Eric Rohmer's Troubled Tales Of the Four Seasons

Boy, I can remember Janus announcing their new 2k restorations (yes, newer than the French blu-rays') of these films like three years ago.  Last year, I started to worry that they didn't actually plan to put them out on disc.  But now, finally, they're here: all four of Eric Rohmer's Tales Of the Four Seasons, scanned from their original negatives, in an attractive, if a little troubled, blu-ray boxed set from Criterion.

"Troubled?"  Yes.  The subtitles stop working about two-thirds of the way through the documentary The Making Of a Tale Of Summer, and they don't come back: a serious problem if you're not fluent in French.  Watch this space for news of a replacement program, but so far: mum from Criterion.

Update 2/26/24: Just got an email from Criterion confirming they've investigated the issue and will be issuing a replacement program for the Summer disc.  Details are still pending; I'll update again!
Update 5/31/24: Troubled no more - the Tale of Summer replacement discs are now shipping!  I just got mine today.  The labels are perfectly identical except for the "Second Pressing" notation written after the catalog number along the outer edge, as you can see above.
The Tales Of the Four Seasons are four films Rohmer made from 1990-1998 (with a couple other films mixed in between).  One for each season, naturally, starting with A Tale Of Springtime.  As you'd expect, and as with the three subsequent films, Springtime is set during its titular season.  A philosophy professor who has two apartments but finds herself unable to stay in either one meets a student at a party who invites her to stay at her place.  She soon discovers this student has designs to set her up with her father, because she doesn't approve of his current, younger girlfriend.  You could take it as a pretty straight-forward romantic comedy or a Kantian exploration of how our imagination drives us.  But the intellectualizing never gets in the way of its endearing, polite and gently composed aesthetic.  And there's a mystery!  Can you solve the case of the missing necklace?
1) 2006 UK Artificial Eye DVD; 2) 2024 US Criterion BD.
Well, the jump from what Artificial Eye released on DVD in 2006 to today is vast.  The aspect ratio shift to 1.67:1 is presumably a welcome correction, as 1.52:1 was surely never correct.  It slightly crops the image vertically, but reveals more on the sides.  It's also quite yellow, which is a more controversial change you're going to see across this set.  According to the booklet, these new transfers were supervised by the DP and Rohmer's son, so we're presumably being asked to accept this as correct.  The DVD's whites are overblown, but it's certainly more naturally white-balanced.  But it's not a given that the most natural color-timing is always the director's preferred colored timing.  And admittedly, just watching the BD outside of a direct comparison, the film doesn't scream yellow as much as it does here.  I mean, I'm not suggesting it differs from the screenshots, but it hue is more subtle when it's not buttressed right up against a cooler, whiter variant.

