Criterion Sunday 420: Le Bonheur (1965)

This is a bold film, not just because of its saturated colours (shades of Varda’s husband Demy), but because it’s open to interpretations. On a surface level it depicts a happy marriage between two beautiful young people (real-life couple Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot), but the husband feels attracted to another woman (Marie-France Boyer) and begins an affair with her, which itself is happy, and then he makes a grand speech about how this is all part of life and the love he has to give is infinite and it’s making everyone happy, and… well… that’s hardly all that’s going on, because it feels like a pretty angry film really, and one that is pointedly angry about this state of affairs. Yet it’s probably possible to miss this, and to read it any number of ways; I just choose to hear the rage.

Part of what’s challenging about Varda’s film, though, is what it doesn’t give you — it doesn’t give you heroes and villains; it doesn’t provide any real voice to its female characters; it doesn’t make clear what happens to the protagonist’s wife near the end — but I see that as part of what it’s doing in terms of satire. Because at a certain level, this is just presenting the events as you might get in any kind of romantic drama made by a man, in which a husband falls for a new woman and makes a new life with her. However, you could hardly mistake this for a film which is uncritical or unaware of the operation of patriarchy. For a start, the filming and montage work is so clear: the man’s first coffee with the woman he meets is in a cafe, where the camera cuts to a sign on the wall reading “temptation” and then frames her head with it very carefully in the background, with a similar sign for the man. All of their meetings, in fact, get a fragmented montage style, as they move through spaces like two figures in a cubist painting. What’s most challenging of all the formal techniques, though, I think, is the way the tone never veers from what the title suggests: bright saturated colours, classical music, idyllic pastoral scenes of happy family life and just constant smiles throughout as the husband emphasises his happiness, and the abundance of love he has to give. Except for a brief silent moment of fleeting pain, everything has the same bland sense of bonheur, as if this could be an ad for a travel company or some kind of lifestyle brand. But underneath it all is, clearly, rage.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Claude Beausoleil and Jean Rabier; Starring Jean-Claude Drouot, Marie-France Boyer, Claire Drouot; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 6 August 2018 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, Wellington, Friday 23 April 2021).

Criterion Sunday 419: La Pointe-Courte (1955)

Varda’s debut is this strikingly prescient film suggesting a lot of threads of European art cinema throughout the middle of the 20th century, the alienation of the central couple, the almost documentary-like depiction of this poor fishing community, the constant counterpoint provided by the melancholy musical score, and plenty else besides. There is a sense in which, being her first feature, there’s a slightly mannered mise en scène, with shots of the couple rigorously symmetrical, or strikingly framed against the landscape in ways that suggest the eye of a photographer, which would make way to the more lyrical feeling of her masterpiece, Cléo from 5 to 7. Still, this is a gorgeous film for its low-budget origins, and gains hugely from the location footage of the locals, not to mention the plentiful roaming cats.

Rewatching this a few years after my first viewing reinforces what a striking film debut this is, and formally rather interesting even if it somehow feels a little bit stilted. Set against the documentary depiction of the fishing village there is a mannered and very French story of lovers (the only real actors in the film, Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort) who speak in a poetic philosophical register as they grapple with their fading romance. The two strands are almost separate and seem set against each other, but there’s a beautiful sense of place to the film in its depiction of this village and the sturdy people who live there, who seem to find the lovers’ struggles almost absurd.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are two interviews with the director about the film, one in which she invites over Mathieu Amalric to talk about his debut film, although obviously the bulk of the discussion is about hers (she whips out some nice framed photos of her on set), while the other is direct to camera talking about the making of the film. She mentions The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner as a touchstone for the narrative style, in the sense of interleaving two unrelated storylines. She also mentions the copious help she received and the sheer luck that was required to make the film, her being so young and inexperienced, as well as the help given her by the editor, Alain Resnais.
  • Another extra is an eight-minute excerpt from a 1964 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps, in which a young and very serious Varda (quite different from the playful persona she would come to cultivate) talks about her work up to that point (just before Le Bonheur).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Paul Soulignac and Louis Stein; Starring Silvia Monfort, Philippe Noiret; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, 13 August 2018 (and on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 25 April 2021).

Criterion Sunday 418: “4 by Agnès Varda”

This box set was pretty exciting when it came out. Criterion had already released two of her key works as stand-alone releases, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961) and Vagabond (1985) as spine numbers 73 and 74 respectively. However, adding two other early works and putting them in a box with a swathe of extras was a great step, and the understanding of her career is aided greatly by seeing her debut film, La Pointe-Courte (1955) — also sometimes considered a fore-runner (if not the first film) of the French New Wave — and her seminal mid-60s film, which feels very much a riposte to the works of Godard, Le Bonheur (1965). She was also such an inveterate artisan that she has a plethora of her own short films, interviews and bonus featurettes to aid an understanding of her films, and plenty of these make it onto these discs.

