Boxed set salutes Agnes Varda's feminist lens

by Jan Stuart

Newsday (MCT)

30 January 2008

4 BY AGNES VARDA (The Criterion Collection)

4 BY AGNES VARDA (The Criterion Collection)

In 1954, a photographer named Agnes Varda set up shop in a marshy coastal city in the west of France and made a movie, subsidized by a few thousand francs from her mother. She had in tow a crew of three, plus two theater actors who were being paid in experience and a supporting cast of locals who spoke their lines so informally that their voices would later have to be dubbed. Varda knew nothing about movies, having seen maybe one in her entire life. She was 25.

When “La Pointe Courte” was later screened at the Cannes film festival, Varda’s neophyte endeavor caught the eye of Andre Bazin, critic and co-founder of the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, who tooted the arrival of a vanguard artist. While the film would have limited distribution, it had a galvanizing impact. In its blending of fiction with documentary-like reality, “La Pointe Courte” presaged by five years the fast-and-loose experiments of Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut and Alain Resnais. Still going strong at 79, Varda is widely deemed the mother of the French New Wave.

When it comes to directing fictional films - in France, the United States or the Duchy of Grand Fenwick - how many mothers of any movement can we name? Ida Lupino? Nora Ephron? Penny Marshall? What is their legacy? It is a measure of the odds against women in the movie industry that the careers of the aforementioned male directors were pretty much off and running with their debut features, while Varda was obliged to hone her craft on commissioned travelogues for seven years before her second film, “Cleo From 5 to 7” came to pass.

Heaven knows, she had the right stuff. As both narrative innovation and time capsule of a turn-of-the-decade Paris, the 1961 “Cleo” vibrantly holds its own against Godard’s iconic 1959 “Breathless.” And for my devaluating dollar, it’s infinitely more rewarding.

The Criterion Collection has assembled “La Pointe Courte” and “Cleo From 5 to 7” in an impeccably packaged boxed set with two other Varda films, each more amazing than the last. While all four pictures have an individual stamp, “Le Bonheur” and “Vagabond” are of a piece with the earlier two in their humanistic and always respectful use of nonprofessional actors - as well as a singularly feminist perspective that coheres in subtle, surprising, ways.

That surprise would never be more bracing than in the sun-dappled “Le Bonheur” (“Happiness”), in which French TV idol Jean-Claude Drouot plays Francois, a content married carpenter and father of two whose blissful home life is compromised by a fling with a comely postal clerk. Critics and audiences alike were scandalized in 1967 by the dark fairy-tale denouement, in which characters make stunningly selfish choices that suggest we are all ultimately dispensable, regardless of our perceived importance to our loved ones. (The potency of that reaction is still felt today, in a dynamic supplement-section debate accompanying the film.)

Francois’ actions are all the more disturbing with the knowledge that Drouot’s real-life wife and children, nonactors all, are playing his wife and children in the movie. In another of the DVD’s irresistible supplements, Claire Drouot reunites four decades later for a joint interview with Marie-France Boyer, the actress who played the “other woman”; Drouot concedes that acting opposite her husband in a movie confronting adultery had a solidifying effect on their marriage, which recently passed the 45-year mark.

One is left to wonder about the ways in which the film reflected, if at all, Varda’s own marriage to the late director Jacques Demy, whose extravagant color design in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is echoed in Varda’s eye-popping floral palette for “Le Bonheur.”

Varda’s hyper-stylized use of color here feels almost like an act of self-liberation after the stark black-and-white canvas of “La Pointe Courte,” in which Philippe Noiret plays a Parisian who brings his longtime girlfriend to his coastal hometown to discuss whether they should break up. The dead, dyspeptic tone of the couple’s exchanges is at one with the film’s monochromatic look, while at odds with the ebullience of the provincial life unfolding around them.

In the episodic “Vagabond” (1985), Sandrine Bonnaire plays an itinerant young woman named Mona who backpacks about the country, encountering along the way strangers who offer a helping hand and are ultimately rebuffed for their generosity. One can view it as a female precursor to “Into the Wild,” except Mona lacks both the lofty ideals and the social comfort zone of Emile Hirsch’s Chris MacCandless.

The magnetic appeal of “Vagabond,” like that of “La Pointe Courte,” stems from the tension between the star’s calculated turn and the vivacious, unaffected performances that Varda elicits from locals who have never acted. Among Varda’s finds are a sweet-souled Tunisian field hand, a math teacher who cameos as a prostitute, a philosophy professor-turned-goat farmer who more or less plays himself and a housemaid who impersonates, with obvious relish, a wealthy doyenne.

Bonnaire’s filthy, petulant Mona is a world away from Cleo, the primping diva-in-training played by Corinne Marchand in “Cleo From 5 to 7,” my favorite of the lot. Cleo is awaiting lab-test results from her doctor and, abetted by her superstitious assistant and a doomsaying fortune teller, suspects the worst. Transpiring in real time (from 5 to 6:30 p.m), Varda’s spirited portrait trails the self-dramatizing pop singer around Paris as the sand runs down on her life. Or so she thinks.

In various parts serio-comedy, musical and Paris travelogue, “Cleo From 5 to 7” bubbles over with spontaneous pleasures. (That’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” composer Michel Legrand as the pranskster rehearsal pianist who tries to humor Cleo out of her torpor, and fails). This is New Wave filmmaking that only a self-confident female director (or Pedro Almodovar) could pull off. It’s like watching a cover of French Vogue come to life, scan the surroundings and promptly go into conniption fits.

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