Varda with her husband, Jacques Demy
VARDA BY AGNÈS (Varda par Agnès) B
France (115 mi) 2019 d: Agnès Varda
I know the art of evoking happy moments.
―The Balcony, by Charles Baudelaire, 1857, Le Balcon (The Balcony) by Charles Baudelaire, read by Varda in the opening of her film Jacquot de Nantes (1991)
Released at the Berlin Film Festival a month before she died of breast cancer at the age of 90, this film serves as the last testament of the artist, an overview of her entire career, much of it delivered in a lecture style before a live audience, where her commentary is actually read aloud from prepared notes interspersed with film clips, providing an overall vision of her artistic career, where this film is meant to be shown instead of an in-person talk, much like Inspiration and good mood: THAT’S CINEMA! | Agnès Varda | TEDxVeniceBeach (25:54), with the artist herself having the final summation. While anyone that’s ever seen Varda will recognize this lecture format, as it’s very representative of spending a few hours with the director herself, yet it’s unusual for a final film, as it departs from her own visual style, which is more often spontaneous and playful, offering jovial insight, while this adheres to structure and a predetermined outline, not wanting to forget or leave out anything, feeling overlong and rushed, not really having a chance to edit the film properly, so it’s kind of a “warts and all” film, combining biography into a documentary, cramming her entire life into a two-hour format, becoming overly congested, with little time to process all the material, which apparently ran on French TV in two episodes a week or so before her death. It’s an apt portrait, however, the maker of 24 features and 22 shorts, obviously saying what she wants to say, but despite its personalized expertise, it will not be the final word on this artist, as her place in history has yet to be determined. Not part of the boy’s group that ushered in the French New Wave, many writing previously for the prestigious Cahiers du Cinéma magazine prior to directing, Varda set her own path, even as she was largely ignored by this male fraternity, which also includes books written about the French New Wave, ignoring shorts and documentaries for all practical purposes, which Varda continued to make throughout her lifetime. This film also concentrates on a few art museum video installments, something she shares with quite a few other contemporary visual artists, but it’s unusual to include them in cinema retrospectives, spending an inordinate amount of time at the expense of films not mentioned. Another rare distinction is Varda’s expanded audience, which includes people of all ages and nationalities, as she continues to make films accessible to children (something that would be unheard of from Godard, for instance), such as a video instillation of a colorfully illuminated grave for her dead cat, which actively encourages kids to express themselves. Varda is simply a different kind of artist, as was the more experimental Chantal Akerman, both born in Belgium, but Varda grew up in France living on a houseboat during the war, and then in the same apartment on the Rue Daguerre in Paris for almost seventy years, studying art history, philosophy, and photography, working professionally as a theater photographer even as she was making her first films in the 50’s, having no film school experience to draw upon, no professional training, and having seen virtually no other films. Because her early films predate the New Wave, she is considered part of the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) cinema movement (Marker, Resnais, Varda: Remembering the Left Bank Group ...), a group of experimentalists that would include Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Varda’s husband Jacques Demy, all of whom shared a love for cats.
An argument was made by Georges Sadoul, a noted French journalist and film historian, that Varda’s LA POINTE COURTE (1955) was actually the first film of the French New Wave, edited by Alain Resnais, shot in her mother’s hometown of Sète, a small fisherman’s village in the south of France, carefully observing a place she was already familiar with, the same location used for Abdellatif Kechiche’s THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN (2007). Unlike the other young guns from Cahiers, her film was not a response to previous works of cinema, but to literary novelist William Faulkner’s Wild Palms, claiming that was “the intellectual basis for the film,” yet it stylistically resembles what would become the New Wave criteria, shot outside the studio system on actual street locations for next to no money, as none of the actors were paid, capturing a daily rhythm in the lives of the working poor, thoroughly embracing their ordinary hardships, accentuating an existing reality that feels like the ends of the earth. Viewers expecting Varda’s whimsical, lighthearted material will be disappointed, as this comes across as a densely scrutinized masterclass of filmmaking, including her role in the history of cinema, with meticulous asides and heavily detailed annotations, providing a multitude of personal anecdotes, producing what amounts to scholarship material, creating a massively detailed overview of dozens of films, reflecting on them for her audience, sharing the origins, recalling what she remembers about making the film, some of the people involved, what she was most challenged by in the making of the film, and what she was going through in her life at the time, having the benefit of time passing in taking a look back, offering her personal and professional views. Viewers are not always on the same page with her due to the massive breadth of material she is discussing, where she is personally invested and more intimately familiar, yet plenty rubs off on viewers along the way, while historians may use this film as a living outline that follows her career. Certainly one of her most excruciatingly personal experiences was making Jacquot de Nantes (1991), a living testament to the life of her husband Jacques Demy, married for 28 years, though challenged by his bisexual lifestyle, a practitioner of poetic realism and author of some of the most lavishly colorful musicals ever made, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort) (1967), who wrote the outline of his own childhood to becoming a filmmaker as he was dying of AIDS, too ill to direct the film himself, allowing his wife access to shared intimate moments as she was making the film, using extreme close-ups as the camera glides across his skin, showing every pore and blemish, becoming an intensely recalled farewell visual memoir of his life, much as this film turns out to be for her own life and career. One would be hard-pressed to find two more poignant “cinematic love letters” than Varda’s elegiac film tributes to both Demy and herself, the final artistic career summations of husband and wife filmmakers on their own separate cinematic journeys. It’s an unfathomable accomplishment.
