The work of director André Téchiné is cinema outside the margins. His narratives are unruly, dynamic creations, often melodramatic and more than a little heartrending. In the best of his work (say, Hôtel des Amériques, Rendez-vous, or Thieves), there's a palpable sense of engaged inertia, of lives colliding and emotions brimming forth unexpectedly. This inclination to portray the most basic human impulses in all their messy glory, this "willingness to court danger," as Kent Jones put it in an early issue of Cinema Scope, wasn't always part of Téchiné's methodology. His early work, no doubt inspired by his time spent as part of that second generation of Cahiers du Cinéma critics turned filmmakers, approached cinema from a more formalist, Brechtian position. The Bronte Sisters, Téchiné's 1979 dramatization of the English sisters' tragic rise to literary prominence, then, may initially feel less of a piece with the directors' wider corpus, and more of a refinement of an initial aesthetic understanding.
Indeed, following The Bronte Sisters, Téchiné, in his own words, no longer worked within the constraints of the genre film. "My inspiration is no longer drawn from the cinema," he explained. Whether these later films are a more honest realization of Téchiné's sensibilities, or if the early works were simply exercises in a certain ideological virtue, there's little doubt that his conceptualization of The Bronte Sisters was a formally appropriate one. Bathed in a muted yet rich palette of dusty interior shades and pastoral exterior strokes, the film is a strikingly evocative sensory experience. In lieu of the tumultuous outbursts which spike his more widely seen work, The Bronte Sisters is a far more internalized effort, certainly befitting his subjects, four troubled siblings—Charlotte (Marie-France Pisier), Emily (Isabelle Adjani), and Anne (Isabelle Huppert), the sisters of the film's title, alongside doomed brother Branwell (Pascal Greggory)—who suffer quietly, downplaying or, in some cases, completely hiding their talents as dictated by their Victorian milieu.
The lives of the Bronte siblings were ones of secrets and indiscretions, yes, but ultimately also of inspiration. When Emily and Charlotte are forced to abandon their studies in Brussels and return home in the wake of the death of their aunt, they surreptitiously begin work on what would become some of the most celebrated novels in modern literature, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, respectively. The younger Anne, meanwhile, toils away at her own novel before the three decide to submit the results for publication under male pseudonyms, sparking widespread inquiries about the authorial voices behind such unique works. Emily, a tortured and reluctant genius, wants no part of the attention, refusing at first to even allow her work to be published, let alone be identified as her own. She and Branwell grow ever closer, and thus ever apart from their sisters, during this time, his conflicted passions for both his own art (painting) and a clandestine relationship with the wife (Hélène Surgère) of his sister Anne's employer, Mr. Robinson (Adrian Brine), leading him down a path of self-destruction.
Besides the aforementioned confrontation between Charlotte and Emily over recognition of the latter's work, Téchiné admirably downplays the dramatics. Extraneous information is elided, multiple deaths take place off screen, visions and dreamy interludes stand in for demonstrative gestures, and, in stark contrast to what was to come for the director, his camera stays mostly stationary, save for a handful of lyrical crane shots, his aesthetic inspiration appearing to be rooted in the lush period work of such masters as Rossellini, Visconti, and Ophüls. But even here one can feel the simmering tensions which Téchiné would later exploit to great effect, the power of the finished product equal to that of the accumulated discord elsewhere—which leaves The Bronte Sisters in a particularly ripe position for r oeappraisal. In an era particularly skeptical of the ostentatious and melodramatic, and with Téchiné seemingly relegated, along with elder statesmen such as Benoît Jacquot and Bertrand Tavernier, to an unfortunate modern variation on la qualité français, this film feels, perhaps paradoxically considering its self-conscious construction, not only pure but uncommonly engaged with histories both literary and cinematic. And in that sense it feels just as assertive as Téchiné's more rebellious work.
André Téchiné's The Bronte Sisters debuts on Blu-ray from the suddenly surging Cohen Media Group (see also their release of Luis Buñuel's Tristana and the forthcoming Blu-ray of René Clément's The Damned) in a natural, authentic-looking and remastered 1080p transfer. Textured grain, the transfer's most notable feature, is apparent throughout, with interior scenes looking darkly shaded and exteriors looking rich and moody with well-balanced contrast levels. The original 1.66:1 aspect ratio is kept intact and compositionally this appears to be a precise rendering of Téchiné's vision. Sound, meanwhile, comes in a linear PCM 2.0 channel track, which balances voices in the foreground and Philippe Sarde's evocative score in the distance. There's no undue noise on either the audio or video side of the equation, and overall CMG's presentation is impressive.
The package contains only two digital supplements, but both are unexpectedly great. First, there's a 60-minute making-of documentary featuring interviews with Téchiné, Pascal Greggory, co-screenwriter Pascal Bonizter, among others (none of the three leading ladies, however). It covers the production from inception to completion and really goes above and beyond most standard-issue docs that appear on many DVDs and Blu-rays—as does the full-length commentary track. While not specified on the packaging, the commentary features film critic Wade Major and Bronte scholar Sue Lonoff de Cuevas in conversation throughout. Together they make a formidable team, with Major contextualizing the film among both the cinema of the period and Téchiné's career as a whole, while De Cuevas fills in with copious anecdotes and specifications about the veracity of the film's narrative. It's a surprisingly satisfying and informative listen.
French director André Téchiné's reputation for unruly, melodramatic narratives is set in stark relief by 1979s The Bronte Sisters, a richly restrained, formalist work ripe for reappraisal. [Slant]