What's a resilient auteur to do when their movie flops? After her 1966 film Les Créatures—now finally available for home viewing in a new Criterion Collection box set—failed to engage critics and audiences alike, Agnès Varda took the proverbial lemons and made lemonade: she later used 35mm release prints of the film to create an installation called Ma Cabane de L'Echec (My Shack of Failure), a rough-hewn hut with translucent walls made out of the salvaged film strips. Speaking of this structure in her 2008 film The Beaches of Agnès, Varda said, "In here, I feel like cinema is the house I live in," adding in voiceover, "it's like I've always lived there."
As a stand-in for the home she found in cinema, a residence literally made of film is an aptly lyrical expression of this impish master's devotion to the medium. Similarly, the Criterion box set, released not quite 18 months after she passed away in March 2019, represents a home for Varda's body of work. At the risk of waxing poetic, I felt euphoric when I first held The Complete Films of Agnès Varda, the weight of the object in my hands an implausible proxy for the totality of her. It's a beautiful piece of physical media, containing 15 Blu-ray discs with 39 digital restorations of her films (21 features, 17 shorts, and one documentary miniseries), several hours of illuminating special features, and an exquisitely designed 200-page book with writings by Michael Koresky, Amy Taubin, So Mayer, and others, as well as selections of her photo and installation work. The discs themselves are grouped by theme—"Early Varda," "Around Paris," "In California," "Her Body, Herself," and "Jacques Demy" among them—which contextualize her biography (for instance, Varda was married to fellow New Wave director Jacques Demy, and they lived in California for several years) and the themes she explored through her work.
Varda was at the center of one of Chicago's most joyful cultural events of the past decade when, in 2015, she attended a celebration of her work called CinéVardaExpo at the Logan Center for the Arts, organized in part by Dominique Bluher, lecturer in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago; a personal friend of Varda, Bluher also appears in the miniseries Agnès de ci de là Varda (2011). It was an ecstatic celebration, where Varda spoke about many of her films and appeared with an accompanying exhibition called Photographs Get Moving (potatoes and shells, too), which featured several of her photographs and installations. People traveled from across the country to see Varda, including two young women who came wearing potato necklaces in homage to her 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I; Varda loved the girls' spirit. Another woman brought her cat (Varda being known for having loved them), to the surprise of Varda and most everyone else. "It was like every event where she is present," Bluher says of the visit, "it is something that people do not forget." Less enchantingly a man in the audience during Varda's opening-night lecture asked whether she preferred Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, a question I wouldn't advise anyone inquire of a venerated female auteur, but which she handled gracefully nonetheless.
The Belgian-born Varda was 26 when she made her first film, La Pointe Courte (1955), an auspicious debut that arguably heralded the French New Wave before Truffaut made his seminal ode, The 400 Blows (1959). Varda was a key member of the so-called Left Bank Group, along with Demy, Alain Resnais (who edited La Pointe Courte), and Chris Marker, among others; she's considered to be the only woman filmmaker associated with the movement. Her body of work is varied, ranging from feature-length narratives (Cléo From 5 to 7, Le bonheur, Vagabond) and documentaries (The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, Faces Places, which she codirected with visual artist JR) to a collection of uncommon short films that represent some of her best efforts.
Uncle Yanco (1968), an offbeat portrait of one of her Greek relatives, is a fan favorite; Black Panthers (1970), as timely now as it was on first release, is an outsider's look at the revolutionary political organization. One I especially love is Ulysse (1982), a self-reflexive essay in which Varda examines her photograph of the same name, a stunning piece that exhibits her compositional mastery. While going through the box set, I revisited Les dites cariatides (1984), originally made for French television, a lyrical tour of the shapely columns scattered around Paris complemented by selections of poetry by Charles Baudelaire, which Varda recites. Whether one is seeing a certain Varda film for the first time—per the Criterion Collection, this marks the U.S. home-video premieres of Les Creatures, Jacquot de Nantes, One Hundred and One Nights, and Les 3 boutons—or revisiting it, the idea of discovery is essential both within Varda's work and to appreciating it.
Former Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who led a Q&A with Varda after Cléo From 5 to 7 screened at the Music Box Theatre during her 2015 visit and who will be teaching a course on her this fall at the School of the Art Institute, remarks about this extensive compilation of work that "the main value, in her case, is to show how versatile she was, rather than show continuity . . . to show that she tried a lot of different things." Rosenbaum specifically cited Varda's short film Plaisir d'amour en Iran (1977), pointing out that Iran was just one of many places, literally and figuratively, that she went to in her practice. "Part of the value of having a lot of her work drawn together is to show how many different worlds she managed to encompass," he says.
There's little in the set that doesn't reflect Varda's singular waggishness. Even the menus for each disc are evocative of her charm and whimsy; scores from her films provide the background music, and the design choices recall her own colorful eccentricity. The special features are fantastic and too many to list here, but standouts include Nausicaa (1970), a television film once banned because of its criticism of the Greek government; other hard-to-see works, such as segments Varda directed for the 1983 French television program Une minute pour une image; illuminating video essays; and, finally, bountiful footage of Varda herself, introducing the films, attending festivals, and generally imparting her wisdom on film, on art, on life.
After Faces Places (2017), Varda became a different sort of cultural icon, her diminutive stature, two-tone bowl cut, and discernible joie de vivre became emblems more of an admirably joyful person than a rigorous artist. It's understandable why she sparks a desire to connect with her on a personal level (as Rosenbaum notes, "a lot of filmmakers have ways of integrating their own lives in their work, but she went further"), but there's also something to be said about appreciating her as the venerable auteur she was, whose work challenges us in imperceptible ways, its receptiveness and vulnerability radical in terms that are difficult to articulate. To put it succinctly, as Bluher says, "She's an artist. Period. And one of the most important artists, period." v