Channel Hopping

By Simon Cropper

general-clyde-bruckman-buster-keaton..jpgThe General, 1926

France’s DVD labels get little coverage in the English-speaking world, but they’re a steady source of some of the best put-together discs anywhere.

A few basic principles to begin with. This column won’t spend much time on the technical aspects of discs it mentions, partly because I’d rather use the space to mention as many worthy titles as I can, partly because it’s not hard to find websites that measure a DVD’s technical performance with fine scientific rigour (one of the best is, whose assessments of the various releases of a film include graphs to show bit rates and a punctilious attention to frame size and fleeting instances of dirt) – and partly because the sort of titles I’ll aim to bring to your attention won’t be available in a wide choice of versions. For most of them, as far as picture quality goes, it will be a case of like it or lump it. Second, prices will rarely be mentioned. And third, websites will always be mentioned where I think they’re useful.

Since this issue of Vertigo has thrown a rope bridge across to Cahiers du Cinéma, it seems fitting to concentrate in this first column on DVDs released by labels across the Channel – almost all of which, amazingly, are routinely overlooked by film mags and commentators in the UK. All titles mentioned below are zone 2 discs.

Speaking of the magazine that Colin MacCabe has called ‘the most significant cultural journal of the twentieth century’, Cahiers curates a growing and very praiseworthy DVD series of its own, the ‘2 Films De’ collection. These aren’t covermounts, but two-disc sets on general sale – ten so far. Each delivers two films by a particular auteur – French for the majority (Garrel, Desplechin, Beauvois, Godard), though the inclusion of Ken Loach (Family Life and Poor Cow) and Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon and Crimson Gold) suggests a plan to promote undersung filmmakers from outside France’s borders as well as from within. None of the films in the series has, as far as I know, been available previously on DVD. I can find only one bémol, and that’s the hit-and-miss provision of English subtitles. Several of the earlier titles have them, but of the most recent crop, only the Godard (Passion and Nouvelle Vague) is bilingual; the Chantal Akerman (Golden Eighties and Toute une Nuit), Benoît Jacquot (Le Septième Ciel) and Claire Denis (S’en Fout la Mort and Nénette et Boni) aren’t.

To be fair, such inconsistency in subtitling is typical of French discs, and entirely understandable – in hard financial logic, if not in cultural or cinephile terms. Foreign-language subtitles cost money, and if disc producers can’t find a set produced previously – for a festival release, say – they usually shy away from an expense that may translate into just a few hundred overseas purchases via the internet. Better to license the film to an English or US label and let it sort out the sous-titres. Still, we’re grateful for them when they do appear – though with very few exceptions they’re provided only for the main feature, not the extras.

One exception is Agnès Varda, steadily putting out her back catalogue on her own Ciné Tamaris label ( Varda is an exemplary curator of DVDs, a film-maker whose elbow-deep involvement with each title is clear, a standard-setter – and really rather endearing. Though they’re as slick and smartly packaged as you could wish, there’s something of the cottage industry about her DVDs, from the quirky term she’s coined to allude to the extras – ‘boni’, cod-Latin plural of bonus – to the ever – present sign of her hand and sound of her voice in the bonuses themselves. The most recent release is a superb double set of Cléo de 5 à 7 and Daguerréotypes, and as with earlier releases (Les Glaneurset la Glaneuse, Sans Toit ni Loi) its courtesy to non-French speakers extends from the films to each one of the extras– even the menus. The set was a deserving winner of a best DVD prize awarded by French film critics last year; at the time of going to press, I’ve been told of an imminent release of Le Bonheur.

visions-of-light-arnold-glassman-todd-mccarthy.jpgVisions of Light, 1992

Another French director who takes a keen and contagious interest in DVDs (and works hard to equip DVD releases of his own films with useful extras) is Bertrand Tavernier. Readers of French can pick up tips from his DVD blog (, updated every couple of months or so and, as you’d expect from the author of 50 Ans de Cinéma Américain, encyclopedic in its coverage. Tavernier is a frequent participant in discussions on disc. There he is on StudioCanal’s L’Armée des Ombres ( reminiscing about Melville’s on-set feud with Lino Ventura. (The disc is unsubtitled, though BFI plans to release the film soon in the UK, almost certainly with different extras). There he is again talking about Abraham Polonsky to support Force of Evil, released on the first-class Wild Side label (, about which I’ll have much to say in forthcoming months.

