DVD Review HTF DVD REVIEW: 4 by Agnès Varda

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    4 by Agnès Varda
    Directed by Agnès Varda

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1954/1961/1964/1985
    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1/1.66:1 anamorphic
    Running Time: 80/89/80/105 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 French
    Subtitles: English
    MSRP: $ 99.95

    Release Date: January 22, 2008
    Review Date: January 22, 2008


    The Films


    La Pointe Courte - 3/5

    Agnès Varda came to the world of film completely ignorant of its techniques. She claims that she had never studied filmmaking, never even been a frequent cinemagoer, but her career as a still photographer held her in good stead when she began work on this first project La Pointe Courte, a slice-of-life look at the inhabitants of a quiet French fishing village on the Mediterranean. In counterpoint to the everyday scenes of life, she placed a simple story of a young couple struggling with their relationship and contemplating separation. The juxtapositioning of these two focus points gave the film a rawness and yet an undeniable identity that quickly brought Varda attention and influenced the creation of the French New Wave a few years later. (She’s often called the “grandmother of the French New Wave.”) Alas, watching the film now, its effect isn’t so impressive, and despite a relatively short running time, it seems much longer.

    The most striking aspect of the film today is Varda’s unmistakable cinematic eye. She composes her shots with such attention to the unusual and the eye-catching that even when things are mundane in the foreground, the backgrounds are hypnotic. Wood grains, railroad track patterns, the interior of a ship’s hull, people with interesting, unusual faces, all get embraced by the camera in some really amazing shots that linger in the mind.

    Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret as the quietly bickering couple were directed to show no emotion in their faces or in the voice dubbing, and so their zombie-like performances are something of a trial through no fault of their own. As the camera winds its way through the village, however, we’re privy to private moments of all kinds: fisherman casting their nets in illegal waters for shellfish, parents denying their sixteen year old daughter permission to date, the death of a sick child with their neighbors gawking in the doorway as the mother grieves. Due to her inexperience, Varda never bothered telling the untrained village actors not to watch the camera, so the viewer is constantly being taken out of the film as the amateurs can’t resist peeking up into the camera and breaking character ruining some important moments.

    So, La Pointe Courte established Varda as a visual artist with her own style and a striking sense of purpose about subjects for her brand of cinema. Though her next feature film didn’t come until seven years later, she learned from her mistakes to come up with a classic.

    Cléo from 5 to 7 - 4.5/5

    One of the greatest French films from the 1960s, Cléo from 5 to 7 is mesmerizing in every way. A young pop singer (Corinne Marchand) spends an agonizing late Paris afternoon walking the streets waiting to get cancer test results from her doctor. Everywhere she goes, either with friends or alone, she passes omens of death, and the few moments of happiness she finds en route to the hospital (buying a new hat, listening to some new songs from her composer-lyricist friends, having a quiet drink in a bar unrecognized, watching a silent movie farce) are fleeting, quickly replaced with more feelings of creeping foreboding. Finally, a chance meeting with a young soldier (Antoine Bourseiller) soon off to Algeria refocuses her attention on someone other than herself, and with his loving kindness, she can face the music whatever it happens to be.

    Varda’s film happens in real time (so it’s really from 5 to 6:30 rather than 7), and part of its brilliance comes with that ever-present notion of time passing. Not only do we see the time reflected in titles on the screen, but Cléo passes clocks constantly throughout the afternoon always having the time of her inevitable news bearing down on her.

    Corinne Marchand is exquisitely beautiful both as a celebrity singer and after she takes off her “disguise,” as a real person, and the dread is etched on her face as with a chisel. One of her most captivating moments occurs in her apartment when her composer friend Bob (played by real-life composer Michel Legrand) plays her a new composition “Without You” which she sings with depths of emotion usually not found in the pop music of the day. Her combined acting and singing in that sequence is one of the film’s true highlights.

    But there are many more. As usual, Varda focuses on faces constantly as Cléo walks the city byways, and sequences set in a sculptor’s studio, a movie projection booth, and the park where she meets the soldier Antoine are all splendidly composed and shot.

    Le Bonheur - 3.5/5

    Le Bonheur has a simple premise. A young French carpenter (Jean-Claude Drouot) living in Fontenay has an idyllic life: a loving wife (real-life wife Claire Drouot), two adorable children, and working in a family business that he enjoys. On an out of town job, he meets a postal worker (Marie-France Boyer) whom he falls in love with. Leaving his wife and family is out of the question, and in fact, it never comes up. In his mind, the situation is not adulterous because he never lies to either woman. He does wait a month before telling his wife about his mistress not knowing what her reaction is going to be.

    Taking a page from the unemotional book of La Pointe Courte, the emotions in Le Bonheur are guarded and controlled, and because they are, the film doesn’t quite resonate the way it might have were the three participants not quite so laid back and unemotive. It’s an intriguing situation, one that some viewers have scoffed at as unbelievable, but having known people involved in similar relationships with similar reactions during my life, it’s naïve for anything to think this couldn’t happen: unusual, yes, but not impossible.

