The Complete Films of Agnès Varda
Program 6: In California
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 six of Criterion’s box set The Complete Films of Agnès Varda presents the program “In California,” which includes the films Uncle Yanco, Black Panthers, Lions Love (…and Lies), Mur Murs, and Documenteur, all presented with 1080p/24hz encodes. Uncle Yanco, Black Pantherss, and Mur Murs are presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 while the other two are presented in the ratio of 1.66:1.
Documenteur was restored in 2K in 2011 from the 16mm original camera negative. The other films were all restored in 2013, with Uncle Yanco and Mur Murs restored in 2K (from the 35mm original camera negative and 16mm original camera negative respectively) and Lions Love in 4K (from the 35mm original camera negative). Black Panthers’ restoration info is a bit confusing: the French text states it’s a 4K restoration while the English text states it’s a 2K restoration; both say the restoration was scanned from the 16mm original negative. I wouldn’t doubt it’s 4K, though it would seem odd to go all out on a 16mm film when most of the restorations in the set, even from 35mm sources, have all been performed in 2K.
At any rate, whatever the case may be, these are the same restorations Criterion used when they previously released the films on DVD as part of their Eclipse line. Entitled Agnès Varda in California, the set presented the films across 3 DVDs. All five films are now presented on one Blu-ray disc. Slamming 5-hours’ worth of material onto one disc isn’t ideal, and because they went that route some minor problems come up because of it. Overall, the presentations are generally fine, still offering an improvement over the DVD. Detail is sharp, the images are stable, and the restorations have been incredibly thorough, with only a few blemishes appearing throughout all five films. Nothing severe ever stands out, though this also held true for the DVD versions.
Some other things do stand out, though. When going through the DVDs initially I was admittedly unsure of the colours in a few cases, though now looking again I think I was thrown off because the colours for all of the films have been pushed towards yellow or teal. Lions Love, which ends up probably being the best looking presentation in the end, still manages to be impacted the most here, as it has the most jaundiced look and has some issues with the black levels. Uncle Yanco, one of the more colourful films in this collection, is also impacted a bit as blues and violets are held back a bit. Documenteur can look a bit washed, and leans cooler, but it otherwise isn't too bad.
Grain is rendered a bit better across all of the films in comparison to the DVD presentations, but it’s not as clean as I would have hoped. Grain can be a bit noisy, and I felt Documenteur fell the shortest in this area: it's the noiser of the five films.
Technically the presentations are all better than what is found on the DVDs that Criterion released, but I was actually far more impressed with what the DVDs were able to deliver because those presentations were not held back at all by the limitations of standard-definition; even when upscaled they still look good for what they are. Any limitations or draw backs end up just being more obvious because of the high-def upgrade, and probably because everything has been slammed onto one disc.
Uncle Yanco (1968): 8/10 Black Panthers (1970): 8/10 Lions Love (. . . and Lies) (1969): 8/10 Mur Murs (1981): 8/10 Documenteur (1981): 7/10
There are a few options with the films in this “program.” Both Black Panthers and Lions Love only present English language tracks presented in lossless PCM 1.0. The other films have multiple tracks: Uncle Yanco features a French PCM 1.0 monaural track along with an English language Dolby Digital monaural track, while the other two films present “bilingual” audio tracks (a mix of English and French) in lossless PCM mono and then an optional all-English track, presented in Dolby Digital.
All of the films and all of the options are of about the same quality: dialogue is sharp and clear, music sounds good, and the presentations are clean, but they’re limited in range and fidelity. There can be a rougher edge to audio depending on how they were filmed (the less planned, documentary going-with-the-moment shooting style of Black Panthers for example) but nothing sticks out, whether good or bad.
Criterion’s previous Eclipse release of course featured no special features at all, but that’s corrected a little bit with this release. Documenteur, disappointingly, doesn’t come with any features, but the rest of the films at the very least have introductions by Varda recorded in 2007 (Uncle Yanco and Black Panthers) and 2014 (Lions Love and Mur Murs). The intros don’t offer much sadly, running between 30-seconds and 2-minutes each and only explaining the background for each film (for Mur Murs she only explains how the last shot leads into Documenteur).
Mur Murs also comes with a 5-minute program called Two Street Artists, which follows two of the graffiti artists Jérôme Mesnager and Miss Tic, who explain their work and how it’s done (Miss Tic gets more coverage). But Lions Love gets the more intriguing addition: the 9-minute Viva Varda!, which features an interview (sort of) between Varda and the film’s star Viva. Viva might be dis-interested in this interview (she gets up at one point and just walks off) and when the two do talk about the film she’s not entirely… well… there. Varda also tells her she’s misinterpreting the film. Varda seems to be both bemused and amused by the whole thing at the very least. Sadly it’s more for promotion purposes for French television by the looks of it, with Viva talking in French, though lacking an accent, and has more clips from the film than much else. Still, I thought it was great.
Sadly there’s nothing else, and it might have been interesting to get more about Mur Murs and Documenteur. But at least Criterion dug up a couple of good items.
Cramming everything onto one disc doesn’t help things.