Jacques Demy’s crystalline debut gave birth to the fictional universe in which so many of his characters would live, play, and love. It’s among his most profoundly felt films, a tale of crisscrossing lives in Nantes (Demy’s hometown) that floats on waves of longing and desire. Heading the film’s ensemble is the enchanting Anouk Aimée as the title character, a cabaret chanteuse who’s awaiting the return of a long-lost lover and unwilling to entertain the adoration of another love-struck soul, the wanderer Roland (Marc Michel). Humane, wistful, and witty, Lola is a testament to the resilience of the heartbroken.
Presented in the film’s original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 Criterion’s dual-format edition of Lola (the first title in their new Essential Jacques Demy box set) delivers a transfer that is an absolute disaster. There is nothing good I can say about it. At all. It’s a smudgy mess. Blobby, indistinct, undefined, soft, and smudgy are only a handful of words that come to mind, along with a few others that are entirely inappropriate. And it’s not a condition of the source materials. It’s a byproduct of someone going haywire with filtering. The fact that anyone finished with this and thought “this is acceptable” is confounding. Maybe that comes off hyperbolic, but it’s just shocking that any sort of professional would find this to be even a decent high-definition presentation. The high-definition version delivered on the dual-layer Blu-ray disc is presented in 1080p/24hz, but you would only know that if you actually checked the resolution.
Where to begin? Well, we’ll first get the source out of the way. Part of the problem could stem from the source materials used in the restoration and transfer. The original negative was destroyed in a fire and there were very few quality prints remaining. Those involved in the restoration (not the transfer mind you) were able to track down an interpositive at the BBC. It was damaged, but judging by the restoration demonstration on this release this was limited primarily to scratches, splices, marks, and stains. Looking at a few scenes that show up in the demonstration detail wasn’t truly compromised on the print. True, as prints were copied detail gets lost, as mentioned in the demonstration, so yes, it’s not going to be as sharp as the original negative. That isn’t the issue here, though. The issue is that sometime during the restoration process, or possibly during the creation of the transfer, someone got overly happy with the filtering, completely digitizing the image, creating the atrocity we get here.
The image is smudgy, I cannot stress that enough. Maybe some of it has to do with the print (though again, judging by the glimpses I got in the restoration demonstration this isn’t entirely the case) but a lot of it has to do with noise reduction, which obliterates any fine details. Yet I can’t even say the image looks smooth. It’s so digitally manipulated that pixilation is a constant problem, as is banding in whatever is left of the shadows.
As to shadows and shadow detail, don’t expect much: black levels and contrast are so out of whack, with no delineation at all, that most dark objects or scenes simply deliver a dark gray mass. There are so many darker scenes where a blobby, gray silhouette passes over a dark background only to form one larger dark gray mess where it’s impossible to distinguish anything. You can’t tell where one object begins and another ends, except for some pixilated banding that somewhat helps. Tonal shifts in the lighter gray levels are non-existent as well. Nothing blends naturally or smoothly.
This looks like a DVD transfer. And not even a good DVD transfer. As much as I have complained about Criterion’s Blu-ray of The Last Emperor looking no better than a DVD transfer, at least it looked like a decent DVD transfer. What Lola delivers is the same type of DVD transfer you would have found on some of Criterion’s early black & white DVD releases, which is not good. That’s what this looks like. It even has issues with shimmering and jagged edges, and you can see pixel shifts on faces in some close-ups. If I didn’t know better I would have figured this was sourced from a DVD, and an old one at that, maybe something Fox Lorber would have released back in the day. It doesn’t look any better than Criterion’s original DVDs for High & Low and Branded to Kill.
And how does the included dual-layer DVD’s anamorphic standard-definition version of the transfer compare? It’s a disaster as well, unsurprisingly, and sadly doesn’t look that much worse than the Blu-ray’s presentation. If you were to compare the two next to each other on different monitors I’m pretty sure you would be hard pressed to identify the one that was supposed to be the high-definition version.
The few glimpses we get in the restoration demonstration show a damaged source but the scenes that can be compared don’t look as smudgy or blown out in the original scans, so I can’t blame the source for most of these problems. At worst the source would have provided a weaker base to work with. But even then the finished product looks digitized and manipulated to an extreme degree. The source wouldn’t have dancing and shimmering pixels, or digital banding, or obvious noise removal. A print wouldn’t look like a crappy DVD transfer. A good chunk of the problems have to do with either overzealous restorers (which I really doubt in this case to be honest) or someone going to town with the computer software when they were creating their idea of what a high-definition master is supposed to look like (which seems more likely.) It’s bad, really bad.
As to what damage remains I can’t say there’s any but honestly I didn’t care about this aspect since I could barely see the image to begin with. I was too distracted by the blobs on screen to care about much else.
