Judge Clark Douglas would like to make a film about his experiences reviewing this box set. He plans to call it Clark from 5 AM on Saturday to 7 PM on Sunday.
"They called me 'The Ancestor of the New Wave' when I was only 30. I had seen very few films, which, in a way, gave me both the naivety and the daring to do what I did."—Agnès Varda
These are just a few of the many descriptions you will hear of director Agnès Varda, one of cinema's most important female directors. Her films run from full-blown fiction to art experiments to documentaries, and all of her work has a unique and creative visual sensibility. And yet, when the French New Wave is discussed, the name of Agnès Varda is often forgotten, as the names Godard, Truffaut, and even Varda's husband, Demy, dominate the conversation. The Criterion Collection once again steps up to the plate to shine the spotlight on a vastly overlooked director, giving modern audiences 4 by Agnès Varda.
Facts of the Case
Varda's very first film was La Pointe Courte, a seemingly simple slice-of-life tale about a small fishing town (called La Pointe Courte) in the south of France. Varda introduces the viewer to many different aspects of life in the town. We meet a mother trying to raise numerous small children. Fishermen complain about public health officials who attempt to make them stop fishing in bacteria-infected waters. A teenage girl's parents fret over whether or not to let a young man from the town date their daughter. At the center of everything is the relationship between Elle (Silvia Monfort) and Lui (Phillipe Noiret, Il Postino), a young married couple contemplating whether or not to break up. Despite little plotting and even less action, this tiny directorial debut is now widely considered to be one of the key films in the formation of the French New Wave.
One of Varda's best-known films is Cléo from 5 to 7, a real-time character study that allows us to view 90 minutes of one woman's life (no, I don't know why it's not called Cléo from 5 to 6:30). Cléo (Corrine Marchand, Travels with My Aunt) is a famous pop singer who is awaiting the results of a biopsy. As she waits for the results, she takes a trip by foot and vehicle through the heart of Paris. Interacting with friends and strangers in various episodes along the way, Cléo from 5 to 7 is a carefully-staged portrait of a woman attempting to casually live her life while the shadow of death follows her.
A lot of conversation and controversy was inspired by Varda's Le Bonheur (or "Happiness"). The colorful, visually vibrant film centers on a relationship between a married couple, François (Jean-Claude Drouot) and Therese (Claire Drouot). They are very happy, they have a young boy and a girl, and life generally seems to be good for their entire family. Despite his pleasant situation, François decides to step outside the boundaries of marriage when he meets an attractive postal worker (Marie-France Boyer). What follows is a visually glossy and emotionally harsh examination of "happiness" and what one person often has to sacrifice in order for another person to have it.
Finally, we jump forward to 1985 with Varda's Vagabond. The film is the story of a female drifter (Sandrine Bonnaire, Monsieur Hire) whose dead body is found in a ditch during the opening scene. Partially using documentary-style techniques, Varda creates a fictional account of this girl's life via realistic interviews with people who knew her. Who was the girl? Where did she come from? Why did she decide to become a drifter? Why did she have to die? Vagabond is a loving yet unflinching look at a life that many people viewed as worthless.
Watching this collection, I was struck by something: I'm not sure that there has ever been another director who has done a better job at establishing a sense of location in their work. Maybe Terence Malick, maybe John Ford…but it's hard to top Varda, who offers us locations so real and tangible that they become supporting characters in the film. Listening to her speak on the special features spread throughout this collection is a revelation. Most directors talk about the themes in the story, the messages, the characters…Varda does this as well, but more than anything, she focuses on places.
My favorite place in this collection is La Pointe Courte, that beautiful and simple little fishing town. What is it about that film, that place, that draws me in so much? Varda speaks about trying to distance the viewer emotionally, pushing them back by shifting unexpectedly between life in the town and conventional romance. Maybe it's because Varda is intentionally distancing us from the characters, but the location feels so alive. It is by no means a vacation fantasy; the town suffers from all kinds of real-life problems. However, something about the atmosphere is so peaceful, so gentle, so soothing. We can feel the effect of La Pointe Courte on us as we watch the film, and so can the characters.
The romantic relationship between the young married couple in La Pointe Courte is a troubled one. The wife, who is from Paris, is thinking of leaving. She thinks she might be falling out of love with her husband. The husband, who was born in La Pointe Courte, responds with calm serenity, telling her that she is free to leave if she feels she needs to. That serenity informs everyone who stays in La Pointe Courte for any extended period of time, even the high-society Parisian woman. Other films have tried to take on similar themes, most recently Ridley Scott's A Good Year, but Varda manages to convey the message so much more subtly and convincingly in La Pointe Courte. It's such a beautiful film, and Varda's artful black-and-white images are so very memorable. My own favorite is the remarkable shot of a creaky old train slowly and agonizingly making its way down nature-ravaged tracks. One gets the sense that the train would like to stay in La Pointe Courte too, pressing on painfully as the tall, rich grass pleads "why not just stay awhile?"
