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Agnès Varda, RIP

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The brilliant and pioneering filmmaker Agnès Varda has died. In my view, the second greatest living director, behind only Scorsese, Varda’s career is a tribute to the glory of film as a medium, whether in traditional feature films, political documentaries, and the power of self and societal exploration. To my mind, only perhaps her good friend and longtime collaborator Chris Marker had a major international career with such variety and sui generis significance.

Varda was born in 1928 in Belgium and her family spent World War II living on a boat. She occasionally talked about the fear the war created in her films, though she never made a World War II movie. She went to the Sorbonne, hated everything about it, graduated with a literature degree, and went into photography. While having a background in photography hardly makes her unique among filmmakers, she was a working photographer for a long time, doing the standard wedding photos, all the while thinking about how to turn compositional images into film.

Despite all the men who are famous from the French New Wave, Varda has a strong claim to making the first film in the movement, 1954’s wonderful La Pointe Courte, a film about a couple in a struggling relationship in a small fishing village. She hired two professional actors–Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret (both great)–and then the rest of the cast was a locals, a film riding the edge between fiction and documentary. She mentored a young Alain Resnais in the making of the film too. He was her editor and his work is clearly influenced by hers.

Given the difficulty of raising funds for feature films, a lot of Varda’s works over the next several years were short documentaries, including ones funded by the state. Her next feature was 1961’s utterly brilliant Cleo from 5 to 7, the story of a young singer and model who is killing time before she finds out if her biopsy reveals cancer. This is a deeply feminine film, if relatively nonpolitical. She has to deal with the constant attention of men, people looking up to her, people asking things of her, all while wanting to disappear from everyone as she discovers if her life is going to change or even end. This is one of the greatest films ever made.

1965’s Le Bonheur, about a married carpenter who meets another woman and starts an affair, takes a very different look at sexual politics, one that takes polyamory seriously but not romantically. After this, Varda’s films took a starkly political turn, with documentaries of the Black Panthers, on Vietnam, on Cuba. One film I have not seen is One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, which is about to be released on Criterion. This is from 1977 and is about abortion, feminism, and the women’s liberation movement, told from the perspective of two women. I am so happy more of her work is seeing the light of day and I can’t wait to watch this. 1984’s Vagabond is another brilliant work, following a young female drifter who has died of exposure, split into 47 short segments of different people telling the girl’s story. Her interest in people on the edges of society never waned, which became clear in her wonderful 2000 documentary, The Gleaners and I, in which Varda travels around France interviewing people are who dumpster diving and using unused produce from fields and otherwise choosing to scavenge through life. I haven’t seen too many of her films still, including her 1991 tribute to her deceased husband, the also great Jacques Demy, Jacquot de Nantes.

Then, toward the end of her life, Varda turned the camera on herself. She was always comfortable with this, being a leader in the French abortion legalization movement, which she also filmed. But 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès, while a hard movie to describe effectively, is another masterpiece, a reckoning with aging and an amazing life. She thought it would be her last film, as she was turning 80. But of course, she could never put the camera down.

At Varda’s core was a deep empathy with struggling people combined with a beautiful whimsy centered around the power of the image. This comes through so brilliantly in her last film, Faces Places, from 2017. Working with a street artist known as JR, they travel around France talking to people. Varda shoots film, the best she can with her declining eyesight, one of the film’s major themes. JR has a mobile photography development van. They take pictures of people, blow them up in huge images, and paste them on buildings. This is a really powerful film that also makes you feel better about both life and art. Here is a good summary of part of that film:

The film follows Varda and JR on a tour around France in the latter’s enormous van-cum-photobooth, photographing and immortalising members of different communities by reproducing their images at huge scale in public places. In this set-up and the interaction between JR, Varda, and their varied subjects allows for a kind of valedictory reprise of Varda’s storied career. The film blends documentary and artifice, focusing on the lives of working people, and insists both that ‘culture is ordinary’ and that ordinary lives can be the stuff of radical new forms of high art. Through JR’s big photographs, pasted onto buildings, Varda memorialises her own past, those she loved, worked with, and has outlived, and pays homage to the lives and struggles of workers, insisting on their dignity, centrality, and importance.

The engagement — sometimes grudging, mostly enthusiastic — of Varda and JR’s subjects reveals the openness to art and thought that liberal culture assumes is alien to those who labour in fields and factories. In one of the film’s most moving sequences, an elderly widow in a former mining town, known locally as la resistant due to her refusal to sell out to developers, sees her own image blown up and pasted on the wall of the house that she won’t move out of. When Varda and JR show the work to this stoic, plain-speaking woman, she bursts into tears.

These sort of stubborn resistances to the ways traditions are forcibly remade are key to Varda’s explorations. At one point she separates off from JR and pursues her own interests more closely. She meets a goat-farmer who refuses to clip the horns of her goats purely out of a concern for value-maximisation and an elderly outsider artist, living in a self-made house of artwork; his ascetism and creativity are key to a satisfied, if impoverished, life. Sometimes these moments are at odds with the whimsy of JR’s own approach (photographing Varda’s toes and pasting them on the side of a freight train, for example). Many of the differences between the pair, generational and ideological, are revealed in two sequences set in industrial sites, the self-contained ‘villages’ referred to in the film’s French title.

In the first, workers and managers in a chemical factory are photographed as a group and pasted up reaching out toward each other in a starburst of de-stratification. One of them comments wistfully that for a moment it is nice to have all of the levels of the company together, interchangeable; it’s a carnivalesque, purely notional levelling of a hierarchy that persists once the working day begins. Here art is a sop, a pleasant if melancholy fantasy of a different form of workplace organisation. The second is in the port of Le Havre, in which Varda takes more control of the situation. She insists that three wives of the male dockers they initially meet should be their subject, bringing them out of the shadows and allowing them to reflect on their own relationship to work and representation (all three work at the port). In an interview sequence, Varda gently admonishes them for saying that they stand ‘behind’ their husbands rather than ‘alongside’ them in labour disputes.

The film’s creative and generative tensions centre on the differences between Varda and her male interlocutors, most of all JR, who, she points out, resembles her friend and one-time collaborator, Jean-Luc Godard; the film ends bitterly, in a thwarted reunion with this fellow survivor of the French New Wave. A part of the triumph of Faces Places is to slyly situate Varda in a still open space outside both the feel-good street art of the TED-award winning JR, and the predictable trajectory that has led Godard from Maoist enfant terrible to ageing curmudgeon. Varda has never shown a desire to engage in that most knee-jerk of responses for would-be radicals, to epater le bourgeois. This film, and the art made in it, is not addressed to them, and neither hopes to incite their pity, nor to histrionically attack or expose them. Instead, she quietly insists that those struggling in the cracks and margins of the system are the most worthy of the camera’s gaze; and this is perhaps the most radical subversion of all.

The Godard scene is really quite powerful. They are supposed to meet after not having seen each other for a long time. Of course, Godard just blows her off and refuses to answer the doorbell. Varda is genuinely devastated, quite probably realizing that she never in fact will see him again. And yet, in this is why Varda was the greater person and the greater filmmaker. Godard, like so many men of film, got a long way by being the bad boy. People valorized his bad behavior and the bad films that came out of that, especially after the early 70s. Being a woman in a misogynistic society, Varda never could choose that path. In response, she chose a path of deep humanism. Ultimately, one hopes she is the director future filmmakers she as an inspiration for a twenty-first century world where we need all the inspiration and beauty we can get.

Finally, lest one think Varda took herself too seriously, there is this:

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