Varda. I have to preface that my neither my page, nor my ranking/evaluation of Varda, includes her documentary work (which is substantial). She shares this with Herzog and a few others. Varda has three top 500 films and is the unsung heroine of the French New Wave. All three films (her top three below) are not simply great films—but pretty stunningly stylistically directed and beautiful.  Her background is in photography and that artistic predisposition comes through in her work. She’s political, interested in realism, and her best work, Cleo, is a massive formal achievement. La Pointe Courte came out in 1955 when Varda was 27. It’s been called the first French New Wave film. I think it’s a blending of the French New Wave aesthetics (it’s stunning to look at) and Italian neorealism. So yeah, Varda is important. Her career started so promisingly. She was 3 for 3 over the course of a decade from La Pointe Courte in 1955 to Le Bonheur in 1965. That’s her best work—during that stretch.

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Cleo not only is structured with formal mastery– it has many standalone shots that show off Varda’s skill as a talented photographer

Best film:  Cleo From 5 to 7  

  • Both a narrative and stylistic triumph—the premise, Cleo, a pop star, in nearly real-time, going about her life about to get big news on whether or not she has cancer—the timing as a formal device (chapter breaks in minutes) is genius and gives the entire film true immediacy
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the rigid formal structure through chapter breaks in Cleo From 5 to 7
  • The tarot card opening (in color- unlike the rest of the film) is magnificent as well. Varda interweaves the b/w narrative as a transition from the title credit (color tarot cards) to b/w narrative
  • Excellent Michel Legrand score (and he’s an actor in the film with one of the most memorable scenes/shots)- Legrand worked on The Thomas Crown Affair along with Demy’s work Cherbourg and Rochefort
  • When Cleo is coming down the stairs, near the beginning of the film, we get the trademark Scorsese (10 years before Scorsese of course) triple-edit shot (of same subject)—fantastic shot—gorgeous and brings your attention to how much she’s in her own head at that moment—I think it’s a signature New Wave moment
  • Great to see the busy Paris streets and cafes—a true character in the film
  • Shots of store-front glass reflections— otherwise mundane or innocuous tasks like shopping—she’s lost
  • Female taxi drive—this is intentional from Varda—of course Cleo is subject to male gaze the entire time- she gets gazes from females too because of her beauty and celebrity status
  • Elegant tracking shot around the decorative bed posts using the post as a framing device
  • There’s a blend of realism (real time, real settings, no narrative) like La Pointe Courte with melodrama
  • Corinne Marchand in the lead is fantastic and will be in my mentions for best of 62’, her singing scene where she breaks down
  • A great scene of Cleo all alone in a crowded café
  • Again, in her own head- we have Algiers on the radio—friends and colleagues caring to different levels
  • Great reverse shot on the park bench framed by the trees toward the end
  • A photographer’s eye with Varda again clearly- she takes beautiful photographs—ends with the conversation with the stranger
the face blocking/framing another face– this would go on to be known as an Ingmar Bergman shot– but I’m not sure he was doing this in 1955 like we see here in La Pointe Courte

total archiveable films: 6

top 100 films: 0

top 500 films: 3 (Cleo From 5 to 7, La Pointe Courte, Le Bonheur)

near the haunting finale of Cleo

top 100 films of the decade: 0 (I did my Varda study just after doing my top 100 of the decade list)- she’ll have 3-5 the next time I update it

most overrated:  Vagabond– #672 and her #2 feature fiction according to the critical consensus on TSPDT. I have it as her 4th best.

  • It’s ’s a companion piece to Cleo from 5 to 7, probably still Varda’s greatest work. Here though, unlike with Cleo, her subject is truly unexceptional- not a beautiful pop-star (she’s a hobo here). Unlike Cleo lost in a sea of people she is on her own. It’s still a meditation on death (having this told in flashback knowing of her demise changes the entire narrative—such mystery, tragedy and immediacy like Cleo which basically starts with a death sentence given out by the Tarot-card reader)
  • Structure is a splintered flashback from other people’s interviews like Citizen Kane– very well done- a brilliant choice- gives immediacy to whole thing
  • Varda’s most neo-realistic film—harsh rural setting like Antonioni’s Il Grido– frankly her character is the same too a series of bristly interactions for a person that cannot cope—matching the landscape- grey, cold and rough – she scowls and barks the entire film
  • There are a few nice dolly shots of the location, then it goes to her interactions (mostly pretty contemptuous) and then to the flashback interviews in structure
  • There’s some male gaze like Cleo
  • I think it clearly influenced the work of the Dardenne’s and von Trier though his female protagonists are more clearly the victim set amongst vipers
  • Again as far as character she is not someone with hidden talent or special- a true nobody or everywoman– and I think that was a goal of Varda
  • I guess after her trio of other films- La Pointe Courte, Cleo and Le Bonheur I was disappointed in the photography. That’s a high-bar but it’s not on that level and that’s why this isn’t in the MP or MS category. I like the dedication to the neo-realism and the creative narrative structure

