Agnès Varda does not take exception to being called the grandmother of the French New Wave though this title is problematic on two counts. First, she's eight years younger than the oldest of the major French New Wave directors, Eric Rohmer, and only four years older than the youngest, François Truffaut. Thus she's hardly a suitable mother figure much less grandmother. Second, though her work shares many similarities with the French New Wave in its documentary realism, miniscule budgets, fluid camera movement, and use of real locations, natural lighting and non-actors, Varda is more properly linked, along with Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, with the more political Rive Gouche (The Left Bank) movement. However, as the 50's and 60's recede further from collective memory these distinctions become less important. Whatever the label, Agnas Varda is unquestionably one of cinema's finest talents.
The Criterion Collection has just released an impressive four-disc box set of Varda's work which includes her first three feature films (La Pointe Courte, Cleo from 5 to 7, and Le Bonheur), her most popular and critically successful film Vagabond, three shorts made between 1958-1961, and numerous extras.
La Pointe Courte
Varda did not attend film school, did not work in the industry, and claims to have rarely even been to the cinema prior to commencing La Pointe Courte in 1954. If true, Varda spontaneously reinvented the cinematography of Ingmar Bergman (Summer Interlude - '51), the austerity of plot and pacing of Michelangelo Antonioni (The Vanquished - '53), the actor-model technique of Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest - '51), and the documentary realism of the Italian Neorealists, especially and most startlingly Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema (1948) which La Pointe Courte's scenes of poor fisherfolk seems clairvoyantly to channel.
Varda was able to self-finance La Pointe Courte for a budget one-tenth that of studio films at the time. She did this by using only two professional actors and a small crew all of whom agreed to shares in the film's future earnings in lieu of pay, and by using real locations and non-professional actors to populate the film. La Pointe Courte is set in a small seaside fishing village that Varda knew from her youth. The story contrasts the lives of an urbane couple on holiday with that of the village's poor fishing families. Sophisticates Lui (Philippe Noiret) and Elle (Silvia Monfort) are considering whether to separate. Employing the aforementioned techniques most-closely identified with Bergman, Antonioni, and Bresson, the couple and their concerns seem, through both substance and presentation, to be completely alien to the pedestrian surroundings of the fishing village and cares of its inhabitants who experience joys and heartaches more akin in style and substance to Visconti's La Terra Trema. The couple grapples with an existential dissatisfaction which completely eludes the villagers, while the indignities of poverty suffered by the villagers go unnoticed by the couple. The couple and the villagers share the same physical space, but not a Weltanschauung (world view).
Varda's techniques on display in La Pointe Courte obviously had an impact on the films that followed it, but La Pointe Courte holds the least continuing relevance of any film in this set. The scenes with the couple appear overworked and ill considered now, while the scenes with the villagers pale in comparison to those of Visconti for a number of reasons but most particularly because the viewer is continually being taken out of the moment by the numerous glances of the non-professional actors into the camera.
Cléo from 5 to 7
Varda's second feature film Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961) could more accurately be called Cléo from 5 to 6:30. The 90-minute run time perfectly synchronizes with the passage of time within the film. We pass this time with Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a young and beautiful but superficially vain pop singer who is spending an anxious afternoon awaiting the results of a biopsy. Cléo from 5 to 7 reconciles the two aspects of reality presented in parallel in La Pointe Courte, the premeditated determinism of the couple, and the caught-in-the-moment happenstance of the villagers. Documentary and subjective stylizations merge as we see the streets and inhabitants of Paris through the eyes of a young woman who at times feels sick, lost, afraid and anxious, and at other times joyful, invigorated, and flirtatious. Though the film unfolds in real time, it is not constrained by ordinary time. Cléo may step behind a screen and emerge a second later in a new dress, shattering any pretense towards realism, yet time moves steadily forward toward the appointed moment that Cléo receives her biopsy results as the chapter titles and clocks of Paris frequently remind the viewer.
