This collection is really terrific -- definitely one to buy, rather than rent. (For one thing, the total run time is something like 13 hours.)
The first full-length film in the set (it also includes a fun short about the Tour de France) is a subtle, quietly thought-provoking take on the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. Wait -- that sounded pretentious. It's a movie about factory work. And it's brilliant. It's tedious in spots, to be sure, but that tedium is an essential part of the way the film works. Many of the scenes are initially intriguing, then boring, and finally horrifying; the workers appear to have become clockwork components of the assembly line's machinery. I physically ached when this film was over.
The second one, "Place de la Republique," was my least favorite, perhaps because experiments like Malle's (hanging out for ten days at a busy intersection interviewing people at random) have been repeated so many times since he made this movie . . . but even this one had many surprising moments and insights, and it's fun to get such a detailed look at the Paris of the early seventies.
"Phantom India" is the masterpiece of the set. A lot of people expected this to be released separately, in the standard overstuffed and overpriced Criterion package, but the people at Criterion have thrown us poor folk a bone and included it in the "bargain" Eclipse set. Oh, boy -- this movie is just awesome: a hypnotic, totally engrossing portrait of the most deliciously weird -- and relentlessly "contradictory" -- country on Earth. There are so many highlights here. Two early scenes -- at a dance school, and at a temple festival -- were so breathtaking that I actually had to rewind an hour and watch them again before moving on.
One caveat: the sound quality is terrible for the first half-hour or so. (Apparently, the original elements were so damaged that the restorers couldn't perfect some of the audio.) If the buzz and hiss of the first few scenes is driving you crazy: trust me, it gets much better.
If "Phantom India" was full of surprises, its sister film, "Calcutta," was not; it's more or less what I imagined "Phantom India" would be like: a beautiful, thoughtful, very serious film about poverty and human misery, man's inhumanity to man, etc. It's really good -- but in 2007, these kinds of images of suffering have become so ubiquitous that they've lost some of their power to shock (which is obviously a sad statement). My favorite parts of "Calcutta," then, were the other moments: the singing and dancing, the wrestling in the park, the religious festivals.
Malle's last two docs -- "God's Country" and the unfortunately titled ". . . and the Pursuit of Happiness" -- were shot in Malle's adopted home, the U.S.; both are quite warm and humane, resisting caricature. In fact, there were times when I felt Malle was going too easy on the folksy Minnesotans of "God's Country" -- but every time I had this thought, Malle came through with a challenging interview question, exposing the homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism of this isolated farm community. He never does this in a shrill, reductive, predictable, or demeaning way, however; in the end, it's not just his affection, but also his sincere respect for his subjects that comes across.
Malle is one of the most underrated filmmakers of all time, I think. He's praised -- and was praised throughout his career -- but not enough, especially when you consider how his critical reputation compares to that of directors like Resnais, Truffaut and Godard.
Malle's reputation may actually be a victim of the director's own versatility. Instead of carving out his own niche, repeating the same exercise again and again and again, he tried jarringly new projects throughout his career, usually pulling them off with dazzling success. You'd never know, unless you were told, that "Elevator to the Gallows," "Zazie on the Metro," "Lacombe, Lucien," "Atlantic City," "My Dinner with Andre," "Goodbye, Children," "Damage" and "Vanya on 42nd Street" (to name just eight of his best movies -- there are many more) were the work of the same filmmaker. And all of the movies I just named are so wonderful, so assured; you never sense that Malle is stretching.
This set -- along with the DVD release (soon, I hope) of his Palme D'Or- and Oscar-winning collaboration with Jacques Cousteau, "The Silent World" -- may make it impossible, finally, for anyone to get away with denying Malle's greatness. What a body of work this guy left behind.