    The pastoral sense of glee is well communicated by Varda throughout the piece, and even the moments of tragedy are brief, detached, and temporary. All of the actors do their jobs as obviously directed with Jean-Claude Drouot’s sense of contained rapture at his good fortune in finding two women to love equally perhaps the strongest of the three leads.

    Vagabond - 4/5

    A young girl (Sandrine Bonnaire) is found dead, lying in a ditch on a farm. Vagabond traces back to the last three weeks of the girl’s life to allow us to see how she arrived in that state. The film’s running time is only 105 minutes, but it’s a long, slow walk to her death for this homeless, aimless wanderer.

    We don’t know a lot about her past. She allows herself to be called Mona, and she mentions that she was once a stenographer. What drove her to the open road and the life of a gypsy is never dealt with. On the road, however, she meets an interesting assortment of people: some nice and some decidedly not-so-nice. (Some are played by actors and some are ordinary citizens of the area, something Varda overuses occasionally.) She herself is not above stealing when the needs arise, misrepresenting herself when it works in her best interests, and playing the pathos card when she’s really desperate. Sandrine Bonnaire gives a moody, quiet performance as Mona. We see her machinations to get what she wants (sometimes), but we never see her soul.

    Varda instills that sense of doom palpably on the film; we know Mona is going to be dead by the end, and despite some sequences where things seem to be working out well for her, we know it won’t last. The director uses a direct camera interview style to talk to the characters whom Mona has come into contact with after she leaves them. Sometimes the technique works well. Other times, it seems sterile, pretentious, and arbitrary. she doesn’t interview every character Mona interacts with, and there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why some are omitted. Still, with all of that, we never really get to know this vacant vagabond, and it’s a bit frustrating.

    Two real actors apart from Bonnaire acquit themselves adroitly in the movie. Macha Méril plays college professor Madame Landier who develops a motherly affection for the destitute girl. Her genuine anguish at her life and her desire to reestablish a connection with the girl are uniquely touching. Her assistant Jean-Pierre (Stéphane Freiss) is appalled by the dirty vagrant and eager to be rid of her. Freiss makes his revulsion very real indeed.

    Video Quality


    La Pointe Courte - 4/5

    The film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio is faithfully reproduced in this slightly windowboxed transfer. For the most part, the black and white images are sharp and well rendered with fine, strong blacks and whites that never bloom. Shadow detail is well above average. The film does have one noticeable ribbon scratch, one scene where contrast goes weak and the image washes out, and one section with some spotting. Otherwise, it’s a nicely restored image with easy to read white subtitles, a quality that is present on all four transfers. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.

    Cléo from 5 to 7 - 4.5/5

    The film’s 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is reproduced in an exceptional anamorphic transfer. Blacks are rich, contrast is superb, and shadow detail is among the best I’ve seen for black and white films of this period. The image is truly beautiful, befitting the gorgeous actress at the movie’s center. The film has been divided into 20 chapters.

    Le Bonheur - 3.5/5

    The film has received a major restoration to retrieve colors which had faded beyond recognition. The 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is anamorphically enhanced on this transfer, but there’s a softness in the image which sometimes doesn’t seem deliberate. Apart from one noticeable scratch, the film looks clean, but the color saturation has been held in check resulting in some paler than expected skin tones and a somewhat dated look overall. The film has been divided into 18 chapters.

    Vagabond - 4/5

    Varda uses a subdued color palette in composing the 1.66:1 image, and it’s reproduced faithfully in this anamorphic transfer. Saturation levels seem just a tad weak in the movie, and the image is on the dull side, but this may perhaps be Varda’s intention. The world is drab to the main character, and despite the director’s trademark fascinating shots, the image is humdrum. Shots in low light conditions bring out the grain and some video artifacts not noticeable elsewhere. The film has been divided into 23 chapters.

    Audio Quality


    La Pointe Courte - 3/5

    The film was shot silent, so naturally the dubbed in dialog and sound effects sound hollow and unnatural. However, the Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track does a more than adequate job with the sound that’s present. There are no artifacts present but also nothing that distinguishes the quality of the audio.

    Cléo from 5 to 7 - 3.5/5

    The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is clear and distinct, but the best moment is during the song “Without You” when Legrand’s piano is replaced during the number with a full orchestration, and the track resonates with a remarkable fidelity missing in other parts of the movie.

    Le Bonheur - 3/5

    The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound is as sedate as the subdued action of the story dictates though the Mozart pieces used as background score might have added more to the film’s effect if the track’s fidelity wasn’t so limited.

    Vagabond - 3/5

    The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is a bit hollow sounding, and Joanna Brazdowicz’s dissonant music is occasionally harsh and brittle, the low fidelity having a hard time handling certain tones.


    Special Features

    5/5

    Each disc in this four disc set contains its own array of special features.

    La Pointe Courte


    An Agnès Varda interview recorded in 2007 has the famous director looking back on how her film career began and how she got financing to shoot the movie. This interview runs 15 minutes and is in anamorphic widescreen.

    Cinéastes de Notre Temps excerpt is a 9-minute extract from a French television show filmed in 1964 in which Varda discusses the films of her early career and laments the fact that after ten years, her first film La Pointe Courte had only earned back seventy percent of its investment meaning that the cast and crew (who had worked for free) had never received their due for their work on the movie.

