Quick Takes: New Orleans Rep Scene Report

I’ve hit a dry spell with new releases lately.  Now that last year’s Awards Season holdovers and January’s Dumping Season genre trash have fallen off local marquees, there just isn’t that much out there for me.  I’d be in much better shape if I kept up with the annual sequels to ongoing franchises like Shazam, Creed, and John Wick, but I resent the idea that I need to do prerequisite homework before going to the movies, so I’m okay just letting them pass me by.  During this ritualistic dry spell that crops up before “Summer Blockbuster” season gets rolling mid-Spring, I find myself thinking a lot about cities like Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Chicago, and Toronto that aren’t nearly as reliant on the new release calendar for their moviegoing options.  These are cities with robust, flourishing repertory scenes where audiences seemingly get to see an older “new-to-you” title projected on the big screen every day of the week.  The New Orleans rep scene is much smaller & more scattered, to the point where it isn’t actually an organized scene at all.  You have to scrounge local listings on a weekly basis to find a couple disparate repertory titles worth getting excited about, something I become sharply aware of every time the new release calendar gets this consistently dull.  New Orleans rep screenings are out there, though, and they are easily accessible if you know where to look.

So, here are a few quick short-form reviews of the repertory screenings I happened to catch around the city over the past month, along with notes on where I found them.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

You can find the usual suspects of broad-appeal crowdpleaser rep screenings on a near-monthly basis—namely, Rocky Horror & The Room—but for the really good stuff you have to wait for annual festivals.  For instance, the upcoming Overlook Film Festival is about to bring legacy screenings of titles like Joe Dante’s Matinee, William Castle’s The Tingler, and David Cronenberg’s Dead Zone to both locations of The Prytania for one killer rep-friendly weekend we won’t see again until next Overlook.  This is happening less than a month after the most recent New Orleans French Film Festival (also staged at The Prytania) included Agnès Varda’s French New Wave classic Cléo from 5 to 7 in collaboration with the host venue’s weekly Classic Movie series.  That was also no fluke.  In the past, I’ve gotten to see French classics like Breathless, Children of the Paradise, Beauty and the Beast, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Mr. Klein, and The Nun for the first time on the big screen thanks to French Film Fest, when I’d usually have to seek that kind of artsy-fartsy fare on the Criterion Channel at home.  I’ve particularly become spoiled when it comes to Varda’s work, of which I’ve seen most of her titles that I’m familiar with (including personal favorites The Gleaners & I and Le Bonheur) for the first time at that exact venue.  In all honesty, I should have sought out Cléo from 5 to 7 a lot sooner, as it’s arguably her most iconic work, but I was convinced it would eventually play at the festival if I was patient enough . . . and the gamble paid off.

The titular Cleopatra is a young chanteuse enjoying mild notoriety for her yé-yé pop tunes in early-60s Paris.  She’s also a superstitious, narcissistic hypochondriac who’s awaiting potentially devastating news from a doctor who recently screened her for cancer.  The movie follows Cléo’s attempts to distract herself for the final two hours before those test results arrive, explaining through an observational character study how, in her mind, the anticipation is far worse than any news her doctor could deliver.  Incidentally, the film also doubles as a real-time tour of 1960s Paris, as Varda’s handheld, ground-level camera commits brazen acts of people-watching while Cléo cabs & busses from cafe to art studio to couturier.  As Cléo muses about how modeling new clothes is intoxicating and her free-spirit bestie muses the same about nude modeling for art students, that cinematic voyeurism becomes the main thematic thrust of the picture.  The camera casually observes the people of Paris.  The people of Paris intensely observe the fashionable Cléo, who in turn even more intensely observes her own reflection.  Even though not much actually happens in the film, I was thrilled by how much of its screen space was overwhelmed by reflections in mirrors & windowpanes.  Not only did those reflections underline its themes of self-obsession & strange gazes, but it also just looked cool, affording Varda even more room to chop up & alter her images from infinite angles. And just as I was putting that thought together, the movie “overhears” a café discussion of Cubism as an artform.  As always with these Varda screenings at French Film Fest, Cléo was an immensely rewarding trip to the theater, one that made me fondly remember its newfound superiority over Breathless in the most recent Sight & Sound rankings.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Besides sporadic festival offerings, the most obvious, consistent venues for rep screenings are the only venues where you can watch any movies in New Orleans proper: The Broad and The Prytania, which among them account for the only three full-time cinemas within city limits.  Luckily, they’re both well balanced & adventurous in their programming, squeezing in as a many freak-show arthouse screenings as they can between the Top Gun & Avatar behemoths that pay the bills.  Since they recently acquired the Canal Place venue, The Prytania has had more screens to play with than The Broad, so they have more room for regular repertory programming like their aforementioned Classic Movie series and their weirder, wilder Wildwood series on Thursday nights.  I check both theatres’ listings every Tuesday afternoon to survey the next week of showtimes, though, and they’ve both come through with plenty of great repertory screenings in recent months – from new-to-me genre relics like Ghost in the Shell & Calvaire to very strange, one-of-a-kind presentations of The Mothman Prophecies and Antonioni’s Blow-Up.  Even though their rep offerings are less frequent, The Broad accounts for about half of the screenings I actually make it to (not least of all because they’re a much shorter bus ride away from my house), and I very much appreciate that they make room for older titles on the few screens they have to play with.  In particular, they’ve been on a John Carpenter kick lately, screening 4K restorations of his genre-defining classics that happened to get past me in my video store youth, which is how I recently got to see both The Fog and Assault on Precinct 13 for the first time on the big screen.

