Import Week, Day 1: Vatel

Our planet may be incinerating in an unprecedented climate crisis while we suffer through war, economic crisis and burgeoning new diseases, but if you're here to read this, congratulations, you've lived to Import Week.  Import Week is a rather self-explanatory stretch of roughly six (still to be decided) posts where we look at blu-ray releases of films that are only available overseas.  I know the internet is worldwide, so apologies for writing from an exclusively American perspective, but hopefully all our foreign readers can take this "week" to cherish the moments where we here in the United States didn't get all the luck, because these essential releases are all only available overseas,
And as you're about to see, you'd be hard pressed to find a more necessary import that 2000's Vatel.  I mean, just to rattle off its credentials, Vatel is a gorgeous, Academy Award-nominated period drama by Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields and the original Oppenheimer film, Fat Man and Little Boy), written by the ingenious playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guidenstern Are Dead, Brazil).
Gérard Depardieu
plays the titular, real-life 17th century French chef who served under Louis XIV (played expertly here by the late Julian Sands), famous for putting on the most outlandishly extravagant festivities.  But operating beneath the wild spectacle are torrid love affairs, diplomatic intrigue, betrayals and one of history's most famous suicides.  The costumes and production design are show stoppers, beautifully photographed, but it's a witty yet dark drama underneath.  The supporting cast includes first rate performances by Tim Roth, Uma Thurman, Timothy Spall and Julian Glover.  It's surprising this film isn't better known and appreciated in the US, but we can kind of thank two infamous film villains for that.
R.I.P., your majesty.
Because before we go any further, it is essential we talk about the alternate cuts.  By which I mean, the proper complete cut and the absolutely to-be-avoided hacked up version.  Unfortunately, the latter is the only one available here in the US.  As they were wont to do, Vatel's American distributor Miramax crassly cut the film for the US market (thank you, Weinsteins) by about fifteen minutes, so only the original European version is complete.  It has more scenes of the preparation, the lavish spectacle itself, a nude scene and a whole subplot with Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, now of Emily In Paris fame.  You can spot if you're watching the US version right away - it adds a voice-over scene of Spall writing an expositional letter between Roth's introduction and the opening credits.  Curiously, you won't find much info online about the US release being abridged, but yeah, it's a problem.  So that's already a pretty definitive argument for importing this title.  But it's not the only one.
Vatel first came out from Columbia Tri-Star as a new release DVD in France in 2000.  That was quickly followed up in the US by Miramax in 2001, but it didn't have quite as many features (more on that below).  And more importantly, of course, it's the cut version.  It's also, apart from an identical Lions Gate reissue, still the only release Vatel's ever gotten in America.  Eventually, in 2015, we got it on blu, but only in France from Gaumont.  Luckily, it's the complete uncut version; and yes I checked, it's region free.
1) 2000 Columbia Tri-Star DVD; 2) 2001 Miramax DVD; 3) 2015 Gaumont BD.
(This shot is missing from the US cut.)
The good news is that all three discs are anamorphic, in at least close to the correct aspect ratio, and properly progressive.  Geometrically, the French DVD is closer to the proper AR than the US: 2.37:1 compared to 2.28:1.  But you can see the French disc zooms in tighter, cropping more of the image, especially along the top.  The BD widens the frame back out to 2.35:1, while actually pulling out to reveal more of the image than either prior DVD.  It also kind of splits the difference between the two DVDs color timings: the US is warmer, the French is cooler, and the BD is the most natural of all, and considerably brighter (though not overly so; the night scenes are still full of solid blacks).  It's also a substantial boost in clarity, bringing fine detail into focus, though it still feels like an old master, with film grain ranging from soft to absent.

The Columbia DVD gives us both the proper English track and a French dub, both in 5.1, with optional English and French subtitles.  The US DVD just, naturally, shaves off the French options, giving us the English 5.1 with optional English subtitles.  And the blu-ray gives us the best possible collection of options, including both the English and French audio, restored in their original stereo tracks, now in DTS-HD, plus the 5.1 mixes also now in DTS-HD.  And they give us both English and French subtitles - everything you could want.
First off, the French release offers us an untranslated audio commentary by the production designer and costumer.  Sounds neat, but unless you're fluent, you can factor that out of your equation.  It also has a half-hour 'making of' doc, which is more of a mixed bag.  It's kind of a promotional piece, but at that length manages to get pretty deep, interviewing not just the stars but a lot of the key cast members and giving you more than your standard soundbites.  But the problem is, the English people speak English (including Joffé and most of the stars), and the French people speak French (including most of the crew), sans subtitles.  So there's a lot of good stuff and I'm glad we get it, but you have to sit through some frustratingly untranslated moments.  Anyway, there's also a brief look at the scoring of the film, and the trailer.

The US DVD doesn't have any of that, not even the trailer.  But it does have it's only, very brief (3.5 minutes) featurette, which is clearly using the same EPK interview and B-roll footage as the French doc.  But it includes multiple clips not used in on the French disc, so it does retain some value even if you have the French disc.  At three and a half minutes, though, that's some pretty thin gruel.

Finally, the blu-ray maintains all of the same extras as the French DVD, with no additions, subtractions or additional translations, though they did update the trailer to anamorphic.
So it's a shame about the untranslated extras, but it's still an absolute must-import.  Even the only partially-English friendly extras are better than the paltry US DVD.  More importantly, it's the only HD option, with a substantially improved transfer that's a lot more than just the same master on a bigger disc.  It also restores the original stereo track and overall has easily the most and best language/ audio options.  And, oh yeah, you have to import to see the complete, uncut version of the film.  You can't ask for more of a compelling mandate than that.

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