For full transparency: I was sent this box set by Criterion for review. I’d like to think this hasn’t impacted my thoughts on this set, but I thought people should know before they read more.
There are figures in art whose image, mannerisms, and reputation are as recognizable and notable as the art they create. Your Andy Warhols. Your Stephen Kings. Your Alfred Hitchcocks. People whose work are ingrained in both culture and popular culture at large. Yet, even though they themselves are not directly the subjects of their work, they are as iconic as the things they create. Within the arthouse cinema world, figures such as these certainly exist and even manage to crossover into the mainstream. Werner Herzog’s server visage has had him do work as an actor, and his oft-imitated cadence and narration style are parodied constantly, even by the man himself. French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard stands as the poster boy for general moviegoers’ image of French filmic self-seriousness.
To the left of this circle of recognizable creatives stands Agnès Varda, a petite, energetic woman with a bowl cut dyed around the outer edges, encasing the bullseye of her naturally grey hair. In the documentary The Beaches of Agnès, she says, “I’m playing the part of a little old lady. Plump and talkative.” It’s a documentary being filmed around the time of her 80th birthday and at this point in her career (and her life as a whole) she knows moviegoers may be more familiar with her image and playful demeanor than they are with her own work.
This is where I enter into Agnès Varda’s oeuvre. I hadn’t seen the landmark films La Pointe Courte or Cléo from 5 to 7, which left a permanent mark on film as a medium. I hadn’t seen her more popular documentaries like Daguerreotypes, Black Panthers, or The Gleaners and I where she so warmly showcases her human subjects, and I certainly hadn’t seen her odder, more experimental efforts Les Créatures or Lions, Love (…and Lies). I had only heard of Agnès Varda as a figure of the French New Wave, a movement I was just beginning to delve into. Godard, Truffaut, and Louis Malle were names I was very familiar with and had movies I had seen at this point. I had started to get into the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and names like Chris Marker and Jacques Demy (who I would confuse for Jonathan Demme for many years) were starting to make themselves known to me. However, Agnès Varda was new to me. It was only after watching the trailer for The Beaches of Agnès at the IU Cinema that I was made aware of who she was. Be that as it may, when the credits rolled on the film, I knew I had to seek out the films that had been made by this spritely and insanely creative woman.
But even back in 2011, as the physical home-video market was still in high demand and supplying the public with forgotten masterpieces and hidden gems, having easy (and legal) access to Agnès’s entire filmography was kind of laughable. Criterion and Janus had made her four most popular films (La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur, and Vagabond) and a handful of her short films available in a box set, and later in 2015 they would compile an Eclipse Series set with all of the films she made during her time in California. In 2016, the short-lived Cineliscious boutique label put out a worthy release of Kung-Fu Master and Jane B. Par Agnès V. But outside of that, Region 1 DVDs of Daguerreotypes, The Gleaners and I, and a select few other films were all you could really come by without importing or firing up a torrent. While her contemporaries’ films were being released and made easily available, Agnès, the founder of the French New Wave, seemed doomed to remain an effusive figure known but for a handful of films.
That was until this year, when Criterion in partnership with Cine-tamaris, Agnès’s production company, decided to compile, restore, and even curate her entire filmography. “The Complete Films of Agnès Varda” contains all 39 feature-length and short-subject films that Agnès ever produced in her storied career of over 60 years. And when I say everything, I do mean EVERYTHING, including films that never saw official releases. For example, her 1970 made-for-television film Naussicaa, a half-fiction, half-documentary about Greek expatriates who now live in France after the military coup in Greece in the late ’60s, which was commissioned by the French government but was shelved and unfinished for political reasons (or at least Agnès suspected as much). The other half of the film is a remembrance of Agnès at a time as a post-grad, wrestling with becoming a woman and her own Greek heritage. Including a film like this screams that Criterion really meant it when they said “complete.”