I would never place a Western-inspired prison siege movie above Carpenter’s supernatural horror classics as the director’s absolute best, but Assault on Precinct 13 does have a strong case as Carpenter’s absolute coolest.  Set in the vaguely defined war zone of “a Los Angeles ghetto”, this punk-era cops vs. gangsters shootout recalls much later, grimier genre pictures like Tenement, The Warriors, and Streets of Fire than it does the gruff, traditionalist John Wayne heroics that inspired it.  That said, Darwin Joston is doing a straight-up John Wayne impersonation as the laidback Death Row inmate Napoleon Wilson, who’s temporarily set free by his jailers to fire back at the ghoulish gangsters who relentlessly invade the titular police station where he is held captive.  His uneasy, sardonic friendship & romance with the officers he fights beside make Precinct a kind of unlikely hangout film in the tradition of the similarly violent-but-laidback Rio Bravo.  It’s Carpenter’s overbearing directorial style that makes it a classic in its own right, though, especially in the way he portrays the invading gangsters as no less mysterious & otherworldly than the ghosts that emerge from The Fog.  His halfway-closed police station setting is an eerie liminal space, and the morality of who’s in “the right” in the plot’s pigs vs. civilians warfare is just as unsettled.  I’ve gotten to see a lot of John Carpenter classics for the first time theatrically (including his actual career-best, The Thing, at The Prytania), and two things are always consistent among those screenings: his signature synth scores are electrifying in that full surround-sound environment, and no matter how great the movies are I always struggle to stay awake for their entirety.  In a perfect world, I’d love for the city’s somewhat regular John Carpenter rep screenings to play as matinees instead of cult-classic Midnighters, but as is I’ve gotten used to seeing them in my own liminal halfway dream state, re-running key scenes on Tubi as soon as I get home to make sure I didn’t actually sleep through something vital.  Given its real-world setting & premise, I didn’t expect Assault on Precinct 13 to fit so well into that eerie supernatural mold, but that’s apparently the John Carpenter touch.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

When things get really desperate, you can always leave the city for the suburbs, where there are multiple AMC Theaters waiting to dazzle you with “$5 Fan Favorite” rep screenings of crowd-pleasers like E.T., Jurassic Park, The Goonies and, presumably, even a few movies not produced by Steven Spielberg.  I happened to catch AMC at an opportune moment in recent weeks, when the Awards Season afterglow of the Oscars allowed for more variety on their schedule than usual.  In particular, AMC Elmwood included Ang Lee’s international wuxia hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on its recent Fan Favorites schedule, presumably inspired by Michele Yeoh’s Oscars Moment as the lead of the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once.  Movies like Crouching Tiger returning to the big screen for their victory laps (or, often enough, getting funded in the first place) are the major reason I consider the exhausting Oscars ritual an overall net good. They’re more of a useful marketing tool than they are a signifier of artistic quality, but they are useful.  Until now, I’ve only ever experienced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as an on-the-couch Blockbuster VHS rental, and it was wonderful to see its fantastic fight choreography play out on a larger canvas for the first time.

To my taste, the classy, buttoned-up version of martial arts cinema in Crouching Tiger is not nearly as exciting as the more playful, over-the-top actioners Michele Yeoh was making in her Hong Kong heyday.  Since The Heroic Trio is unlikely to ever make its way back to the suburban multiplex, however (despite a recent co-sign from The Criterion Collection, an actual signifier of good taste), I was ecstatic to watch Yeoh clang swords & hop rooftops in this Oscars-certified historical drama.  I can’t say that the will-they-won’t-they love story Yeoh shares with Chow Yun-Fat ever landed much emotional impact with me in the few times I’ve seen this film, nor do I pay much attention to the quiet nobility of their mission to find a rightful home for a 400-year-old sword.  I’m the kind of dipshit who prefers Pearl Chang’s low-rent, goofball version of wuxia acrobatics to the headier, classier oeuvre of King Hu, though, so it’s probably best that my personal taste is not dictating what gets screened around the city.  At its best, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a visual spectacle about the beauty of tactile fight choreography and wire work, and no matter how restrained the drama is between those fights (nor how mundane a theatrical venue the AMC can be), it’s impossible to deny the power of seeing those images big & loud for the first time.

