Preliminary Thoughts on the Complete Films of Agnes Varda

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The Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray release of the Complete Films of Agnes Varda is one of the most impressive home video box sets ever devoted to a single filmmaker. This mammoth set includes 21 feature films, 17 “official” shorts and a lengthy television miniseries (not to mention a Varda-directed made-for T.V. feature, the long-suppressed Nausicaa, and even more Varda-directed shorts among its many special features), the life’s work of a prolific director whose professional career spanned a whopping 65 years. The set makes the case that Varda, who has never gotten the full credit she is due as a filmmaker despite becoming a beloved icon of arthouse cinema in her later years, is one of the greatest artists to ever step behind a camera. Varda arguably founded the French New Wave when she made her first feature, the startlingly innovative La Pointe Court, in 1954, four years before Claude Chabrol supposedly accomplished the same feat with Le Beau Serge in 1958. And the winding path she pursued afterwards, first as a member of the “Left Bank” wing of the nouvelle vague (along with fellow cinematic titans Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and her husband, Jacques Demy), then as a fiercely independent filmmaker who always followed her own muse, was always exciting and edifying: From France to California to Iran, Varda made films wherever she pleased and about whatever subjects struck her fancy. After watching all 39 of her films, I can also now say that she never made a bad movie.

From a documentary short about the Black Panthers in 1968 to a magical-realist fable in which the then-100 year old cinema is personified by an old man played by Michel Piccoli in 1995, Varda’s filmography can also feel almost impossibly diverse in terms of subject matter and style. And yet binding together all of the disparate works collected in this box set is the sheer force of Varda’s winning personality. She always seemed genuinely curious about and sympathetic to the people who appeared in front of her camera – something that is especially true of “ordinary” people. In the segment devoted to Russia in her superb 2011 minisersies Here and There, for instance, Varda seems as interested in her working-class chauffeur as she does in the famous director Aleksandr Sokurov. Another through-line is her playful and humorous approach to film form. Varda’s painterly, always-meaningful use of color and her singular sense of composition and cutting frequently exhibit a sharp visual wit, a quality that is evident in everything from Coasting Along the Coast, a travelogue she was commissioned to make about the French Riviera at the dawn of her career, to her mature masterpiece (and the ostensibly dour) Vagabond in 1985. To be completely honest, her humor doesn’t always work for me. I find her sense of whimsy, manifested most explicitly in the more representational aspects of Lion’s Love (…and Lies), Jane B. par Agnes V. and One Hundred and One Nights, where actors self-consciously don exaggerated costumes and wigs and engage in “play acting,” to be a little grating.

But does any filmmaker who has made at least 10 narrative features and 10 documentary features have such a high batting average across both disciplines? I highly doubt it. Most of the time, when filmmakers known for their fiction work make non-fiction films, or vice-versa, they are merely dabbling. Varda’s friend Martin Scorsese has made some great documentaries, to be sure, but he will always be thought of and rightly celebrated primarily for his narrative work. By contrast, if one were to “disappear” all of Varda’s narrative films, she would still be considered a giant of the documentary form based on The Gleaners and I, Mur Murs, Daguerreotypes, Uncle Yanco and other films. And if, for some reason, Varda had never made any of those non-fiction works, she would still be considered a master of cinema because of extraordinary movies like Vagabond, Cleo from 5 to 7, Documenteur, Le Bonheur and more. Of course, it is somewhat counterproductive to think of her career in terms of “fiction vs. non-fiction” since part of Varda’s project from day one was to intertwine the two. La Pointe Court is essentially two movies in one: the (fictional) story of a disintegrating relationship told against the (documentary) backdrop of a rural fishing village. Later, Varda made the documentary Mur Murs about the public murals of Los Angeles, which she became fascinated by while making the fictional Documenteur; and the provocative narrative Kung-Fu Master! arose from the making of the non-fiction Jane B. par Agnes V. when the subject of the latter film, Jane Birkin, pitched a story idea to her director; Vagabond is a fiction feature that contains pseudo-documentary interview interludes. And so on.

It is probably impossible to do justice to the Complete Films of Agnes Varda in a review so soon after its release because the set is so elaborate it feels like it will take years before anyone reaches the bottom: almost every film is accompanied by a video introduction by Varda, even the shorts (in at least one instance her intro is longer than the film itself), and the features are contextualized by copious special features, many of which I haven’t yet gotten around to seeing. But suffice it to say that I could not recommend this set more highly. There have been few filmmakers in the history of cinema whose work has meant as much to me as Varda’s has. I saw my first film by her, The Young Girls Turn 25, at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1993 when I was an impressionable 18-year-old transplant from North Carolina and it was a life-changing experience. (You can hear the full story of that cinematic encounter on the first episode of my now-defunct podcast, the White City Cinema Radio Hour, where I discuss Varda’s career with critics Ben and Kat Sachs here.)  You can also read my interview with Agnes for Time Out Chicago, conducted in 2015 when she was in town for a retrospective of her film career and a photography exhibit/installation, “Photographs Get Moving (potatoes and shells too),” at the University of Chicago. Finally, you can read my obituary of her on this site from last year here. I loved her as a filmmaker and person and I couldn’t be happier that her complete works have been so lovingly preserved, collected and presented in this box set so that I can revisit them again and again in the future.

Below are my highly subjective rankings of all the features in the Complete Films of Agnes Varda. (Her work in the short-film format is also extremely important, and her best shorts are masterpieces, but they don’t lend themselves as easily to being ranked as the features do.)

Fiction Features

11. One Hundred and One Nights (1995) – B
10. Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969) – B
9. La Pointe Court (1954) – B+
8. The Creatures (1966) – B+
7. Jacquot de Nantes (1991) – A-
6. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) – A-
5. Kung-Fu Master! (1988) – A
4. Le Bonheur (1965) – A
3. Documenteur (1981) – A+
2. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) – A+
1. Vagabond (1985) – A+

Non-Fiction Features

10. Varda by Agnes (2019) – B
9. Faces Places (2017) – B
8. Jane B. by Agnes V. (1988) – B
7. The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002) – B+
6. The World of Jacques Demy (1995) – B+
5. The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993) – A-
4. The Beaches of Agnes (2008) – A-
3. Daguerreotypes (1975) – A
2. Mur Murs (1981)  – A
1. The Gleaners and I (2000) – A+

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

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