Agnès Varda was synthesizing her skills as a photographer and a documentarian as far back as her debut feature, 1954's La Pointe-Courte, in which she artfully juggles the stories of a stressed-out vacationing couple and some anxious fishermen. Neither of La Pointe-Courte's narratives comes to much, and the couple's soul-searching dialogue becomes actively grating after a while, but Varda's compositions and camera moves are stunningly beautiful, and she captures the mundane details of everyday life with the eye of a fine artist, even when she's just shooting underpants hanging on a washline. La Pointe-Courte's conflict between realism and expressionism was so novel that it arguably launched the French New Wave.
Criterion's lovingly assembled box set 4 X Agnès Varda moves from the fitfully sublime La Pointe-Courte to three legitimately great films. In 1962, well into the first crest of the New Wave, Varda made Cléo From 5 To 7, a real-time study of a budding singing star as she roams Paris' Left Bank and anxiously (and somewhat melodramatically) awaits an oncologist's report. Three years later, Varda moved from flat black-and-white to vivid pastel color with Le Bonheur (a.k.a. Happiness), a cruelly ironic portrait of a loving young family and its patriarch's attempt to increase his joy by adding a mistress to the mix. And in 1985, Varda had her most significant international success in more than two decades with Vagabond, a naggingly elusive sketch of a naggingly elusive woman, who roams from town to town, taking what she can and working only when she has to.
At first glance, Vagabond may seem like the odd film out for this set; it's less florid in style than the others, and was released well after the era the first three films span. But there's really not much difference between Sandrine Bonnaire's wastrel character in Vagabond, Corinne Marchand's self-obsessed chanteuse in Cléo, or Jean-Claude Drouot's greedy husband in Le Bonheur. Varda invites the audience to observe these people intimately, but she won't quite let us like them, or sympathize. Though her characters seem to speak plainly, Varda constantly reminds us with her own tricky style that it's possible to say one thing and mean another.
Key features: Several of Varda's excellent shorts, plus touching reminiscences with her movies' original casts.