Bronte Sisters, The (US - BD RA)
Jonathan watches the biographical 1979 film from André Téchiné...
In a dreary presbytery in Yorkshire, living under the watchful eyes of their aunt and father, a strict Anglican pastor, the sisters write their first works that quickly become literary sensations. Their brother, Branwell, a gifted painter, becomes entangled in a complicated May-December romance that tragically effects everyone in the family. (From the Cohen Media Group synopsis)
Aside from the work of Godard, Melville, and Truffaut, I haven't seen too much classic French cinema. The Bronte Sisters doesn't fall under the French New Wave genre that I've grown to enjoy greatly, and it is the first film I've seen from director André Téchiné. Going in, I really had no idea what to expect from the era or the director. This biographical depiction of the Bronte Sisters' lives is a visual treat. Téchiné's detailed compositions and penchant for establishing gloomy atmosphere make every shot of the film worthy of careful observation. His style is often restrained but he uses some wild stylistic techniques from time to time to punctuate a scene. He'll use one static shot to show lots of interactions between actors in one scene, then moments later he'll use a Star Wars-style wipe transition. At first it seems super tacky, but it always catches you off guard and makes you stop and think about what Téchiné is trying to convey. In that sense, it works very well. Téchiné is guilty of trying to hide symbolism in nearly every shot of the film. Sometimes its incredibly subtle, like an animal roasting over a fire in the background that is obscured and only visible in a quick cut. Other times it is right out there in the open. There's an entire awkward dinner table scene where every word spoken is just laced with innuendo. Téchiné also doesn't shy away from some obvious metaphors like sunny horizons and crossroads. What makes these well-established metaphors effective is already knowing the awful fate that the Bronte family was met with, giving these bright symbols a tragic irony in the context of the film.
While I was stylistically very impressed with Téchiné's work, the script and his depiction of the Bronte sisters didn't sell me as much. Most of my delight in watching the performances in this film was getting to see great French actresses at an early point in their careers. Isabelle Adjani, Marie-France Pisier, and Isabelle Huppert all do a wonderful job of giving the sisters distinct personalities with little thanks to the screenplay. Huppert has the most difficult job of the three. She plays the younger sister, Anne Bronte, who was the most restrained out of all the sisters. She's often tangled up in the mistakes of her family members, but is too bound by her beliefs and strict Protestant upbringing to speak up or do much about it. Huppert makes that internal conflict palpable in every scene she's in. Adjani plays Emily Bronte, who is more of the tomboy sister (at least in the movie's depiction), and she gives the character a fierce personality that is left largely unexplored. Marie-France Pisier plays Charlotte, the older and seemingly most normal of the trio. Aside from Huppert's depiction of Anne, the sisters really don't have much personality and the screenplay does little to help. Rather than getting to know the sisters and what inspired their writing, much of the screen time is given to the affair between their older brother Branwell (Pascal Greggory) and Madame Robinson (Hélène Surgère). The scenes between the two play out like a bad melodrama.
Téchiné's visually striking compositions are met with a strong 1080p transfer from the Cohen Film Collection. This is the first Cohen Blu-ray I've received for review, so I wasn't sure what to expect from the image quality. What we've got here is a film that definitely shows its age.. colors are flat, detail can often be murky, and contrast feels a bit lower than it should be. That said, this is an older and mostly forgotten film that hasn't even been available in North America until this release. It's likely that the source was not in the greatest condition. Despite the limitations, there's no doubt that what you're looking at here is a high definition transfer. Detail still far exceeds modern standard definition releases, and digital artefacts are a non-issue. Téchiné's palette isn't the most vibrant display either. Much of the film takes place in drab interiors or under overcast skies. This material was never destined to show off an HDTV's capabilities, but its a solid presentation that will not put off any fans of classic French cinema.
The Bronte Sisters shows more age in its sound design than its appearance. The aged stereo track has virtually no dynamic range. Much of the dialogue is dubbed and sits above the rest of the sound on the track, never really fitting in with the environment the characters are in. This is completely expected given the source material, and not a fault of the Blu-ray manufacturer's. This LPCM 2.0 track is faithful and does its job quite well. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand, and there are no distracting hisses or pops to be found on the track. The score from Philippe Sarde (known best for his work on Polanski's The Tenant and Tess) benefits the most from the Blu-ray treatment. Though there isn't much clarity and range to the instruments, the subtle score still sounds wonderful on this track.
Extras kick off with The Ghosts of Haworth (HD, 59:47), a long documentary that is filled with interview footage from director André Téchiné, Screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer, and others who were involved with the film's production. It's a long and informative featurette, though not a particularly exciting one. It's all taken from the same series of interviews. There is a wealth of educational material for film scholars and those interested in hearing Téchiné's first-hand account of what it was like to work on the film, since he does not have a commentary track here.
There is also an Audio Commentary track on the disc. The box doesn't say who is on the track, but it's film critic Wade Major and Bronte scholar Sue Lonoff. I really enjoyed this commentary track. Both commentators are passionate about the film and the story of the Bronte sisters. Major's comments and observations are the kind that help you build an appreciation of Téchiné's techniques. Lonoff serves more as an educator and explains what in the film was historically accurate and what elements Téchiné was more liberal with. The two of them together have plenty of knowledge to share and I can confidently say that they heightened my appreciation for the film.
If you're looking for a history lesson on the Bronte Sisters, or an engaging look at their lives and what inspired them to write novels that became highly regarded classics, this movie won't deliver. It's a slow drama that has more interest in the affairs of Branwell Bronte. That said, it is a delight to see Marie-France Pisier, Isabelle Adjani and Isabelle Huppert at early points in their careers doing what they do best. It's also visually stunning at times. This Blu-ray release of the 1979 film shows its age but does manage to take advantage of the high definition treatment, and the audio is par for the era. Extras are lacking in number but there is a top notch commentary track.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 30th July 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: LPCM 2.0 French
Subtitles: English (Locked)
Extras: The Ghosts of Haworth: A 60 Minute Documentary Featurette, Audio Commentary with Film Critic Wade Major and Bronte Scholar Sue Lonoff, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: André Téchiné
Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Marie-France Pisier, Isabelle Huppert
Length: 120 minutes
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