies into new digital restorations over the last decade or so have been uneven, to put it mildly, with the best work probably coming out of StudioCanal including Le Jour se Lève and Quai des Brûmes, as well as several post war Carnés. The MK2 holdings, of which this is one, have not fared at all well. 
The most botched of the major, up to now Carné restorations was the 4K hatchet job Lab Eclair did on his 1944 wartime masterpiece, Les Enfants du Paradis. The 4K and the Blu-ray disc was so consistently softened by massively over-zealous DVNR which rendered the image softer than the old DVDs, and very weak grading which tended to erase shadow definition. Disgracefully IMO this FUBAR was awarded a prize from the judging panel at the 2012 Bologna by judges who had obviously either never watched the fucking thing, or never really even understood or cared how awful it looked (and still looks).
I am mortified to report that this new Blu-ray is another giant turkey, taken from a new 4K restoration which was released last week in France only so far, on a small label called ESC, from the rights-holder MK2. 
The 4K work and restoration on Drôle was handed over to a new posthouse called Vectracom about which nobody really knows anything. All I can surmise is it's a general purpose industrial strength digitization outfit based in somewhere like Karachi with outreach branches including France. 
I am sorry to say some sort of inexplicable weirdness seems to have afflicted the grading and encoding work on Drôle to the point one can only call it a total fuckup. It is very difficult to explain what I think has gone on with this mess, and to an extent I am deferring to French critic Rémy Pignatiello who is a genuine technical expert in these things. 
To begin, the image is too soft, with waxy undefined facial features and clothing textures which display no detail, suggesting massive overdrive on the digital noise reduction (DVNR). There is no true black anywhere in the film as though it was dialed down to 5 out of 10. The buttons on Jouvet's MInister's cloak for instance are dark gray, and it looks like both black and white levels have had completely artificial settings unrelated to true white or black which results overall in hardly any true contrast or dynamic range. To add to this soup of texture there's also no apparent gamma or visual depth.
It's a real bloody mess and sadly it appears to be inherent to the 4K, so there's no way someone could even revisit the master and make a new, superior disc encode from what is basically rubbish grading. 
This disaster received CNC funding last year when it was created. I wish there were some recourse to this plundering not only of all too rare cash resources for restoration work handed out willy-nilly to god knows what. These are things that once done will not see any more work spent on them, if ever, for 20 years.

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