Criterion Corner: The Complete Films of Agnès Varda

Welcome to the Criterion Corner, where we break down some of the month’s new releases from the Criterion Collection.

The Complete Films of Agnes Varda

There’s never been a filmmaker quite like Agnès Varda, and it’s likely we’ll never see her like again. A pioneer of the French New Wave, much less the far-too-precarious stature of female filmmakers in the medium, Varda’s works glide somewhere between fiction and documentary, cinema, and photography. A photographer by trade and a feminist in attitude, Varda spent her entire life making films, releasing her final work (Varda by Agnès) months before her death in 2019. And now, The Criterion Collection has a new box set celebrating all thirty-seven of her features and shorts, and it’s a beautiful compilation befitting the woman’s extraordinary work.

Much like their large Ingmar Bergman set in 2018, The Complete Works of Agnès Varda is hardly a rote, chronological bundling of the filmmaker’s ouevre. Instead, Criterion built it with a programmer’s eye, ordering the 37 films and shorts in her filmography into a series of 15 themed ‘programs’ across each Blu-ray disk. It’s a whirlwind journey through her life, forming connections between theme, time, setting, and image, which befits Varda’s own curiosity and sense of imagination.

It also befits the way we view cinema — not one of us can claim we were there for a classic filmmaker’s every film from beginning to end. Usually, we discover them through some innovative work that broke through to the mainstream and worked our way backward from there. This, like Criterion’s Bergman set before it, understands the rhythms of that journey, guiding us through her career in a way that appreciates the temporal fluidity of being a film watcher. Like the beaches Varda so loved, we get to flow with the tide of her ideas — her films in Paris (Cleo from 5 to 7), her work as a visual artist (Faces Places, Ulysse), her collaboration with filmmaker husband Jacques Demy, and so on. Viewing her works from beginning to end just doesn’t have the same impact.

Admittedly, the robust-ness of the set itself means I haven’t sampled every little bit of it in time for this review, and my experience with Varda’s work was limited up to now (though her penultimate work Faces Places numbers among my favorite documentaries of all time). But the structuring of the set invites Varda aficionados both old and new to evaluate her work with a fresh eye — it’s built for people who love Agnès already, and also for those who still need an education.

It’s fitting, then, that the set starts at the end of her career, with Varda by Agnès, a lively documentary where the filmmaker takes you on a kaleidoscopic view of her works, both cinematic and photographic. For the uninitiated, it’s a genius primer; as she reflects upon her career, you see snippets of her most important works and what they mean to her. Varda, in the last decade of her life, was almost pathologically concerned with the way age was ravaging her body, and the legacy she was leaving behind. To kick off the set like this, with a program appropriately titled “Agnès Forever”, honors that sense of her works as a complete text. It allows us to reflect on each subsequent short and feature film from the worn lens of her own reminiscence.

Through the works I’ve seen of Varda, both here and elsewhere, I’m struck by her indomitable spirit of curiosity, both about other people and the world at large. She has a keen sense of people, a joie de vivre with which she flits through life, even as age slows down her pace. She was hugely politically active: most of her works evince a strong sense of feminism (even as she denies the term in Faces Places), and her ’70s works often focused on the hippie counterculture of contemporary LA. (She even did a doc about the Black Panthers.)

And then there are her features, which occupy a gargantuan place in people’s estimation of her works. Cléo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur, and Vagabond are intimate tales of isolation and longing that nonetheless pop with curious life. Even in the black-and-white milieu of Cléo, Varda expertly mines melodrama out of stark cinema verite techniques. My path to Varda was chiefly through docs, and I personally can’t wait to dig more deeply into the ways her innately empathetic eye extends to fictional characters.

The Complete Works of Agnes Varda (Criterion Collection)
The Complete Works of Agnes Varda (Criterion Collection)

“If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes,” she says in her 2008 doc The Beaches of Agnès. “If we opened me up, we’d find beaches.” It’s hard to find a more appropriate descriptor for Varda herself, a woman as in tune with herself as she was with others. To watch her films is to experience a warm hug in the dark — to feel like, no matter how lonely you are in the world, you are worthy not just to be known, but observed.

Agnès Varda loved people; she probably loved you. And in that spirit, Criterion’s The Complete Films of Agnès Varda feels like the most wonderful parting gift. Regardless of your familiarity with her works, opening each new page and putting in each new disk feels like peeling a layer back to reveal another facet of her soul. I can’t wait to learn more about our dear, departed Agnès, and admire the cinematic tributes she left for us to explore.

You can buy The Complete Works of Agnès Varda via The Criterion Collection.

The Complete Works of Agnès Varda (Criterion) Trailer:

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