The Complete Films of Agnès Varda
Program 3: Around Paris
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.
Disc three (programmed as “Around Paris”) in Criterion’s new box set, The Complete Films of Agnès Varda, presents Cléo from 5 to 7 along with four short films: Les fiancés du pont Macdonald, L’opéra Mouffe, Les dites cariatides, and T'as de beaux escaliers, tu sais. Cléo and escaliers are both presented in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The other films are presented in a ratio of about 1.37:1. All share the same dual-layer disc and all have been encoded at 1080p/24hz.
Cléo receives the much needed upgrade it deserves over the previous DVD editions, coming from a new 2K restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative. The last one (released in 2008 exclusively in Criterion’s 4 by Agnès DVD box set) was itself a solid upgrade over Criterion’s original barebones DVD edition (which wasn’t even anamorphically enhanced!) but it still had some issues involving damage, pulsing and such (but it was at least anamorphically enhanced!) This presentation remedies all of that, delivering a far cleaner and more stable picture, with better contrast (the previous DVDs were a bit dark) and detail. The image here is sharper, rendering grain in a cleaner manner, which in turn delivers excellent textures, coming off far more film-like look in comparison to the DVD. The digital presentation falters a little bit, though: I noticed some shimmering in a cross-hatching pattern and a car grill, but otherwise there was nothing of note.
L’opéra Mouffe (a 2K restoration from a 35mm internegative) also looks quite wonderful, offering an upgrade over what appeared on that previous DVD edition of Cléo (it was an extra on that disc). There are a handful of scenes littered with scratches and some minor marks here and there, but outside of that the picture looks shockingly clean. The film is very grainy but the grain is rendered cleanly, leading to a filmic look, and the image can look incredibly crisp at times, particularly on the various close-ups of faces. So far this is one of the more pleasant surprises in the set.
Les dites cariatides (2K restoration from the 16mm original camera negative) is sort of the lone colour film on this disc (I won’t really count T'as de beaux escaliers, tu sais), and in terms of general restoration, print condition, and encode, it looks spectacular. It’s very grainy but the grain has been rendered so cleanly, leading to a level of detail is quite staggering: every little nuance, every aged blemish and crack on the architecture throughout the film, all of it pops off the screen. It genuninely looks like a projected film.
Unfortunately, like the colour films on the previous disc (and throughout this set I’ve sadly previewed), that awful yellow tint has been slapped on this film and everything is bathed in yellow. Again, I don’t know how this is supposed to look, maybe this accurate, but it really looks terrible, just awful. Everything is yellow and there’s no escape from it. Reds manage to look good (which isn’t a surprise) but man, would a real blue have ever been nice. I mean, there's barely even a cyan in this. This tinting also negatively impacts the blacks, crushing out detail. If I’m unsure on something I usually don’t let it negatively impact a grade, but screw it, it looks absolutely terrible and it's just ridiculous. The grade it does receive has more to do with how strong every other aspect of the presentation is.
And then we come to the last two films on this disc: Les fiancés du pont Macdonald and T'as de beaux escaliers, tu sais. Both of these are odd films as fiancés was filmed to be a part of Cléo from 5 to 7 (as a sort of a nice entertaining break for the audience, at least according to Varda in the included introduction for the film), while escaliers was made as a tribute for the Cinématheque, so it’s not surprising if these ones didn’t receive the same love as the other films in the set. The notes on the restorations found in the booklet, though, do state both were restored in 2K from the 35mm original camera negatives. I’m calling bull on T'as de beaux escaliers, tu sais: it’s definitely a standard-definition master and is the exact same one that can be found on Cinema Guild’s DVD for Varda’s Daguerréotypes. To be fair, the film is made up of clips from other films with some new footage around where the Cinématheque was being held, but it’s jagged and noisy, never looking like a film. What’s amusing, though, is that the colours look okay, not being tinted with that ghastly yellow.
(Edit: I forgot to mention that the opening colour sequence for Cléo from 5 to 7 delivers more natural looking colours, which is different from the DVD re-issue, which had tinted the colours a heavy yellow. The inconsistency, so far, can be a bit maddening.)
