La vie de bohème
This deadpan tragicomedy about a group of impoverished, outcast artists living the bohemian life in Paris is among the most beguiling films by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. Based on stories from Henri Murger’s influential mid-nineteenth-century book Scènes de la vie de bohème (the basis for the opera La bohème), the film features a marvelous trio of Kaurismäki regulars—André Wilms, Matti Pellonpää, and Karl Väänänen—as a writer, painter, and composer who scrape by together, sharing in life’s daily absurdities. Gorgeously shot in black and white, La vie de bohème is a vibrantly scrappy rendition of a beloved tale.
Aki Kaurismäki’s La vie de bohème makes its Blu-ray debut in a new dual-format edition released by Criterion. The Blu-ray delivers the film in a new high-definition presentation in 1080p/24hz on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of about 1.85:1. The DVD delivers a standard definition version of the film and has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
The high-definition presentation is another pleasant surprise from Criterion. The black and white photography looks incredible in this transfer, delivering deep blacks and excellent tonal shifts, all of which in turn offers an excellent sense of depth. Detail is never lacking, with close-ups exposing an exceptional amount of detail in faces, patterns on clothes, or even out of place hairs. Long shots too show a large amount of detail, whether in the various dilapidated interiors or the brick work of surrounding buildings.
The print is in fairly remarkable shape though still shows some general wear. Bits of debris show up show up from time to time—though are never heavy—and faint tram lines can be made out. Past these minor issues there’s nothing else of note.
The DVD’s standard definition transfer uses the same high-def transfer for its base and for DVD looks pretty good itself. The tonal shifts in the black and white image are not nearly as impressive, though, and any sense of depth found in the Blu-ray’s presentation is lost here. But detail is still pretty good and compression, though present, isn’t all that big a nuisance.
It’s a solid presentation and another pleasant surprise. It’s very filmic and almost looks as though it could have been filmed yesterday.
The lossless PCM mono track doesn’t strive for greatness but I feel it accurately represents the film’s original audio. Dialogue sounds sharp and clear, as do sound effects and what music there is. There’s no distortion or damage present, and the track has some decent depth and fidelity.
Supplements do leave a little to be desired. The only significant supplement is the fairly generic making-of Where is Musette?, filmed with a Camcorder during the film’s production. The documentary, made by Veikko Nieminen, presents a number of interviews with members of the crew and the cast (even Leaud briefly,) and even gets some one-on-one time with the director, including a moment where the director talks about what it’s like to be an independent director. Apparently Kaurismäki had been wanting to film the book for a long while but needed to wait until he could actually film in Paris, and of course modern Paris (at least in the early 90’s) is less bohemian than it was, so they had to find other locations around. The actors talk about the book, their characters, and what it’s like working for Kaurismäki, while crew members talk about capturing the look. Nieminen also hangs around the set and catches the shooting of a few sequences, even getting footage of Kaurismäki directing his cast. The most interesting aspect of the production (as seen through this documentary) is the mix of nationalities on the set: English seemed to have been the primary language used to communicate with members of the cast and crew, and we even get a look at the catering service, who even went as far as preparing different cultural dishes to help crew members feel a little more at home. It’s a fine enough documentary, that does offer some interesting insights into Kaurismäki’s process, but I don’t think it offered any real surprises and kind of goes through the motions. It runs 52-minutes.
The disc then closes with a short 12-minute interview with actor André Wilms, who also appears in Kaurismäki’s Le Havre. During this conversation Wilms talks about coming on to the production and what it’s like working with Kaurismäki. He also talks about the thrill of working with Jean-Pierre Leaud and meeting Samuel Fuller (who has a small part in the film.) It’s a decent interview though feels too short.
Luc Sante then provides an excellent essay on the film, comparing the film to the source and how Kaurismäki’s viewpoint shows through. I liked the essay and was fine with the other supplements and admittedly I’m not sure what else could be included, other than maybe some material on the source. But even if I’m unsure of what else could be included this release still feels exceedingly slight.
Disappoints with a small collection of supplementary material, barely going over an hour in running time. But the stunner of a transfer will make this worth picking up.