And that aside, the jump to HD is a huge boost in clarity.  The DVD has a dupey, edge enhanced look, which is replaced with a far more nuanced and lifelike image.  Hell, the DVD is non-anamorphic, so this is a major upgrade if you're coming from that release.  Criterion's grain is a little spotty at points - this is a 2k scan on BD, not a 4k scan on UHD, but the DVD doesn't even suggest that film grain was ever part of the original image.  English subtitles are removable are all four discs in both sets, but of course only Criterion's original mono audio is lossless.
A Tale Of Winter is next.  A young woman and her lover are separated by a silly mistake, and years later she drifts between relationships, driving everyone around her crazy by refusing to fully commit to anyone new.  Will her faith carry her through her malaise or ruin her life?  This one takes some inspiration from Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, and as you can see, even produces a scene from it at one point.  But this isn't one of those loose remakes set in modern times, deal.  It's a distinctly different, and distinctly Rohmer, experience.
1) 2006 UK Artificial Eye DVD; 2) 2024 US Criterion BD.
The aspect ratios are closer this time: 1.61:1 vs 1.67:1, though Criterion's new scan pulls back to reveal a little more along all four sides.  The DVD is also non-anamorphic again, so you had to upgrade from it.  And yes, we have a yellow push again, though it's not as overt on this one.  All of the other season films were shot on 35mm, but this one's on 16mm, so it has a softer, less detail look to it.  But that's nothing compared to how the old DVD had it looking.  Except for the flecks and popping print damage (no longer present on the BD); you'd almost think it was shot on tape.  Criterion's grain is patchy in points, but their blu makes it feel like film again.  And of course, their audio is lossless PCM again.
For A Summer's Tale, Melvil Poupaud (currently appearing in Woody Allen's Coup de Chance), we have a song writer who gets stood up by his girlfriend on his shore vacation.  He befriends Amanda Langlet (Pauline of Pauline At the Beach), a waitress/ ethnographer who decides to set him up with one of her friends, leaving Melvil wracked with indecision, torn between the fleeting possibilities of a relationship with any of these three women.  Who will he choose... and will it matter anyway?  Transcendentalism, sea shanties and disco dancing all play crucial parts in our friend's fate.
1) 2006 UK Artificial Eye DVD; 2) 2024 US Criterion BD.
2024 US Criterion BD.
Well, at least Artificial Eye's DVD doesn't have a non-anamorphic issue this time, because this one's full-screen.  Criterion tweaks the AR from 1.33:1 to 1.37:1, though they actually reveal slivers along all four sides.  AE's video is noisy and low-fi, which the new blu greatly improves upon.  But, while you don't notice it in some dark scenes (though it's still there if you look carefully), we're leaning heavily into the yellow once again.  Is the sky blue or yellow?  Depends what disc you look at.  Just for fun, I took a shot from the Making Of a Tale Of Summer documentary[left], and the skies are blue there, too.  I've heard some studios are pushing transfers a little towards yellow because that replicates how film looks projected.  Or maybe these films were always supposed to have a warmer, gentler look and older transfers got it wrong in assuming a more traditional white balance?  I don't know.  But it is what it is.  I'm honestly not that mad at it, but it's hard not to talk about it when you're directly comparing these to how they used to look on home video.
Finally, in Autumn Tale, Rohmer regular Marie Riviere stars as a book seller who decides to meddle in her best friend (another Rohmer regular, Beatrice Romand)'s love life by finding her a man through personal ads.  But she doesn't know Beatrice's daughter is also trying to set her up with someone, her philosophy professor.  With dueling schemes coming to a head at a big wedding party, Autumn comes off as more of a straight-up comedy than the others.  And it doesn't hurt that these more mature characters wind up being more likeable, if no more relatable, than the capricious youth we've been getting accustomed to.  It's a nice way to send off this series.
1) 2006 UK Artificial Eye DVD; 2) 2024 US Criterion BD.
Both of these are fullscreen again, just shifting from 1.32:1 to 1.37:1, though interestingly, this time Criterion zooms in cropping information from all four sides compared to the DVD.  It's another rewarding boost from SD to HD; we can even read the names of all those authors on the poster in the first set of shots.  Yes, we also have the yellow push again and yes, the grain would definitely be captured better on a 4k disc... or even an Arrow BD.  But it's hard to complain about these discs in motion.  They're gorgeous films well preserved.
The Kreutzer Sonata
So let's talk extras!  Artificial Eye's boxed set, which consists of four amary cases inside a slipbox, included trailers for each film and radio interviews with Rohmer edited into four featurettes including narration and clips from the films.  Curiously, Criterion's set - a digipack in a slipbox of its own - doesn't have that stuff, not even the trailers.  They just have one (new?) trailer that advertises all four films.  And while they don't have AE's featurettes, they do include the Rohmer interviews isolated from the rest, just playing over a still image of tape reels.

Their biggest extra is the Making of a Tale of Summer, a featurette length documentary compiling behind-the-scenes footage of the filming, often then comparing it to lengthy clips of the movie.  It gives some pretty great, candid insight into Rohmer's process from that time, though the film clips aren't too helpful if you've just watched the movie beforehand.  A big problem on this disc, though, as I've mentioned at the top, is that the subtitles give out about two thirds of the way through.  So unless you're fluent in French, you only get to watch the first hour of the doc.  Hopefully, Criterion does something about this!
A Farmer In Montfaucon
Criterion has cooked up a pretty excellent, roughly 45-minute featurette that intercuts between all new interviews with some of Rohmer's key collaborators, including his DP, editor, sound engineer and producer.  They each have a lot to share, and we also explore Rohmer's house, which they're filming in.  Finally, there are two of Rohmer's early short films.  First is 1956's The Kreutzer Sonata, a Tolstoy adaptation from back when Rohmer wasn't yet shooting with synced sound.  It's made up for by using Tolstoy's grim text as on-going narration.  Second is 1968's A Farmer In Montfaucon, which is a fairly matter-of-factual documentary the life of a farming woman, who gets a little more introspective at the end.

Also included is a colorful, 30-page booklet with notes by critic Imogen Sara Smith, which might help you find a deeper appreciation for these works.
Bottom line, these aren't cutting edge transfers, but they're pretty attractive and huge upgrades from the AE DVDs I've got.  The extras are quite good, but perhaps not as plentiful as one would expect.  If you've already got earlier BD versions, it may be a tougher decision whether to double-dip, especially since this is an expensive ($99) set... and unless Criterion does something about it, a defective one.  But they usually do, and often for less consequential issues, so I have hope!  They have!  Replacement discs are now available for anyone who got the bugged first pressing.

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