The Complete Films of Agnès Varda
Program 9: Jane B.
A founder of the French New Wave who became an international art-house icon, Agnès Varda was a fiercely independent, restlessly curious visionary whose work was at once personal and passionately committed to the world around her. In an abundant career in which she never stopped expanding the notion of what a movie can be, Varda forged a unique cinematic vocabulary that frequently blurs the boundaries between narrative and documentary, and entwines loving portraits of her friends, her family, and her own inner world with a social consciousness that was closely attuned to the 1960s counterculture, the women’s liberation movement, the plight of the poor and socially marginalized, and the ecology of our planet. This comprehensive collection places Varda’s filmography in the context of her parallel work as a photographer and multimedia artist—all of it a testament to the radical vision, boundless imagination, and radiant spirit of a true original for whom every act of creation was a vital expression of her very being.
The ninth dual-layer disc found in Criterion’s The Complete Films of Agnès Varda presents the two films Varda did in collaboration with actor Jane Birkin: Jane B. par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master! Both films are encoded at 1080p/24hz, are both sourced from new 2K restorations (scanned from the 35mm original camera negatives), and are both presented in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1.
Each films have been cleaned up, only a few marks and hairs here and there between both films and they each deliver superb detail and depth. Grain looks strong and the films deliver a nice filmic texture. In terms of the digital encode and the clean-up work that went into each film, they both look good.
But again, I’m going to go on one of my little rants about how the image has been yellowed up in the colour grading, and it’s particularly obnoxious with Jane B. Both films have jaundiced skin tones, both have murky black levels, and both have lots of cyans (though, impressively, blues manage to fight their way out a bit during one sequence in Jane B.). But what sticks out with Jane B. are sequences featuring snow along with a black-and-white Laurel & Hardy homage. The snow looks like someone has urinated all over it and that black-and-white sequence isn’t so much black-and-white but rather black-and-yellow. I get that not all films are graded the same, some go warmer, some go cooler, some go way out there, some suck the colours out, some go through crazy photo-chemical processes, all to get their desired look. But it becomes highly questionable that a good majority of the restorations by houses like Éclair (who are credited with performing the restorations for both of these films) all have this same grading, with either the yellows being pumped up or the blues sucked out (I admit I’m not entirely sure which is being done). It seems unlikely all of these films are supposed to look this way, and it’s especially hard to believe that a black-and-white sequence in a colour film is supposed to have whites that look yellow, I just don’t buy that. And it’s all especially frustrating because every other aspect of both presentations is rock solid: it’s clean, it’s sharp, grain is nice, and it looks like a film. But Jesus, it's unimaginable how anyone could look at those yellow-stained black-and-white sequences and say “oh yeah! That looks great!” I don’t blame Criterion completely as they got the master from elsewhere. They could have maybe adjusted the colours, but I don’t know how much good would have come from that: Kino adjusted the colours for their edition of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and it’s debatable whether it was an improvement or not.
Again, because I admittedly don’t know for sure, I have to give some leeway because maybe this is, at the very least, close to how the film is supposed to look… but come on!
Both films offer monaural soundtracks in lossless 1.0 PCM. Dialogue sounds great, music sounds fine, there’s decent depth and fidelity. They’re ultimately above average mono soundtracks.
Criterion offers one new feature made exclusively for this release, though miss an opportunity to explore this collaboration a bit more. That new feature is found with Jane B. par Agnès V. and is an interview with Jane Birkin herself. Here she recalls first writing Varda after seeing Vagabond, leading the director to contact her directly because she didn’t quite understand the letter (as Varda explains it in the accompanying 2-minute introduction for the film, it sounds as though she thought Birkin was maybe going through something like a mid-life crisis). Varda ended up inspired from her meeting with Birkin, which led her to taking the money she had made from Vagabond and making Jane B. par Agnès V., showcasing the actor doing interviews and roles she had never done but would have liked to do. From this then came Birkin’s idea for Kung-Fu Master! and the idea of getting their children working together (Mathieu Demy and Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s a good firsthand account on how the films came about while also being a loving tribute to her friend.
The disc then includes a trailer for the film. Kung-Fu Master! comes with its own two-minute introduction from Varda, along with an 18-minute excerpt from a 1988 episode of the French television program Bonsoir, which features Varda and Birkin talking about their two films, which sound to have both been released at the same time. Interestingly there is more discussion around Jane B. than Kung-Fu Master!
Though that interview ends up being informative and fun, and Birkin’s own account is sweet and engaging, those end up being the only things offering coverage of this period in Varda’s career.
Both films have that yellow grading that has really become the bane of this set. While it’s possible that the films are supposed to have a warmer look, it still feels overdone and it looks ugly, and I still have a hard time believing that the black-and-white sequences found in Jane B. are supposed to have a yellow hue to them as well. Even the title cards for the restorations are yellow. Supplements also end up being a missed opportunity.