The Austin Chronicle


AFS Essential Cinema: Agnes on Agnès

By Marjorie Baumgarten, December 31, 2010, Screens

"In my films I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don't want to show things, but to give people the desire to see." That's French filmmaker Agnès Varda explaining her methods during an interview given in the Sixties. By that time, Varda was already an experienced filmmaker, having made her first feature film, La Pointe Courte, in 1955. Presently in her early 80s, Varda is still making movies; her most recent film is the widely acclaimed documentary The Beaches of Agnès, which has received numerous international awards.

Throughout her career, Varda has moved effortlessly between directing documentaries and narrative features, all written and crafted by her own hand. If it's not always possible for us to draw distinct lines between the fictive and the factual aspects of her work, this is something that would, no doubt, please the director. Her fiction films are often structured like documentaries and incorporate elements of quotidian life, while her documentaries are all personal and frequently autobiographical. This conflation of forms is one of the signature attributes of Varda's work.

"When I watch one of her films, I feel as though she's having a conversation with me," says Agnes Varnum, the curator of the Austin Film Society's upcoming series, Agnes on Agnès. Varnum, AFS' communications manager, had a background in documentary film study before coming to work for the organization three years ago. An AFS Documentary Tour screening of The Beaches of Agnès last December spurred Varnum to see more of Varda's work and to now share it with others. "Of course, the fact that our names are similar is the first thing people notice when I talk about Varda," Varnum admits. "But the more serious reason the title of this series works is because Varda is consistently self-reflexive and her narration invites our participation. As she narrates her films and we see the images she is presenting, we are in conversation with her, as a woman and as an artist."

Varda is often described as the "mother of the French New Wave," even though that appellation really stems more from a matter of timing than thematic cohesion with the movement's primary poster boys. Certainly, she shared with the New Wave crowd the idea of the need for the filmmaker to be the author of his or her own work. But she did not spring from the same ranks as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol, who watched, studied, and wrote about films for years before ever making any themselves. In fact, Varda confesses she had seen only about five films in her life before trying her hand at La Pointe Courte and had been working as a professional photographer and art historian prior to taking up filmmaking. La Pointe Courte is a structurally complex film that tells two distinct narratives that coexist yet never intertwine. One story shows scenes from a couple's fraying marriage; the other is the story of the seaside locale that gives the movie its title. It was released in 1955, four years before the first big splashes of the New Wave arrived with Breathless and The 400 Blows. Her 1962 film, Cleo From 5 to 7, furthers Varda's study of structural issues, as its story unfolds in real time while we observe a pampered pop singer beginning to see the world with fresh eyes while awaiting the results of a biopsy.

Varda's films show a continuous interest in the relationships both between people and between people and their environment. In particular, her films reveal her interest in women's perspectives, but never are those viewpoints monolithic, an idea perhaps best captured in 1977's One Sings, the Other Doesn't. The inexorability of time and aging are common themes in her work, and philosophical and political issues are ever-present and interrelated with personal issues. These can be as distant as Cleo's newfound bond with a soldier shipping off to Algeria or as pointed as the portrait of America's racial divide as seen in her 1968 documentary short, "Black Panthers." Short films form a large portion of Varda's body of work; usually documentary in form, they tend to provide deeper and more personal investigations into particular landscapes or film settings. A short film will screen before each feature in this AFS series.

The program opens with one of Varda's most commercially successful films, Vagabond (San Toit Ni Loi). The 1985 film begins with the discovery of a young woman dead in a ditch and then works backward over the last weeks of her life to discover what happened. Sandrine Bonnaire gives a powerful performance as Mona, an unwashed vagabond who comes into contact with a variety of strangers who all project their own desires and needs onto her character. Varda films Mona's story in a documentary manner, recording episodes from the woman's final weeks in a nonjudgmental fashion and using a camera eye that's as stark and cold as the film's wintry French landscape. Vagabond retains a formal elegance while also functioning as a sublime mystery story.

Happiness (Le Bonheur) is a provocative film that leaves it to viewers to define the meaning of the term while Varda's beliefs, atypically, remain out of view. The 1965 movie is filmed in brilliant summer colors and stands in total contrast to the muted winter shades of Vagabond. The story is simple: A man is blissfully in love with his wife and two children and the life they share in a small town. A carpenter by trade, he often borrows a car to take his family out on afternoon idylls in the countryside. The vivid yellows of the sunflowers and the colors of the characters' flowery patterned dresses practically pierce the viewers' eye sockets. Then the carpenter meets another woman who thrills him equally, and he sees no reason why his love for one woman should impede his love for the other. He believes his life will be festooned with even more love and happiness than before.

Varda was married to filmmaker Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), who died in 1990. Jacquot de Nantes is one of two films she made about her husband, in addition to supervising the restoration of some of his films in the late Nineties. Technically, Jacquot de Nantes is a dramatic piece, though it is based on Demy's memories of his childhood. Demy also appears onscreen in the film, which was made during the last years of his life. The film is like a handmade gift fashioned for a loved one as it tells a story of a young boy in the Thirties growing up and becoming fascinated by the world of theatrical artifice. Theatre, cinema, puppetry, music – all fire the imagination of the young Jacquot, who acquires a camera to make his first movie. Again, this film of Varda's is drenched in a sense of place and mortality.

Kung Fu Master (Le Petit Amour) is another provocation and one of two films Varda made with Jane Birkin, the English actress, musician, and former muse of Serge Gainsbourg. The 1987 film tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a 14-year-old boy who is a friend of her daughter. The daughter is played by Birkin's real-life daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, while the boy is played by Varda and Demy's son, Mathieu Demy. Birkin, already the object of scandal for a salacious tune she recorded with her former husband, was, in fact, the one who suggested the scenario to Varda. The casting of this film in such an all-in-the-family manner adds another layer of subjectivity and autobiography to a totally fictional work.

The final film in the series is 2000's The Gleaners and I, in which Varda looks at the French practice of gleaning – picking up the remains on the ground once a harvest is completed. Varda, in her usual fashion, finds more than first meets the eye. She masterfully uses this documentary as a mode of personal essay. Her deft integration of self within this film is stunning to behold, as when she discovers a heart-shaped potato in an otherwise-anonymous pile or when she films her aging hand in close-up in order to document the bodily decay that she is otherwise able to ignore. This is Varda in her element: up close and personal.


Agnes on Agnès: La Cinema de Varda

The Austin Film Society's Agnès Varda series screens on Tuesdays at 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South. One of Varda's short films will screen before each feature. Films are free for AFS members or $8 for the general public.

Jan. 11: Vagabond (Sans Toit Ni Loi)

Jan. 18: Happiness (Le Bonheur)

Jan. 25: Jacquot de Nantes

Feb. 1: Kung Fu Master (Le Petit Amour)

Feb. 8: The Gleaners and I

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