Of course, since then Criterion have put all of her films together for The Complete Films of Agnès Varda box-set on Blu-ray, and while neither that box-set nor the other films have official Criterion spine numbers (and therefore won’t be included in this regular feature), it is surely one of the most essential of all their releases and well worth investing in (if you can play American Blu-rays).

Visages villages (Faces Places, 2017)

Agnès Varda made a lot of documentaries, and her final one, Varda by Agnès (2019), was the most direct film to deal with her own work. However, this penultimate film — while ostensibly being about pseudonymous French street photographer and sort-of-graffiti artist JR — is about her own practice as an artist in some way, or at least captures something of the spirit she brought to her feature filmmaking.


This is a sweet film in much of the way of Varda’s documentary works (a lot of which are extras for DVD releases, and all of which are worth watching), a very self-consciously confected tale of two people meeting and collaborating on artworks across a series of small French villages. JR’s art seems to involve photographing people and pasting them on buildings and other large-scale public spaces, which is fairly whimsical, and then there’s a made-up meet-cute and they hit the road in a picaresque tale of encountering small-town people on their level and then (very literally) aggrandising them. I’d feel weird about seeing myself on walls, but most of the people here don’t, and perhaps that’s Varda’s power. She is so sweet but always there’s that slight undercurrent of shade, such as hinting at JR being a Godard-like figure and then revealing later that Godard is a bit of a pr!ck (or a lot of one, though she’s quite nice about it). It ambles along amiably enough as a film, and perhaps that’s all any film needs.

Faces Places film posterCREDITS
Directors Agnès Varda and JR; Writer Varda; Cinematographers Romain Le Bonniec, Claire Duguet, Nicolas Guicheteau, Valentin Vignet and Raphaël Minnesota; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 16 September 2018.

Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès, 2019)

Varda was doing a number of talks around the world in the last few years before she passed, and this film is sort of based around those, going back over her life with clips from her films, as she talks about what made her excited, what she liked to film, her philosophy of living, as well as some of the people she met along the way. Given its clip-show format it’s hardly the equal of her recent documentaries, or her greatest fiction filmmaking (all of which is imbued with a documentary fascination with peoples’ lives), but if anyone has earned this kind of warm and gentle summation, then it’s certainly Agnès Varda. And of course this film, like her presence — which is a constant throughout — is very much warm and gentle.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Claire Duguet, François Décréau and Julia Fabry; Starring Agnès Varda; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.

Two 1988 Films by Agnès Varda: Jane B. by Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!

Both these films were made by Varda as collaborations with Jane Birkin. The idea for Kung-Fu Master! came from Birkin during the production of Jane B. and so Varda helped her realise the concept. Varda’s similarly playful (and similarly titled) final film Varda par Agnès (2019) is released in the UK this Friday 19 July.

Continue reading “Two 1988 Films by Agnès Varda: Jane B. by Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!”

Film Round-Up May 2016

So much for writing separate posts for everything; that didn’t really work out for me in the long-term. I still watch a lot of movies (more than ever) but in terms of writing I go through phases, as I’m sure many of us who try and write about films do, and right now I’ve not really felt an urge to write up my film reviews (beyond a few short sentences on Letterboxd). So here’s a round-up of stuff I saw in May. See below the cut for reviews of…

Captain America: Civil War (2016, USA)
Cold Comfort Farm (1995, UK)
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, USA)
Down with Love (2003, USA)
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, USA)
Evolution (2015, France/Belgium/Spain)
Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism (2014, France)
A Flickering Truth (2015, New Zealand)
Green Room (2015, USA)
Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, Finland)
Heart of a Dog (2015, USA)
Lemonade (2016, USA)
Losing Ground (1982, USA)
Lovely Rita (2001, Austria/Germany)
Luck by Chance (2009, India)
As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One) (2015, Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland)
Money Monster (2016, USA)
Mon roi (aka My King) (2015, France)
My Life Without Me (2003, Canada/Spain)
Our Kind of Traitor (2016, UK)
Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) (1975, Italy)
Picture Bride (1994, USA)
Radio On (1979, UK/West Germany)
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014, USA)
Sisters in Law (2005, UK/Cameroon)
Star Men (2015, USA/UK/Canada)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005, USA)
Trouble Every Day (2001, France/Germany/Japan)
Underground (1928, UK)
L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977, France)
Visage (Face) (2009, France/Taiwan)
Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) (2001, Iran)

Continue reading “Film Round-Up May 2016”

Criterion Sunday 74: Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985)

