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Eccentric French Director Perfectly Captures California In A New DVD Set

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Agnès Varda often gets recognized as the only female filmmaker to emerge out of the French New Wave, but that gendering of her stature downplays the prowess and radicalness of her filmmaking. Her blend of narrative with documentary reality alongside a feminist perspective pushed the French New Wave's boundaries even further.

Cléo From 5 To 7 and Vagabond—both available in Criterion's essential DVD boxset of her work—are the standouts from her body of work, and a new 3-DVD box set from Criterion highlights two unusual turns in a lengthy career that has seen many.

Agnès Varda In California collects the eccentric works of the director in her two stints on the West Coast. The first came in 1967, when her husband, director Jacques Demy parlayed his success in France to get a Hollywood gig. While he toiled away in the studio system down in Los Angeles (the result was Model Shop), Varda traveled to the Bay Area.

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The opening of Black Panthers

The result of this trip was were two drastically different short documentaries, appropriately filmed on opposite sides of the Bay. "An homage to age, humor, talent, wisdom and goodness," Uncle Yanco (1967) is a goofy, colorful portrait of the titular subject, a distant relative of hers who lives a hippie lifestyle in a Sausalito houseboat. Black Panthers (1968), on the other hand, is as a vital document of the black nationalist organization, filmed primarily at an Oakland rally calling for the release of founder Huey P. Newton. Along with appearances from Newton himself (from jail), Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver also makes an appearance to offer a thoughtful digression on the empowering nature of black hair and beauty.

Varda would travel back down to L.A. and make the feature film Lions Love (...and Lies) (1969), starring Warhol Factory superstar Viva and the creators of the musical Hair, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, as themselves. A ménage à trois living in the Hollywood Hills, the trio try to break into showbiz by attempting to make a film with experimental director Shirley Clarke (also playing herself). Varda toys with reality throughout Lions Love—not just by having the actors play archetypes of themselves, but even stepping in for Clarke in a brief scene. It's a fascinating snapshot of Los Angeles in the late-60s and an outsider's view of Hollywood life, but its free-flowing banter by the three principals (mostly on free love, art, and celebrity) is obnoxious and the film is largely shapeless.

The opening of Documenteur

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Returning to the City of Angels in 1979 after going back to France during the 70s, the filmmaker saw herself at an especially isolated moment of her life. She was temporarily separated from Demy, living with their 7-year old son Mathieu in a Venice beach house, and the project she originally came to Los Angeles to work on had fallen through. Finding inspiration in what was once again her home, she takes her camera to the less glamorous communities (Watts, East Los Angeles, pre-gentrification Venice) in Mur Murs (1980), a beautiful documentary about the colorful murals across Los Angeles. It gives a platform to the often-unheralded artists, through interviews and showcasing their work that is so often taken for granted. Mur Murs is a powerful meditation on the reclamation of public spaces. "The word 'mural' means, 'I exist and I sign what's mine,'" Varda says in the film's voiceover.

Moving from public space to private interiors, Mur Murs would also spawn Documenteur (1981), a short feature in which Varda channeled her own private frustrations (it is subtitled "An Emotion Picture"). Opening with a shot of the mural that closes Mur Murs, the film is a sullen mood-piece that follows French mother Emilie Cooper (Sabine Mamou) and her son Martin (Varda's own son, Mathieu Demy) as they simply exist in Los Angeles. "This woman... is most likely me and is real," says Documenteur's voiceover. "But I don't recognize myself in her." Varda once again toys with reality: Emilie is obviously an avatar for the director, but the voiceover is neither Mamou or Varda (it is actress Delphine Seyrig). Documenteur is a stunning work, blending documentary elements with a narrative about the private life of a woman—a form she would take to greater heights three years later in Vagabond.

"MY MOM AND DAD WENT TO CALIFORNIA AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS DUMB T-SHIRT" reads a t-shirt young Mathieu Demy wears in Documentur. For the rest of us, we got two bursts of creative expression from one of cinema's most underrated artists, finally collected on DVD.

Agnès Varda In California is now available on DVD.