-Brandon Ledet

Kung-Fu Master! (1988)

As I’m writing this review of a movie that’s nearly as old as I am, there are currently two prestigey Awards Season dramas from well-respected auteurs in theaters that dabble in age-gap “romances” between adults & teenagers.  In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, a 25-year-old-woman disastrously indulges a semi-romantic friendship with a 15-year-old boy.  In Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, a 40-something conman actively grooms a small-town high schooler for potential employment in the pornography industry.  Surprisingly, it’s the former film that’s taking a lot of online heat for its supposedly dangerous amorality, while the latter is enjoying a quiet, uneventful theatrical run.  Maybe the difference is that Licorice Pizza‘s friendly quasi-romance is played with a nostalgic sentimentality, while Red Rocket more aggressively interrogates the moral shortcomings of its skeezy conman protagonist.  Maybe it’s merely a symptom of Licorice Pizza reaching a wider audience, so more people are around to be offended by it.  I’m going to make no attempts to pinpoint the discrepancy, as I’ve been constantly baffled by what movies have been singled out by the sharpened knives of Age Gap Discourse™ in recent years.  Ever since Call Me By Your Name was treated like a Cuties-level provocation, I’ve struggled to figure out why we’ve completely lost our ability for nuanced discussion of morally ambiguous relationships, especially in discussion of fictional age-gap romances.  One thing I do know, though, is that if it were released in this current hyperbolic environment, Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! would make these morally righteous kids’ heads explode.

Agnès Varda’s cinematic persona has been over-simplified into a kind of wholesome meme in recent years, but she made provocative, fiercely political art in her time.  Even so, Kung-Fu Master! is one of the toughest watches I’ve seen from her, although it appears to have been made as a tossed-off afterthought mid-production on her documentary Jane B.  Made as a collaboration with that documentary’s titular subject—actor & singer Jane Birkin—Kung-Fu Master! is a sentimental romance drama about a middle-aged woman who inexplicably falls in love with a teenage boy.  The small cast includes Varda & Birkin’s own children, including Varda’s son Matthieu Demy as the snotty object of Birkin’s desire and Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg as his classmate & her romantic rival.  It doesn’t sexualize the scrawny, boyish Demy in any way – outside maybe lingering on a few closed-mouth kisses with the adult Birkin.  Still, it also doesn’t make any excuses for his adult fling’s transgressions.  She is attracted to him specifically because he is underage, visibly fascinated by his juvenile ramblings about boyish nonsense like Dungeons & Dragons and the titular arcade game Kung-Fu Master!.  Falling in love with him ruins her social life, isolating her from her own children & other adults.  The movie doesn’t make any grand gestures to demonize her for her bizarre infatuation, though.  It instead delicately interrogates the absurdism of an adult being so transfixed with a child she has nothing in common with.  It’s a premise that would not survive a minute of modern Age Gap Discourse, at least not in the morally ambiguous way it’s handled here.

Personally, I think Kung-Fu Master! more than justifies exploring this specific moral transgression.  It’s a movie that’s more about the why of its morally squicky events than it is about depicting the what; the most we ever see of Birkin & Demy consummating their onscreen fling are a few chaste little kisses and an implied sleeping bag sleepover.  Meanwhile, the film is anchored to a grim contemporary context that’s presented with much harsher tonal severity.  Kung-Fu Master! is not so much about its romance itself as it is about escaping from the grim circumstances of the AIDS epidemic by retreating into the innocence of schoolyard crushes.  Divorced & painfully lonely, Birkin’s fantasy-prone protagonist longs for the flattery & safety of flirting with a teen boy instead of a sexually mature adult.  She swoons for the smallest, scrawniest boy in her daughter’s class of brutes specifically because he is “curious & vulnerable”.  Meanwhile, the video game arcades she trails him to are crowded by AIDS pamphlets & condom dispensers, constantly reminding her of the much more dangerous, complicated logistics of adult romance.  It isn’t until the mismatched couple isolate themselves for an island vacation that they escape the havoc AIDS has wreaked on big-city living, and they enjoy a moment of interpersonal peace.  It would be very easy to dismiss this film outright for the hands-off way it approaches the immoral romantic pairing at its core, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for being too squicked out by that predatory dynamic to appreciate its larger themes.  I found it to be a tough but moving watch in more ways than I expected, though, especially the further it digs into the reasons for Birkin’s immoral predation.

Curiously, Kung-Fu Master! opens with a scene that’s perfectly tailored for today’s social media climate.  The teenage Demy, dressed in a karate uniform, mimics the stilted video-game motions of his favorite arcade game by treating his city sidewalk as a sight-scrolling button-masher.  It’s a visual gag that’s been repeated endlessly in TikToks & Vines, where teens will mimic the nonsensical body language of GTA maniacs or idle NPCs.  I don’t know that modern social media discourse would have much breathing room for discussing anything that happens after that adorable intro, though, since Varda is entirely disinterested in damning her wayward protagonist for her crimes.  I understand the inherent sensitivity of a film tackling statutory rape in its core narrative, but I still think there’s something lost when art is reductively discussed as real-life morality parables rather than a safe, fictional space to explore complicated ideas.  Despite the obvious personal connection to Varda & Birkin’s own families (including the eventual loss of Varda’s husband & Demy’s father to AIDS complications), these are fictional characters whose onscreen behavior are not being endorsed by their real-life creators.  However, the harsh circumstances of the world they occupy is very real, and their moral transgressions within it are a troubling psychological response to that circumstance.  It’s deeply fucked up, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth grappling with.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #104 of the Swampflix Podcast: Children of Paradise (1945) & New Orleans French Film Fest 2020

Welcome to Episode #104 of The Swampflix Podcast! For this episode, the podcast crew discusses all eight features they caught at the 2020 New Orleans French Film Festival, with a particular focus on the 1945 epic melodrama Children of Paradise – which is often cited as “the greatest French film of all time”.  Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-James Cohn, Hanna Räsänen, CC Chapman, and Brandon Ledet

