By Beth Stone
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Agnes Varda Collection: Volume One

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Release date: out now
Issue 341

Agnès Varda, director and screenwriter, was the lone woman among the major figures in the French New Wave, or more particularly the Left Bank, movement. The movement is associated with a rebellion against the traditional form of films – using unusual camera shots and unexpected turns of plot. Many of these films were experimental and were produced on a low budget. The Left Bank directors were non-conformist and bohemian in their lives as well as their films, and were identified with the political left.

The first collection of Agnès Varda films has just been released by Artificial Eye. It includes four of her most celebrated films and many short films, trailers and documentaries. It is plain to see why these films have won so many awards. Not only are they beautifully photographed (Varda was a photographer first, film-maker later) but the documentaries in particular combine her interests and knowledge of history, art and literature.

The Gleaners and I is an experimental documentary. Made using modern digital cinematography, it is a social commentary on urban and rural life. It is scathing in its criticism of the capitalist mode of production, especially with regard to the food industry. Its subjects are waste and want. It opens with a still of Jean-François Millet’s beautiful painting of The Gleaners and a commentary that declares, “Gleaning might be from another age, but stooping has not vanished from our society.” As Varda herself gleans “images, impressions, emotions” on her camera, we are taken on a journey through urban streets and markets, to vineyards and potato dumps, where people living on the margins of society can find the means of survival. The film has immense energy and the gleaners and salvagers are portrayed with affection and respect. Many of the salvagers are practical or creative – one man picks up old fridges and cookers and repairs them to sell or give to his neighbours. Another makes “a pile of junk into a pile of possibilities”.

A short documentary about the French Riviera is fascinating, beautifully shot, has some acute (often irreverent) observations of the human condition and displays its director’s wry humour.

One of the feature films, Cleo from 5 to 7, is presented in real time and starkly filmed in black and white. It captures the mood of Paris in the 1960s and despite the trauma at the centre of the plot it displays the sense of fun and humour that features in much of Varda’s work. She is serious and capricious almost simultaneously.

Not enough space to mention all the works in the set, but I shall certainly be looking forward to the release of Volume Two.

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