4 by Agnes Varda(The Criterion Collection, 1.22.2008)
One major weakness of the auteur theory is its tendency to engender career-wide support (or dismissal) of a director based on a few celebrated works, rather than encourage a more thorough consideration that takes into account their most eccentric, personal, and disreputable efforts. This has an averaging effect, leaving canonical films overpraised and much greater achievements undervalued or even forgotten. If aspiring Godard fans are taught to reduce his filmography to Breathless, Masculin feminin, and Contempt (great films, one and all), they could very well miss the even more innovative and radical work found in Les Carabiniers, Pierrot le fou, Weekend, and Tout va bien. Auteurism blurs films together and prevents individual films from receiving the scrutiny that their unique efforts deserve.
This problem is especially applicable to the work of Agnes Varda because she has such a uniquely varied and unusual filmography. If Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond don't do it for you, there's a danger that you'll stop there -- for a while, these were the only two Varda films available on DVD in region one -- and fail to see that some of her greatest achievements have been largely forgotten. The Criterion Collection should be commended for putting together a box set that acknowledges the eclecticism of Varda's filmography, while also including her most historically significant films.
In addition to jazzing-up their 2000 editions of Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond with new transfers and extras, Criterion has packaged them with two lesser known (and more adventurous) films from early in Varda's career. Not only do we get her first film -- and, by some accounts, the first film of the French New Wave (La Pointe Courte) -- but we also get Le bonheur, a largely unheralded film that may well be Varda's most significant achievement to date.
While I'm not sure I agree with the aforementioned belief that La Pointe Courte is the first film of the French New Wave -- it's about four years too early and more reminiscent of Italian neorealism than the films of Godard, Truffaut or Rivette -- it is a bold, peculiar, and original film. With a structure borrowed from Faulkner's The Wild Palms, Varda bounces back and forth between a middle class couple in a state of romantic crisis and the working class families struggling to survive in the fishing village where this couple is visiting.
The film is distinguished by peculiar editorial choices (Alain Resnais is the credited editor), evocative use of a free-floating camera that moves without any obvious motivation, an insightful dissection of the central couple's relationship, and an effective use of non-fiction sequences to add authenticity to the more clearly dramatized material. The film's muddled storytelling approach is uninvolving, but it is nonetheless a mysterious and aesthetically rich experience.
Varda's real breakthrough came eight years later with Cleo from 5 to 7, a far more urgent, conventional film with a sensibility that places it more recognizably within the parameters of the French New Wave. Told in real time, the film follows Cleo for roughly ninety minutes as she waits for the results of a biopsy.
The film has been praised for its unique exploration of a female point-of-view, but this isn't an especially flattering portrait. The protagonist is vain and superstitious, which may be brought on by her newfound sense of mortality, though it's hard to tell because Varda tells us very little about the character's life prior to the ninety minutes covered onscreen. While this is a far more engaging filmgoing experience than La Pointe Courte, the sentimentality and pat irony of the conclusion don't date as well as Varda's more opaque and elliptical debut. Still, this is one of the most broadly appealing and beloved films of the French New Wave so it's worth a look, if only for historical reasons.
The real triumph of this box set -- and maybe Varda's career -- is Le bonheur, the story of a happily married man with two children, who gets involved in an extra-marital affair with a post office worker. While the film is relatively straightforward on a narrative level, it's also one of Varda's most ambitious and conflicted cinematic experiments.
Intending to convey the idea that happiness is rarely shared by both members of a couple at any given time, Varda shoots and scores the film to echo the husband's feelings of jubilance, excitement, and liberation. This strategy achieves haunting resonance in the film's final act as we realize that the husband's feelings can't possibly be shared by his seemingly content, accepting wife. As the final sections of the film play out, Varda creates moments of unsettling and eerie cinematic poetry, but through very modest means. In some ways, this feels like a precursor to Carlos Reygadas' more aggressively cinematic infidelity epic, Silent Light, but I can't think of any film that hits quite the same highs as this quietly powerful gem.
The only film in the set that leaves me altogether cold and indifferent, Vagabond also happens to be the film that many see as Varda's greatest work. Maybe it's an acquired taste that I've yet to acquire, but for my money this film is undone by a frustratingly dull, one-note protagonist and -- in spite of Varda's protests to the contrary -- a preoccupation with victimhood and relatively pedestrian, cliched ideas about poverty, affluence, freedom, and the ills of human nature. Whereas La Pointe Courte and Le bonheur are built around striking juxtapositions and challenging permutations of irony, Vagabond has an un-layered directness that feels slight by comparison, in spite of the film's more aggressively dramatic subject matter. Vagabond exists almost entirely on the surface and, to my taste, that surface isn't very compelling.
Of course, most people who are thinking about buying this set already know how they feel about (at least some of) these films. The real question, then, is how well does Criterion fare? Some reviews of this set have complained about the lack of commentaries and a few other gaps here and there, but I think Criterion strikes just the right balance. Whereas some of their booklets in the past have been a tad daunting, this set features a few sentences from Varda and a strong essay about each film. These all make for good pre-movie introductions, but make sure you stop reading when Amy Taubin tells you to in her essay about Le bonheur. I did and I genuinely believe the movie would have been diminished if I hadn't.
La Pointe Courte is relatively light on extras, but the other discs include trailers, interviews with Varda and various cast members (from both the past and the present), and visits to some of the films' locations. Le bonheur includes an especially interesting conversation about the film and its themes involving two journalists, a film distributor, and a women's rights activist, while Cleo from 5 to 7 includes a brief glimpse of Varda discussing a re-make with Madonna on French TV. It seems that Varda is responsible for directing many of the featurettes and the discs also include a few of her early shorts, including Du Cote de la cote, L'opera Mouffe, and Les fiances du pont Macdonald, the film starring Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina that is included onscreen in Cleo from 5 to 7.
As usual, the transfers are all anamorphic (except for La Pointe Courte, which is 1.33:1) and top notch. Le bonheur looks especially terrific -- it's the most visually striking film in the set -- in spite of some problems with the source print. The defects inherent in that source add to the film-like look that Criterion always manages to achieve in their transfers. Cleo and Vagabond both look significantly better than they did in their previous Criterion incarnations.
I've always been a conflicted admirer of Agnes Varda's work and this set only re-enforces that. While I continue to be unimpressed by Vagabond and have a few minor reservations about La Pointe Courte and Cleo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur is a major discovery that makes me more curious than ever to discover some of Varda's hard-to-find films from the seventies and eighties (ie. L'Une chante l'autre pas, Kung-fu master). Here's hoping Criterion sees fit to release more Varda on DVD, even if only in an extra-free Eclipse package. In the meantime, fans of these four films certainly have nothing to worry about. This is another terrific box set from the good folks at Criterion. -- Jonathan Doyle