The New Criterion Release of Polyester Stinks

John Waters is my favorite director (and maybe human being?) of all time, which means his work is difficult to introduce to the uninitiated without gushing an overwhelming flood of “Here, just watch all of it!” recommendations. Late-career suburban comedies like Serial Mom & Hairspray don’t convey the dirt-cheap D.I.Y. filmmaking context that makes his work exceptional within cinematic history, but early, scuzzier works like Desperate Living & Multiple Maniacs are likely to scare off most new audiences with their acidic depravity. 1981’s Polyester is perhaps the perfect gateway into Waters’s cheaply intoxicating oeuvre then, as it’s a middle ground between the professional-grade suburban invasion comedies of his career’s latter half and the gonzo free-for-all that preceded them. Waters may have upgraded his camera equipment & attention to craft in that debauched ode to Sirkian melodramas, but he had not yet fully shed his early catalog’s dedication to putrid filth, which you can clearly see in his insistence that his first foray into “mainstream” filmmaking carry a literal stench.

In homage to one of his artistic role models, Waters decided to enhance the Polyester experience with a William Castle-style gimmick of his own design: Odorama. Often mislabeled as a “Smell-o-Vision” Odorama was a cheeky attempt to engage audiences’ sense of smell along with the usual sights & sounds of cinema. Numbered prompts would appear onscreen throughout the film to signal to audiences in the theater to activate their patented Odorama cards: scratch & sniff activity cards dispensed at the box office to mimic the (often vile) stenches depicted onscreen. I’ve been lucky enough to see many of my favorite John Waters flicks on the big screen (which I encourage anyone interested in his work to do; they’ve invariably improved with an audience), but I’ve never had the good fortune of catching Polyester in a proper theatrical environment for the full William Castle treatment. However, I’ve now owned the film on two different home video formats—DVD & Blu-ray—that both provided their own house-made Odorama cards, to varying results.

The Odorama card that came with my DVD copy was mostly for display only. I suppose the card had a light suggestion of a smell to it, if I’m being charitable, but it mostly amounted to a hint of stale hairspray or an airduster can. There were many reasons to justify upgrading my copy of Polyester to the new Criterion Collection restoration on Blu-ray. It’s loaded with bonus materials, like feature-length commentaries & behind-the-scenes interviews; its vivid color saturation is essential to its Sirkian homage; its romance novel cover of Divine sharing a passionate embrace with Tab Hunter is itself a gorgeous work of art. Before you have time to fully soak in these more elegant pleasures, however, the most striking aspect of the film’s Criterion update announces itself: the Odorama card. As soon as you crack open the plastic casing for the Criterion Blu-ray, the pungent stench of Polyester greets you in a cloud of odorous chemicals. Unlike previous home video releases of the Odorama card, this latest nasal assault actually, genuinely reeks. It’s a wonderful thing.

I can’t report that the new & improved Odorama experience is perfect, nor am I old enough to compare it to the original theatrical release’s aromatic potency. Scratching & sniffing along with the film for the first time was a delightful novelty, but I will say my experience with individual prompts on the card led to mixed results. It was most effective in the earliest scenes, with the first few prompts on the card approximating their corresponding imagery: the perfume of a rose, the funk of a fart, the chemical ambush of amyl nitrate. From there, the results become much more muddled, with prompts 4-9 mixing into a single, amorphous chemical stench before the air-freshener fragrance of prompt 10 restores order to the exercise. For all I know, the original, theatrical Odorama cards had the same problem, since I imagine keeping these chemical odors separate & distinct on a single slice of cardboard is near impossible. The 4-9 stench-muddling could’ve also been an issue of user error; maybe I should’ve sniffed fresh cookies or coffee grinds between as a palette cleanser between prompts for a more vivid experience.

One thing is certain: the new Odorama cards falling just short of Smell-o-Vision perfection wasn’t for lack of trying. The Criterion Collection has documented its efforts in collaborating with Waters himself to deliver the best Odorama experience possible, explaining that they had to contract a Tennessee company named Print-a-Scent to simulate a wide enough range of smells to approximate the film’s . . . unique set of aromas: farts, old sneakers, skunk spray, etc. Although you may not be able to individually distinguish those stenches on the new & improved Odorama card, it’s undeniable that they have created something much more effective than the near-scentless DVD print that preceded it. Polyester is now undeniably the most pungent film in the Criterion Collection, adding to its values as a John Waters gateway drug & a subversive act of trashing up “mainstream” cinema. I can recommend it with a newfound air of intellectual superiority, sticking out my pinky as I pinch my nose.

Pictured: the new card next to the ancient DVD copy that’s on its way out my house.