"The Happiness" or simply "Happiness" is the literal translation of the title of Varda's third feature film, Le Bonheur (1965). However, this translation is too narrowly literal to fit this complex film which ends in a far more complicated and controversial place than its trite premise of marital infidelity would suggest. François, played by Jean-Claude Drouot, is happily married to Thérèse, played by Jean-Claude's actual wife Claire Drouot. François and Thérèse have two healthy and adorable small children, Pierrot and Gisou, played by Jean-Claude and Claire's own children. François's life is one of familial contentment. He's an artisan woodworker who gets along well with his colleagues, friends and extended family, and he has the unqualified love of his wife and children. Enter into this picture Emilie (Marie-France Boyer) a slightly younger, sexier, and more adventurous version of Thérèse, eager to be François' mistress.
François begins spending his lunch hours in Emilie's bed while continuing to enjoy a perfect home life with Thérèse and the children. For a few weeks, François enjoys a degree of bliss beyond anything he previously thought possible. Then while on a picnic in the woods, Thérèse asks François what accounts for his exuberance. He confesses to seeing Emilie, and offers to stop the affair if Thérèse wishes. What follows from this is what makes Le Bonheur so much more than its trite premise would suggest. The events that follow are so unexpected and controversial that they leave the thoughtful viewer mulling over the film long after it ends. The last third of the film can easily be dismissed as implausible and misogynistically anti-feminist, but to do so is a disservice to Varda and the viewer. Le Bonheur is a deceptively impressive film deserving of thoughtful consideration.
The fourth film in the box set is Varda's most commercially and critically successful work Sans Toit Ni Loi (1985), released in the English-speaking world as Vagabond though the more literal translation "Without Roof Nor Rule" may better sum up the protagonist's voluntary circumstances. Vagabond, made twenty years and several films after Le Bonheur, won numerous awards including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for its portrayal of the last days in the life of a young female drifter. This is no spoiler. The film begins at the end for Mona, played by the comely 17-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire, found frozen to death in a roadside ditch stinking and bereft of adequate winter clothing and gear. The film's central question, therefore, is not what will become of Mona, but rather how did she come to this end. To address this, the film jumps back about three weeks to trace her last days.
Mona begins her ending by emerging clean, happy and naked from a wintry sea along France's southern coast. The beach is empty except for Mona who appears unaware that she is being observed from above by two teenage boys. As she dresses and picks up her rucksack she assumes a guise that could as easily be mistaken for that of a middle-class university student near the end of a backpacking trip, as that of the vagabond she really is. For now her body and hair are clean, and her clothing, boots, camping gear and rucksack are in good order, but as the film progresses, Mona's appearance and gear will deteriorate mostly through steadily wear and tear, but sometimes through quick calamity.
Mona gets by principally on three things: the beneficence of strangers, her looks, and the quality of her gear. Some people charitably give Mona food, shelter, and money without an expectation of return, but they are few and far between, and Mona inevitably exhausts the limits of the charity offered and moves on unwilling to abide by conditions that attach to continued assistance. She also relies on her good looks, sometimes explicitly as when she prostitutes herself and sometimes obliquely as when she takes refugee with a lovelorn housekeeper that conflates Mona with a not fully-formed notion of the idealization of perfect love she's missing in her life. Finally, when neither charity nor looks will do, Mona relies on the fall back of warm clothes and camping gear to get her through.
Mona claims to have graduated from a vocational high school and worked briefly as a secretary, but never fit in and after a series of run-ins with employers left the world of work behind. Although by her own admission she's a liar, this autobiography rings true. Mona appears to lack the ambition to work or even navigate the French social security net, preferring to wander about the countryside instead. She lives uncompromisingly free and with reckless abandon. In the course of a few days she blows through several offers of hospitality, is raped, and looses her gear in a fire, but she is never a victim. She may not have chosen the exact course of her destruction, but she's very much responsible for charting the general course, dimly aware of but unmoved by its inevitable endpoint.
