Editor’s Notes: Marguerite & Julien, Belladonna of Sadness, Carnival of Souls, Miracles From Heaven will be released on their respective formats July 12th.
Marguerite & Julien
Marguerite & Julien (IFC Films) uses the theme of forbidden love between siblings and is based on a true story that took place in 17th-century France. Director Valerie Donzelli moves the time period to an unspecific blend of the 19th and 20th centuries, judging by the fashions. When Marguerite (Anais Demoustier) and Julien de Ravalet (Jeremie Elkaim) are reunited as adults, their childhood affection blossoms into carnal passion and the lovers escape into the woods to live as a couple, far from the moral judgments of society. Though the premise lends itself to thoughtful drama and sympathetic performances, the movie can’t shake a consistently icky feel.
It’s tough to elicit sympathy for incest, however charming or attractive the leads may be. The script portrays the lead characters as naive, probably so we make allowances for unwise youth, but it never rings true. Though good-looking, Demoustier and Ekaim are wooden, partially due to bland dialogue and a male lead who looks far older than the character he is portraying. This succeeds in alienating the viewer, who is already put off by the notion of sex between siblings.
Apart from script problems, the movie is a mishmash of cinematic showiness that takes the viewer out of the action and draws awareness to the filmmaking process. Visual compositions are sloppy, anachronistic rock ’n’ roll music blares from the soundtrack, editing choices are awkward, production design is uninspired, and overall the film looks like it was made quickly on the cheap. There is also an unrelieved aura of oppressive solemnity in a movie that could definitely stand a bit of levity. The film was originally an early 1970s project planned for Francois Truffaut, who went on to direct Day For Night instead.
The only special feature on the unrated widescreen DVD is a theatrical trailer. The film is in French. English and Spanish subtitles are available options.
Belladonna of Sadness
Belladonna of Sadness (Cinelicious Pics) is a 1973 Japanese film that attempted to introduce more adult content into animation. Directed and co-written by Eiichi Yamamoto, the film focuses on Jeanne, a beautiful peasant woman who is raped and beaten on her wedding night by the evil Milord and his attendants. She accepts a proposition from a demon to surrender herself to sensuality, which up to that point has been dormant. As her erotic impulse grows, so, too, does the demon, eventually assuming a gigantic phallic shape.
Apart from its R-rated subject matter, the film is stylistically striking, with a series of watercolor still paintings transforming into other images, to mesmerizing effect. The story is its secondary appeal, since deals-with-the-Devil tales have been popular subject matter for movies going back to silent days. It’s the images—which still rank among the most sexually graphic in film—that will have you opening your eyes in amazement. Some sequences are reminiscent of the pop-art style of Yellow Submarine, made five years earlier, with late 60’s fashions, bright colors, and inventive creatures. But other scenes are disturbing and intended primarily to shock.
The film was a financial disaster when initially released, bankrupting the pioneering Japanese animation studio Mushi. The Blu-ray release contains a new restoration of the original camera negative. Additional material censored from the negative was recovered using a 35-mm print from the Belgian film archives. The colors — particularly red — are vibrant and enhance the overall weirdness and unsettling nature of the film. Not for everyone, Belladonna of Sadness is animation that challenges viewers with erotic images that would have been impossible to show in live action pictures of the period.
Bonus extras include over 8 minutes of footage cut from the original 35-mm camera negative; new video interviews with director Eiichi Yamamoto, art director Kuni Fukai, and composer Masahiko Satoh; trailers; and a 16-page booklet with a critical essay.
Carnival of Souls
Carnival of Souls (The Criterion Collection), made in 1962 by Herk Harvey, this low-budget black-and-white movie has garnered a cult following over the years from late-night TV broadcasts and its availability — usually in sub-par prints — on home video. The Criterion Collection release has given the film a technological dusting off, and it never looked better.
Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is driving to a job as church organist when her car hurtles off a rural bridge into the muddy river below. Searchers believe there are no survivors when Mary emerges from the river, soaking wet and dazed. She has no memory of what happened and just wants to go on her way. But periodically and with increasing frequency, she is haunted by ghostly visions and mysteriously drawn to an abandoned carnival pavilion.
Director Harvey builds tension and makes mundane places look creepy and foreboding. The carnival sequences, in particular, suggest menace because of the setting’s disrepair and remoteness. It’s unsettling to see a place that was once the hub of fun and happiness loom nightmarishly, with shadows seeming to close in claustrophobically. Hilligoss pretty much carries the film as her Mary tries to understand why she feels increasingly detached. As we see events unfold through her eyes, we are just as disoriented, just as rudderless, and eager to discover why Mary is burdened with unexplained fear and paranoia.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray release include selected-scene audio commentary by director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford; new video essay by film critic David Cairns; The Movie That Wouldn’t Die, a documentary on the 1989 reunion of the film’s cast and crew; “The Carnival Tour,” a 2000 update on the film’s locations; deleted scenes; outtakes; and a history of the Saltair Resort in Salt Lake City, where key scenes in the film were shot.
Miracles From Heaven
Miracles From Heaven (Sony Home Entertainment) stars Jennifer Garner as Texas mother Christy Beam, a dedicated church-goer who gradually loses her faith when her 10-year-old daughter, Anna (Kylie Rogers), suddenly develops an incurable digestive disease. Despite the support of her family and the best efforts of the country’s leading specialist, Anna’s condition worsens. When all seems lost, a freak accident leads to an incredible change.
The film is methodical in showing how this illness turns the Beam family’s world upside down. Anna’s treatment takes precedence over everything else as the young girl’s prognosis looks ever bleaker. Ms. Garner turns in a thoughtful, often heartrending performance as a mother desperate because she feels powerless to help her child. We see her aggressively follow every possible lead to make her child well.
Based on the memoir by Christy Beam, the film does pose the interesting question: How could Anna be cured from a fall from a tree? The doctors are perplexed and can’t offer any scientific explanation, which leads to the thrust of the film, evident right in the title. If Anna’s return to health cannot be explained scientifically, it’s suggested we look to faith or, specifically, God. Heavy-handed and obvious, this film is nicely-dressed up religious propaganda.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray release include deleted scenes; making-of featurette; profile of the real-life Beam family and Anna’s doctor; music video; and “Accounts From Annabel,” in which Christy and Anna reflect on their faith and bonding over the years since the incident. A digital copy is enclosed.