Varda's photography is equally rich in Le Bonheur, but it takes on a much more sinister effect, that of a fairy tale as Varda shows us this "perfect family," hugging, kissing, having picnics, smiling. Even when the affair between the husband and the postal worker begins, Varda continues to film everything in a romantic and ideal manner. There are no feelings of guilt at home, no hiding in shadows as the husband goes to meet his mistress. Why would a man who is perfectly happy behave like this? His explanation is chilling: "I'm happy. I just want extra happiness."
Varda's film is (to me) about the consequences that this "extra happiness" has on others. There is a scene of extreme cruelty when the husband casually informs his wife that he is having an affair. He innocently says, "But if you want me to stop, I will." Even more cruelly, the wife punishes herself by telling her husband, "I'm happy if you're happy." The scene that shortly follows is a raw dose of reality, shattering the romantic trappings of the film so effectively it may make some viewers choke.
Le Bonheur is not an easy film to stomach; many viewers may find themselves preferring Varda's remarkably tender and touching Cléo from 5 to 7. Cléo is not the ideal heroine of a story like this. She is spoiled and a bit selfish, as so many celebrities tend to be. Nonetheless, Varda offers this woman such warm kindness and understanding. Varda claims that the film was inspired by a series of paintings by Hans Baldung Grien. The paintings depict death (personified by a horrific skeletal figure) whispering some awful secret into the ear of a young woman, standing behind her like a cruel shadow.
Corrine Marchand lets the spirit of these paintings fill her performance, trying to ignore the whispers of death. She does not know whether or not the test results will be positive, and neither do we. Nevertheless, the threat of such a thing is perhaps even more frightening than the actual knowledge of it. Cléo is able to forget or ignore her health situation during some moments, but the presence of death always seems to be there. This is most poignantly illustrated during a moment Cléo spends with the composer of her songs (the film's composer, Michael Legrand), one of the film's most touching and inventive scenes. It's a very strong movie that somehow manages to keep us in suspense despite very little typical "drama." It achieves this simply by refusing to give us Cléo's medical results until the very end and by using the real-time format in a very strict and credible manner.
The final film included is Vagabond, a simultaneously frustrating and fascinating film. When I say it is "frustrating," it is only because it took me a while to get used to the tone in which Varda chooses to tell her story. This is not a film of messages or social values; no lessons are learned. This is simply a sad, frightening look at the life of a unique spirit, occasionally punctuated by all-too-brief moments of warmth and humor. There is a certain sadness hanging over the entire film, in large part because we know that it must end with the death of the lead character.
Sandrine Bonnaire is absolutely fantastic in her role as the young female drifter. When we meet the actress during the special features on the DVD, it's almost surprising to discover that she is not only considerably more attractive than she is allowed to appear in Vagabond, but also much friendlier. In the film, she plays a very tough and somewhat bitter young woman, rebelling against the world. The drifter never thanks anyone for anything, never permits herself to acknowledge that someone has done her a favor. Those who meet her find her fascinating and curious, and yet they are never able to fully comprehend her. In telling the stories of many different people who encountered the drifter, Varda does not explain her character, but she gives us an understanding of her. It's a very sad film with a great deal of emotional impact, but almost no sentimentality whatsoever.
Music plays a key role in all four of the films and provides each of them with a unique sound. In La Pointe Courte, composer Pierre Barbaud's 12-tone score brings a hypnotic ambiguity to the proceedings. We frequently hear the music tilting from beauty to mystery, from romance to horror, from joy to sadness, all with a kind of casual, non-committal indecision. This not only manages to capture the dilemma faced by the couple at the center of the film, but also the simultaneous beauty and hardship of La Pointe Courte itself. Much more conventionally lovely is Michael Legrand's tender score for Cléo from 5 to 7, which effectively manages to capture the melancholy musical sounds of 1960s Paris. Le Bonheur has the most dramatic and bold musical score, featuring the music of none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Mozart music is immensely effective, bringing a cheerful and frothy spirit to the film that starts to feel sinister after a while. The combination of music and images during the film's final five minutes is nothing short of chilling. Finally, Vagabond doesn't have a lot of music, but it uses 12 brief and dissonant pieces (composed for the film by Joanna Brudowicz) very effectively during some key tracking shots.
Fortunately, Criterion's preservation work allows us to hear all this music with great clarity. The sound is best on Vagabond and Le Bonheur, very clean and crisp mono. Things waver just a little bit on La Pointe Courte, and unfortunately the big musical number from Cléo from 5 to 7 gets somewhat distorted, that film's only significant audio flaw. As for visuals, I was surprised by how remarkable the 1954 film La Pointe Courte looks. Criterion has really cleaned it up beautifully. The same can be said about the very vivid and colorful transfer of Le Bonheur, a film where the bright colors and images add a lot to the overall effect. Cléo from 5 to 7 has a few scratches here and there, but nothing too serious. While Vagabond is the newest film of the collection, it looks a bit weak. Like many other small dramatic films of the 1980s, Vagabond just doesn't seem to have held up very well…picture seems quite flat, though by no means poor.
