BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Jun 10th, 2003 •

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Paramount Home Entertainment 1966.
172 mins. Not rated. 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Enhanced for 16X9 TV monitors.

Considering the current climate in the US towards France, people may be buying this disc in the hopes of seeing the title’s promise fulfilled. If so they’re out of luck, as they will also be if they purchase PARIS IS BURNING, a more decisive title, but an indie documentary about transvestites.

When this film opened in ’66, we were seeing the wrap-down of the ‘Epic’ genre’s heyday. The few stragglers included KHARTOUM, a sedate, intelligent depiction of the Mahdi’s face-off with General Gordon (Charlton Heston) in the Sudan, and THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, George Stevens’ reverent, also intelligent, but often horrifyingly miscast trudger about Jesus (also featuring Heston, this time as a ranting John the Baptist).

Charlton Heston once explained to me that a defining characteristic of an epic is the presence of thousands of extras. On that account, IPB? is an anti-epic, since the streets of Paris were eerily empty for the period depicted, and the film captures (happily, budgetarily, I imagine) this creepy desolation. Add the light touch of director Rene Clement and you have an evanescent kind of spectacle, disorientingly quiet, whose only loud throughline is Maurice Jarre’s discordant, inappropriate score.

Gert Frobe (GOLDFINGER, THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES), whose performance gets the film going, is never convincing. He seems lost, his actions not deeply felt. Whereas Orson Welles, the film’s other big (literally) name, more than a cameo but less than a supporting role, gives a nuanced and involving performance, even if all he was feeling was the need to hit Tour D’Argent for dinner. For fans of the man of many noses, his laudable job here may be enough to add IPB? to your collection.

I saw this disc twice within a week. First it was with FIR’s august screening committee, who were blown away by the pristine condition of the mastering materials (something which could easily mean the negative didn’t get much use back in ’66). But once the film got underway, the powerful use of documentary footage failed to strike the right balance with the recreated scenes, particularly the indoor ones, which tend to look like overlit TV sets. Worst of all, though, was Jarre’s score. Cutting him all the slack we could muster, we allowed that perhaps his sense of patriotism got the better of him. I wondered to myself if the producers, fearful of the film’s sedate tone, forced him to juice up the score, kind of like what Elmer Bernstein had to do when scoring John Wayne’s comeback film after lung cancer surgery, THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER. The actor, still in pain, couldn’t ride his horse faster than a walk, so Bernstein pumped up the pace of the music to make the audience feel that Wayne was at least cantoring. Whatever the cause, Jarre’s score is the worst I’ve ever heard from the man. It becomes a dirge for this film rather than an anthem. If the film’s financial performance had been the kind that warranted money being poured into the DVD, I would have suggested Jarre take another pass at the score to see if he could get it right.

Less than a week later I saw the disc again with my wife, a rabid history buff, who loved every frame of the film, despite acknowledging early on that the score was indeed dreadful. For her the three hour period recreation captured the facts as closely as a narrative could. She felt sympathy for Frobe’s plight, not wanting to burn Paris, but ordered by Hitler himself to do so. She warmed to the French half of the cast – Belmondo, Cassel, Caron, Delon, Boyer, etc – and felt that their presence lent resonance to the story. And as is so often the case when watching films either in theaters or in your home, who you’re with, as well as the crowd itself, can make a difference. I had to admit it looked better to me the second time.

Or rather the third time, for I had originally seen the film back in ’66 in a theater, and found it flat and insubstantial. I was bred on epics. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS was the film that made me aware of what went into filmmaking besides sitting in a seat in the dark and having your breath taken away. It made me start leaning toward my chosen profession. I dragged my family to BEN-HUR and SPARTACUS. I dragged dates to EL CID and THE ALAMO. I came back from college to the Broadway runs of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. There was nothing I dug more than these reserved seat extravaganzas, with their souvenir books, crushed ice drinks (new at the time), three hour running lengths, intermissions, intro and exit music. This was heaven for me. And IPB? was not a celestial experience.

Which makes it your call. The script is attributed to Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola. The Panavision frame is truly magnificent (it’s demo disc quality on that level), something even the negatively-bent committee could not deny. The documentary footage, while jarring with the staged shots, is more powerful today than it might have been even in ’66. And that special magic that is home theater, particularly if you have a widescreen TV, may have transformed this picture up a notch to something more worth your time.

Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Jean-Pierre Cassel, George Chakiris, Alain Delon, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Gert Frobe, Yves Montand, Anthony Perkins, Simone Signoret, Robert Stack, Orson Welles

Director Rene Clement.
Screenplay by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola.
Music composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre.
Filmed in Panavision.

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