4 by Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda used the skills she honed early in her career as a photographer to create some of the most nuanced, thought-provoking films of the past fifty years. She is widely believed to have presaged the French new wave with her first film, La Pointe Courte, long before creating one of the movement’s benchmarks, Cléo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7). Later, with Le bonheur and Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi), Varda further shook up art-house audiences, challenging bourgeois codes with her inscrutable characters and offering effortlessly beautiful compositions and editing. Now working largely as a documentarian, Varda remains one of the essential cinematic poets of our time and a true visionary.
The Criterion Collection presents 4 films by Agnès Varda in the 4-disc DVD box set 4 by Agnès Varda. The films, each receiving their own dual-layer disc are La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur, and Vagabond. Both Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond are upgrades over previous editions released by Criterion in 2000. All of the presentations are sourced from high-definition restorations and are presented in the aspect ratios of 1.33:1 (La Pointe Courte) and 1.66:1 (the remaining three titles). The widescreen presentations have been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
All of the films offer solid presentations. Damage isn’t too bad between the films, with La Pointe Courte maybe showing the most issues (large tram lines for example). They’re also all encoded well and upscaled manage to look pretty good. Le bonheur, an incredibly colourful film on its own, looks the best of the bunch, delivering the cleanest looking image, both in terms of restoration work and digital encode.
The two upgrades—Vagabond and Cléo from 5 to 7—do offer significant improvements over Criterion’s previous editions, which made use of dated standard-definition masters, though at times I felt Vagabond looked a little softer.
For more detailed reviews of each please use the drop down above.
All four films offer up Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtracks. Le bonheur is the most dynamic of the group, the Mozart score managing to pack a punch. Vagabond may be the next best, followed by the other two, with La Pointe Courte showing some edginess. They’re all easy to listen to, though, and none present any significant problems.
All four discs offer up supplements specific to their respective films. The first disc, featuring Varda’s first film La Pointe Courte, unfortunately offers the weakest collection. The most significant feature here are interviews featuring Varda, filmed exclusively for this release, and then an excerpt from a 1964 interview with her for the French television program Cinéastes de notre temps, running 16-minutes and 9-minutes respectively. The newer interview features the director talking about the location the film takes place in before getting into what she was trying to accomplish with the film, particularly in its narrative that jumps between the fishermen of the village and the central couple: basically have a private story and public story intermixed, showing how the two worlds can't combine. She also recounts how she managed to talk director Alain Resnais into helping her edit the film (he was apparently reluctant to do so) and then how she was finally able to get the film released. The 1964 interview features the director talking about her work up to that point, which also includes Du Côté de la côte and Ô saisons, ô châteaux (Du Côté de la côte has been included as a bonus feature on the disc for Le bonheur). For the shorts she expresses she had an unease around them, as they were more commercial in nature, but I get the feeling she's happy with how they turned out.
The second disc, which features Cléo from 5 to 7, starts off with Remembrances, a 36-minute documentary from 2005 on the making of the film, reuniting many of the surviving members of the cast (some of whom haven’t seen each other since making the film), with Varda basically hosting. The documentary is a mix of people recalling the experience, comparing locations used in the film to what they are today, and Varda explaining a number of her choices. Interestingly, Varda also points out she made a slight edit to the film for the French 2005 DVD (which this documentary was made for and picked up by Criterion for this edition), and I can confirm that is the edit on this disc. It consists of two quick trims totaling one-and-a-half seconds.
Criterion then includes a small gallery around artist Hand Baldung Grien, whose work Varda mentions in the previous documentary (she even scattered the imagery around in the film). Here Criterion gives a brief bio (via text notes) and then a small gallery of his work (which appears in the film) along with a piece by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch that shares similar themes. Following that short gallery is a 2-and-half-minute clip from a 1993 French television program where Varda and singer Madonna, the singer having met Varda before to discuss the idea of remaking Cléo from 5 to 7. It’s an interesting little inclusion, though consists primarily of Varda recounting their meeting.
Another interesting inclusion is Cléo’s Real Path Through Paris, created in 2005 by Pierre-William Poster. The video presents Poster retracing Cléo’s journey in the film, though this time on motorbike. The video is presented more or less straight through from beginning to end, but it edits in stills from the film when certain locations are reached. There is also a map overlay ala Mario Kart (or any racing game) showing where the bike is located. It’s probably not a necessary feature but it was interesting to see the area that Cléo covered in her short time, also suggesting that it could have all been covered in the timeframe of the film.
Criterion then includes, all on its own, Varda’s short film Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald, which appears in the film. The charming short features the two as lovers and a scenario that plays out differently depending on whether Godard wears his trademark shades or not. It’s a rather humourous and loving tribute to silent cinema and the two. Criterion also includes her experimental short film, L’opéra Mouffe, covering a local street market she ventured to, capturing a number of interesting sites and faces, along with playful little comparisons, such as comparing the shape of a pregnant woman to a pumpkin. Much to my surprise the film looks to be in decent condition.