Vagabond is intensely provoking, calling into question the viewer's preconceived notions on a myriad of subjects ranging from homelessness, to feminism, charity, independence, and mental illness. It is essential filmmaking not to be missed.
Agnès Varda supervised and approved the transfer of each film from source material to high definition digital video. None of these remastered discs in this box set are currently available individually. 4 by Agnès Varda supersedes the earlier inferior Criterion releases of Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond which pale in comparison.
All of the films in this set are presented in their original aspect ratio. The remastered transfers are excellent with nearly all the dirt, debris, and scratches removed. Unfortunately, the Criterion Collection remains committed to windowboxing 1.33:1 films so that a black border appears on all sides of the image on properly-adjusted monitors much to the chagrin of its customers that care about image quality.
Optional English subtitles are available for all the original French content. The translations are good, and the subtitles are appropriately sized, paced and placed.
The original 1.0 mono French audio track is preserved for all features with no noticeable dropout or distortion.
Varda and Criterion have done an exceptional job putting together a quality set of extras to accompanying each feature, as well as a 60-page booklet with essays, photos, and cast and crew credits for each film.
The extras for La Pointe Courte consist of a new video interview with Varda (15 min.) in which she reminisces about the making of the film, and excerpts from a 1964 episode of the French television series Cinéastes de Notre Temps, in which Varda discusses her early career (9 min.).
The extras on Cléo from 5 to 7 are fairly extensive consisting of Remembrances (36 min. 2005), a documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with Varda and actors Marchand and Bourseiller; a gallery of paintings by Hans Baldung Grien, whose work inspired the character of Cléo; an excerpt from a 1993 French television program featuring Madonna and Varda talking about the film and Madonna's plans to do a remake (2 min.); Cléo's Real Path Through Paris (9 min. 2005), a short film retracing by motorcycle Cleo's journey through Paris; Les Fiancés du Pont Macdonald (5 min. 1961), a short film directed by Varda, featuring Jean-Luc Goddard, with Varda explaining why the film was featured in Cléo from 5 to 7; L'opéra Mouffe (16 min. 1958), an early short by Varda in which she expressionistically documents life on the street near her apartment; and, a theatrical trailer (2 min.).
Extras on Le Bonheur comprise a 1998 interview with Varda about the film (3 min.); Two Women of Le Bonheur (6 min. 2006), a short piece featuring actors Claire Drouot and Marie-France Boyer; Thoughts on Le Bonheur (15 min. 2006), a discussion between four intellectuals discussing the concept of happiness and its relation to the film; two short pieces by Varda investigating people's idea of happiness (7 min.); Jean-Claude Drouot Returns (10 min. 2006), a featurette in which the actor revisits the film's setting forty years later; a segment from the 1964 television program Démons et Merveilles du Cinéma, featuring footage of Varda shooting Le Bonheur (4 min.); Du Côté de la Côte (26 min. 1958), a short film by Varda exploring the tourist destination of the Côte d'Azur; and, a theatrical trailer (2 min.).
The extras on Vagabond include Remembrances (41 min. 2003), an extensive look at the making of the film, including interviews with Sandrine Bonnaire and other cast members; The Story of an Old Lady (4 min. 2003), a short piece in which Varda revisits actress Marthe Jarnias, who plays the old aunt in the film; Music and Dolly Shots (12 min. 2003), a conversation between Varda and composer Joanna Bruzdowicz; a 1986 radio interview with Varda and writer Nathalie Sarraute, who inspired the film (9 min.); and, the theatrical trailer (2 min.)
The Criterion Collection has paid fitting tribute to one of the world's greatest living directors with the four-disc box set entitled 4 by Agnès Varda. Consisting of director-approved transfers of Varda's first three films along with Vagabond her most successful film, and numerous extras, it's truly impressive. Though Varda's first film La Pointe Courte is not exceptional, the other films in this collection surely are. Except for the windowboxing of La Pointe Courte, this set is nearly flawless. 4 by Agnès Varda contains essential works that should be in the collection of any serious collector of European art house cinema.