Varda by Agnès (2019)

I remember thinking that Agnès Varda’s recent collaboration with French photographer JR, Faces Places, was an excellent crash course in the director’s professional history as an artist. The way that project synthesized Varda’s past work in still photography, art instillations, and the blending of documentary & narrative filmmaking felt like a succinct summation of everything she had accomplished in her lifetime as a titan of cinema. That take on Faces Places feels a little premature in retrospect now that I’ve seen Varda’s latest—and, sadly, final—feature: Varda by Agnès. As the title suggests, this final documentary is a much more direct, comprehensive retelling of Varda’s career in the auteur’s own words. It covers the major milestones of everything she accomplished on movie screens, in art galleries, and in outdoor instillation pieces as its central declared topic, whereas Faces Places only referenced that portfolio in relation to how it influenced her work with JR. This film is the Agnès Varda crash course, the career overview that guides each viewer to their personal blindspots in her oeuvre and provides further anecdotal background info for Varda scholars already deeply in the know.

True to her playful, intellectually considerate approach to filmmaking, Varda addresses this indulgence in self-academia head-on by allowing the subject to shape the film’s form. Varda by Agnès is presented as an interlocking series of lectures, where the director herself orates from a proper stage to several live audiences. The entirety of the picture is narrated by Varda, with illustrative film clips & still-photograph slideshows fleshing out each touchstone of her sermon. Instead of starting with her very first film (La Pointe Courte) and chronologically trudging along to her most recent project (Faces Places), Varda instead allows the story of her career to gradually take shape as she naturally follows the flow of topics that have informed her work over the years, as if having a casual (and one-sided) conversation with her audience. She’s teaching us everything she knows about filmmaking (or “cinewriting,” as she calls it) by looking back to the major touchstones of her career, but she somehow never takes on an authoritative or professorial tone. Instead, it feels as if she’s leveling with us as equals; it’s a humble & empathetic sharing of everything she’s learned over a half-century of filmmaking, so that we can utilize that knowledge for more & better art once she’s gone.

While its initial premise suggests that it’s merely a career overview of Varda’s work in particular, Varda by Agnès functions just as well as general advice from the auteur on the processes & philosophies of filmmaking at large. She breaks down the art of “cinewriting” into three basic processes: inspiration, creation, and sharing. The contextual info she provides for her own films is consistently informed by those three tenets, and she uses that structure to deliver meaningful advice to the young artists who will outlive her. Larger topics like radical politics, the subjectivity of time, and the ability of a creator’s empathy to transform mundane subjects into transcendent Art arise naturally as the movie pauses on various projects from Varda’s past. Varda by Agnès may not be as kinetic or as aggressively stylistic as her career’s greatest triumphs (a contrast that’s unignorable, given those films’ presence on the screen), but it’s still incredibly playful & thoughtful in its own construction, especially considering the limitations of its structure as an academic lecture. Varda’s body was failing her as this project took shape, and she died before it premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival last year. It’s a wonder the film exists at all, much less that it’s as intellectually sharp & creatively fluid as it is, even if its physical staging is limited.

The world did not deserve Agnès Varda. Yet, she gave us everything she could muster anyway. Even in her dying year, she gifted us a concrete way to say goodbye & to memorialize everything she accomplished while alive. Most aging auteurs of her stature don’t get that chance, and even fewer would go about their very public retirement in such a humble, uncurmudgeonly way.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #56 of The Swampflix Podcast: New Orleans French & Overlook Film Fests 2018

Welcome to Episode #56 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our fifty-sixth episode, James & Brandon take care of some film festival-related Spring cleaning before the city hits its summer slump. They discuss the horror-themed Overlook Film Fest, which came through New Orleans for the first time this year, and then are joined by CC to discuss this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest (including in-depth discussions of the Agnès Varda oeuvre & last year’s arthouse thriller Nocturama). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

New Orleans French Film Fest 2018, Ranked & Reviewed

Just in case you aren’t already aware, Swampflix is very much an amateur operation, which means there’s no one paying us to seek out & review all of the movies we cover. That amateur status, combined with our home base location in New Orleans (which is known more for its role in film production than film distribution), means we aren’t exactly on the front lines of film festival exclusives. Professional critics traveling to TIFF, Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, and so on are much more dependable for sneak peaks at festival circuit releases that will become a big deal later in the year when Top Ten lists & Awards Season thinkpieces flood the internet. With the documentary fest True Orleans gradually finding its sea legs and the Overlook horror film festival switching venues to New Orleans this year, that dynamic might be starting to change, but the two most substantial festivals in the city (both curated by the New Orleans Film Society) are more or less small fries in the larger film festival picture. I don’t mind that diminished scale one bit. Seeing a much-buzzed-about indie release months before it reaches theatrical distribution is not the highlight of the festival experience for me. What’s most exciting about film fests is the opportunity to catch microbudget releases that might not ever see big screen distribution at all; some never even make it to VOD. There’s also usually a few opportunities to see digital restorations of older classics big & loud in a communal environment you might not ever see them in again, which is a big deal in a city that’s . . . sparse with repertory theatres. As such, I usually try to do my best to review & podcast about as many of the films I can see at the two annual New Orleans Film Society-run festivals every year, projects that sometimes take months to complete because of our posting schedule and the amount of unpaid time & labor required to pull it off. Every year, I see more movies screening at each fest than I did the year before, take longer to review them all (naturally), and feel better about putting in the additional effort.

