The Complete Films of Agnès Varda
Program 2: Early Varda
A founder of the French New Wave who became an international art-house icon, Agnès Varda was a fiercely independent, restlessly curious visionary whose work was at once personal and passionately committed to the world around her. In an abundant career in which she never stopped expanding the notion of what a movie can be, Varda forged a unique cinematic vocabulary that frequently blurs the boundaries between narrative and documentary, and entwines loving portraits of her friends, her family, and her own inner world with a social consciousness that was closely attuned to the 1960s counterculture, the women’s liberation movement, the plight of the poor and socially marginalized, and the ecology of our planet. This comprehensive collection places Varda’s filmography in the context of her parallel work as a photographer and multimedia artist—all of it a testament to the radical vision, boundless imagination, and radiant spirit of a true original for whom every act of creation was a vital expression of her very being.
The second dual-layer disc of Criterion’s large box set The Complete Films of Agnès Varda presents the director’s first feature film, La Pointe Courte along with her early shorts Du Côté de la côte and Ô saisons, ô châteaux. All three films are presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and all three have also received 2K restorations (though Courte and Côté were scanned at 4K). All three films were sourced from their respective 35mm original camera negatives.
Criterion has previously released La Pointe Courte on DVD, found exclusively in their 4 by Agnès Varda box set. That high-definition restoration shows its age now, but for the time it’s still not too bad, looking rather sharp and clean, though a number of print issues remained. As good as that one (scanned from a fine-grain master positive) may hold up now this new restoration, performed in 2013, still manages to offer a drastic improvement over that one. Though still a bit soft around the edges, the image manages to be far sharper and more film-like, rendering grain significantly better while also improving upon fine-object detail. Gray levels look pretty good as well, with better tonal shifts in comparison to the DVD’s presentation.
Clean-up is more thorough here, and a number of the flaws that appeared in that old presentation are now gone, though some minor imperfections remain: a tram line that goes down Philippe Noiret’s face in one scene has been toned down but is still there, and there are the remains of what look to be mold stains in a handful of shots. Some other little blemishes pop up throughout but they’re all quite minor. The biggest improvement over the DVD probably comes down to image stability, the frame shifts and the pulsing that creeped in there on that presentation now gone.
The other two films, both colour, have also received very thorough restorations, and I was quite stunned how well they turned out overall, at least in clarity and sharpenss. Both are very sharp with incredible detail, whether on a beach or of a building exterior. Grain looks great as well, and both are pretty clean, though Ô saisons, ô châteaux shows some colour fluctuations in the bottom right corner of the frame a couple of times. There are also some minor marks scattered about both shorts.
Unfortunately, both films present heavy yellow tints, and it’s to a rather ridiculous degree. The sky has a cyan tint (as does the water on occasion) and the blacks are harmed in this process as well. Skin tones looks jaundiced and what should be white has more of a creamy look. Even the whites in the black-and-white material looks yellow-ish. I compared Du Côté de la côte to the version found on Criterion's DVD for Le bonheur and it's shocking just how different they look. The black-and-white archival footage on that presentation is actually tinted a heavy yellow-orange, whereas it's presented with that warmer straight black-and-white look here. But the colours for the rest of the film, while still warm, look far more natural in comparison to what is here. The ocean and sky actually look blue on the DVD, for example, and flesh tones look natural with no suggestion everyone's liver is beyond repair.
Ultimately, the presentations look great in how filmic and clean they are, but the yellow tint is a heavy-handed. It’s possible that the films are supposed to look this way (and the only reason I don't give them a lower score is because I don't know for sure) but it does look ghastly a lot of the time.
(As a note, about 47-or-so-minutes into La Pointe Courte, subtitles appear in the middle of the screen, I assume to make them easier to read because of how the shot has been composed. The DVD, on the other hand, does not do this, and it's probably because the DVD looks a little bit darker.)
All three films come with monaural presentations, La Pointe Courte in lossless PCM, and the two short films in Dolby Digital. The two shorts can sound a little edgy in places but are both pretty clean, with decent sounding voice-over narration and music. Courte has a general flatness to the whole thing, and can also be a bit detached, but this could just come down to filming conditions: Varda couldn’t afford live sound and everything was dubbed afterwards. Outside of that it’s clean and doesn’t present any significant damage.
Criterion does carry over everything from their DVD edition of La Pointe Courte and adds on a few other things. New to this edition is a 2012 discussion between Agnès Varda and actor/director Mathieu Amalric. It opens with Varda talking about the process that went into writing and directing her first film before Amalric steps in. After some pleasant greetings the two begin to talk, the discussion turning into an interesting reflection on the experience of directing a feature film for the first time, Amalric referencing his first feature, Mange ta soupe. I can't say the discssion is particulalry revalatory other than having Varda just sit and talk about how she went and managed to get her film made, but it's still a charming little addition. It runs just under 9-minutes.
Criterion then carries over the two supplements from their DVD edition of the film: a 2007 interview with Varda filmed by Criterion, and then an excerpt from a 1964 interview with her for the French television program Cinéastes de notre temps, running 16-minutes and 9-minutes respectively. The 2007 interview features the director talking about the location the film takes place in before getting into what she was trying to accomplish with the film, particularly in its narrative that jumps between the fishermen of the village and the central couple: basically have a private story and public story intermixed, showing how the two worlds can't combine. She also recounts how she managed to talk director Alain Resnais into helping her edit the film (he was apparently reluctant to do so) and then how she was finally able to get the film released. The 1964 interview features the director talking about her work up to that point, which also includes Du Côté de la côte and Ô saisons, ô châteaux (conveniently also found on this disc).
She talks about her reluctance in doing the shorter films as they were more commercial ventures, but she feels happy with how they turned out, which is pretty much the feel I got from the two 2007 introductions recorded for those shorts and appearing on this disc under their respective sub-menus. The director, for about a couple of minutes each, just gives some back story to their productions.
With La Pointe Courte Criterion also includes a 4-minute interview with film scholar Jhumpa Lahiri (and Antonio Monda), recorded in 2017 for The Criterion Channel, who talks about the film in terms of its cinematic language, explaining how she sees the film as more or a poem. It's fine, but I always felt these interviews created for the Channel were designed to be consumed quickly and this one has that feel.
La Pointe Courte offers a pretty substantial upgrade over Criterion’s previous DVD, while also carrying over all of the features from that edition. The other two films look strong as well but a heavy yellow tint that has been applied to the image makes them somewhat unappealing.