The disc then closes with the film’s trailer, which is made up of a series of stills.
Disc 3 presents Le bonheur. The most significant inclusion here is the early Varda short, Du côté de la côte, a 25-minute document of the Côté d'Azure, capturing the beaches, the buildings and surroundings, and the endless sight of tourists, all in a fairly playful way. The film has also been impressively restored, featuring a clean looking print and wonderful, vivid colours.
The remaining features are all pretty short, maybe reaching 55-minutes when all taken together. There is first a 3-minute interview from 1998 featuring Varda, the director explaining the background of the film before talking about the restoration that would have been done at the time, mentioning the original negatives had lost colour, so a new one had to be made (I’m not sure if that same restoration was the basis for this presentation). This is followed by The Two Women of “Le bonheur,” which features an interview between the director’s daughter, Rosalie Varda, and the two actors that played the lover interests in the film, Claire Drouot and Marie-France Boyer. Sadly it’s only a 6-minute discussion focusing on the characters and then the controversy that arose after the film’s release.
Thoughts on “Le bonheur” is a 15-minute feature gathering together four people from various professions to talk about the film: writer Michèle Manceaux, producer and distributor Gérard Vaugeois, critic Frédéric Bonnaud, and Fadela Amara, president of the organization “Ni putes ni soumises.” The conversation is, well, okay. If anything it shows the generational gap on how one sees the film, or at least how one sees the film depending on when they were first introduced to it. One found it revolutionary and shocking, while someone else calls it “kitsch” because it’s obvious something bad is going to happen. That leads to a conversation on its use of music, wipes, and aesthetic, but I can’t say anything here was all that eye-opening.
Following that are two new programs created by Varda exploring what happiness is (the film’s title, Le bonheur translates to “happiness”). The first is a 6-minute video called Happiness? The People of Fontenay Respond, and features Varda asking random people on the street what the term means to them, and the answers are probably as wide as you expect, everything from being in love to money. Bonheur: Proper Noun or Concept runs over a minute and feature a couple of people with the last name of Bonheur and various quotes about happiness.
This is all then followed by a 10-minute discussion with actor Jean-Claude Drouot, who revisits locations from the film, retracing some of the steps of his super-happy character, while sharing his thoughts and memories on its filming and meeting a number of people on the street who also gladly talk about seeing the film or recalling when it was filmed. There is the an excerpt from a 1964 episode of Démons et merveilles du cinema, showing Varda directing the crew and actors, with text quotes from Varda. Her husband, Jacques Demy, also shows up. A trailer closes the supplements.
The fourth and final disc features Vagabond. Like Cléo from 5 to 7 there is a documentary called Remembrances starts things off, which is more of making-of documentary, though put together by Varda in 2003. Running 41-minutes she recounts the inspirations behind the film, revisits locations, and even presents new interviews, including with Sandrine Bonnaire. She also explains her reasons behind a few decisions (like suggesting a rape instead of showing it) and even goes over the editing, showing the two different takes she had for the films final key scene and then explaining why she chose the take she did. Though it works very well as a recollection of the production I appreciated Varda’s own analysis on her own decisions. (There is also a similar feature found in this set’s disc for Cléo from 5 to 7.)
The features also present about 3-minutes’ worth of footage (now moldy) Varda filmed around one of the non-professional actors in the film, Marthe Jarnias, under The Story of an Old Lady. The next feature, Music and Dolly Shots, is then a kind of video essay put together by Varda, around the film’s score and creating dolly shots that the music would play over. Varda and composer Joanna Bruzdowicz both appear to talk about the collaboration before Varda shows the dolly footage from the film with the score, point out how the end of one shot connects to the beginning of the next one, connecting the protagonist’s journey.
To Nathalie Sarraute presents about 9-minutes’ worth of excerpts from a 1986 radio interview featuring Varda and Sarraute, there to promote the film by the sounds of it. Varda did base some elements in the film on Saurraute’s own experiences and both talk a little about that here, Saurraute also commenting on the film itself. The audio plays over photos of the two and photos from the production.
The disc then closes with the film’s trailer.
The set also includes a booklet, featuring a note for each film by Varda, along with essays written by Ginette Vincendeau (La Pointe Courte), Adrian Martin (Cléo from 5 to 7), Amy Taubin (Le bonheur), and Chris Darke (Vagabond). Though these essays do offer a decent scholarly angle that the set needs, there isn’t much of anything on-disc, outside of observations by Varda herself, which is the primary short-coming of the features.
A nice-looking set offering decent presentations for each film, just falling a little short on the academic supplements. Varda’s own thoughts and reflections on each film prove rewarding, though.