Alain Resnais' highly influential feature film debut is the product of a rather oddball series of events, beginning with a co-production effort to use up frozen Yen in Japan, a producer's purchase of a Japanese War film about Hiroshima, and the original screenplay by Marguerite Duras.
Using mostly a half-French, half-Japanese cast and crew, with locations restricted to Nevers, France, and the titular city, Resnais' film is an intense, intimate film: poetic dialogue, newsreel images of Hiroshima bomb victims, intense physical foreplay, a revolutionary flashback structure, political subtext, and a decisively striking use of modernistic Japanese architecture, contrasted with roughly hewn and ornately decorated stone homes in Nevers, France collectively evoke a dreamlike atmosphere, as a romance is joined during its fiery rise, and left when the morning embers offer a mere faint and dusty glow.
Carefully assembled, the plentiful extras offer a rewarding archival journey into the creation of a much-revered modern classic.
Film historian and biographer Peter Cowie returns for a solid full-length commentary, weaving historical facts with film production and filmmaker biographies, along with accessible critiques and theories. Cowie's written a large body of film-related books during his long career, yet he comes armed with WW2 and post-war facts that elevate his contribution to an engaging, frequently fun and emotionally endowed lecture. Some may enjoy an unending stream of theoretical positing, but Criterion's selected the right orator; one who weighs his words with the experience of having seen the film upon its theatrical debut, having met the director over the years, and a writer at heart who understands the value of supporting his observations with historical facts and quotes from published interviews with the film's cast and crew. Film Theory tends to dominate the film's final reel, but Cowie makes some excellent parallels between Resnais' subsequent films, and the obvious thematic and visual aspects of "Night and Fog."
Resnais is also given a nice showcase via a lengthy, vintage Q&A session from 1961, where the camera stays on the director, and Resnais answers queries regarding his disuse of the possessive credit ("A Film By"), views on the Auteur theory, his rather humbling self-classification as a working editor, and his reply on the ever popular question by cinema tightwads, "Is Cinema dead?"
Extracts from a 1980 audio interview for a French radio program (with optional English subtitles) begins with a preamble on 'filming the impossible' in "Night and Fog" and that film's tonal shift; working with Marguerite Duras on a project initially outlined as a short film project begun by Chris Marker; and working with a foreign crew on location.
Emmanuelle Riva stills possesses a warm energy, and there's an interesting comparison between a vintage head-on camera interview from 1959 (really a longer, unedited Q&A on the still-standard fluff regarding an actor's character and real-life persona), and a new 2003 video interview, divided into 7chapters. Weighing her words before a perfectly enunciated reply, Riva offers reflections on working with Resnais; the shoot's long days on location; co-star Okada; and some refreshing comments on her craft. While not a Method actress, Riva gives us one of the most sobering, realistic accounts of how an actor is affected when involved with a solid character, whether for the theatre, or film. She fully admits the difficulties in separating a fictional creation from personal reality, and her candor makes for a fascinating contrast between the contemporary sound-bytes for present-day interviews, and the less mature comments found in her vintage segment.
Author and screenwriter Marguerite Duras is also given a special section, where actress Laylage Courie reads original character and scene notes in English, enhanced by ten selected scenes from the film. Highly poetic, Duras' words distil a scene's essence into a threadbare series of words that no doubt assisted the director, actor and cinematographers in evoking the film's dreamy atmospheres.
Adding significant physical weight to the DVD package is the striking 32-page booklet, which includes a lengthy essay by Kent Jones (better known as the Editor-at-Large for "Film Comment" magazine), and long, fascinating transcript from a 1959 roundtable discussion among "Cahiers du Cinema" members Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Jean Domarchi, Pierre Kast, and Jacques Rivette. The personalities and varying levels of theorizing from each "Cahiers" member are obvious, and offer an amusing sample of vintage film theory, with accessible and more analytical contributors who subsequently developed more distinctive branches and film careers of their own.
Russell Lack's essay on composer Giovanni Fusco - whose music is also isolated in a music and effects track - adds some good background info on Michelangelo Antonioni's favorite composer at the time, and the Duras character portraits function as mini-tribute and booklet postscript to a film that resonates in the minds of its avid admirers.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan