Eclipse recently announced that the early films of Yasujirô Ozu would be seeing a boxed set in the coming months, a mere year after the director’s late works were collected in a box by the specialty distributor. Meanwhile, Criterion is releasing a collection of films by unsung French New Wave godmother Agnès Varda. Is it just me, or have Criterion and its subdivision switched places? Criterion was the one that was supposed to focus on known masterpieces; Eclipse was supposedly founded to handle unknown commodities, such as their forthcoming collection of 1960s William Klein films. As much as it’s true that I could be accused of grousing because a Criterion box set automatically translates to a higher price point than an Eclipse set, it’s also true that Criterion made it worth the while, dredging up as many extra features as I’ve seen in a director-centric box set in a while, and sprucing up their transfers for two previous releases in the bargain.
First a look at the known, meaning the previously Criterionized Cléo from 5 to 7. The beret brigade of French New Wave film directors may have been socially progressive and intellectually inclusive, but when it came to gender lines, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were decidedly less interested in channeling Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, or any other esteemed female Hollywood directors than they were in paying tribute (in both their Cahiers du Cinéma criticism and film pastiches) to the hyper-masculinity of Howard Hawks and John Ford. For whatever radical advances they were responsible for (and, make no mistake, they are countless), the ditch-diggers of the Nouvelle Vague movement were still responsible for crafting prototypal movies for guys who like movies. (Wasn’t Anna Karina more Audrey than Katherine anyway?) By most accounts, photographer-turned-director Varda is considered the archetypal girl who crashed the big boys’ clubhouse, and Cléo from 5 to 7, one of our 100 essential films, was the film that paid her membership fee.
The nitty-gritty plot sees Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a Parisian pop singer with three minor hit singles to her name, spending the period of time denoted in the title (unspooled, more or less, in real time) awaiting the results of a biopsy that will determine whether or not her she has an inoperable tumor. For as dire as the plot sounds on the surface, Cléo from 5 to 7 moves with grace from one emotional extreme to the next. Whenever she finds herself drifting too far into melancholic self-pity, she blithely puts on a devil-may-care grin. When she reaches the cusp of true giddiness, she quickly reverts back to superstitious pessimism. Varda’s protagonist truly embodies a pop star’s theatrical flair, as she seemingly passes time by going through emotions for only as long as she senses her friends (her captive audience) are willing to pay attention.
All throughout, Varda captures the fairy-tale essence of early ’60s Paris with a vivacity and richness that rivals Godard’s Breathless. Unlike her New Wave compatriots, whose talents were reared in part at film schools, Varda was trained in the field of photography and consequently films the city with a completely unique vision. She demonstrates an unerring eye for complex compositions that still manage to delineate between foreground and background planes. Take, for instance, the heightened urban suavity in an early scene inside a trendy hat shop, wherein Varda allows a group of mirrors to reflect images off each other until Cléo appears to be shopping in a giant kaleidoscope (a prelude of sorts to the geometric fantasias of Tati’s Playtime). In multiplying Cléo, the mirrors predict the wide variety of emotional masks she will wear and learning experiences she will go through during her two-hour wait, and also demonstrate the push-pull effect Cléo’s good looks have, alternately building and destroying her credibility as a feeling, free-thinking woman.
For audiences used to experiencing female martyrdom, either real or imagined, in this era of Lars von Trier, Cléo from 5 to 7 is almost distractingly refreshing at every turn. Varda’s experimental impulse is more assured than Truffaut’s, her fractures in time less abrasive than Resnais’. Just as Cléo’s apartment is replete with bounding kittens, Varda’s film itself is capricious and fully alive. All throughout, Varda deploys hints of artifice—starting with the fact that this supposed bit of real time cinema tells two hours in 90 minutes—that playfully dispel any hint of academicism that colors Godard’s work. Varda is the supreme sensualist of the New Wave.
Still, one senses the liberation that embodies Cléo from 5 to 7 was hard-fought. Varda’s first film, 1956’s Le Pointe Courte, is a bifurcated curiosity that suggests the assured unison of Cléo from 5 to 7 could just as easily have shattered like her pocketbook mirror. The film is resolutely about two different things, neither of which seems interested in relating to the other. On the one hand, Varda presents a stylized but still verité portrait of the titular fishing village and their impoverished but proud way of life. They hang their sheets to dry in the salty costal breeze, battle seafaring police seemingly bent on arresting the town’s fishers for trying to make a living the only way possible in their region, and generally watch each other’s backs, which isn’t particularly difficult to do considering none of their homes appear to have glass in the windows or doors covering the entryways. Varda’s eye for the environment is keen, but juxtaposed awkwardly against this environment are a pair of lovers contemplating the death of their love affair. Lui was raised in le Pointe courte; Elle was bred in Paris. While he speaks her language (and a lot of language that turns out to be; the two frequently appear to have been transported from a future Bergman film, and not just because one of her shots prefigures the climactic facial merging in Persona), she is the one who comes to understand his vitality. She comes to this realization while observing the townspeople engage in gondola jousting.
The unorthodox representations of feminism in both Le Pointe Courte and Cléo from 5 to 7 could have scarcely prepared audiences (and female audiences in particular) for 1965’s Le Bonheur, either the most frustratingly oblivious examination of marital fidelity or the most vicious. In either case, it’s wholly radical. Imagine Angelina Jolie headlining a romantic comedy about infidelity in which Brad Pitt, playing her husband, asks her to celebrate his love for Jennifer Aniston and proposes cordial bigamy. While perhaps not quite as high-profile, Varda’s film cast real-life husband and wife Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot as a married couple, and threw in their real-life children for good measure. With a relentlessly sunny color scheme and characters that never seem to get up on the wrong side of the bed even when they’re not in their own, Le Bonheur’s husband character goes off on a job and discovers himself falling in love with a telephone operator.
Instead of dumping his blond, sexy wife in favor of the blond, sexy other woman, or attempting to hide his extramarital affair and live a double life, he flatly informs his wife of the situation on one of their picnics in the Provencal countryside. As he explains it, he’s not splitting his capacity for love but, rather, overjoyed to discover he has more love than he had before. She accepts his claim, makes love to him, falls into a river and dies. Oh, but it doesn’t end there, ladies. Quicker than you can replace Madeline with Judy, the other woman is accepting, embracing, and embodying the domesticated role of her predecessor. The family is shown at the end of the film in much the same manner they were at the beginning; it’s merely that one of the characters is now dead and another has been incorporated as her “replacement.”
While Le Bonheur’s mixed signals encourage a wide array of interpretations, I’m fairly certain I’ve missed the point of 1985’s Vagabond, Varda’s comeback, of a sort. You might say Mona (played with no shred of cheap sympathy by Sandrine Bonnaire) is an untethered woman. You might say she plays by her own rules. You might say she symbolizes a rejection of patriarchal domination, of bourgeois standards of living. I say she’s a pathetic, lazy, stupid waste of space. While that’s obviously not fair to her character, equally unforgiving is Varda’s flashback structure. (The entire movie is structurally similar to Citizen Kane; both begin with the deaths of their main characters, and the remainder of the film serves to fill out their backstory.) My dismissal is entirely rhetorical, because Varda’s portrait eschews what would be the easy approach to its material, which would be to simply chart out a psychological trajectory of the main character’s downfall. Instead, Varda’s film reveals the many ways people choose to relate or, more often, to refuse to relate to other people. Many of the characters remember the girl only in passing, and it’s left open to interpretation whether many of their memories are presented as poisonous because they actually encountered a sullen, selfish young woman or because they used her ignoble death to retroactively fill in the blanks (i.e. “See? I knew she was no good.”). Varda, ever the photographer, doesn’t pretend to be able to speak for her deceased protagonist, but can instead only offer whatever clues can be gleaned from her visual portraits.
Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond are presented in much-improved anamorphic transfers, though I have to admit that I was hoping for a more scrubbed, polished look on the older film. Vagabond’s colors are appropriately muddy. Of all the prints, the one that I imagine does the least justice to its source material is Le Bonheur. While the oversaturated colors are no doubt as bold as intended, the entire picture seems to have a glazed sheen. I can’t quite put my finger on it: It doesn’t seem like your typical PAL-to-NTSC ghosting (I’m sure it wasn’t), but it feels as though a 16mm print may have been used. Surprisingly, the best looking film is probably the oldest: Le Pointe Courte (though the windowboxing is still an unfortunate choice). I’m a little bit disappointed that the soundtrack to Cléo from 5 to 7 is as shrill and compressed as it was the first time around. My iPod craved a remastered rip of "Sans Toi."
The box ought to have been called 7 By Agnés Varda, since there are among the bonus features three of her short films. My favorite is L’opéra Mouffe, something of a precursor to Cléo from 5 to 7, featuring the story of a woman set against the bustling background of Paris. Swap Cléo from 5 to 7’s cancer scare for pregnancy and Michel Legrand’s score for one by Georges Delerue and there you are. Also included are Du Côté de la Côte, sort of an artier travelogue, and Les Fiancés du Pont Macdonald, which will be manna for New Wave fanboys. Those are the crown jewels of the set, but there are enough makings-of, retrospective interviews, archival clips of Varda behind the scenes, conversations with filmmakers and academics, and radio and TV interviews to keep you busy for days. The only way this set could’ve been more comprehensive is if it included scene-specific commentary tracks.
Once again, Criterion earns the reputation of releasing "film schools in a box."