The Complete Films of Agnès Varda
Program 1: Agnès Forever
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.
Similar to their giant box set for Ingmar Bergman’s films, Criterion’s The Complete Films of Agnès Varda breaks her work down into programs, presenting a different one on each disc. The first dual-layer disc in the set is entitled Agnès Forever and presents the films Varda by Agnès and Les 3 butons. Both films are given 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes and presented in the aspect ratios of 1.78:1 and 1.85:1 respectively.
Both of the films are digital, sourced from 2K masters, and I’m guessing they’re more or less presented here as is. Varda by Agnès can be described as a documentary, the filmmaker in front of an audience talking about her work, her methods, her influences, her passions… just everything, but the stage set-up has some limitations, so portions of the film are fairly static. These moments, filmed in digital, look fine, but some artifacts, particularly banding, creep in there.
I’m sure issues like that are related more to the digital source and it’s easy to overlook. The rest of the image is good, with decent detail, wonderful looking colours, and sharp blacks. Clips from films and other works are edited in as Varda brings them up. Some standard-definition digital footage is thrown in there and it looks as good as it can, which is above average standard-definition. What was impressive, though, were segments from her films, with all of the clips looking to come from the new restorations. These end up looking quite good and I can’t wait to see what everything looks like as I make my way through the set.
Les 3 Butons didn’t present any obvious artifacts in its digital photography and it’s a clean image overall. There is a flatness to the look, but the colours look nice (the magenta dress in the film pops), as do black levels.
In the end, both films probably look about as good as they can.
Varda by Agnès offers up a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtrack, while Les 3 butons provides a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, both in French. Les 3 Buton’s is sharp and clear, spreading the audio out decently, but I can't say it's anything special.
I was surprised by Varda by Agnès’ soundtrack, which was far livelier than I was expecting. Most of the presentation is Varda and others talking about her and her work, with clips from the films and other footage thrown in, but there are moments from the audience and the use of music that are pretty impressive, spreading the audio around the viewer. The music sounds really crisp and clean as well.
Les 3 boutons (2015): 7/10 Varda by Agnès (2019): 8/10
While some of Criterion’s previous gigantic box sets either didn’t feature any supplements (100 Years of Olympic Films) or didn’t include supplements on every disc (Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema), I’m happy to say that Criterion has loaded this set with a wealth of material, and, outside of one disc, you’ll find supplements of some sort on each disc of this set.
Les 3 Butons, an 11-minute short, is all on its own, but Varda by Agnès features a number of great features. Criterion has first recorded new interviews with Varda’s children, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy, running 17-minutes. Recorded separately (Varda speaking in French and Demy in English), the two recall their mother and her work, with Demy recalling the move to California (for a possible project for his father) and how his mother just picked up a camera and started filming. Rosalie Varda also talks about some of her later work, and how Faces Places and Varda by Agnès came about, while Demy talks about how his California experience with his mother played in to inspiring his 2011 film Americano. The two also talk about how she got her films made, how she kept up on technology (even social media), and more. It’s a wonderful and personal look at her art and her influence.
Criterion then includes a panel from the 2019 Telluride Film Festival, conducted after the North American premiere of Varda by Agnès, moderated by Annette Insdorf and featuring festival co-founder Tom Luddy, Varda’s children Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy, and director Martin Scorsese. The 40-minute discussion is primarily taken up by Scorsese, who recounts first meeting her before telling a number of stories around their friendship, including her visiting the set of his films on many occasions. He also explains what struck him most about her work and the images she captured, which also influenced his own work in many ways. It’s a loving tribute on his part, though it’s a bit of a shame the others didn’t get to contribute much (though at least Demy and Varda showed up in the previous interview on this disc).
The rest of the features are short videos or “essays.” Agnès Varda’s Credit Sequences is an 8-minute visual essay put together by Alex Vuillaume-Tylski examines how her artistry and experimental nature found their way into her credits, followed by a 2-minute video called Sensing Bodies, offering a split-screen montage featuring shots of hands, bodies, legs, and more, all taken from a number of her films. Though Scorsese touches on this in his interview, this feature doesn’t offer much context so it’s hard to take much of anything from it other than “those are all nicely filmed.”
The disc then closes with a trailer for Varda by Agnès, a trailer for the Janus Retrospective of Varda’s work, and then a cute 30 second video featuring Varda having a chat with Nini, Nini being her cat. Their chat is about chatting, and the cat, in a good ol’ cat fashion response, stares at her, bats a paw, and then runs off.
Not packed, but I was wholly expecting there to be very little content, so it was a wonderful surprise to see that not only does Criterion dig up material that is mostly good, they even recorded new interviews for this release.
It’s an interesting place to start the set off: her last film where she reflects on her life and work along with a couple of features that pay tribute to her legacy and impact. But it proves to be a wonderful way to start things off, maybe especially for newcomers, and so far it feels so lovingly put together that I can’t wait to get through the rest of the content of this set.