In the Dead of Winter

Mar 12, 2008

There’s no real rhyme or reason to explain which Criterion films I end up watching. For example, I saw Breathless over the holiday break after Abbey convinced me to give Godard a chance. Then I watched The Seventh Seal in January because, after sending out so many replacement DVDs for the Bergman Masterworks set, I felt compelled to watch a film whose popularity was quite literally tangible. And after transcribing Yukio Mishima’s powerful novella Patriotism (which will accompany the film version’s DVD release this summer), I was keen to watch a screener to see how Mishima translated his story for the screen.

Maybe it’s the aftereffect of a long, dreary February, maybe it’s the recent passing of my beloved cat Jackie Chan, or maybe it’s just what happens when you see some “serious” movies after a steady diet of sci-fi and romantic comedies, but I couldn’t help but notice the unmistakable theme of death in all three films. What struck me most was the variety of approaches (from subtle to graphic) and characters (from different nations and walks of life) the three directors used in order to examine the universal subject of human demise. Of course death isn’t an uncommon happening in Criterion DVDs—quite the opposite—but the sense of balance I felt after seeing these three examples was unexpected.

At one end of the spectrum there’s a tortured medieval knight, plagued by Death in more ways than one, brooding on the uncertain existence of God; then you have an insouciant charmer who casually takes another’s life and pulls faces when suddenly faced with his own end; and finally a young, intense couple who proudly and methodically carry out what they see as a most honorable suicide. I’d be out of my depth if I tried to break down further differences in style (I’ll gladly leave the analysis of camera angles and lighting to the film scholars!), but I feel like I’ve audited an introductory course at the “film school in a box.” An important experience, to be sure, but I’m looking forward to taking a more lighthearted “class” this spring. Lubitsch musicals, anyone?