Monday, May 30, 2016

Four By Agnes Varda

FOUR BY AGNES VARDA (multiple films by Varda)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Jan 22, 2008
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Happy 88th birthday, Agnes Varda! Here's a re-written, re-edited version of my review of Criterion's sprawling Varda box set released back in 2008.)

The French New Wave, much like the classical Hollywood it paid homage to, was almost exclusively a man’s game. Agnès Varda stands as the only major exception, aside perhaps from Marguerite Duras who wrote the script for Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959), though Varda's career both precedes and only briefly intersects the New Wave proper.

Varda sprung on the scene seemingly out of nowhere with her fiction-documentary hybrid “La Pointe Courte” in 1954. A true autodidact, Varda not only taught herself how to shoot a film, but claimed that she hadn’t even seen many other films at the time of her first work. That may or may not have been a bit of false humility; she was certainly well-versed in the arts, especially literature and photography.

“La Pointe Courte” was a bracing effort that won critical praise, but did little to jumpstart Varda’s career. She would not shoot another film for four years, and would not produce her next feature film until 1962. The wait proved more than worth it when that second film “Cléo from 5 to 7” became one of the defining works of the French New Wave, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Varda produced two more documentary shorts before releasing “Le Bonheur” (“Happiness”) in 1965, her most shocking and, perhaps, most overlooked film.

By then, Varda had already begun to drift away from the New Wave which was just as well since the other New Wave directors had done the same, and she has spent the rest of her career shifting seamlessly between non-fiction and fiction, and between short and long-form cinema. Varda’s film output was relatively sparse in the 1970s, which led to an understandable dwindling of critical interest, but she stormed back in the '80s with one of her finest works, “Vagabond” (1985). Varda, now 88 years eternal, is semi-retired (naturally, she has another film currently in production), but saved some of her best work for the 21st century with films like 'The Gleaners And I” (2001) and “The Beaches of Agnes” (2008).

Criterion’s boxed set “4 by Agnès Varda” collects (you guessed it) four of her feature films: “La Pointe Courte,” “Cléo from 5 to 7,” “Le Bonheur” and “Vagabond” along with several short films and a whole passel of extras which I will discuss below. “Cleo” and “Vagabond” were previously released by Criterion and retain their old spine numbers (73 and 74, respectively) while the other two get new spine numbers. Short reviews of each film follow.

La Pointe Courte

This film is sometimes identified by scholars today as the first French New Wave film, but that's only because some scholars strain too hard to rewrite history as a neat narrative. Varda preceded the New Wave proper by half a decade and shot and distributed her debut film as a true outsider and a virtual one-woman force of nature.

Like some New Wave films, “La Pointe Courte” blends fiction and non-fiction elements. Set in a Mediterranean fishing village, the movie tells two stories: one of a vacationing couple whose marriage is in jeopardy, and another which tracks the everyday lives of the villagers. Rather than interweaving the two main threads in a seamless fashion, Varda cuts abruptly back and forth between each story. This bold structure was inspired by William Faulkner’s novel “The Wild Palms” with its chapters that alternate between two separate stories.

I used to find the semi-ethnographic tales of the villagers and their clashes with government bureaucracy more compelling than the couple's story, but nowadays I find myself won over by the entire film. I'm particularly impressed by how Varda shifts styles so dramatically, employing fairly non-intrusive neorealist techniques to record the daily lives of the villagers, portrayed by local non-professional actors, and employing more self-conscious editing for the married couple, played by actors Philippe Noiret and Sylvia Monfort (Monfort being the more experienced professional of the two).

As the husband and wife struggle to find a way to continue together, they are often filmed in tight close-ups shot at jarring angles, with one lover's face partially obscuring the other. Some viewers might find the intimate portraits of faces reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman. It's frequently quite startling and totally unforgettable.