Like Criterion’s Blu-ray releases of The Earrings of Madame de… and Children of Paradise, which both presented badly manipulated images, I don’t completely blame Criterion for this. They got the master from elsewhere, which was used on another Blu-ray that, to my understanding (I admittedly haven’t viewed it,) looks similar to this. As they were putting together their Demy box set I can only guess this is all they could get (at least I hope that’s the case) and it wouldn’t make much sense to not include the film. Thankfully the rest of the set delivers nice looking transfers (a couple of them are even great!) so it seems to suggest that this lone title in the set couldn’t be helped, and I wouldn’t let this one severe misstep scare you away from the set as a whole (it’s a great package altogether.) Still, without doubt, this is the worst looking high-definition presentation Criterion has ever delivered, and I’d even venture to say it looks worse than most of their DVD presentations.
The film’s French mono soundtrack is incredibly flat with a bit of distortion present in the film’s music. It’s been cleaned up well enough and I can’t say I noticed any significant damage but it’s monotone and sounds like it’s a product of its time.
The Jacques Demy box set this disc is found in includes a large selection of supplements, with each title presenting features mostly specific to their respective films. Lola gets somewhat screwed in this regard, as only a few short features are about the film.
Lola gets two 3-minute features that are specific to the film: an interview with Anouk Aimée, who simply talks about the character and working with Demy, while the other feature has to do with Lola’s Song (C’est moi, c’est Lola). A couple of surprises here: 1.) Quincy Jones was supposed to work on the song but had to bow out (Varda ended up writing the sone) and 2.) Demy was apparently unsure about putting a musical bit into the film, which I found amusing considering his later films. Unfortunately both are quick and don’t delve too deeply. The fact there’s a real lack of scholarly material for this film makes it even more upsetting there isn’t more about this film.
Also specific is a 10-minute restoration demonstration. Considering the disaster that is the presentation of the film this feature is especially frustrating: we see little about the work being done and we barely get any before/after comparisons. The participants talk about the source materials and the heavy damage. We get some visual samples of the damage, which looks to be primarily large scratches and marks, and even missing frames. From what I can gather from this, though, it doesn’t look like the heavy digital manipulation was done here, or at least not to the extent the final product obviously went through. From monitors we see a couple of shots that actually don’t look too bad: a shot from close to the end where Michel, in his white jacket, walks into a shop, looks a bit sharper and delivers more detail than what we get in the final transfer. Unfortunately the feature doesn’t seem interested in showing us any close before and afters, so it’s still hard to say where this image was messed up.
The remaining features are a number of early short films by Demy. For those more familiar with the director’s brighter more energetic films his early shorts offer the polar opposite. The first film, the 8-minute Les horizons morts, follows a young man who has just lost his girlfriend to another man (or at least that’s how I took it) and then possible contemplation of suicide afterwards. I found it a little “mopey” but enjoyed the second feature much more, the 23-minute Le sobotier du Val de Loire, which I think is supposed to be a quasi-documentary on a clog maker in his later years. While it documents the week of the elderly craftsman, examining him as he takes a log and creates a pair of clogs from it, the film also becomes an examination of one’s own mortality and the awareness of death being around the corner in later years.
Ars is another documentary of sorts, offering a look at the pastor Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney, who is sort of hard to pin down here: he would at moments appear to be a graceful man and then suddenly a fairly horrific and demanding man. It runs 17-minutes. After this is La luxure, Demy’s 15-minute segment from the omnibus film The Seven Deadly Sins, which featured seven shorts by different directors, with each being about one of the deadly sins. Demy’s is “lust” and it doesn’t go the most obvious route with its subject matter. Two friends (played by Laurent Terzieff and Jean-Louis Trintignant) meet up and talk about “lechery/lust” with one recalling his youth where he first tried to figure out what the word meant and the other finding himself fantasizing about Jerome Bosch’s paintings using some of the women in the café they’re in as the basis. Somewhat aimless and amusing, it’s loose and fun and at the very least presents a rather imaginative recreation of Hell.
All four films look to be upscales of standard-definition sources, yet all four still look better than the main feature.
The disc then closes with the re-release theatrical trailer, which first toots the restoration work. Unfortunately the clips used in the trailer look like they come straight from a DVD.
Unfortunately this film feels skimmed over, with only about 7-minutes worth of material devoted to the film itself (not include the restoration demonstration) but the inclusion of Demy’s four shorts is a fantastic addition. Thankfully this is only a small representation of the box set as a whole.
The inclusion of the shorts is wonderful, but the rest of the features only briefly skim over Lola. This aspect is very disappointing, but not as disappointing as the horrendous transfer. Manipulated to an extreme degree the image loses all textures and most details. It ultimately comes off looking like a rather lousy DVD transfer. Thankfully this isn’t representative of the set as a whole (which delivers excellent transfers for the remaining films) but that doesn’t make things any better.