-Brandon Ledet

Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France

Typically, when we discuss French Cinema as a hegemony, we’re talking about creatively adventurous arthouse pictures that follow in the tradition of the French New Wave movement that arrived in the rebellious days of the 1960s. France’s more frivolous screwball comedies & trashy genre pictures tend to land far outside our radar, whereas the USA globally exports so much of its pop culture glut you’d be forgiven for assuming our own cinematic landscape was comprised entirely of Transformers sequels & Paul Blart Mall Cops. What’s even more unclear to Americans, besides what purely commercial modern French cinema looks like, is what, exactly The French New Wave was bucking against in the 1960s. Like with modern commercial comedies & trashy crime pictures (think All That Divides Us) that don’t make it to American shores with any significant impact, France’s stately, pre-New Wave cinematic past is an export lacking any kind of an immediate hook to draw in contemporary American audiences.

The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series box set Claude Autant-Lara—Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France is a major exception to that generalization, but not for any concerns of content or craft. Its four escapist-entertainment features directed by Claude Autant-Lara during the German occupation of France in WWII have enough extratextual, cultural value to earn a prestigious spot in the Criterion Collection canon, something that’s usually reserved for the rebellious New Wave brats who sought to challenge Autant-Lara’s traditionalist approach to filmmaking. They’re also, for the most part, frivolous romcoms, charmingly so.

Claude Autant-Lara is not one of the artistic & political rebels we usually associate with French Cinema. In fact, in the 1980s he was disgracefully booted from his position in the European Parliament after exposing himself as a hard-right Holocaust denier, which is more than enough to justify labeling him as The Enemy. Still, there is a kind of defiance to making escapist entertainment in the face of military occupation, or at least there is a value to the comfort it could provide. Either way, the truth is that you would never assume that wartime context watching the films in this set if you weren’t told to look for it. The real draw of the pictures is actor Odette Joyeux, who is endlessly lovable as the lead performer in each film, a mischievous persona who’s bigger than the rigidly formalistic pictures that (barely) contain her.

Autant-Lara’s escapist romances are (with one major exception) handsomely staged, genuinely funny comedies, even if they are nested in an overly well-behaved French Filmmaking past. The most this set’s wartime context benefits it is in affording the films an imperative for contemporary audiences to revisit them as cultural objects, though all we might find is a glimpse at the status quo the French New Wave later subverted.

For individual reviews of each film, follow the links below or check out our podcast discussion of the entire box set.

Le Mariage de Chiffon (1942) – “Set in the pre-War past of the aristocratic 1910s, Le Mariage de Chiffon chipperly offers pop entertainment escapism though romance & humor, a much-needed distraction for German-occupied France. The hotel settings, mistaken identities, and absurd misunderstandings of the classic comedy structure are prominent throughout, but in a distinctly charming way. This is a genuinely, enduringly funny picture, thanks largely to Joyeux’s hijinks as Chiffon.”

Lettres d’Amour (1942) – “Odette Joyeux, who stars in all four of the films in this box set, is a joy to watch as the stubborn leader of a minor rebellion. Her comedic timing is perfection and the jokes are surprisingly fresh despite being 60+ years old. The costuming is exquisite, and the setting is picturesque.”

Douce (1943) – “If all the films in this set are meant to be understood as escapist entertainment, Douce is one meant to satisfy the most morbid of Parisians, ones who’d prefer a weepie over a farce. It’s just as handsomely staged & playful as Autant-Lara’s other German-occupation romances, but its overall effect is exceptionally grim for that context.”

Sylvie et le Fantôme (1946) – “Before writing, directing, and starring in the ‘Monsieur Hulot’ films, a youthful Jacques Tati incorporates his signature graceful slapstick physicality into the co-titular role of ‘le Fantôme.’ As the only real ghost in the film and the only one not wearing a bedsheet, he pirouettes unseen around the living with his adorable side-kick, a floppy incorporeal spaniel also known (in my heart, at least) as Puppy Ghost. In my opinion, this film should be famous for Puppy Ghost rather than Tati, but you should decide for yourself.”

-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman

Lettres d’Amour (1942)

The library where I work recently acquired Criterion’s “Claude Autant-Lara—Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France” boxset and we’ve been making good use of those DVDs in my household. Three of the four films in the set were made and released during the German occupation of France during WWII. The last film, Sylvie et le fantôme, came out the year after armistice that ended the war. Brandon covered the first film in the boxset, Le Marriage de Chiffon, back in June, so if you’d like a little more background on the filmmaker or the context these four films were made in, go check out his review!