After a period working on documentaries, particularly in the USA (some of these have been released on Criterion’s Eclipse sub-label), Varda had one of her biggest commercial successes with this story of a drifter called Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) found dead in the south of France. As is typical of her filmmaking style, Vagabond (the French title translates as “Neither roof nor law”) has a powerful documentary quality, being structured around a series of interviews with those whose path Mona crossed, sometimes breaking the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera. Varda’s fluidly moving camera tracks Mona in her movement from one place to another, as she finds temporary respite or shelter, and occasionally even a companion (though she is as likely to shuck these people off without any apology as the opportunity arises; scenes sometimes start with her walking beside someone, and then just leaving them, unprompted and unremarked upon). It’s a master class in filmmaking style, accomplished in framing and movement without being show-offy, but it’s also a deeply empathetic portrait of an often unlikeable central character, whose direction is largely her own choice — at least within the limits of the harsh wintery environment, not to mention those forces of authority she meets. Bonnaire is riveting in the central role, as she becomes ever dirtier (contrasted with other female characters, who are sometimes seen bathing to emphasise the contrast) and is gradually divested of her possessions as her shoes inexorably wear down, though she never loses her dignity or desire to keep moving. There are so many little moments of good humour, fleeting portraits of people living with what they have (but more often have not) got, that the film is never boring, and it’s certainly never condescending.

Criterion Extras: The director has filmed some excellent extras to this disc, which given her strength in the documentary format, are all well worth watching. The most significant is Remembrances (2003), in which Varda looks back on the film and its impact and talks to her star Sandrine Bonnaire as well as other people who appeared in the film, revisiting some of them and asking what they remember about the film (in much the way their characters recall Mona within the film). She also amusingly reveals that in fact trees were central to her original idea, hence the long digression about canker in the film and the presence of Macha Méril’s character, who looks after dying plane trees. The Story of an Old Lady is meanwhile a shorter piece she shot at the time of making the film, about the rich old woman played by Marthe Jarnias (herself far from rich), though the film is presented as it survives, rotten with mould. There’s a short contemporary radio interview with novelist Nathalie Sarraute (to whom the film is dedicated), prefaced by Varda, though as the interview makes clear, Varda isn’t exactly sure where the inspiration lies exactly. There’s also an informative conversation between Varda and the film’s composer in Music and Dolly Shots (2003), where she talks a bit more about the key lateral tracking shots which structure the film and how these were combined with the musical score.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographer Patrick Blossier; Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Macha Méril; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 January 2016.

Criterion Sunday 73: Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962)

Film texts and websites are apt to call director Agnès Varda “one of the best female directors of her generation”, but let’s start right off by saying the “female” caveat is nonsense. Even amongst the creative wellspring of the French Nouvelle Vague — which arguably began with Varda’s own debut feature La Pointe courte in the mid-1950s — she stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her more feted (male) compatriots Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Resnais, Demy, Rohmer and Marker (amongst others). And as a demonstration of her talents, Cléo is pretty much peerless. It tracks in real time (albeit from 5 to 6:30pm), 90 minutes out of the life of its heroine Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), as she awaits the results of a biopsy. Yet, despite this morbid premise, the film is utterly filled with the vibrancy of life, specifically that in the French capital, as Varda inserts semi-documentary interludes into Cléo’s travels around Paris, shooting street views through the windows of various cars and trams, crowded café scenes, or pavement attractions she passes by. There’s even an amusing silent film pastiche starring Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina. As in her husband Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a few years later, the Algerian conflict lurks in the background as another pull towards the precariousness of life within an existential framework. However, the chief interest of the film is in the construction of Cléo’s identity, as she catches sight of herself in mirrors and is constantly looked at (and, she presumes, judged) by others. She changes hats, clothes and even hair throughout the film as a means to confound this gaze, as the film becomes the chronicle of her discovering how to live life on her own terms, such that the impending death sentence she believes the doctor will give her at the film’s end seems to be commuted by the sheer force of will of the film and of her, its heroine. It’s a glorious example of the best of early-60s French cinema, in beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography and with a spirited lead performance.

Criterion Extras: There’s a clutch of high quality extras on this disc, no little thanks to Varda’s skill at the documentary. Her Remembrances (2005) reunites her with Marchand as well as a number of other actors in the film, and revisits some of the locations. She talks of the importance of the trees, as well as getting all the clocks seen in the film to be accurate. Better yet are some contemporary short films, including the luminous L’Opéra-mouffe (1958), a glorious piece blending a modernist score by Georges Delerue with documentary footage and avant-garde reflections on personal experiences like pregnancy and drunkenness; it’s the very soul of the nouvelle vague. Another aspect on this movement is Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald (1961), much of which is seen within the film, being a silent slapstick pastiche with Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina, and which warns of the dangers of wearing glasses (a sly dig at Godard’s self-mythologising by Varda). There’s also a short travelogue filmed from a scooter which traces Cléo’s path through Paris, with an overlaid map in the corner and occasional inserts of film stills to show where the scenes were set. Finally, there’s a short French TV clip of Madonna lauding Varda’s most famous film, as well as a gallery of paintings by Hans Baldung Grien which inspired Varda. Oh and a trailer, of course.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Jean Rabier and Alain Levent; Starring Corinne Marchand; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 January 2016.