Of the two NOFS-operated festivals, New Orleans Film Fest is both the longest-running and the most substantial. The 28th Annual NOFF screened hundreds of films all over downtown New Orleans last October, of which I was able to catch 16 features (and a few shorts). This is practically an exponential increase from the 10 screenings I caught in 2016, the three I attended in 2015, and the one or two I’d stumble into as a casual cinephile in the years before we started blogging. Still, I feel like I’m only seeing an insignificant fraction of the films screening NOFF every year, making a festival-wide recap something of a Sisyphean task. NOFS’s annual New Orleans French Film Fest is a different matter entirely. The entirety of French Film Fest is located at a single, beautiful venue: The Prytania, Louisiana’s oldest operating single-screen cinema. For the past couple years, I’ve been able to see about ten feature films a piece at each French Film Fest, which is a fairly substantial percentage of the 15-20 features that screen there. All films are at least partially French productions, most are shown in subtitled French language, and the large majority of them never see domestic big screen distribution outside of the festival. I see some of my favorite releases of the year at French Film Fest too; last year’s My Life as a Zucchini ranked high on my Top Films of 2017 list. There were at least two screenings from this year that I’d comfortably call all-time favorites just after one viewing. New Orleans French Film Fest is the smaller, more intimate festival on the NOFS calendar, but its manageability is more of a charm than a hindrance and I’m starting to look forward to it more every year. That’s partly why last year we only podcasted about our experience at the festival, but this year I wanted to post a more formal ranking of all the films we saw there, no matter how delayed, the same treatment we afford the more gargantuan NOFF proper.

The 21st Annual New Orleans French Film Fest was staged at the Prytania Theatre in late February, 2018. Like last year’s spotlight on French New Wave innovator Jacques Demy, the highlight of this year’s festival was a small retrospective of films by Agnès Varda, who recently became the first female director to ever win an honorary Oscar for her lifetime achievement in the medium. CC and I will be doing a more exhaustive recap of our experience at the festival in early May (she’s more less become our official festival correspondent on the podcast at this point), but for now here’s a ranking of every film I’ve seen that screened at the 2018 New Orleans French Film Fest. Each title includes a blurb and a link to a corresponding review (with one exception of a classic that I didn’t see the point in properly reviewing). Enjoy!

1. Double Lover (2018) – “It’s a narratively & thematically messy film that gleefully taps into sexual taboos to set its audience on edge, then springs a surreal horror film on them once they’re in that vulnerable state. Double Lover is not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller. It’s a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare.”

2. The Gleaners & I (2002) – “I can’t believe that there was this succinct of a summation of my personal philosophies as a silly-ass, trash-obsessed punk idealist in my youth floating around in the ether and I completely missed it until now. I went into The Gleaners & I respecting Varda as a kind of mascot for unfussy, D.I.Y cinema with a genuine subversive streak, but left it believing her to be more of a kindred spirit, someone who truly gets what it means to live among the capitalist refuse of this trash island Earth.”

3. Faces Places (2017) – “Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Faces Places is the way it uses its adorable surface of kittens, friendship, and shameless puns to hide its deep well of radical politics. Varda & JR are very particular about the small-village subjects they select to interview, painting a portrait of a Europe composed almost entirely of farmers, factory workers, coal miners, waitresses, shipping dock unions, and other working-class archetypes. They pay homage to these subjects by blowing their portraits up to towering proportions, then pasting them to the exteriors of spaces they’ve historically occupied. More importantly, they involve these impromptu collaborators directly in the creative process, so they can feel just as much pride as artists as they feel as subjects. The project often feels like a playful, wholesome version of graffiti, which is always a political act (even if rarely this well-considered).”

4. Nocturama (2017) – “Nocturama is certain to ruffle feathers & inspire umbrage in the way it nonchalantly mirrors recent real life terror attacks on cities like Paris & London. That incendiary kind of thematic bomb-throwing is difficult to come by in modern cinema, though, considering the jaded attitudes of an audience who’ve already seen it all. It helps that the film is far from an empty provocation; it’s a delicately beautiful art piece & a hypnotically deconstructed heist picture, a filmmaking feat as impressive as its story is defiantly cruel.

5. Breathless (1960) – Watching Jean-Luc Goddard’s French New Wave classic Breathless for the first time (on the big screen!) likely “should” have been one of my highlights of the festival, but I was honestly more enamored with the presentation of the film than the movie itself. I’ve gushed here before about how much I cherish the Rene Brunet’s Classic Movie of the Week series at The Prytania, so it was wonderful to see a French Film Fest screening work itself into that weekly slot so seamlessly (a huge improvement on last year’s selection, Love in the Afternoon). As for Breathless itself, I appreciated it as a kind of cinematic ourobouros. Its flippant story if a womanizing car thief was obviously influenced by American gangster pictures, but filters that appreciation through a dangerous French New Wave aesthetic, which later influenced New Hollywood crime pictures like Bonnie & Clyde back in America and the cycle goes on. I struggled at times with the poisonous machismo of the film’s chainsmoking antihero, but appreciated that he admits up front to being an asshole and that most of the humor posits him as the butt of the joke. It’s got a handheld, exciting immediacy to it that makes its place in the Important Movies canon immediately apparent, but it could easily be remade as a (perhaps especially violent) PePe Le Pee cartoon, which is kind of a problem (please nobody tell Max Landis).