The second film in the boxset, Lettres d’Amour, opens with a scene of conflict between the petty bureaucrats of Napoleon III’s empire and Zélie Fontaine, a widowed, small-town postmistress and stagecoach owner. The bureaucrats argue that Fontaine does not respect their authority and, as a woman, is not fit to hold such an important public office on her own. Her rebuttal: a Bronx cheer to them and to all who make up “la Société,” the over-privileged elites who are engaged in a class war with “la Boutique,” the simple shop class trying to better themselves through hard work. It is interesting that this film was released uncensored during the Nazi occupation of France, considering its rebellious tone of lauding the common folk versus the government.

La Société’s case against Fontaine is hinged on a scandalous love letter ostensibly addressed to her from a mysterious beau who uses the pen-name “hedgehog.” Little do they realize the letters are intended for her best friend, wife of the local prefect and chief plaintiff in the case against Zélie. In a classic romance twist, once the “hedgehog” meets Zélie, he realizes that she is a far more likeable person and an all-around better romantic partner. Eventually, the town squares off with Zélie and her hedgehog on one side versus her former best friend and the rest of “la Société” on the other. But what form does the climactic clash take? Very polite dancing.

As Zélie says to her motley crew of commoners before they crash the quadrille of the wealthy, “This evening we do battle.” Dance battle, that is. A dance battle where everyone is wearing couture gowns designed by Dior and the only thing that gets hurt are some feelings (not a single toe gets stepped on!). This feminine, frothy set piece is pure, exquisite escapism – a perfect antidote to the grim lives of the French citizens who saw the film in its original run.

As with many other films that purposely appealed to women in this era, Lettres d’Amour failed to garner critical support (too sentimental, too trivial) during its initial release. While it certainly deserves reappraisal, its revival is somewhat tainted by the director’s late-in-life remarks that denied the Holocaust. How strange that a film that felt so progressive was made by a man who spouted vile epithets years later. At the end of the day, though, I still really loved this picture. Odette Joyeux, who stars in all four of the films in this box set, is a joy to watch as the stubborn leader of a minor rebellion. Her comedic timing is perfection and the jokes are surprisingly fresh despite being 60+ years old. The costuming is exquisite, and the setting is picturesque. I’m hoping the second half of this set will be as delightful as the first!

-CC Chapman

Always for Pleasure (1978)

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Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a near-impossible phenomenon to capture in art. There’s a magical, revelrous spirit to it that defies a strict, all-encompassing definition. As one interviewee explains in the documentary Always for Pleasure, Mardi Gras is not a spectator sport. It’s something you have to engage with & participate in to truly grasp, which might be a significant reason why capturing its spirit on film or in words is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

Filmed in 1977, the Criterion-approved Les Blank documentary Always for Pleasure truly is the best introduction to New Orleans culture that I could possibly imagine. Where else are you going to find soul legend Irma Thomas sharing her red beans & rice recipe and Allen Toussaint explaining the significance of jazz funerals & second lines? There’s also glimpses of crawfish boils, Mardi Gras Indians, Jazz Fest, above-ground cemeteries, St. Patty’s Day celebrations in the Irish Channel, brass bands, street cars, Dixie beer, Congo Square, and what essentially amounts to music videos for Wild Tchopitoulas & Professor Longhair. At just less than an hour in length, the film is an easily digestible crash course in local charm & hedonism. An interviewee in Always for Pleasure describes New Orleans as “The City that Care Forgot” & “The last city in American where you can feel free to live,” and the supporting images that surround those claims make it feel like he might be onto something.

What’s most remarkable about Always for Pleasure, though, is how close it comes to the near-impossible task of capturing the totality Mardi Gras in a single work. There’s a little bit of historical context provided about how the holiday developed as “a lustful time before a time without” both within & without religious connotation. For the most part, though, the film is smart not to over-explain. It mostly just documents. With the shoulder-mounted shakiness of a local news camera investigating a crime scene, Blank’s movie takes you into the nooks & crannies of the Carnival season. If Mardi Gras is not a spectator sport, the reason Always for Pleasure succeeds is because it feels authentically participatory. It grabs you by the hand & leads you through the parades & celebrations in a playful, drunken “sea cruise” of excess & time-honored tradition.

There pretty much is no substitution for the all-encompassing sampling of New Orleans culture in Always for Pleasure. The only significant aspect of local flavor I can think of that’s missing from the film would maybe be some culinary delights: gumbo, king cakes, beignets, etc. . . . and, of course, the rampant political corruption. And because the city is so hellbent on preserving & passing down its traditions from one generation to the next, the documentary still feels eerily fresh today. Honestly, not much has changed in the past three or four decades except for the fashions. This is the New Orleans I know & love. This is the meandering magic of Mardi Gras preserved for posterity in a work of art. That’s no small feat, I assure you, so this ends up being the film I return to on an annual basis to get into the spirit of the season.

-Brandon Ledet