Each month, Paste brings you a look at the best new selections from the Criterion Collection. Much beloved by casual fans and cinephiles alike, Criterion has for over three decades presented special editions of important classic and contemporary films. You can explore the complete collection here. In the meantime, because chances are you may be looking for something to give the discerning (raises pinkie) cinephile this month, find all of our Criterion picks here, check out some of our top titles this May, and, hey, maybe sign up for Criterion’s Criterion Channel, which launched just last month.
Director: Agnès Varda
It’s 2019, and the question of whether women deserve autonomy over their own bodies somehow remains a matter of debate. Equally relevant to Criterion’s release of One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is its proximity to Agnès Varda’s death in March. Two months later, the film’s availability feels like a fitting tribute to her career and acknowledgement of her genius. There’s no better way to appreciate our present than by glancing at the past, and there’s no better tool for doing that than art. Varda knew this well. She knew her shit.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t entwines over decades the lives of Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) and Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), formerly neighbors years prior to the movie’s events. After bumping into each other by chance, they become would-be inseparable friends until circumstances set them on different life paths. Pauline abandons her middle-class Parisian upbringing and becomes a busker, seemingly on tour at all times with the folk group Orchidée, singing songs of feminine sovereignty. Suzanne, mother of two children and pregnant with a third, opts for an abortion (funded by Pauline, who scams necessary funds from her parents), then finds herself in dire straits when her lover, Jérôme (Robert Dadiès), takes his own life.
Jérôme’s suicide creates a domino effect for Suzanne, forcing her back to the farm where she grew up, and from there toward self-governance. Her awakening takes place concurrently with Pauline’s, though Suzanne’s journey toward selfhood is slower, more deliberate. Pauline’s a firebrand, Suzanne’s demure: Both find in feminism the means to reinvent themselves, or to fully grow into themselves. Pauline (who remakes herself as “Pomme”) and Suzanne endure micro- and macro-oppressions that effectively galvanize their search for identity. Paternal authority compels Pauline to leave home before graduating high school. Suzanne experiences that dynamic in reverse, coldly treated as a laborer by her own miserable parents before teaching herself to type.
There’s a distinct thrill in watching these women discover means of liberation from France’s patriarchal yolk. Yet, Varda’s intention isn’t to thrill her viewers, it’s to move them. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is a film of sharp edges and soft aesthetics. For all its uglier moral qualities, Varda’s film benefits from her floral, verdant visual sensibility, suggesting that Pauline and Suzanne, having lived most of their lives in Spring, move ever closer to Summer with every scene. Apart from beauty, Varda’s palette adds compassion that offsets the movie’s crueler realities. She understands that the past isn’t a pretty thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth making it look pretty all the same. —Andy Crump
Director: Claire Denis
Making love is better when you’re in love. For Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a painter living in Paris, the former comes easily and the latter vexes her. She has no trouble meeting men, falling for them, sleeping with them. They practically stumble into her orbit, then into her embrace, and she into theirs. When your sex life is rich but your love life poor, life itself tends gradually to lose overarching meaning, and the search for meaning is the engine driving Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, an ostensible romantic comedy that’s light on both but rich with soulful ennui. Not to say that Denis and Binoche don’t make us laugh, mind you, but what they’re really after is considerably more complicated than the simple pleasures the genre has to offer. Let the Sunshine In is a sexy film, a free, loose, yet rigorously made film, and yes, it’s occasionally a funny film, but primarily it’s a painful film, that pain deriving from primal amorous cravings that unfailingly slip through Isabelle’s fingers like so much sand. The film strikes us as straightforward when boiled down to its synopsis, but Denis layers conflicting human longing upon its rom-com framework. The blend of artistry and genre is breezy and dense at the same time, a film worth enjoying for its surface charms and studied for its deeply personal reflections on intimacy. You may delight in its lively, buoyant filmmaking, but you’ll be awed by the breadth of its insight. —Andy Crump
Director: Michael Haneke
One does not watch Funny Games—one sits miserably bearing witness to Funny Games, understanding what is going on, terrified that the solution to the puzzle it poses is so simple. About two teenager-ish boys, upper crust and polite—referring to one another as Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch)—who, with dead eyes and well-mannered propriety, work their way into the vacation home of a family the two systematically and remorselessly torture to inevitability, Funny Games toys with chronology, with narrative, with the audience’s many expectations, fulfilling all but resolving none. In 2007, Haneke—ever the master of existential, experiential cinema, like Gus Van Sant without the Oscar—remade his own film, shot for shot, for American audiences (purposely casting the recognizable personalities of Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt), but the original is, for those same American audiences, probably the most effective, litigating our notions of cinema and violence and the nexus of both within the ways we understand such horror narratives to end. Because the point is that we do not recognize these faces as famous, and so we instead familiarize ourselves with their ordinariness—and in that comfort, our nightmares are most realized. Funny Games is far from a traditional horror film, but it is, without a doubt, one of the scariest things you will see through to the end, all the while hoping that it won’t end how you know exactly it will. —Dom Sinacola
Director: David Lynch
Blue Velvet represents everything cinema can be: horrific, hilarious, heightened to inexplicable, nearly intolerable heavens. This is storytelling as symbology, a traditional American genre like noir picked apart with unsettling aplomb. David Lynch concocts an Oedipal nightmare out of Kyle MacLachlan’s innocent boy and Dennis Hopper’s evil “daddy,” with Isabella Rosselini’s sexy “mommy” as both an unobtainable feminine figure and a damsel in dire circumstances, demanding protection. As adorable Everyman Jeffrey Beaumont (MacLachlan) is seduced ever deeper into the disgusting underground of American domesticity, he tries to see the light in the world, while the psychopathic Frank Booth (Hopper) represents all that is dark—and yet, Lynch hesitates to allow Jeffrey to be a hero. “He put his disease in me,” Valerie Lyons (Rosselini) repeats in the middle of a psychotic episode. She’s a woman permanently broken by men both good and bad, and so, in black and white, Lynch finds blue: something deeply sad and normal. In the middle of Blue Velvet, Jeffrey, excited, exclaims, “I’m involved in a mystery, I’m in the middle of a mystery, and it’s all secret.” Horned up, he’s ready to dig into all the nasty dirt his hometown of Lumberton has to offer. By the end of the film, we’ve barely scratched the filthy surface. —Dom Sinacola