Central to Varda’s cinematic understanding is the term cinécriture, a kind of cinematic signature, or intuitive thoughtfulness, which goes well beyond the concept of an auteur, but describes, in her eyes, all the various notions of what an artist thinks about when constructing a film, as they write, cast, direct, edit, scout locations, choose the scenes, the season, the crew and the light, any voice-over commentary, and provide the visual look they want, all deliberate choices that ultimately provide different meanings:
A well written film is also well filmed, the actors are well chosen, so are the locations. The cutting, the movement, the points-of-view, the rhythm of filming and editing have been felt and considered in the way a writer chooses the depth of meaning of sentences, the type of words, number of adverbs, paragraphs, asides, chapters which advance the story or break its flow, etc. In writing it’s called style. In the cinema style is cinécriture.
Among her lesser known films are those made in Los Angeles when Demy was working in Hollywood, filming a threesome of drug-happy hippies in Los Angeles, contacting Andy Warhol to work with actress Viva, along with the two male creators of the musical Hair, then hiring Shirley Clarke to play a version of herself filming them all tripping the light fantastic, capturing the blistering originality of Mexican wall murals, yet always venturing to the water for her lifelong affinity for beaches. In one of her bigger failures (which she can laugh about today), she pairs Robert de Niro with Catherine Deneuve, with De Niro speaking a hilarious phonetically learned French, while in another outlandish vision she turns her own Parisian neighborhood into a seaside excursion (with apologies to her neighbors who weren’t so thrilled), dumping a pile of sand onto the streets while recreating a festive Jacques Tati-style beach adventure. But the majority of time is spent with her more familiar works, sitting under umbrellas in the rain with actress Sandrine Bonnaire discussing Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) (1985), the only Varda film to actually make money, arguably her most heartbreaking work, reminding the world of her importance as a feminist filmmaker, but decades earlier she made Cléo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) (1962), an existential reflection on mortality, a film that captures the terror of cancer, examining the subjective experience of being a woman, told in real time, divided into thirteen chapters, as Cleo literally transforms her initial superficial views, self-obsessed by fashion and how she looks to others, allowing beauty to determine her sense of identity, but this slowly transforms her views, suddenly discarding her earlier notions while taking an emotional leap into the future, where the streets of Paris become a mirrored image of her personal odyssey as she redefines and reshapes her own view of herself. In THE GLEANERS AND I (2000), she uses a road movie format to offer a reflective essay on waste and recycling, using a digital camera for the first time, lighter, with no reliance upon a film crew, allowing her greater personal access, spending a year touring France, capturing the people who scavenge and salvage the food and objects left behind by others, from discarded crops in the field, illustrated by paintings hanging in art museums, to extracting precious metals from abandoned junk, and even to artists who create entire worlds from trash or found objects, while also offering a meditative commentary on growing old. Eventually viewed as the grandmother of French cinema, her bubbly personality and overly gregarious approach may actually influence how her films are perceived, cheerfully alert and buoyant, beloved by everyone, but never viewed as ponderous, yet she’s been making films for seven decades, never losing her enthusiasm, offering her own unique commentary on each time period. A thorough analysis of her place in history will likely only rise after her death, but this film is an initial step in resurrecting the full scope of her lengthy career, revealing a marvelously quirky inventiveness and originality in film language, a curiosity of spirit that has never aged, an artist constantly reinventing herself, capturing the essence of what it means to be alive.