Cléo from 5 to 7

Best known today as one of the first “real time” movies, the film follows its titular protagonist through an hour and a half of personal anguish (the film actually only goes from 5 to 6:30 – “5 to 7” is a euphemism for the time after work when some French men visit their mistresses before returning home to the family). Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a slightly-vacuous and slightly-talented pop singer, fears the worst as she waits for the results of a recent medical exam, and tries to subsume her anxieties in a flurry of shopping and idle sightseeing on a meandering walk through the heart of Paris. I have always thought of “Cléo” as a film in which a seemingly shallow person is forced to confront some very profound thoughts. In the process, Cléo evolves from the frivolous pop singer her handlers want her to be to a thoughtful, complex soul. The movie is also a luminous document of Paris on a beautiful summer afternoon.

The film is so rich and densely packed that new details unfold on each viewing. Motice the ways in which the tarot card reader at the beginning of the film blows smoke right up poor Cléo’s lovely posterior. “Was your mother a widow?” “No.” “Then you have a close friend who is a widow.” It’s classic cold reading technique (i.e. bullshit) and may be yet another documentary aspect of the film that has gone largely unnoticed. And then there are the kittens tumbling and playing everywhere in Cléo’s absolutely fabulous apartment; they’re so cute and cuddly and teeny-tiny, she must have them turned in every three weeks for fresh ones.

Le Bonheur

Though often overlooked, this may be the crowning achievement of Varda’s career. Deceptively simple, so shiny and perfect on the surface, this tale of an absolutely typical and utterly perfect family is one of the most transgressive films of the New Wave. I can’t really discuss the movie without providing spoilers (warning: DO NOT READ THE CHAPTER TITLES ON THE INSIDE SLEEVE OF THIS DVD!). Instead, I’ll simply note that this film has more to say about the horrors of happiness than any other film I’ve seen. It is a testament to the notion that a person who is happy all the time either has to engage either in near total denial or be a genuine sociopath. Other movies have touched on the pathology of happiness, but none have done so with such boldness and clarity of vision. There is not a hint of irony or smugness in Varda's film, and for that matter it isn’t even pessimistic, just shake-you-to-your-core insightful. It’s the kind of film that can actually change your understanding of the world, and if that sounds like an exaggeration, then I can only ask you to watch “Le Bonheur” and see if you feel the same way.


Seventeen year-old Sandrine Bonnaire turns in a career-making performance as Mona, a drifter who has embraced the kind of freedom that others only dream about. She lives where she likes, does what she wants to, and even accepts charity from strangers without so much as a thank you. Mona’s free-wheeling ways touch the lives of almost everyone she comes in contact with, though she honestly couldn’t care less. Don’t let that description fool you into thinking this is a feel-good empowerment fest. There’s nothing romantic about this dirty, lazy girl eking out an existence on the fringe of the fringe of society. Life is cold and hard and ugly for someone with no roots and no aspirations, but Mona remains implacably Mona-esque no matter what happens. This is not necessarily a virtue. Whether you see Mona as the fun-house mirror image of the John Wayne rugged individualist or an exemplar of narcissistic nihilism, the film offers no easy answers and little direct access to its protagonist’s inner life. 

“La Pointe Courte” is presented in a 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio; the other three films are presented in the standard European 1.66:1 wide-screen aspect ratio. As you might expect, the restored transfers vary in quality. Surprisingly, “La Pointe Courte,” the oldest of the features, is the best-looking of the bunch. The black-and-white photography is crystal clear and the contrast is very sharp. Also surprisingly, “Cléo from 5 to 7,” the most celebrated film in the package, is probably the weakest transfer, though that’s on a relative scale. It still looks good, but there are several instances of debris and damage from the print source. The other two films are in-between, with “Vagabond” looking better all around then “Le Bonheur” which shows even more damage than “Cléo” but makes up for it with very rich colors.

The films are all presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The mixes are crisp, efficient, and not particularly dynamic which is my way of saying I have nothing much to say about them except that they do the job just fine. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Where to start? This may be the most extra-packed Criterion boxed set ever released. Each of the four discs contains one of the films and a selection of extras.

