Imagine Game Of Thrones simultaneously filtered through Ingmar Bergman and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Viewers whose brains don’t explode will begin to have a feel for František Vláčil’s 1967 film, Marketa Lazarová, a sprawling, purposefully disorienting historical epic newly committed to Criterion Blu-ray. In his lengthy booklet essay, scholar Tom Gunning says it took him four viewings to begin to get the movie’s plot straight, and he admits that certain characters’ names and interrelations remain obscure even to him. So where does that leave viewers who, considering Vláčil’s films have been nigh impossible to see in the U.S., are almost certain to be getting their first exposure to the film?
They should start by setting aside the desire to get everything straight. Vláčil opens the film with a portentous Roman-numeral heading, then follows it with the first of several chapter headings that generally serve to elucidate the plot that follows. First, though, the movie plainly asserts, “This tale was cobbled together almost at random and hardly merits praise.” At first, the combination of realistic Medieval settings and ostentatiously modern cinematography—handheld camera, prominent zooms, etc.—calls to mind the playful tone of Pasolini’s The Gospel According To St. Matthew, but that hint of self-deprecation is itself a red herring. Running 165 minutes and featuring a score by Zdeněk Liška that’s rich in ominous choral chants, Marketa Lazarová is hardly a modest undertaking. But Vláčil’s style isn’t ponderous so much as it’s expansive, constantly shifting from one mode to another.
About that elusive plot: It boils down, after some substantial reducing, to a feud between a traveling party of German nobles and a Czech bandit clan, including the feral Mikolaš and his one-armed brother, Adam. Caught between them, seeking to profit from but willing to forge a firm alliance with neither, is the merchant Lazar and his daughter, Marketa, who, despite her titular prominence, takes a long time to come to the center of the story. After Lazar beats Mikolaš, the bandits abduct Marketa and Mikolaš rapes her, which doesn’t prevent the much-abused girl from falling in love with him all the same. This part of the plot is intensely problematic to contemporary eyes, even more so than in 1967, but then Marketa isn’t exactly a liberated woman. Though actress Magda Vášárovyá (later a presidential candidate) is an angelic beauty, her eyes are dull and unfocused, showing little more intelligence than an animal’s, which is of a piece with the movie’s utterly pessimistic view of human nature.
In stark contrast to the savagery on display, Marketa Lazarová’s imagery is often stunning, beautifully captured by Criterion’s transfer (which surpasses Second Run’s import DVD, available in a box set that includes a feature-length documentary on Vláčil). There’s precious little beauty in the characters’ actions, especially when it comes to the film’s brutal and generally non-stylized violence—not including the moment where the camera appears to be affixed to an arrow that finds a home in a man’s eye socket—but its shots have a sun-blasted elegance to them. When Marketa falls to her knees in front of her father, the camera lifts up before her, so that for a moment it’s not clear if she or the world around her has changed position. Either way, watching the movie is a mind-altering experience, one worth repeating until it’s finally understood.
Also new this week:
Shout! Factory gives a pair of cult classics the gold-star Blu-ray treatment: Joe Dante’s The Howling and Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce. Although Dante works best with tongue firmly in cheek, The Howling’s lycanthropic tale is played relative straight; not so with Lifeforce, which pairs the Texas Chainsaw Massacre auteur with a novel called The Space Vampires—it’s at least memorably nuts, and often more than that. Both come fully loaded with commentaries, video interviews, and more, though Lifeforce’s longer European cut is included only on a separate DVD.
Criterion, which has made significant headway on upgrading Charlie Chaplin’s oeuvre to high-def, brings Harold Lloyd into the fold with a Blu-ray of Safety Last!, home to the iconic image of Lloyd dangling helplessly from a clock tower’s hands. Lloyd is invariably, and properly, ranked third in the pantheon of American silent film comics behind Chaplin and Buster Keaton—the feature-length documentary included in Criterion’s package is called The Third Genius—but that fits the can-do striving of what he called “the glasses character,” for whom scaling the outside of a building (as Lloyd did without the benefit of safety equipment) is just one more obstacle to be defeated. As a feat, it inspires as much awe as laughter, an appropriate reaction to many of Lloyd’s meticulously realized setpieces. Also Criterion-ized this week: Things To Come, in which director William Cameron Menzies teamed with H.G. Wells to create a fictive timeline of a tumultuous future.
Highlighting recent releases is Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker (Fox), the sanguinary stylist’s first English-language film. The script, by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller, is a ludicrous Gothic about a homicidal impulse passed on through blood, but Park’s treatment is gloriously baroque, building to a masterful sequence in which flowering teen Mia Wasikowska and her leering uncle, Matthew Goode, channel their incestuous desire into a smoldering piano duet (a Philip Glass original). 21 & Over (Fox) was written off as an undergraduate Hangover when it opened in theaters, but Miles Teller’s nuanced, decidedly un-bro-ish performance pulls the film away from its titties-and-beer tableau, which it never seems interested in staging. After that, the quality in new offerings drops precipitously, starting with Jack The Giant Slayer (New Line), plummeting through The Last Exorcism Part II (Sony), and scraping bottom with Movie 43 (Fox).