The Red Dwarf

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 1.77:1, languages: French Dolby Surround [CC], subtitles: English, single side-single layer, 28 chapters, Theatrical Trailers, rated R, 101 min., $27.95, street date 4/18/2000.

Studio Line

Directed by Yvan Le Moine. Starring Jean-Yves Thaul, Anita Ekberg, Dyna Gauzy, Michel Peyrelon, Arno Chevrier, Carlo Colombaioni.

In a complex tale of loneliness, troubled writer Lucien L'hotte (Jean-Yves Thual) struggles with the enormous issues of love, lust and morality. Set up near his office is the Urbino Circus, where a trapeze artist, Isis, strikes up a friendship with the outcast Lucien.

When the Countess Paola Bendoni (Anita Ekberg) seeks his services, Lucien's life takes a dramatic turn. He visits Paola to read his poison pen letter and uncharacteristically stages a daring and successful seduction. But unbridled passion turns to deadly rage when Paola eventually rejects Lucien. Spiraling out of control, Lucien resigns from his degrading job, reunites with Isis and joins the Urbino Circus. As the Red Dwarf, Lucien finds his niche, but continues to battle his inner demons.

Picture/Sound/Extras (B/B/D-)

Sights I never thought I'd see in a movie: 1) A naked middle-aged dwarf (Jean-Yves Thual) admiring himself in a funhouse mirror that stretches his image to taller proportions; 2) The aforementioned little fellow doing the nasty with a fat old woman (Anita Ekberg); 3) That same height-impaired gentleman defecating on his boss's desk.

Sights I never wanted to see in a movie: All of the above.

Prior to the time I popped The Red Dwarf into my DVD player, I could say that none of those unpleasant images had passed before my eyes. Unfortunately, not only have I now witnessed all three of them, but also I've shot 101 minutes of my life straight to hell.

TRD focusses on Lucien, the unhappy title character, who slowly comes out of his lonely shell as the movie progresses. Along with way, he goes a bit nuts and eventually ends up respectably happy in a circus. Good for him!

Unfortunately, I wasn't too pleased that I had to sit through this malarkey. TRD is a French film, and it suffers from all of the excesses suspicious Americans like myself expect. That means the movie seems stylized up the wazoo, and everything's dark and moody for no particular reason. The film thrives on pointlessly grotesque images like those I already described, and it uses these depictions in an attempt to disguise how little really is happening and how shallow the movie truly is.

The jacket blurb for this DVD states that TRD is "a complex tale of loneliness", but don't believe it; this kind of film wants to believe that it's deep and provides a story of significance, but I've stepped in puddles less shallow than this tripe. Lucien's main characteristics are that he's short and he looks sad a lot of the time. Oh, and we also learn that people stare at dwarfs and that it's not a great way to go through life. Really? That's shocking news! I thought being three feet tall would be a perpetual party!

Other revelations include the stunner that fat old women don't have it too easy either. Wow! When will the life lessons end? And I thought I knew something about the world!

I must admit that I possess a wee bias against artsy films - foreign or domestic - but I do think I can be at least partially open-minded about them. After all, I really expected Ma Vie En Rose to provide a torturous trip through the world of cinematic pretension but I found it to offer an entertaining and stimulating experience.

The same cannot be said about the superficial clunker called The Red Dwarf. It desperately wants to make a statement and be "important", but all I learned is that the director badly wants to be the second coming of Fellini (and he achieves this - badly). There's about five minutes of movie buried within 101 minutes of stylized nonsense, and what little of interest exists just doesn't merit the effort.

The Red Dwarf appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.77:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. No, that last comment isn't a typo; although Columbia-Tristar (CTS) have always been strong supporters of anamorphic DVDs and although TRD offers a virtually perfect match with the dimensions of a 16X9 TV, this DVD does not provide the enhancement. Weird!

Another odd aspect of this film is that although TRD appears in black and white, it was actually shot in color. The resulting image generally looks pretty good, although some stylistic choices throw it off at times. Sharpness seems consistently well-defined and crisp, but a lot of jagged edges appear throughout the movie; that issue was especially problematic in scenes that featured motion. Moiré effects were less of a concern. The print itself looked fairly clean; I noticed some graininess but no other significant flaws such as scratches, hairs or speckles.

Although the director uses a very high-contrast photographic technique - the whites really overwhelm much of the picture - black levels actually looked pretty deep and stable. That comes as a surprise because of the intensity of the whites and also because of the film's origins as a color project; the black and white photography portrays a density I might not have expected. Shadow detail also seemed adequately dark without being overly heavy. All in all, TRD provided a pretty good visual experience.

The film's Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack seemed similarly effective. The mix seems very modest in scope; it's generally pretty quiet and subdued. The forward soundfield mainly sticks to the center channel, though it provides music and light ambient effects from the sides. The rear speakers function in a similar manner, and although the presentation stays fairly soft, the effect works well, and the entire image appears acceptably broad.

Quality also seems strong. Although I can't comment on how intelligible the dialogue was since my knowledge of French stops after "Royale with cheese", speech appeared warm and natural, with no signs of dubbing. Effects were mainly very soft and quiet, but they sounded realistic and clear. The classical score worked best of all, as it came across as smooth and lush, with some nice low end thrown into the mix as well. TRD gets a "B" for sound due to the modest nature of the track and also because films from 1998 really should have Dolby Digital mixes, but I still thought it was a strong soundtrack.

One possible annoyance: although the vast majority of DVDs let the viewer decide if they'd like to watch the film with or without subtitles, for TRD, CTS have chosen for us. The English subtitles are burned into the image and cannot be removed. First they don't give it anamorphic enhancement, and now they provide non-removable subtitles? What's happening here? This isn't the CTS I know and love!

The same shoddy quality appears in the DVD's supplements. All we find on TRD are trailers for the film itself plus fellow foreign flicks City of Lost Children and Character. Oh, and there are some brief production notes available in the DVD's booklet. An odd film like this screams for some sort of extra such as a commentary, and the lack of anything like that disappoints.

Not that I would have recommended The Red Dwarf under any circumstance. The film lives up to the worst stereotypes of pretentious and arty foreign movies; it made for a pretty miserable 101 minutes. The DVD features fairly good picture and sound but provides almost no supplements. Ultimately, it doesn't matter because the film itself provides a pointless experience that doesn't merit further investigation.

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