The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts October 14, 2005

Short Cuts
DVDs from the dark side

This week I’ll examine the DVD releases of the latest films from two of the world’s greatest avant-garde directors: the Freud-loving, madman/amputee-obsessed, silent-film-worshipping Canadian Guy Maddin and the sometimes pornographic, uncompromising pseudo-postmodern feminist/filmic terrorist Catherine Breillat.

The films, of course, are Maddin’s peephole-installation piece Cowards Bend the Knee (2004) and Breillat’s generally repulsive yet certainly enlightening Anatomy of Hell (2004).

Cowards Bend the Knee:

The Film:

This 63-minute autobiographical silent film tour de force from bizarro director Maddin, is, in my opinion, the best film of 2004, and perhaps the most dynamic and visceral piece of filmmaking to come along in years. Even Maddin’s other classics, such as The Saddest Music in the World (2003) and Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2000) almost pale in comparison.

The film uses silent techniques, novel editing styles and ridiculous intertitles in such a way that the viewer nearly wants to join up with Krakhauer and renounce film sound forever. An amalgamation of everything from events in Maddin’s life to film noir to German Expressionism, Cowards is a brilliant artistic achievement and the greatest example of “pure cinema” since Joe May’s Asphalt (1929).


Zeitgeist Video presents the film in its original full frame aspect ratio and with a mono music and effects track. Clarity of picture and sound quality are not things that Maddin strives for, as his decaying and dilapidated films are meant to be seen as such.

The Extras:

We have a feature-length commentary track by Maddin, short fragments of an unfinished Maddin film, a behind-the-scenes look at Maddin’s next film (The Brand Upon the Brain!) and some brief printed essays by Maddin. In terms of availability, you’ll probably have to buy this movie in order to see it ($17-22 depending on the e-trailer).

The Art Library has Maddin’s companion book to the original Cowards peephole exhibition and the library has merely one lonely Maddin DVD (despite having recently purchased two copies of You Got Served, Save the Last Dance and XXX; four copies of Moulin Rouge and one copy each of Bring It On and the new King Arthur travesty).

Anatomy of Hell:

The Film:

Trash cinema king (no, not Cinema Studies Professor Mark Gallagher) John Waters has said of Breillat’s Anatomy, “That’s one effed-up film.” Yet amidst a sea of recent art films which include graphic depictions of sexuality, from Despentes’ Baise-moi to Noë’s Irréversible to Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, Breillat stands out because she alone chooses to simultaneously show the unshowable and rationally analyze what she has presented, transforming her “scandalous” images into indispensable ones.

Breillat’s examinations of sexuality at first seem radically shocking or hilariously offensive yet eventually deconstruct our base repulsions, misplaced priorities and tendencies to blow things out of proportion in ways that pendulate between politically incorrect and brilliantly extreme. No matter what your leanings are concerning sex and violence in film, this is a must-see that is truly like no other outside of Breillat’s canon.


The notoriously terrible Tartan Video actually puts together a top-notch presentation of this beautiful film in an anamorphic widescreen transfer with a Dolby 5.1 Surround track so that even the back rows can hear every squelch and secretion in flawless DTS.


Besides the obligatory trailers, the only extra is an extraordinarily enlightening 65-minute interview with Breillat herself, which is at least as valuable as a commentary track. I encourage you to beg, cheat and steal to get the $13-16 required to buy this movie, though Breillat’s Romance (1999) (available at A/V!) and Fat Girl (2001) (available from OhioLink — but wait, not requestable) are equally brilliant works in the same artistic vein.

A milestone revisited

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Milestone Films, the home-video distribution company responsible for releasing international, silent and avant-garde films, including I Am Cuba and The Sorrow and the Pity.

Recently, Milestone scored something of a hit when it took on the distribution of Piccadilly, a 1929 silent picture by E. A. Dupont. A print of the film, newly restored by the British Film Institute, received a standing ovation when it was played at the New York Film Festival two years ago, and Piccadilly has been made the centerpiece of a national tour of Milestone films to commemorate its anniversary. This same BFI print was used by Milestone to produce a gorgeous DVD release earlier this year.

Piccadilly is a backstage drama set in a fashionable nightclub in London’s Piccadilly Circus. The owner of the Piccadilly Club, Wilmot, fires Victor, his star dancer, because he claims that Victor’s dancing with Mabel, the lead female dancer, is inappropriate. This is a disguise for his jealousy, as Wilmot and Mabel are lovers.

However, the club does poorly without Victor, and Wilmot must find a new star attraction. In the kitchen he sees the Chinese dishwasher Shosho dancing on a table, and although he initially dismisses the girl, he later decides to give her a chance as his feature act.

Shosho turns out to be a sensation, replacing the washed-up Mabel as both the club’s main feature and as Wilmot’s object of desire. All this creates more resentment and jealousy with fatal consequences.

Although the film is beginning to gain more attention, Piccadilly has never been highly regarded. Partially, this is because director. Dupont did not enjoy the same success as other German ex-pat directors such as Murnau or Lang.

Following his hit Variete (1925), Dupont moved to Hollywood, but his career never took off, and he returned to Europe, choosing England to make his films. Anna May Wong, another Hollywood hopeful who had yet to make the grade, followed to try to land herself some big roles.

It is doubtless that her eventual fame came from this move and her role in Dupont’s Piccadilly. The film, released after sound pictures were being produced, made her one of the last great silent film stars. It is Wong’s performance that answers why, some 80 years after its release, Piccadilly is now being lauded.

Wong, as the exotic and seductive Chinese dishwasher who becomes an exciting nightclub dancer, is electrifying. Not only are her dance scenes hypnotically entertaining, but Wong also uses her sensuality, her lighthearted comedy and her dramatic emotion to portray an immigrant girl caught between two cultures.

The star of the film is Gilda Gray, who plays Mabel, the dancer Wong replaces. But despite Gray’s top billing, it is Wong who, like her character, steals the show from an act of the past.

Even if silent film is something that doesn’t interest you, this film is well worth investigation. Wong’s performance is among the greatest in film history. This, combined with the vibrant camera work, grandiose choreographed sequences and an entertaining plot, makes Piccadilly a spectacle that reminds us why we watch movies to begin with.

Milestone has done a terrific job with this DVD, which has a host of supplements more focused on the revival of the Piccadilly than on the film’s background. The features include various documentaries about Wong, the film’s new score and recent screenings.

There are also several historical additions, including the original British press kit and the introduction to the sound version of the film, which was released several years later.

Piccadilly has inexplicably gone under the radar when it comes to critics’ lists and various other accolades. Despite being conspicuously absent from the BFI Top 100 films list, the recent success shown at screenings of Piccadilly proves that it’s time for this forgotten masterpiece to be reevaluated.

–Oliver William Pattenden


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