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Couch Trip

A wonderfully creepy anti-Nazi inferno; Godard's visual treatise on morality and prostitution

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Published 7/22/2009

The Cremator
Dark Sky  

When, exactly, was the last time you saw a film and thought, "I've never seen anything like that before." Sure, some sense of uniqueness is difficult to find in cinema anymore, and the average moviegoer doesn't give a damn about challenging narratives and unabashed artistic flair, like those found in French New Wave and early films by Roeg or Polanski or Russell. And where are all the directors who create true cinematic visions? 

Fortunately, the 1968 Czech art-house gem The Cremator is now on DVD to show (remind?) us of what we've been missing.

Karl Kopfrking (ghoulishly played by Rudolf Hrusinsky) is a cremator in late '30s Prague. He likes his job, lives a comfortable life with a loving family. He also has some strange OCD quirks, such as his obsessions with cleanliness and Tibet, and how he combs his hair with the comb he uses on the deceased at the crematorium. 

The impending Nazi invasion heightens Karl's weirdness; he once viewed his job as a soul-freeing endeavor, now he thinks he's a divinely appointed purifier. He finds anti-Semitism useful for climbing the corporate ladder and a novel excuse to bump off his own Jewish wife and kids. 

Director Juraj Herz uses every cinematic trick in the book — fisheye lens, quick edits, skewed camera angles and extreme close-ups — to paint a surreal and atypical landscape of one man's descent into spiritual lunacy. How you interpret The Cremator is part of the fun. Is it a black comedy about Nazism? Maybe it's horror about those obsessed with their own mortality and death? Or is it a shrewd observation about middle-class values? Either way, you likely haven't seen anything like it before. — Paul Knoll


2 or 3 Things I Know About Her 
Criterion 

In the densest movies of Jean-Luc Godard, you know you're being lectured, but it's often not clear what you're being lectured about. The director's '60s socialist cocktails, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her included, fall into this category, made ever more convoluted by his period propensity for impatient spontaneity and documentary digressions. But there's a reason 2 or 3 Things has been a long-awaited DVD title — unlike, for instance, the pretentious Made in USA (which is also out this month from Criterion) and Le Gai Savoir. It's because it's one of Godard's most infectiously imaginative and endlessly watchable films, boundless in its ideas and creativity.

The film stars Marina Vlady and Anny Duperey as young French socialites dabbling in prostitution to cover the expenses of middle-class life, but there's no real story to speak of, because Godard is too busy questioning the foundations of storytelling. A journey through a car wash and even a trip to buy a sweater are fodder for deconstructionism, with Godard breaking down the language of cinema into a cinema of language. "Language is the house man lives in," is one of the film's numerous pithy quotations, spoken by a character before she slyly acknowledges the camera.

Politics, Vietnam and economics are obligatorily addressed, with Godard using associative montages to compare his young housewives' trick-turning with the bulldozing progress of Parisian street construction. Its closing shot suggests the whole film is a symbolic indictment of consumerism, and there are several witty jabs at consumer products throughout: "If by chance you can't afford LSD, then buy a color TV," Godard himself deadpans in his whispered narration, the irony being that the bold colors in Godard's Cinemascope are usually more garish than anything on television.

But the film's most beautiful, and justifiably most discussed, sequence is one divorced from any social or political agitprop. In an exciting foray into experimental abstraction, Godard trains his lens on an extreme close-up of a hot cup of coffee, which in a series of shots resembles a black hole, a sonogram, sperm swimming toward an egg, bubbling acid, and a Petri dish under a microscope. It's pure cinema magic, popularly reimagined a decade later by Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver.

The bonus features do neat justice to an indelible film. A vintage French TV interview with Vlady reveals how tiring it can be to receive direction from Godard. (Aside from the work of Anna Karina, who ever talks about the acting in Godard movies?) In another archival TV piece, Godard engages in an enthralling debate about morality and prostitution with a surprisingly honest and conceding government official.

The disc also includes audio commentary by Adrian Martin, a thoughtful essay by Amy Taubin and a new video reflection from Godard's old confidant, playwright Antoine Bourseiller. But the best supplement is titled 2 or 3 Things: A Concordance, a 10-minute cataloguing of the myriad references and quotations hidden within the film, which helps a great deal in understanding Godard's influences, thought process and ideology at the time. —John Thomason

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