As usual, Criterion has supplied a wide array of well-produced extras, many of which Varda herself had a direct hand in. Features are actually quite slim on La Pointe Courte, however, with only a 15-minute interview with Varda from 2007 and a 9-minute excerpt from a 1964 French television program. Both are quite good, and Varda's unique and charming personality is quite refreshing. She certainly doesn't have any fear of over praising her own work (she makes the claim that La Pointe Courte "re-invented cinema"), but she doesn't come across as snobbish.
There's a whole lot of extras on Cléo from 5 to 7, however. The best is a 35-minute documentary called "Remembrances," directed by Varda herself. The doc chronicles the making of the film, and Varda makes the wonderful decision to interview the cast and crew on the various locations where the film was shot. It's a refreshing and warm documentary, made with a lot of thoughtfulness and class. Several short films are also included on the disc, the most notable of which is L'Opéra Mouffe, an odd but compelling Varda short from 1958 featuring a strong score from composer Georges Delerue. Les fiancés du pont Macdonald is the full-length version of the short within the film, a wacky Chaplin-style silent film starring none other than Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. Cléo's Real Path Through Paris is of some mild interest, made by a man on a motorcycle re-tracing the trip Cléo took over the course of the film. A brief clip of Madonna and Varda discussing Cléo from 5 to 7 is something of a throwaway, but it's nice to have the gallery of Grien paintings that inspired the film. Finally, there's the original theatrical trailer.
Extras for Le Bonheur begin with "The Two Women of Le Bonheur," a 15-minute conversation with Claire Drouot and Marie-France Boyer. This is an interesting piece, particularly hearing Drouot talk about working with her husband on a film about infidelity. You may be pleased to know that Claire and Jean-Claude Drouot are still married after 45 years, and we catch up with Jean-Claude for 10 minutes in "Jean-Claude Drouot Returns." "Thoughts on Le Bonheur" is actually a little on the annoying side, as four intellectuals discuss what they think the film means. It only runs 15 minutes, and that's a good thing, because these four make for slightly irritating company. It's nice to get back to Varda for a brief interview that runs just a few minutes long, and she also offers two brief yet compelling short pieces on what happiness means to people. In the first, she gathers opinions, and in the second, she offers quotes from famous writers. A brief segment from a 1964 television show offers some interesting behind-the-scenes footage, and Du cote de la cote is a short film by Varda that is quite lovely (and features another fine Delerue score).
I was thrilled to see that yet another "Remembrances" Varda-directed documentary was included on Vagabond, this one running 40 minutes. Bonnaire shares a lot of interesting thoughts on playing her character, and once again a great deal of time is spent discussing locations and places. It's a superb making-of doc. "The Story of an Old Lady" is a charming look at Martha Jarnias, who plays one of the film's most lovable characters. Unfortunately, video quality is awful on this, but it's only 4 minutes long. I was looking forward to the "Music and Dolly Shots" featurette, with a conversation between Varda and composer Joanna Bruzdowicz, but the majority of this 12-minute piece is spent simply re-showing us the tracking shots featuring music. Disappointing. A 10-minute radio interview with Varda and writer Nathalie Sarraute is interesting, as Sarraute's writings had a great deal of influence on Vagabond (which Varda also dedicated to Sarraute). A theatrical trailer wraps up the extras on this disc. Finally, a very thick booklet includes essays on each film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's hard to complain much about a set like this. Still, there is one minor thing that makes me a little sad. Varda is such an interesting personality, I think it's a real shame that they couldn't get her to record a commentary track for one or two of these films. Some commentaries from the director would have added to the value of this collection immensely.
If you're not familiar with the works of Agnès Varda, this collection is the perfect place to start. Four strong, well-selected films are backed up by an engaging and diverse array of bonus material, making this box set an easy recommendation for fans of ambitious and visually striking character studies.
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Scales of Justice, La Pointe Courte
Perp Profile, La Pointe Courte
Distinguishing Marks, La Pointe Courte
• New video interview with director Agnès Varda
Scales of Justice, Cleo From 5 To 7
Perp Profile, Cleo From 5 To 7
Distinguishing Marks, Cleo From 5 To 7
• "Remembrances" Making-of Documentary
Scales of Justice, Le Bonheur
Perp Profile, Le Bonheur
Distinguishing Marks, Le Bonheur
• "The Two Women of Le Bonheur"
Scales of Justice, Vagabond
Perp Profile, Vagabond
Distinguishing Marks, Vagabond
• "Remembrances" Making-of documentary
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