6. Le Bonheur (1965) – “The floral, color-soaked Eden where Varda stages this adultery-suspicious morality play is a Douglas Sirk-level indulgence miraculously achieved on a French New Wave scale & budget. Her protopunk subversion of that Sirk melodrama mindset is a little subtler than what you’ll find from John Waters, Russ Meyer, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, so much so that it’s plausible to miss its criticism of men taking women for granted as domestic & emotional laborers entirely if you let your mind wander before the final minutes. The subtlety of that subversion is just as potent as the film’s flair for the avant-garde, though, an apple-gnawing worm that’s all the more effective for catching you off-guard in a sun-drenched Eden.”

7. Souvenir (2018) – “Souvenir is a delicately surreal comedy. Decades ago, it would have been referred to as ‘a woman’s picture.’ As such, I suspect it’s unlikely to be as well-respected within the Isabelle Huppert Boinking Younger Men canon as films that strive to be Serious Art, but it’s covertly one of the best specimens of its ilk.”

8. Ismael’s Ghosts (2018) – “The audience is held hostage waiting for Ismael’s Ghosts to tidily wrap up its illogical collection of disparate tones & storylines, a task that proves more impossible every passing minute. It’s as if Desplechin’s self-therapy for being tortured by his own writer’s block in the midst of familial & professional obligations was to pass that anxiety along to his audience so they can feel what it’s like. It’s a difficult mode of art to appreciate as a viewer, but one with a surprisingly rich tradition (if not only in the Charlie Kaufman oeuvre) and occasional strokes of brilliance among its expressions of creative frustration.”

9. Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2017)“There’s nothing revelatory in the suggestion that sexual scandal is more inherently cinematic than scientific research, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that The Courage of Knowledge would get distracted by Marie Curie’s highly publicized adultery. Indeed, most of the fun to be had with this film is in its tabloid-friendly back half: Albert Einstein shamelessly flirting with Curie, her married lover referring to her as ‘my beaming radium queen,’ his wife pulling a knife on her and calling her ‘a laboratory rat.’ It’s exciting stuff. It’s also more than a little insulting to the legacy of a scientist who the movie wants you to know was the first person to earn two Nobel Prizes and still the only woman to ever do so.”

10. All That Divides Us (2018) – “While All That Divides Us did little to impress me narratively or thematically, I frequently found myself surprised by its willingness to get downright nasty. Characters bet on dogfights, force victims to smoke crack at gunpoint, erotically choke each other during sex, blackmail, cheat, kill, and say meanly dismissive things to their sex partners like ‘You were good for my prostate.’ There are a couple stray moments of unintentional humor, but most of the movie’s fun is in its warped, tasteless imitation of 90s-era crime thrillers.”

11. 4 Days in France (2018) – “Maybe it’s simple-minded of me to posit that, because the plot is driven by a series of Grindr hookups, a More Explicit Gay Sex edict is the adrenaline shot 4 Days in France needed to feel alive & worth the effort. Either way, it was certainly missing something and more gay sex in this movie about a gay sex app might’ve been worth a shot.”

-Brandon Ledet

Le Bonheur (1965)

My earliest exposure to Agnès Varda’s work was as an intently unfussy documentarian. Her recent films Faces Places and (my personal favorite) The Gleaners & I are heavy on ideas and light on meticulous craft. Varda has a punk, D.I.Y. sensibility to her recent docs that embrace the affordability & portability of digital camcorders, freeing her from the struggles with financing that have cramped her entire career. It was jarring, then, to see a film from Varda’s past that deliberately recalls the overproduced artifice of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor “women’s pictures.” The 2014 digital restoration of Varda’s 1965 melodrama Le Bonheur (supervised by the director herself) is a gorgeous, over-saturated indulgence in Spring & Summertime textures. The film is so rich with color that the screen is often filled with a single, opaque hue: red, green, blue, white, purple. Its idyllic Eden setting is a true immersion in Natural delights, a far cry from the sickly digital realms of Varda’s recent D.I.Y. docs. However, the political subversion & playfully abstract humor of her documentary work is still strongly represented just under that flower-carpeted surface. Le Bonheur is much closer to the Sirk-riffing bitterness of punk works like John Waters’s Polyester or Russ Meyer’s Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! than it is like Sirk’s studio lot work itself. She just happened to get there a decade before Meyer or Waters, delivering her own caustic subversion of the All That Heaven Allows era before that inspiration even had time to cool.

