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La Varda

A primer and love letter to Agnès Varda.
Ryland Walker Knight
The Auteurs—MUBI's center for film curation—is collaborating with Agnès Varda to show the filmmaker's shorts and features online, many of which are quite rare.  Find out more here.  In honor of the exhibition, here's something like a primer, something like a love letter.
Gender is indeed performed throughout Agnès Varda's filmography, but gender and sex aren't all that drive it, no matter the focus of the sanctioned set of flicks pushed as her classics (which are, of course, classics). Rather, it's images that motivate her and her cinema. Take a look at the quote chosen to represent her here on MUBI: "I am not interested in seeing a film just made by a woman — not unless she is looking for new images." Like any child of images, La Varda (the article feels like it comes with the name) seems put here to proliferate; her cinema not only investigates perception but multiplies its variance. She's not a cubist, though, like her friend Alain Resnais, or like her beloved Picasso (she once studied art history and dreamed of curating). She's more a prism, spinning light around the room, rushing through one idea after another. And if this is an idea of femininity, I don't doubt it's a positive picture: creative to no end, full of life and hardly reducible to a label or a name.
Varda has made all forms of films and videos, over 40 titles from straight fiction narratives (however fancy with the style) to shorts comprised mostly of stills (she's a longtime friend of Chris Marker, natch) to documentaries of a few varieties (first-person, investigative, some blending of the two) that are all somehow essayistic without aiming to prove a thesis. Sometimes, this can make a movie meander. But the aleatory, waggish tone of many is forever endearing—especially if Varda herself is narrating her images—and never just a whim (it's warmth). However, this claim is troubled by the troubling path that her 1985 film Vagabond takes (a film about being cold), and none of Varda's are simply "happy" pictures—least of all the film called "Happiness", Le bonheur (1965). A deft, pithy scoff at male bluster that costs women their voices in the name of that token (perhaps false, or falsely trumpeted?) emotion, Le bonheur can too easily be taken as utopic. That the film is indeed seductive, with its Mozart variations and color infusions, says plenty of Varda's skill, but Varda's not simply condoning one man's unchecked whimsy. The consequences of tragedy are not editorialized, as can be common in stories of infidelity, yetLe bonheur is an ironic movie of editing fits that ends with an autumn elegy one-take march into the woods; a progression that, despite the darkening, is lit and composed like a pastoral balm.
By contrast, The Gleaners and I (2000) looks like its subject: a grab bag of strays, the wrangling of surfeit ideas and images and foods, all of which become synonymous for Varda; all of which feed each other. In a lot of ways, Gleaners is what she was building to and what The Beaches of Agnès (2008) aims to recapitulate. But, as with any auto-portrait, the art becomes auto-critical, too, and Beaches gives voice to every era of her work. Beaches begins with mirrors and ends with digital tricks like collaging, layerings of images, the Varda clan dancing and then a shack of celluloid, a home of cinema, that Varda claims is her life. We might say that, like Borroughs, she eats images; or, taking her lead at that end, that she has lived and still lives images. Like her favored beaches, she keeps making images in waves, forever turning over, a continued punctuation on passages of time. Late in Gleaners, Varda's composer/friend unearths a clock with no hands and tosses it aside. Varda claims it, says something to the effect of, we can't see time pass on its face. Movies don't age, but their makers do, and that's what continues to fascinate, as Varda seems to understand so acutely in Beaches.
One of the other appeals of Beaches is as its own primer on its maker. It's a tour through her timeline. It's the kind of film only an old person could make, and only Varda could make it so suffused with, well, stuff. Her career has been just that kind of unruly, even in her early shorts: an effort to be unbounded. This is no doubt motivated by being a lady, as films such as 1981's Documenteur (a sly compound pun on a filmmaker who makes documentaries and the French word for liar, menteur, which gets at its maker's ideas about what films can do) and 1977's One Sings, the Other Doesn't attest—to say nothing of the outright anger at demands made by "late capitalism" (and men) as embodied by Sandrine Bonnaire's Mona Bergeron in Vagabond. But it's almost as if Varda spent all that energy by the time she got to making her paean to her dying lover, filmmaker Jacques Demy, which brims with that warmth we can associate with her later films. But instead of condescending and saying she got the fight out of her system, it rather seems that, as can happen as people age, she has mellowed; part of the pleasure of her new videos is their wonder; that a funny old lady can find new things to gasp at in this life.
Wonderful, then, to trace this awe back to the beginning. You might even say that her "big splash" picture, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), is a film in awe of life, so nimbly does it swing from fun (window shopping, singing) to dread (awaiting that report on mortality) in its narrow-by-design frame. Though never featherweight, most of her short films are larks, minor tracts on a delimited topic with room enough to ambulate around a few ideas. Du côté de la côte (1958), for example, is a joke on tourism: one sight after another colored hilarious by narration about all the types seen around the Riviera. It ends with a gate closing on the audience; denial's always a good punchline. L'opéra-mouffe's (also '58) best parts are simply people watching, the joy of cataloging faces on a crowded Parisian street.
That's the fun of it, then, we realize: how her movies teem. Even Vagabond covers plenty of ground, introduces a dozen fully realized lives and story threads, despite its barren areas and slovenly subject. Jacquot de Nantes is one long love letter. No real need to say that The Gleaners and I is specifically about the overflow. But the inspired thing of it, turns out, is just how tight each film winds. The meandering is never just a line of flight: it's just another direction to travel, it's another opportunity to find something. In the end, Varda's greatest attribute is her curiosity, her desire for not novelty but genuine difference—because its in those rifts that the world opens, that a new world can be seen, which, sometimes, she can capture to share.


Agnès Varda
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