most underrated: La Pointe Courte

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one of cinema’s most underrated single films and debuts- La Pointe Courte – a great shot here
  • Often cited as the first French New Wave film—and Varda the “Grandmother” of the new wave. I’m not sure about that- and not sure it matters—it’s a great film and—the style is unique and abundant- this is a film of two distinct parts, interwoven, one is a sort of neo-realism rural/fishing/working-class town story a little like Visconti’s 1948 La Terra Trema—and the other is a walk/talking pontification- couple/lovers film like Linklater’s Before Sunrise or Sunset films (obviously 40 years prior)
  • Varda is 27
  • The title credits on wood, then a smooth tracking shot from that wood (a character in the film as it’s part of the blue collar town and a reoccurring set piece) down an alley—really nice
  • We glide through houses in the town via windows like Renoir
  • Babies crying (neo-realism) and nonprofessional actors
  • Clothesline a nice visual motif
  • Title of the film is a seaside village/neighborhood – film is a portrait of a town—never patronizing
  • The face on face Bergman framing—may actually be from Varda! It’s here and beautiful- done at 34 minutes in and repeats again at 37 minutes (referencing the position of the two principal actors) and then later it layers them in bed. If this is Varda, and not Bergman- it’s a change for me
  • Varda clearly has a photographer’s eye. A great shot of the two actors separated by wood, another of them looking at their reflection in a dirty basin—my favorite (and I’m ticked I couldn’t find it for this post) is a gorgeous reverse tracking shot out of the doorway. There’s a woman looking in the house (via open doorway) of a mother crying (framed by another door) at her dying soon. Haunting
  • Gorgeous set piece of abandoned ship
  • Another great shot through an object on the ground and then we track through the object along the beach
  • Dialogue is good, too—a woman from the village says of the two leads “they talk too much to be happy”
  • The village has John Ford’s community and custom
from La Pointe Courte — doorway work here and an incredible tracking shot

gem I want to spotlight:  Le Bonheur

  • Varda’s third feature after La Pointe Courte, Cleo From 5 to 7– she goes a resounding 3 for 3 here- one of the most promising starts to any career
  • Gorgeous 35mm color photography (her first in color)- she fills her frames color, floral décor
  • Uses 3 dp’s, 2 editors
  • Stunning sunflower shot opening credit sequence
  • Mozart perfectly fits—starts with an idyllic  “Day in the Country”- Renoir-like Father’s day—hokey– this is a damning criticism of a male-centric world
  • So stylistically and formally well-done—fading to colors in editing- beautiful
  • Patterned dresses, primary color’s galore—colored trucks passing in the frames, over the top advertising part of her complex mise-en-scene— it’s Demy (in the same period as him) or Contempt from Godard. Same year as Pierrot from him and Juliet of the Spirits from Fellini fantastic experimentation in color—
  • The foliage drapes the frames
  • The husband is a smiling devil (nice, patient, annoyingly self-centered—those nature metaphors crack me up)—mimics the husband on television in a great critical shot society
  • Varda is throwing 100mph—making choices stylistically- she oscillates the camera between the tree as her protagonist is dancing with wife and then alternately with girlfriend
  • Beautiful montage of still frame photographs shaping the body with the blonde in bed
  • A triumph of editing and mise-en-scene/color
  • Repeat edit 5X upon her death in a nice sequence
  • 79 minutes
  • Couldn’t find the still but a great shot of the blonde in a purple robe, purple flowers, reading purple books
  • Far from the touches of neo-realism in La Pointe Courte, parts of Cleo– and Vagabond to follow in 1985 which is Varda’s most neo-realistic and frankly least beautiful film
  • Haunting final shot of the new family, dressed the same like out of an advertisement, going into the forest— fade to yellow
Le Bonheur‘s opening shot– truly a watershed film when it comes to the use of color

stylistic innovations/traits:   Varda’s long list of aesthetic accomplishments could be a page in itself. First off, she’s a feminist—she told female stories that needed to be told—central protagonists when most roles were relegated our great actresses to mothers and wives roles. Ok, there’s so much here visually that I’ll start chronologically. La Pointe Courte is a New Wave landmark and an important Neo-realism film at the same time. It clearly influenced Bergman with the wave she frames the faces together. The walking and talking through a city influenced everyone from Linklater to Kiarostami. Cleo is a formal masterstroke with the chapters, the real-time situation.. When Cleo is coming down the stairs, near the beginning of the film, we get the trademark Scorsese (10 years before Scorsese of course) triple-edit shot (of same subject)—fantastic shot—gorgeous and brings your attention to how much she’s in her own head at that moment—I think it’s a signature New Wave moment. In Le Bonheur we get some ugly misogyny that had to influence von Trier. It’s also shot in immaculate 35mm color (her first in color) and is a landmark film in the history of use of color. It’s very yellow, floral—and the film fades to yellow often in soft ellipsis (and the conclusion). In One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (another great work in color) we get stylized letters and post-cards in close-up, colored gorgeous and placed in the frame like Wes Anderson. I think Vagabond had to have a profound effect on the Dardenne brothers and is another realism landmark. All of this (perhaps less so in Vagabond which is why I think it’s slightly overrated) is done with Varda’s incredible photographer’s eye.

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from One Sings, The Other Doesn‘t neorealism paired with believable color design in the mise-en-scene

top 10

  1. Cleo From 5 to 7
  2. La Pointe Courte
  3. Le Bonheur
  4. Vagabond
  5. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t
  6. Documenteur
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a reoccurring shot in Documenteur
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from Documenteur – again, Varda as a supremely gifted photographer

By year and grades

1955- La Pointe Courte MS
1962- Cleo From 5 to 7 MS
1965- Le Bonheur MS
1977- One Sings, the Other Doesn’t R
1981- Documenteur R
1985- Vagabond HR

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives