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The Criterion Collection presents
The Documentaries of Louis Malle (1962-86)

"We decided to film all those looks, to make them the leitmotif of our journey."
- Louis Malle (himself)

Review By: Jeff Wilson  
Published: August 17, 2007

Director: Louis Malle

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for language, gore, non-sexual nudity
Release Date: April 24, 2007
UPC: 715515023825
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+BB D+

DVD Review

Louis Malle made numerous well-received feature films during his career, but his body of documentary work gets comparatively less notice. Criterion's Eclipse label aims to change that with their six-disc set collecting these films, including the mammoth Phantom India. The Eclipse model of multiple films in an affordable collection makes these films easily available to fans of Malle or the documentary, for whom this set will be of primary importance.

Disc 1 gathers three films together, with Vive Le Tour, Humain, Trop Humain, and Place de la Republique. The first is a brief look at the Tour de France, coasting breezily through the various elements of the race, from spectators to re-fuelling, to crashes and even doping. It conveys a snapshot of the stature, difficulty, and popularity of the Tour. Humain looks at life in a automobile factory, setting it side by side against customers running the rule over the product at an auto show. The film functioned for me as a distinct criticism of the factory, with people stuck in mind-numbingly boring jobs, repeating the same brainless task over and over again. It's terrifying and boring all at once. No one worries about that when they consider buying the car, and Malle's point may be that perhaps they should. A hard film to watch, to be honest, and one I doubt I would ever return to. Place sees Malle and a small crew venture into the titular street, where they interview passersby and street vendors about whatever they wish to talk about. It's a good idea if it works, and Malle and company include footage with a range of people, from vendors discussing their businesses, to jobless men and women, old and young people, and more. My interest level came and went, depending on who was speaking; some of the people just don't have much to say. Malle documents a general malaise in many of the people he meets; most seem dissatisfied and are barely making ends meet. Shooting in a working class neighborhood didn't promise many ecstatic responses, I would imagine. Malle does allow one strand of continuity, as he drafts a young woman into helping them out, and she appears throughout the film. Overall, it's sporadically interesting but leaves a general sense of being too diffuse to take much away from it.

We move on then to the centerpiece films of the set, the miniseries Phantom India and the companion film Calcutta. Shot in seven parts, Phantom uses each episode to look at a different facet of Indian life and society, from the caste system to religion to dance and more. The first episode sets the tone, with Malle spending probably too much time going on about how the camera and he and his crew's very presence marks them as intruders, disrupting the lives of his subjects. I frankly didn't have a lot of patience with this, something that was exacerbated when Malle treats us to several revolting minutes of first a dog, and then a horde of vultures, tearing away at a dead cow. This impromptu nature interlude is punctuated with Malle trying to graft a tortured metaphorical meaning upon it, after which he mentions that their Indian guide couldn't see why they were wasting their time filming this. Indeed. It can only go uphill after close-ups of vultures ripping out a dead cow's eyes, and in subsequent episodes there are some amazing sequences that are truly breathtaking (see the dance episode, for example). Malle's success in trying to view this material without bias or preconceptions must be left up to the individual viewer, though his narration gets annoying and occasionally condescending.

In Calcutta, Malle drops much of the narration for a straightforward look at the capital city, and much of it is a descent into shocking levels of misery and poverty, with lepers, beggars, and other societal bottom-dwellers contrasted with the rich who lounge away on golf courses and race tracks. The only problem with this is that Malle's is the only viewpoint we get; he doesn't spend time interviewing or delving into the history of the city, beyond a few statistics, so it's difficult to guess how much his slant differs from the typical Indian's. Any city which has more than half a million homeless people would seem to have some kind of deep-seated problems, though. At face value, a very troubling film to watch. My other concern with the India films is that they come across almost as a sort of nature film; like nature documentaries, most time is spent observing, rather than interacting, which to me would have been a more interesting tack to take.

Finally, Malle turned his lens upon America, with a pair of films from the end of his career, God's Country (1985) and The Pursuit of Happiness (1986). The former saw him visiting Glencoe, Minnesota, a small town full of solid German descendants making their living in the farm industry. Malle clearly has a lot of affection for the people he meets, who are largely free of pretense and happily share their feelings with him. Malle does well to indirectly portray the limitations of life there, using a young woman who clearly doesn't fit in as his central figure. Sadly, when he returns six years later to catch up with the town, she's moved on, though richly deserved, one must conclude. Reagan's damaging economic policies have taken their toll on the townspeople, who have started looking at a future in which farming isn't the way of life any longer, something they likely would never have considered the first time around.

Pursuit turns its eye on a topic never too far from the boiler these days in immigration. Malle, an immigrant to America himself, profiles the immigrant mindset through looks at Asian and South American immigrants, and the ways in which they integrate into American society. This is a documentary that one would have liked to see Malle do a follow-up on, given the recent debates over the issue in society and politics. Overall, Malle's interest in the common man and woman comes to the fore in all these films, and they're all worthy of viewing. A welcome addition to the DVD library.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Everything here was at least passable in terms of quality, with some films suffering more than others due to age and filming conditions. All are presented in their original full frame ratios with clean English subtitles.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrench, English, Hinduno

Audio Transfer Review: The original mono tracks provide solid listening, though there are occasional faults that were beyond the scope of the project to fix; the first episode of Phantom India is quite hissy during Malle's narration, but that's about the worst of it.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 0 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
6 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The idea behind Eclipse precludes bountiful extras, so the best things here are short essays printed on the back of the jacket art (expanded to an insert for Phantom India. They're not especially deep on analysis, providing a general intro and appreciation of each work.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

Though I found this set to be a mixed bag in terms of personal interest, there's enough worthwhile here to provide value for any interested film fan. The Eclipse presentation eschews fancy frills for solid basics, and this set looks and sounds fine.


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