Talking Pictures

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Agnès Varda 1928 to 2019

Posted by keith1942 on March 31, 2019

Mandatory Credit: Photo by NIVIERE/VILLARD/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock (8825150f)
Agnes Varda
‘Visages, Villages’ photocall, 70th Cannes Film Festival, France – 19 May 2017

So, aged ninety, the grand and lovable film-maker has left us. One always feels a sense of loss when an important film-makers leaves the industry and world of film. For me there was a particular personal feeling because Agnès was not only one of the outstanding film-makers in European cinema, she was a real character and humanist who radiated both sympathy and empathy for the ordinary people who so often took centre screen in her films.

My first film by Agnès Varda was Cleo from 5 to 7 (Clèo de 5 à 7, 1962) which I saw in a 16mm screening at a local film society. We were in a period when we enjoyed the trail-breaking features of the nouvelle vague, but even then Varda’s film offered a distinctive take on life and France. The later films that I enjoyed all offered both quality and her own individual take on life and cinema. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t / L’une chante l’autre pas (1977) dramatised her own commitment to the struggle to legalise women’s access to abortion. Most recently Faces Places / Visages villages (2017) showed her love of the idiosyncratic and her warm embrace of people and places.

In keeping with her renaissance standpoint and her recent habit of revisiting her life and work the final film, Varda by Agnès / Varda par Agnès – Causerie (2019) offers a testament to the rich and compelling variety of her work. This film was screened in the Berlinale (Out of Competition) at the Berlinale Palast. The Brochure commented,

“Agnes Varda takes a seat on a theatre stage. The professional photographer, installation artist and pioneer of the Nouvelle Vague is an institution of French cinema but a fierce opponent of any kind of institutional thinking.”

What is offered is a journey through Varda artistic career, primarily that of film. The approach is partly chronological, partly thematic. Taking account of the changes in the medium the first part treats

“’her analogue period’ from 1954 to 2000 in which the director is in the foreground…… In the second part, Agnes focusses on the years from 2000 to 2018, [it] shows how she uses digital technology to look at the world in her own unique way.”

She has included her work on installations, and an aside on her photographic work.

The film combines a series of illustrated talks by Varda. The opening one is in a palatial opera house remarked on by Varda. Another is a seminar for Higher Education students. In the latter Varda is reading from notes; I do not think this was the case in her talks for the general public. In either case she is articulate, informative, at time ironic, always charming and engaging. And her points are constantly illustrated by extracts from her films, extracts that are well chosen and make the point she is presenting. This is far better done than in some recent television programmes on cinema; and one intelligent head is better than a constant series of ‘talking heads’.

One film that receives attention is the first of her features to make a real mark, Cleo from 5 to 7 / Clèo de 5 à 7 (1962). She talks about the making of the film, its star Corinne Marchand and the way in which the film presents ‘real time’. She added an amusing comment, that Andy Warhol remarked that he would have carried on filming to 7 p.m.; [the film ends just after 6.30 p.m.). The film was innovative in a number of ways and it is worth noting that here Varda is really part of the Left Bank Group rather than the better-known film-makers of the Nouvelle Vague, In fact Alain Resnais was the editor for her first film La Pointe Courte (1955).

Another film is Vagabond / Sans toit ni loi, (1985). I think this is one of Varda’s finest films and has at its centre a marvellous performance by Sandrine Bonnaire. Her character’s, Mona, final weeks are reconstructed in the film in a collage of flashbacks and interviews. Varda talked about working with the actress and her contribution. She also talked about the style of the film where repeated tracking shots emphasize Mona’s travels across the countryside. This is a bleak film but one that demonstrates the humanist values that are embodied in all of Varda’s work.

In the digital works one discussed is The Gleaners & I / Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000). The original French title makes the point of the commonality between the film-maker and her subjects. Varda films and interviews many people who ‘glean’ their existence, both in urban areas such as Paris and in rural areas. Varda’s ability to pick up on fresh and unconventional subjects as well as her skill in constructing visual and aural tapestries is exemplified in this film. It is both a moving and fascinating set of portraits.

The Beaches of Agnès / Les plages d’Agnès (2008) presents recurring settings, images and motifs that appear across her work. Besides the beach we have innumerable mirrors, references and homages to visual art and, a favourite with Varda, cats. She also revisits her first film, La Pointe Courte. In one of those inspired and totally unconventional tropes we watch as people originally involved in the film revisit it as it is projected on a cart that they push through the village.

This was one of Varda’s homes in her younger years and autobiography runs through her talks and the film examples. This includes the films about her one-time partner and fellow film-maker Jacques Demy, as in Jacquot de Nantes (1991).

Towards the end of this film Varda talks about recent work on installations, including the now famous potato [referencing The Gleaners and I] at the Venice Film Festival. There is a section on her work as a photographer, which goes right back to her youth before she took up film. One can see in these examples her fine visual sense.

This is a fine two hour self-portrait full of humour, intelligence and revelations. Born in 1928 in Brussels, Varda was one of those long-lived European film-makers. She was also one of the most important. She had 54 credits as a director, plus those as writer, producer, editor and more. About a third of these are illustrated here. Her reputation has risen, fallen and risen again. Some of the films presented, such as Black Panthers (1968) have [unfortunately] not been successful. But Varda continued to work in her own idiosyncratic way. In the last years she became an established and revered artistic voice. One aspect of this means that this new film should certainly get a proper British release. I am sure, when it comes, that it will be one of the outstanding experiences in cinemas at that time and a worthy memorial of one of the most distinguished film careers in modern times.

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