Earlier this year, Agnès Varda became the first female director to receive an honorary Academy Award. With her latest film, Faces Places, in contention this weekend for an Oscar for best documentary, we’re gathering four of her most thought-provoking feature films on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck. Varda is widely believed to have presaged the French New Wave with her debut, La Pointe Courte, long before creating one of the movement’s benchmarks, Cléo from 5 to 7. Later, with Le bonheur and Vagabond, she further shook up art-house audiences, challenging bourgeois codes with her inscrutable characters and effortlessly beautiful compositions and editing. Supplements in this packed program include video interviews with Varda; excerpts from a 1964 episode of the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps, in which she discusses her early career; a documentary about the making of Cléo from 5 to 7; and more.
Also up this week: a close examination of a World War I masterpiece, two portraits of young American women studying abroad in Paris, a new Adventures in Moviegoing with award-winning author Megan Abbott, and a pair of lethally funny black comedies.
Raymond Bernard’s 1932 masterpiece Wooden Crosses, often referred to as France’s All Quiet on the Western Front, is one of the most poignant films to envision the horrors of combat during World War I. Widely celebrated for its lavishly expensive and realistic reconstruction of life in the trenches, the film is also remarkable for the subtlety of Bernard’s techniques. For this month’s episode of Observations on Film Art (excerpted here), film-studies scholar Kristin Thompson explores how Wooden Crosses combines the brutality of other war dramas of its era with a lyricism all its own, achieved largely through the film’s exquisite use of lighting.
Two French New Wave titans find inspiration in the experiences of young American women studying abroad in Paris. In his 1964 short Nadja in Paris, Rohmer teams up for the first time with the great cinematographer Néstor Almendros, observing the everyday comings and goings of an exchange student discovering the city while writing her thesis on Marcel Proust. In his landmark 1960 debut feature, Breathless, Godard pays tribute to American gangster movies with a jazzy tale of a criminal who becomes romantically involved with an American student (the incandescent Jean Seberg) living in Paris.
An award-winning novelist and a writer for David Simon’s HBO drama The Deuce, Megan Abbott joins film critic Michael Sragow to talk about her precocious filmgoing life, beginning with her family trips to the revival house in her hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where she first fell in love with the speed, grit, and thump of crime films like The Public Enemy. She also remembers her epiphany seeing Blue Velvet, which revealed a hidden world and new dimensions to an American suburb like her own. For the program that accompanies the interview, Abbott has picked a slate of films that echo that revelation in different ways, including Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, as well as movies like Blood Simple, which reflects her ongoing obsessions with film noir, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, which she regards as a breakthrough treatment of female adolescence. Check out a clip from the episode here.
Criminal schemes take unlikely targets in these two pitch-dark comedies from the 1950s. In Alexander Mackendrick’s Ealing Studio farce The Ladykillers (1955), a team of thieves (led by Alec Guinness) descends on a boardinghouse run by an elderly widow, who becomes the victim of their misdeeds. In Sacha Guitry’s brisk, witty, and savage La poison (1951), a gardener (Michel Simon) and his wife, fed up after thirty years of marriage, find themselves plotting each other’s murder.