Google “DVD” alongside two of the most wanted films from this year’s retrospective quota – namely, Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Army of Shadows and Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados – and the search results are far from promising. Neither of these sought-after diamonds appear to have gained digital immortality; malnourished film buffs can only yearn for their shiny disc release. Desperately, for those of us bound to the remote outreaches of the globe, the hunger for viewing alternatives is even more so than most. Geographic isolation and archaic censorship laws sure don’t help. An annual lifeline like the festival’s Out of the Past programme certainly eases the frustration though, and this year’s ten Maurice Pialat films (in addition to the aforementioned features plus three restored New Zealand landmarks) are said to be equally as special and unseen.

But the singular, rarefied nature of these revival screenings does beg the question: are some films better off left untouched? While there’s unfortunately no other option for the famished moviegoer without right-of-way to cultural centres like London, Paris or New York, there are clearly certain films that don’t belong in a living room, and don’t function within the confines of a box. I first saw The Passenger on VHS – a grainy, deteriorating, pan & scan VHS – and the results weren’t ideal. During its moody establishing scenes – the classic alien expanses of desert followed by the bleak discovery of a dead tourist whose identity foreign correspondent Locke (Jack Nicholson) decides to assume – the phone rung twice, and later, I had to hit pause again after a knock on the door. Domestic pitfalls aside, it’s a given that any Antonioni film is a dish best served Big – he is a master of visual language; of the sensation of cinema, no less – and apart from the occasional film society cameo, his pictures are seldom seen in this country the way they ought to be. The Passenger’s sublime final scene – a quite awesome seven minute long tracking shot – boggles the mind (I’m still trying to work it out), and is one reason among many to bypass the rental and make a beeline for seats to one of a handful of sessions.¹

Similarly, Pialat’s films are as rich, textural, and affecting. At least, they are on the evidence of Loulou and Van Gogh: the former, one of several festival items this year to plumb the restless passages of youth; the latter an unquestionably great film about a great artist. With an oafish Gérard Depardieu in the title role, and Isabelle Huppert as his besotted love interest Nelly – and a festival just isn’t a festival without the company of this incomparable actress – Loulou sizzles with all the free-spirit and recklessness of young love. And yet the film’s heat isn’t so much in Loulou and Nelly’s frequent bedroom romps, but in the clash of social codes: she’s the displaced partner of a bourgeois advertising exec; he’s a leather-jacketed rebel without a cause (or a job). Such aversion to employment resonates across the board, with Mutual Appreciation, Lonesome Jim and Pialat’s own Graduate First all treading the same murky waters of reluctant responsibility.

Rather differently, Van Gogh shines brightly as a lucid glimpse into the enormously influential, and ultimately tortured Expressionist’s last days. The programme notes remark that the film’s poignancy comes from feeling you’ve been in the presence of a remarkable man, and Pialat illuminates the film with a lingering aura of incandescence (its leisurely river strolls and breezy summer outings are most evocative of this). Like Van Gogh’s own masterworks, the colours present are pungent with strokes of turbulence fighting the surface, offering a keyhole into troubled genius. While madness has always been at the core of his legend though, there’s no explicit lobe severing here, and the fatal gunshot is quietly matter-of-fact. Justly, when painting, he is at his most sane. Awash with a fleeting sublime, Pialat simply allows the twilight to drift over us; only later, does its magnificence dawn on us. On the big-screen, its imprint is likely to be all the greater, reaffirming the notion that some films demand only to be seen live.—Tim Wong