“La Pointe Courte”

The first disc eases into the extras orgy with just a few short offerings:
-Interview with Varda – a newly recorded (2007) interview with the director (16 min.)
-An excerpt (9 min) from an episode of the French television series “Cinéastes de notre temps” which originally aired May 19, 1964.

“Cleo from 5 to 7”

Now the fun really begins:
-“Remembrances” (36 min, 2005) – This short documentary, shot by Varda in 2005, reunites the cast and crew of the film.
-“Cléo’s Real Path through Paris” (9 min, 2005) – Pierre-William Glenn shoots from the back of a motorcycle as he retraces Cléo’s trip through Paris. An on-screen map orients viewers to where they are in the City of Lights.
-“Hans Baldung Green” – Green’s paintings inspired some of the shots in “Cléo.” This feature offers information about the painter as well as the opportunity to navigate through several still reproductions of his paintings.
-“Madonna et Agnès” – The only feature in the set that seems completely extraneous, this is a 2-minute clip from a 1993 French TV special about Madonna in which Varda speaks to the Material Girl.
-“Les fiancés du Pont McDonald” – Perhaps the most famous scene in the film occurs when Cléo enters a theater and watches a short film. The “silent” film within a film stars Varda’s fellow New Wavers Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina along with Jean-Claude Brialy and even Eddie Constantine. This feature produces the short film-within-a-film in its entirety which is pretty much how you see it in the film too, but here it comes with opening credits as well.
-“L’opéra mouffe” (1958, 16 min.) Varda’s first short film, and her first project after “La Pointe Courte,” is a surrealist montage from the rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It is told from the point-of-view of an anxious pregnant woman; Varda was also pregnant with daughter Rosalie at the time of shooting.

“Le Bonheur”

The third disc offers yet another cornucopia of extras:

-“Agnès on ‘Le Bonheur’” - A 3-minute 1998 interview with (and by) Varda.
-“The Two Women of Le Bonheur” (2006, 6 min) – Varda and her daughter speak with the two lead actresses of the film.
-“Thoughts on Le Bonheur” (15 min.) – Varda brings four intellectuals together to discuss the film and the nature of happiness in general. Each of the four brings a different perspective to the discussion, including one woman who just can’t understand what all the fuss is about.
-“What is Happiness?” – This section includes two short features which further explore the subject of happiness from different perspectives, both from people on the street and from philosophers and authors. My favorite quote: “Happiness is the silence of unhappiness.”
-An excerpt from the French television series “Demons et merveilles du cinema” (1964, 4 min) shows Varda on set working with her actors. It’s great to see Varda in action, but it’s a crying shame this feature is so short.
-“Du côté de la côte” (1958, 26 min) – Varda was commissioned to shoot a film about the Côte d’Azure and wound up making this impressionistic take on the resort’s history and its inherent falseness; it was originally titled “Fake Eden.”


The fourth and final disc keeps dishing out the goods:

-“Remembrances” (2003, 40 min) – Another documentary shot by Varda in which she re-examines the film and speaks with several cast and crew members.
-“The Story of an Old Lady” (2003, 4 min) – Varda revisits one of the actresses (Marthe Jarnias) from the film.
-“Music and Dolly Shots” (2003, 12 min) – Varda and music composer Joanna Bruzdowicz discuss the film’s score as well as the lengthy dolly shots used.
-“To Nathalie Sarraute” (1986, 9 min) – This is an excerpt from a radio show (with accompanying still images) in which Varda discusses the fiction writer who inspired her film. Varda dedicated “Vagabond” to Sarraute.

Each film is housed in its own separate slip case which fits into the boxed set alongside the hefty insert booklet which features essays as well as comments from Varda about each film.

Final Thoughts:
All four films in this set are exceptional. And with the incredible array of extras, the set is more than worth the purchase even for viewers who already own Criterion’s previous releases of “Cléo from 5 to 7” and “Vagabond.” Agnès Varda is one of the great French filmmakers of the past half century, and this set more than does justice to some of her finest feature work.

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