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The Criterion Collection presents
"Who's to say that a lie is always bad?"
DVD ReviewIt's a long-honored tradition for writers to bitch about how directors massacre their work when bringing it to the screen, but Maxim Gorky, as the exception that proves the rule, hasn't a thing to complain about. His 1902 play, The Lower Depths, is one of the vital documents of early twentieth-century dramatic literature—it may not be as popular or as frequently revived today as the work of Gorky's countryman, Anton Chekhov, but this work deserves its place alongside the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg as well as the good doctor for revolutionizing theatrical form, for extinguishing the dying embers of melodrama and creating a theater that was vital, emotionally raw, and reflective of the lives of many of its audience members. Gorky's influence on later dramatists is clear, as well—in America, his two most obvious protégés are probably Clifford Odets (Waiting for Lefty seems impossible without The Lower Depths) and Eugene O'Neill, especially with something like The Iceman Cometh.
Criterion has yoked together two filmed versions of Gorky's play, by two of the greatest directors in the relatively short history of motion pictures, Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa. It's a paradigm for a DVD release that they established last year with The Killers, all you need to know about film noir on two discs; this one is more of a seminar in auteurism, its uses and its limits. Individually, neither film is likely to be in the top tier of their respective directors' work; but taken together, they make for some startling and informative juxtapositions, and speak volumes as to the manner in which a director puts his imprint on any film bearing his name.
"We're born, we're here, we die. It's nothing to cry over." —Pépel (Jean Gabin), in Jean Renoir's version
At a sinuous ninety-two minutes, Renoir's adaptation of Gorky's play is a lithe and affecting piece of filmmaking. Though the characters retain their Russian names, the atmosphere is unmistakably French, and the lyrical, visual style, familiar from such masterpieces as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, are very much on display here. The action centers around a flophouse, with its tyrannical landlord Kostylyov, squeezing every last ruble out of the indigents forced to take space with him, and his wife, Vassilissa, devoted to her husband only if he is in the room. She has a passionate history with Pépel, a thief who boards with them; played by the great Jean Gabin, this is an iconic performance. The structure of the plot retains more than a little 19th-century melodrama: will Pépel find happiness not with Vassilissa, but with her purer, more innocent younger sister, Natasha? Or will Vassilissa and Kostylyov succeed in pimping Natasha out to the local inspector (an oleaginous André Gabriello), to get him to turn a blind eye to much of what goes on at the flophouse?
It's the fierce battle for individuation against oppressive circumstances that raise this above the level of the mundane, of course; the characters are passionate and are terrifically individuated, facts which no doubt became inconvenient for the Soviets, in their attempts to appropriate Gorky's play as a pre-revolutionary bit of propaganda. But the decadence of Tsarist Russia is made manifest with a baron (Louis Jouvet) drowning in debt; Pépel comes to rob him, the night before the repossessors are due to show up and hock everything in sight. It's an indication of the fundamental Frenchness of Renoir's film that the thief and his intended victim pass the evening not in combat, but toasting with cognac, eating a hearty meal of roast veal, swapping stories and playing cards, the very image of decadence, as Rome burns.
Renoir's film ends with a glimmer of hope, the last gasp of a dream in a dark and darkening world; it's probably got more to do with the director's empathy for humanity than with the circumstances of his characters, but even in its squalor, the movie is, like so much of Renoir's work, absolutely luminous.
"Lies trump the truth every time."—Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune), in Kurosawa's version
Kurosawa frequently displayed a sort of Russophilia—the influence of Tolstoy on Ikiru, for instance, is unmistakable—and twenty-one years after Renoir did, he made his own film based on the Gorky play. It's something of an anomaly in the Kurosawa oeuvre, in that it's an extraordinarily faithful adaptation—he doesn't take the liberties with the source material that he did so liberally when making Throne of Blood, say, or even Rashomon. And so it makes this incarnation of The Lower Depths a bit of a curiosity; the Kurosawa style is evident, but in many respects it isn't quite a full-blooded and full-throated Kurosawa picture.
Though he has preserved the time period of the play, Kurosawa has moved the action from Russia to Japan, and unlike Renoir's version, the action here is confined exclusively to the flophouse and its immediate environs, giving the film a palpable claustrophobia. The characters have been ported over intact, though renamed; Toshiro Mifune, the leading man of choice in the first half of Kurosawa's career, is the first among equals as Sutekichi, the thief. Kurosawa's pitiless sense of fatalism is evident throughout—the movie seems to ask the question: how far can you fall, and still retain the possibility of redemption? And I don't know if it's in the Gorky, or in the Japanese screenplay, or a deliberate or unconscious choice by Linda Hoaglund, who has provided excellent new English-language subtitles, but there are many echoes of Macbeth here; this same year, Kurosawa directed Throne of Blood, based on the Scottish play, and hence surely it's no coincidence to hear the frequent refrain in the flophouse, "What's done is done."
One at a time, Kurosawa's characters leave the squalor of the flophouse for the outside world, plunging themselves into the abyss, from the horrible to the unbearable; they each in turn vote themselves off the island, if you will. The movie never really achieves the transcendent quality of Kurosawa's best work, in part because of some problems with character differentiation; but as with the 1936 version, watching this gives us the opportunity to see a master at work, and even if Kurosawa never quite seems to digest Gorky's play and make it his own, it has flashes of unmitigated brilliance, and now that Kurosawa-san has left us, one can never get enough of that.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The Renoir film has its fair share of scratches, and the Kurosawa lacks the luminosity of some of the director's other DVD releases; but the shortcomings in the visual quality are no doubt due to compromised source material, and the Criterion team has done the best possible job. Some obstacles are just insurmountable, however, and instances of bacterial decay and mismatched frames (perhaps culled from various sources) are frequently evident in both movies.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The dynamics are occasionally askew with both movies; but as with the picture, this is likely due to problematic source material and the limited technological capacity at the times of the films' productions. Then again, unless you're following along in either Japanese or French and are ignoring the subtitles, the bits of hiss and crackle shouldn't be too much of a distraction.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 40 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Donald Richie (Kurosawa film only)
Packaging: Amaray Double
Also on the Kurosawa disc are biographical sketches for eleven cast members, written by Stephen Prince; and another installment (32m:57s) of Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, the Toho Studios series in which each episode concentrates on a particular film. Aside from interview footage with surviving cast members and the film's art director, among others on the production team—he describes the painstaking design and construction of the flophouse set—are archival interviews with Kurosawa; in one, he describes a dinner he had with Renoir shortly before making this film. Not a bad little bit of cinematic history at that table for two.
The only extra of note on the Renoir disc is a brief introduction (05m:46s) of the film by the director, shot years after the production; he discusses wanting to retain the spirit of the original in a French context, and justifiably boasts about getting Gorky's seal of approval on his screenplay.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsThe release of any film by either Kurosawa or Renoir on DVD is a happy occasion; to have one from each on a single release is close to cinematic bliss. The obvious opportunity to compare and contrast makes this set a sort of auteurism-in-a-box; the announced release of the Kurosawa picture was long delayed, but turning it into a French/Japanese/Russian double feature makes it well worth the wait.
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