I also question Les fiancés du pont Macdonald’s restoration. I’m not entirely sure I’ll confess, but this almost looks like an upscale as well. The film is obviously going for a silent film vibe, so the stuttering and imperfections in the print (which are admittedly not as frequent as they are in the presentations for the film found on Criterion’s previous editions for Cléo from 5 to 7 and Band of Outsiders) are probably part of the design, but the image does have a more digital look in comparison to the other films, lacking organic, film-like texture I love seeing. The presentation for this film as it is presented in Cléo from 5 to 7 on this disc looks quite a ways better. Again, I’m not entirely sure, but if it really is a 2K restoration then it’s not a particularly good one.
In all, this disc proves to be a mixed bag. Cléo from 5 to 7 and L’opéra Mouffe look great, but the other films are hampered by one thing or another.
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962): 8/10 Les fiancés du pont Macdonald (1961): 6/10 L’opéra Mouffe (1958): 8/10 Les dites cariatides (1984): 7/10 T'as de beaux escaliers, tu sais (1986): 4/10
All of the films receive single-channel presentations, Cléo from 5 to 7 presented in lossless PCM and the others in Dolby Digital. Cléo from 5 to 7 is the best sounding one, delivering a bit more heft and range, especially in Michel Legrand’s music. The others are what they are: they’re clear but lack range, with L’opéra Mouffe probably more hampered by age.
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962): 7/10 Les fiancés du pont Macdonald (1961): 6/10 L’opéra Mouffe (1958): 6/10 Les dites cariatides (1984): 6/10 T'as de beaux escaliers, tu sais (1986): 6/10
This disc carries over most of the supplements found on the previous DVD for Cléo from 5 to 7. Things start off with Remembrances, a 36-minute documentary from 2005 on the making of the film, reuniting many of the surviving members of the cast (some of whom haven’t seen each other since making the film), with Varda basically hosting. The documentary is a mix of people recalling the experience, comparing locations used in the film to what they are today, and Varda explaining a number of her choices. Interestingly, Varda also points out she made a slight edit to the film for the French 2005 DVD (which this documentary was made for and picked up by Criterion for their own edition), and I can confirm that is the edit on this disc. It consists of two quick trims totaling one-and-a-half seconds.
Following that is a 2-and-half-minute clip from a 1993 French television program where Varda and singer Madonna, the singer having met Varda before to discuss the idea of remaking Cléo from 5 to 7. It’s an interesting little inclusion, though consists primarily of Varda recounting their meeting.
Another interesting inclusion is Cléo’s Real Path Through Paris, created in 2005 by Pierre-William Poster. The video presents Poster retracing Cléo’s journey in the film, though this time on motorbike. The video is presented more or less straight through from beginning to end, but it edits in stills from the film when certain locations are reached. There is also a map overlay ala Mario Kart (or any racing game) showing where the bike is located. It’s probably not a necessary feature but it was interesting to see the area that Cléo covered in her short time, also suggesting that it could have all been covered in the timeframe of the film.
“New” to this edition is a 2016 video essay created by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos for FilmStruck, examining the use of Michel Legrand’s music in the film in telling the story and showing the changes of the character, managing to share some decent insights around the structure of the film and its character. The film’s supplements then close with its theatrical trailer.
Not carried over from the previous DVD is an image gallery around paintings by Hans Baldung Grien, whose work was an influence on the film and, as Varda points out in Remembrances, showed up in backgrounds in the film. The short films included on that disc, Les fiancés du pont Macdonald and L’opéra Mouffe, are, of course, two of the other films on this disc.
Criterion then includes a handful of features with the other films, though they’re primarily introductions by Varda, recorded in 2005 or 2007 and running between 25-seconds and 3-minutes each. In each she recounts how the film came to be or what inspired her to make them. For Les fiancés du pont Macdonald she also talks about Godard’s trademark sunglasses (and how she couldn’t stand them). Les dites cariatides also comes with a “sequel” of sorts, Les dites cariatides bis, a 2-minute film from 2005 which Varda made to cover some of the locations she "missed" for the 1984 film.
And that wraps it up. A bit more satisfying than the last disc, but it still feels as though there should be more material around Cléo from 5 to 7.
Cléo from 5 to 7 and L’opéra Mouffe both look great, but the others are held back by certain issues, whether it be the fact they’re just standard-definition upscales (which is definitely the case with T'as de beaux escaliers, tu sais) or yellow’d beyond belief (Les dites cariatides).