One of the most striking things about Le Bonheur is what it pretends to be: a judgement-free, matter-of-fact portrait of polyamory & extramarital romance. For most of the runtime, the film follows a chipper family man with the ideal wife-and-kids home life and just enough contract work as a carpenter to keep their world afloat. Without any malice or harm intended to a wife he dearly loves, he thoughtlessly slips into a sexual affair with a nearby postal worker whose childless, youthful life in the city excites him. As he describes it to his mistress, “My wife is like a hearty plant. You are like an animal set free. I love Nature.” For a while, Le Bonheur appears to agree with his naïve assertion that he can love both women equally to neither’s detriment. It initially presents itself as an idyllic French New Wave advertisement for the virtues of polyamory & the dissolution of traditional monogamous bonds of marriage. All that proto-Sexual Revolution moralizing is deliberately undone in the final fifteen-minute stretch. Seasons change. Lives are destroyed. The desire to maintain simultaneous relationships with a wife and a mistress under the blatant power imbalance of men’s freedom to skirt domestic responsibilities is exposed as an impulse of selfishness & entitlement. Is the wandering husband really so full of love that he can maintain simultaneous relationships with multiple lovers or is he merely a selfish, privileged lush who treats women as disposable, replaceable household appliances? Le Bonheur doesn’t decisively answer that question, but does allow it to hang bitterly in the air.

Although the surface details of Le Bonheur recall 1950s studio-made melodramas/”woman’s pictures,” Varda subverts that perception with experimental film editing techniques of the avant-garde. The washes of opaque color appear to mark subtle changes in relationship dynamics & mood over time, but with no concrete correlation that could be expressed in words. The pastel voids of interior domestic spaces recall the intense wall paper realms of the candy-coated musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg & Young Girls of Rochefort (both directed by Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy). Speaking of extratextual, real life romances, the married leads of Le Bonheur (Jean-Claude & Claire Drouot) were a real life couple as well, a kind of reality vs artifice tension that informs weirdo passion projects like A Woman Under the Influence or, more recently, mother!. Varda’s flair for expressionistic, art house filmmaking is most readily felt in her experiments in abrupt jump cuts. The film opens with an upsetting alternation between a symmetrical & an asymmetrical sunflower. A romantic tryst is depicted through quick shots of tangled, exposed flesh, confusing which details belong to which body. A dizzying dance scene is disoriented by partners swapped during a wedding celebration and telegraphsthe anxiety over the interchangeability of sex partners that later upends the plot. In its early honeymoon period, Le Bonheur resembles a Springtime Polaroid, a rigidly framed document of idyllic, Natural growth. Varda subtly disrupts, subverts, and rots that first impression as the film’s shifting romantic dynamics settle into a consistent groove, prepping her audience for the last-minute rug-pull that distorts any perceived advocacy for undisclosed polyamory.

Agnès Varda herself describes Le Bonheur as a “beautiful summer fruit with a worm inside.” That kind of social & political subversion lurking under the surface of what first appears to be a breezy delight seems to be consistent with the documentary work she’s buried herself in recent decades, which are way more fun to watch than their themes & subjects might suggest. What distinguishes Le Bonheur is how extreme of a delight its surface appears to be. The floral, color-soaked Eden where she stages her adultery-suspicious morality play is a Douglas Sirk-level indulgence miraculously achieved on a French New Wave scale & budget. Her protopunk subversion of that Sirk melodrama mindset is a little subtler than what you’ll find from Waters, Meyer, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, so much so that it’s plausible to miss its criticism of men taking women for granted as domestic & emotional laborers entirely if you let your mind wander before the final minutes. The subtlety of that subversion is just as potent as the film’s flair for the avant-garde, though, an apple-gnawing worm that’s all the more effective for catching you off-guard in a sun-drenched Eden.

-Brandon Ledet

The Gleaners and I (2002)

In the post-Katrina 2000s, I was an idealistic college student with a very silly (and very sloppy) punk band called Trash Trash Trash. It was kind of a concept art project involving politically absurdist songs about art & trash, hazmat suit costumes decorated with crude finger paint, and VHS cassettes of images that alternated between camcorder documents of crude art & piles of garbage we would find around New Orleans. As a group, the eight of us were a total, incohesive mess, but could passably put on a fun show while conveying a highly specific (even if abstract) political philosophy. A decade or so later, it was mind-blowing to see that exact philosophy projected back at me on the big screen, especially in a documentary that preempted Trash Trash Trash by several years.

Watching Agnès Varda’s trash-obsessed documentary The Gleaners & I was like gazing into a time-traveling mirror, back to where my mind was in the early 2000s. The French New Wave innovator gushes early in the film about the affordability & portability of digital camcorder technology. She addresses the significant overlap between trash & art and how the excess of capitalist runoff is reabsorbed as a kind of Natural bounty that can be harvested for sustenance. She dumpster dives with French crust punks, tickles herself with silly puns, and (no joke) fucking raps about the politics of trash in a key montage of broken televisions. The only component of Trash Trash Trash missing from this prophetic vision is the finger-painted hazmat suits, but I must admit I was so overwhelmed by the other similarities that I may have missed them. The punkest thing about all this philosophical overlap is that she not only beat us to it, but she did so in her 70s, not as some idealistic college student.