    Cléo from 5 to 7


    “Remembrances” is a 36-minute reunion of actors and production personnel from the movie remembering the ups and downs of filming the movie. Varda also visits several locations featured in the film to see changes over time. This 4:3 vignette was filmed in 2005.

    “Hans Baldung Grien gallery” is a step-through look at the paintings that inspired Varda to create the character of Cléo and which are briefly featured in the movie.

    “Madonna and Agnès” is a very brief 2-minute excerpt from a 1993 French television show where the pop singer expresses her admiration for the film and director and mentions her desire to film an Americanized version (perish the thought!) of the movie. It’s in nonanamorphic letterbox.

    “Cléo’s Real Path Through Paris” is an exhilarating 9-minute journey covering the same path that Cléo travels during the film only forty-four years later. (The film pauses whenever there are changes from the Paris that we see during the movie with an explanation of the difference.) A map is superimposed in the upper left corner to show where in Paris we are at any given moment. This is presented in 4:3.

    Les fiancés du pont MacDonald is the complete version of the brief silent film that Cléo watches from the projection booth during the movie. Also directed by Varda, the movie starred many of her French New Wave colleagues including Jean-Luc Godard as the lead. This 4:3 film runs 4½ minutes.

    L’opera Mouffe is one of the short films Varda directed between her first and second features. Shot in 1958 when she was pregnant, the film is subtitled “Diary of a Pregnant Woman.” It’s pure-Varda as she takes her camera around a busy street market in the Latin Quarter filming faces and situations that interest her. Scored by Georges Delerue, this 4:3 short runs 15 minutes.

    The theatrical trailer for Cléo from 5 to 7 is presented in nonanamorphic letterbox and runs 2 minutes.

    Le Bonheur


    “Agnes on Le Bonheur is a brief 1998 interview in which the director speaks on her feelings about her most controversial work. The 3-minute interview is presented in 4:3.

    “The Two Women of Le Bonheurreunites the two central actresses of the film along with Varda’s daughter who was a child on the set at the time of filming for a 6-minute reminiscence. It’s also presented in 4:3.

    “Thoughts on Le Bonheurgathers four intellectuals together to debate the merits of the film among themselves. Three of them had seen the movie years ago and again before the filming while the fourth had only just seen it for the first time. Their opinions and reactions are very interesting. The 4:3 featurette runs 15 minutes.

    “What Is Happiness?” is comprised of two short featurettes by Varda in which she first interviews people in Fontenay for their opinions of what happiness means to them and then seeks out people who have the name “Bonheur” to ask them specifically about their names in relation to happiness. The two features run a total of 6½ minutes and are in 4:3.

    “Jean-Claude Drouot Returns”
    is a nice 10½-minute feature in which lead actor Drouot returns to the setting of the film and meets back up with locals who were a part of the production. The 4:3 featurette shows the actor visiting actual locations, expressing his views about his character’s motivations, and speaking with those he remembered from filming.

    Démons et merveilles du cinéma is a 4-minute 4:3 excerpt from a 1964 French TV show showing Varda directing a couple of scenes in the movie.

    Du côté de la côte is another of Varda’s 1958 short films this time doing almost a travelogue of the French Rivera in the patented Varda style (her camera eye concentrating on unusual architecture, vegetation, and the faces of the tourists she finds interesting). This 4:3 Eastmancolor short runs 26 minutes.

    The film’s theatrical trailer runs 2-minutes and is in anamorphic widescreen.

    Vagabond


    “Remembrance” is a 40-minute free-floating think piece of Varda’s about making the film eighteen years after the fact. She speaks with the two primary actresses in the film about their work along with the large number of inexperienced local people who took part in the filming. This is presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.

    “The Story of an Old Lady” was made in 2003, but the film has a significant amount of deterioration from mold. However, Varda offers it as a tribute to the elderly non-actress who plays the old rich aunt in the film, Marthe Jarnais. It runs 3 ¾ minutes and is in 4:3.

    “Music and Dolly Shots” strings together the twelve traveling dolly shots in the movie which have Joanna Brazdowicz’s score attached to them so it can be heard as a single suite. This montage in nonanamorphic widescreen runs 12 ¼ minutes.

    “To Nathalie Sarraute” is a 9 ¼-minute radio interview with Varda and the women to whom she dedicated the movie, author Nathalie Sarraute. Each expresses her admiration for the other as Varda explains why she dedicated the movie to Sarraute.

    The film’s original theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs 2½ minutes.

    The set also contains a 60-page booklet with stills from each of the films, Varda’s impressions on each one of the movies, and an essay apiece for each movie from four different film writers and critics.

    In Conclusion

    4/5 (not an average)

    Agnès Varda’s films run the gamut from emotionally closed and sterile to enormously emotional and embracing. All of them feature stunning visuals surrounding stories which sometimes resonate with the viewer and sometimes don’t. Each is worth viewing (some more than once), and this Criterion edition presents them all in the best possible light with a rich array of bonus features to extend one‘s appreciation for the films.


    Matt Hough
    Charlotte, NC
     

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