And there he is again, in his role as President of Lyon’s Institut Lumière (, curating and presenting its brand new DVD series – which, the Pres being an avowed disciple of Michael Powell, is a collection of Powell-Pressburger films as notable for the quality and elegance of their packaging as for the standard of the stuff they supply to your TV screen. The four films already available, each in a two-disc set, are The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and 49th Parallel; A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going! are in the pipeline. Each title comes with a glossy 44-page booklet – in French, although everything else in the set is English-French, menus included. Tavernier presents and commentates on each film; other extras across the series include Thelma Schoonmaker’s memories of Powell, exegesis by Ian Christie and mini docs like the 27-minute study of Powell’s DoP Jack Cardiff.

More remembrance of films past – long past – is the speciality of Lobster (, led by the genial Serge Bromberg. Bromberg is an avid collector and champion of nitrate films, and each disc in Lobster’s Retour de Flamme series – four titles to date – is a two-hour serving of deliriously varied fare: early DW Griffith, a 1907 film performance of La Marseillaise (with sound!), forgotten Tex Avery, a French public information cartoon warning about TB... subtitled in English throughout. Even the website is bilingual. 16 discs are planned, and rather sweetly they put one episode of a 1924 German matinee serial at the end of each prog – as if one needed the incentive of completing its cliffhanger set to keep buying these lovely DVDs. Lobster also does an enlightening two-disc documentary on the pioneers of sound and colour, Les Premiers Pas du Cinéma, again entirely bilingual.

Lobster was given the job of restoring a set of Buster Keaton features for a recent release from MK2 (; like StudioCanal and Wild Side, a fine French label whose catalogue is stuffed with desirable discs). Keaton, incidentally, has been given his digital due by France well ahead of the UK. The complete two-reelers has been available over there since 2002, as a superb four-disc box from Arte (; it’s taken four years for the same films to come en masse to the UK, out soon from Masters of Cinema ( Late last year, MK2 released a sumptuous ten-disc tin of Keaton’s silent features- not a complete collection (The Cameraman is missing) but a terrific line-up nonetheless: Three Ages, Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., The Navigator, Seven Chances, Go West, Battling Butler, The General, College and Steamboat Bill, Jr. It’s expensive- last time I looked it was selling for 165 euros on – though built to last (the discs come in a sleek black metal tin) and the films speak (silently) for themselves. Several are introduced by British film critic David Robinson, and there are some nice extras: Buster doing a skit for Candid Camera in the 1950s, and frame-by-frame analyses of some of the more dangerous stunts. If 165 euros seems excessive, the content of MK2’s two-disc General is available as a UK release on the Cinema Club label. Where the big black tin devotes just one disc to Keaton’s railroad masterpiece, this has two, and the bonuses on the second are wonderful. There’s the 1965 industrial short The Railrodder made for Canada’s national railway, largely whimsy but still watchable, followed by a 50-minute documentary that mixes potted biography with treasurable footage of twilight Keaton at work on that very short; Orson Welles provides a brief, tender and characteristically shrewd appraisal of what made the Great Stone Face so great.

Finally, a couple of documentaries on UK labels, one French, one not. Veteran French documentarist Nicolas Philibert became a big art house name in this country with the hit theatrical release of his portrait of a rural primary school, Etre et Avoir; but his early work has so far only been available, unsubtitled, from France’s Editions Montparnasse ( Now the estimable Second Run label ( has brought out In the Land of the Deaf, Philibert’s affecting 1992 study of the way deaf people live. It comes with an introduction by the director and a useful essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Still in the realm of the visual, Arnold Glassman’s absorbing and enlightening documentary Visions of Light, from BFI (, harvests the insights, tactics and secrets of 29 international cinematographers – including Godard’s regular collaborator Raoul Coutard – and illustrates their work with over 100 film clips.

Simon Cropper works as an editor for Time Out Guides and is the editor of 1000 Films to Change Your Life.