In a way, The Gleaners & I is more of an essay film than it is a traditional documentary. The thesis Varda posits is that modern trash-digging (whether for found art objects, rescued furniture, “expired” food, or otherwise) is just a natural extension of ancient traditions of harvesting. French law allows for people to collect left-behind fruits & vegetables after farmers’ proper harvest season, so that left-behind food does not go to waste. It’s a long-established (and traditionally feminine) practice known as “gleaning.” Varda documents the myriad of ways the practice of gleaning has evolved in modern life. She interviews the few (largely destitute) communities who still glean in a tradition sense, the farmers who either encourage or deliberately hinder their activity, lawyers who protect its legality, and so on. Once she extends these interviews to the homeless people, crust punks, and artistic weirdos who dig through urban garbage for their own modernized form of gleaning (as well as interrogating her own impulses to rescue found objects from the trash) the political point she’s laying out about modern capitalist excess becomes more esoteric & philosophical, but also much more distinct & cinematic.

Varda’s recent Oscar-nominated Faces Places is a great reminder that she’s still a playfully subversive political mind who can deliver high caliber cinema without any of the fussy snobbery associated with the art form. I loved being introduced to her aesthetic through that endearing work, but its D.I.Y. punk ancestor The Gleaners & I hit me much closer to my heart. I can’t believe that there was this succinct of a summation of my personal philosophies as a silly-ass, trash-obsessed punk idealist in my youth floating around in the ether and I completely missed it until now. I went into The Gleaners & I respecting Varda as a kind of mascot for unfussy, D.I.Y cinema with a genuine subversive streak, but left it believing her to be more of a kindred spirit, someone who truly gets what it means to live among the capitalist refuse of this trash island Earth. I’m too much in awe of her very existence to say much more.

-Brnadon Ledet

Faces Places (2017)

Faces Places is simultaneously the best and the worst introduction to Agnès Varda’s sensibilities as a filmmaker that I can imagine. At nearly 90 years old, Varda is decades past her youthful heyday as an undervalued innovator in the shadows of the male-dominated French New Wave movement. Faces Places is also her collaboration with a younger artist, diluting Varda’s voice with outsider input. At the same time, though, the film functions as a thorough introduction to Varda’s history as an auteur. It’s a project that combines her multimedia interests in instillation art, photography, and both documentary & narrative filmmaking. It touches on her past personal relationships with artists like Jacques Demy & Jean-Luc Godard and continues her mentorship of those familiar names with her young co-director, a photographer named JR. I was unfamiliar with Varda’s creative voice at the start of Faces Places, but left feeling as if I had known her my entire life. The film is built on the back of her continued legacy, but invites you to dig deeper into her catalog instead of locking out the uninitiated. I’m simultaneously embarrassed that Varda’s 25th feature film was the first I had ever seen and delighted to meet her in such an all-encompassing, immediately lovable crash course.

Faces Places is nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, but that category selection is something of cheat. The main subject documented in the film is the blossoming friendship & artistic collaboration between Varda & JR, but it’s a narrative expressed mostly through staged comedic routines. They discuss meeting as admirers of each other’s art (especially as connoisseurs of photography & mural work), poke fun at the cartoonish differences between their bodies (JR is youthful & lanky, while Varda is a tiny, exhausted thing), trade bad puns, pontificate musings on the nature of cats, etc. These exchanges are consistently adorable, but artificially (and intentionally) performative. Where the film’s true documentary streak emerges is in the pop art instillation project the pair collaborate on. Varda & JR travel through small villages in the French countryside (in a magical truck that doubles as a large-format Polariod camera), looking to meet & document the “real people” who live there. It’s a project that’s entirely dependent on collaboration & spontaneity. The genuine, unplanned conversations missing in Varda’s interactions with JR are abundant among the various subjects they meet on the road.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Faces Places is the way it uses its adorable surface of kittens, friendship, and shameless puns to hide its deep well of radical politics. Varda & JR are very particular about the small-village subjects they select to interview, painting a portrait of a Europe composed almost entirely of farmers, factory workers, coal miners, waitresses, shipping dock unions, and other working-class archetypes. They pay homage to these subjects by blowing their portraits up to towering proportions, then pasting them to the exteriors of spaces they’ve historically occupied. More importantly, they involve these impromptu collaborators directly in the creative process, so they can feel just as much pride as artists as they feel as subjects. The project often feels like a playful, wholesome version of graffiti, which is always a political act (even if rarely this well-considered). Watching Varda & JR politely negotiate their lack of permits with cops or reconcile with the impermanence of the paper & paste art instillations they erect in these communities doesn’t exactly feel like burn-the-system-to-the-ground radicalism in the moment. However, the types of voices they choose to amplify with the project and the grand public displays they make out of undervalued people’s basic existence has a subversive nature to it all the same.

It would be easy to pigeonhole Faces Places as a more wholesome Exit Through the Gift Shop or an aggressively quirky travel diary, but Varda & JR deliver something much more unique than those descriptors imply. Touches of Buñuel surrealism, “wonderfully disgusting” gross-outs, art history lectures, working-class politics, and vaudevillian irreverence subvert & distort what you might typically expect from a well-behaved, crowd-pleasing documentary from a director near the end of her career. Faces Places is a loving self-portrait of a beautiful friendship, as well as a crash course history in the multimedia achievements Varda has tirelessly striven towards over the decades. I’m excited to dive into the more youthful, combative films of her distant past now that I’ve tested the waters, but also grateful to have been introduced to her through such a complexly endearing work. It’s an achievement that feels like it’s been a long time coming, even though Varda’s voice & I have just met.

-Brandon Ledet