Have you got a favorite film that’s never been released on DVD? I have — in fact it never came out on laserdisc and is virtually impossible to get on VHS. I acquired a tape copy of Montparnasse 19 , also known as Modigliani Montparnasse 19 and The Lovers of Montparnasse while working at a certain video distributing company who didn't pick up the release rights. Neither did anyone else, except a small unit that no longer exists. Montparnasse 19 goes unrecognized in the history of cinema, even though its creator, Jacques Becker, is a renowned French filmmaker of such classics as Le Trou (The Hole) and Casque d’Or (Golden Marie). To my mind, though, it’s a masterpiece far superior to these titles, a film as perfect in its own world and form as Citizen Kane or Casablanca.
Anyway, I had this VHS copy that I was wearing down with a decade of frequent repeated viewings ( I mean thirty or forty), despite the hiss and popping on the soundtrack and the scratchy, jittery picture. Just as a matter of preservation — at least of what was left of my rare copy — I came upon the idea of transferring it to DVD where it would be safe from further decline. This was easily accomplished as we had a VHS to DVD recorder on the premises. Little did I know that the transfer would also have the bonus effects of stabilizing the picture, cleaning up a lot of the damage in images, and removing all the distracting noise from the sound including a grating sibilance. Shockingly, the process had also actually restored the image, bringing out elements in the image and dialogue that were previously indecipherable. Happy as a fish, I went home and played the disc another 30 or 40 times. This film has such atmosphere, such communicative cinematography, and so much symbolism and playing out of themes in its every detail that repeated viewings only make the experience richer. Thank the gods for video, without which I would never had had the opportunity to truly appreciate this little-known classic.
And then the picture started to freeze and break up in a froth of pixels. It would happen in the second half, more towards the last third in which the painter (la peinture) Modigliani is moving towards his final demise, unable to obtain recognition, yet wary of the possibility of fame and fortune when ever they come near. The ending is tough, if you really feel for the character as I have come to over the years, so whenever the picture started to break up and jam I would eventually call it a night, or go back to the beginning and happier times.
Don’t get me wrong, much as I had built a relationship with this tape, knowing all it’s faults, including the occasionally amusing mistranslation or typo in the subtitles, I yearned for a nice, pristine DVD copy or even a new VHS to transfer to DVD. I searched high and low, near and far, but seldom picked up its unmistakable scent, and then to inevitably have the trail peter out at that same small, now-defunct distributors who once owned the American rights. I nudged the people at Criterion as well as at other companies that put out foreign films to pick it up, but without garnering any interest, even though there were two other Becker films in the venerable Criterion Collection. Even in France, the film had never made DVD and the VHS was not available. Sacre bleu!
I recently bought a Blu-ray Disc player (PlayStation 3 — a wonderfully ergonomically designed machine with none of the quirks or delays of other high-def players, but with all the marvels of HD picture and TrueHD sound) and a Toshiba A30 HD DVD player I had picked up for $130 after The Warner Announcement, figuring that the discs I had already collected would cost many times that amount to purchase in Blu-ray, and anyway I could use it to upconvert DVDs on without wearing out my PlayStation. So of course I figured it was time to give Modigliani another spin. First I took a look at one scene — that of Modi having an early morning drink (or three) at the bar of Rosalie, an ex-lover and Beujolais provider who always had a weakness for artists but also maintained strict rules about conduct — a glass in the morning was fine, but three and on an empty stomach? Non! I began to tweak the contrast — pumping it up to compensate for the general overexposed greyness of images, and took the brightness down to –30. I adore rich blacks — where they’re intended — and this didn’t alter the bright whites or fine range of greys. There are intentionally murky scenes, such the one where Modi’s landlady lights the gas lamps, the better to see her tenant trying to creep in unable to pay the rent, and the murkiness remains intact, too. It has a smudgy, charcoaley look that I love, as does a minimalist, stripped-down shot of Modi sketching in his bare garret. He’s drawing a sleeping Jeanne Herbutin — the love of his life who would later jumped to her death taking her unborn child with her following the loss of her man to consumption, though not in this film — and the initial shot has the stripped-down quality and composition of a drawing. Admirable. Having given the picture a tiny tad more sharpness, I saved the settings to the third AV Memory button on my Mitsubishi HC4900 LCD projector. By then I was tired and went to bed. Thank the gods the film wasn’t in color or I’d be up hours more making slight adjustments to maximize the picture quality of this deserving piece of film history and example of human greatness.
It was several days before I switched back to those settings, because I wanted to be in just the right mood for Montparnasse 19’s upconverted video premiere, and I didn’t realize what I was in store for. As the film rolled, I was astounded at the quality of the picture. The images had perfect contrast, and a whole new depth to them allowing the background characters to fill out the atmosphere in the way that the colorful Rick’s Café crowds do in Casablanca. Figures were rounded and had perfect skin tones (for a black-and-white film), and throughout the film images had a really beautiful range of greys and much more detail — and this film is all about the details. Compared to the original VHS copy, the film looked damned near high def. A miracle has been achieved. And when it came to the last third of the movie, the picture sailed on through without a pixel or stutter in sight. I was able, once again, to watch the film from beginning to end without interruption. Ode to joy!
Around this time, after years of weekly world wide web searches, I finally managed to track down a DVD release of Montparnasse 19 — in French with Japanese subtitles. A few weeks ago I would have ordered it anyway (as best I could) from Japanese Amazon or got a copy from FNAC in France,who have imported the Japanese copy, but now that I’ve got my HD players, why would I want to watch it with burnt-in hyroglyphics at the bottom (the side?) of the picture when I can get it subtitled in broken English?
If you’ve had a similar frustration at the lack of DVD release of a favorite film or if you’ve achieved a DIY video restoration/“fix it in the screening” success, I’d like to hear about it. And if there happens to be any company out there who’s considering releasing Montparnasse 19 on video, I will be available to do an analytical commentary — at the drop of a chapeau. — Josef Krebs
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