If presenting Agnès’s lost gems and deep cuts weren’t enough, Criterion has packaged hours and hours of archival footage, behind-the-scenes footage, unfinished film footage, interviews –old and new — including brand new ones with her family and collaborators (who were one in the same). If there was anything you ever wondered about Agnès’s creative process, the relationship she had with her collaborators, her influences, her personal and artistic desires, and what each era she was making films in looked like, you will be spoiled to absolute cheese curds with this treasure trove. All of the material is engaging to some capacity and all of it is helpful to understanding the works you will be viewing in the coming years.
Yet, what stands out to me about this box set is that it is not presented in chronological order. Not exactly anyway. No, what the team at Criterion has done is given people who may be newcomers a primer and then a full education in Varda. The first disc presented contains the last film Agnès completed, 2019’s Varda by Agnès, a documentary compiled from multiple lectures Agnès had done that zooms through her career in a slightly more focused and linear fashion than The Beaches of Agnès. It gives viewers a chance to acquaint themselves with Agnès in a more subdued manner than her other 21st-century documentaries. Instead, she lets herself take full control of her legacy so that people may better understand her work as they begin viewing it.
From there, each disc is curated to highlight a different era of her career or one of her many thematic focal points. Her pioneering of the French New Wave (La Pointe Courte; Cléo from 5 to 7; L’opéra-mouffe; Du côté de la côte; Ô saisons, ô châteaux), her focus on married life (Le Bonhuer, Les Créatures), her tributes to her late husband Jacques Demy (The World of Jacques Demy, The Young Girls Turn 25, Jacquot de Nantes), her work as a visual artist (Faces Places, Salut Les Cubains, Ulysse, Ydessa, Les Ours et etc…), and so much more. The entire experience almost feels like an interactive textbook, except fun and you’ll actually use this after college. It’s an astounding presentation of her work.
Speaking of presentations… The physical aspect of this box set cannot be overstated. Included with the films comes a handsomely designed book of essays, stills, and technical info. The essays are new to the collection, featuring words by Amy Taubin, Michael Koresky, Ginette Vincendeau, So Mayer, Alexandra Hidalgo, and Rebecca Bengal. They get into every nook and cranny from every angle when discussing Agnès’s filmography. Along with the essays are write-ups that give context to what each disc explores and what viewers should expect from that particular curation of films. Considering that Agnès was a photographer, I would be remiss not to mention that a large portion of the book contains some of her most famous pieces of photography as well as pieces from her installations.
And while it may seem so minor compared to the content that lies within, the lavish design of the box itself is such a great little encapsulation of who Agnès was and all her little quirks: a gorgeous color palette of her signature in purple and its complementary orange with delightful illustrations of Agnès by Christophe Vallaux and quotes from Agnès herself. But what struck me most was the choice to include both photos of Agnès in youth — smoldering, full of anxiety — as well as the playful old woman I first knew her as. The duality of colors and images is not only appropriate given that Agnès was a textbook Gemini but also because it really hammers home Agnès as a woman and creative who saw the world through dual lenses.
She would frequently revisit subjects and places with years in between. Daguerreotypes, The Gleaners and I, The Young Girls Turn 25, scenes in Faces Places — they all follow up with Agnès looking at the locations and people slightly more aged and learned. I think this is key to understanding her work. She never stayed static. She was always curious. With “The Complete Films of Agnès Varda,” I think viewers will finally get a comprehensive look at the headstrong and tenacious photographer who had only seen a handful of films before directing her first one, who made herself known in what was largely a boys’ club, and how she became that puckish and plump old lady with just as much energy and zeal as she always had. But now the lens is wider. She could see all the beauty the world and people have to offer. “The Complete Films of Agnès Varda” lets you see as much of that world as it can… and it’s magnificent.
IU Cinema has screened a number of Agnès Varda’s films. International Arthouse Series, Underground Film Series, Running the Screen: Directed by Women, and Wounded Galaxies 1968 have all featured her work. In 2019, she was given a series solely dedicated to her called Agnès by Varda. The Cinema also recently hosted the event A Conversation on Agnès Varda in which David Carter and IU Media School Associate Professor Joan Hawkins discussed the life and career of Varda.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.