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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: Adventures In Aspect Ratios with Alain Resnais’ “Muriel” (1963)

Certain shots linger in the mind for reasons that are unquantifiable, unexplainable.  For some reason this image of a casino at dusk, repeated, with slight variations, at a number of points in Alain Resnais' magnificent 1963 film Muriel, always stuck with me. The film takes place Boulogne, a city in the north of France, removed from Paris, removed from Marienbad, removed, but not terribly far removed, from Deauville, where the casino heist in Melville's Bob Le Flambeur does/does not take place. Doesn't matter. Its removal from "greater" France is part of the film's point, but nothing necessarily to do with why this image might be haunting. In any case, this Report does not intend to elucidate the magnificence of Muriel, ou Le temps d'un retour, as such, but to argue that the new edition of the film, in a Region 2 DVD from Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, is and is likely to remain the definitive home video release of this film for some time.
The above screen capture is from the new disc from Eureka!/MOC. Below is a screen grab of the same shot from the Region 1 North American release, from the Koch/Lorber label.
Obviously the framing is at least a bit different. In the MOC frame grab the composition is more, let's say, proper; the lamp in the left foreground of the shot does not have its head cut off, for instance. I would also ask you to look at the white neon border at the framing the right side of the casino. That is where our problems originate.
I will be diplomatic here and say that the U.S. label Koch Lorber has ever been hit-and-miss with its domestic renderings of oveseas films. One of the nicer things about its 2007 DVD of Muriel is that it did not display the combing artifacts that plague discs which are brought to U.S. release without a proper PAL-to-NTSC conversion. Its colors held from shot to shot, and did not diffuse in freeze-frame to horizontal lines in shots depicting movement. So there was that. But there was something else as well. Something amiss. Something that is better demonstrated in the screen grabs below than of those of the shot I have long found so haunting.
Above is a screen capture from the Koch/Lorber disc. Here, the character Bernard (Jean Baptiste Thiérrée) is filming a domestic argument. Look carefully at the lenses of his camera. They're a little off, aren't they? Now let's look at a screen cap from the new MOC disc.
That's more like it. The lenses in the camera are suitably circular, not suggesting ovals as they do in the Koch/Lorber version. Watching the MOC telecine transfer, which was supervised by Resnais himself, makes it impossible to accept the Koch/Lorber version. What's the deal with this peculiar squeezing? That is, the peculiar squeezing of the Koch/Lorber version? It is not likely the fault of Koch/Lorber itself, but of an initial telecine transfer, and a calamity that found a video technician trying to adapt an incorrect image to what he/she recogniized as the proper aspect ratio. Of all the things that can go wrong, no?
The cinephile Columbos at MOC are painstaking maestros of getting the image right, and the proper 1.78:1 image of this disc—the Koch/Lorber version can best be described as 1.66:1 aspring to 1.78—is as good as we will have for some time, and that is plenty. In addition, the package contains yet another splendid booklet, with thoughtful essays from B. Kite and Anna Thorngate, a "Muriel scrapbook" that, among other things, shows us where this film reproduces the Hitchcock gag from Marienbad, and a short shout-out from the late, great Henri Langlois. Essential cinema in an essential package, in other words.
Note: "Marienbad"’s from 1961, not 1962.
Tangent, but still relevant, I think: What do you make of stuff like The New World at 2.40:1? Or that TWBB disc?
What are you talking about, Ryland?

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