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The many ways of seeing Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda, the acclaimed French filmmaker, in Paris, June 20, 2009. Varda, an emblematic feminist and cinematic firebrand whose innovations predated the work many other filmmakers in the New Wave movement which she was often identified with, died at home in Paris on March 29, 2019. She was 90. Owen Franken/The New York Times.

by Manohla Dargis

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- In 1968, Agnès Varda was living in Los Angeles and trying to put together a film called “Peace and Love.” She had arrived from France to join her husband, Jacques Demy, who was shooting a movie for Columbia. They loved Los Angeles, where they ate with Mae West and hung out with Jim Morrison. Harrison Ford was going to be in “Peace and Love,” and there was talk of money from Columbia. But the studio didn’t want to give Varda final cut, so she did what she always did: She went her own way.

When Varda died in March at 90, she left behind an astonishing body of work that includes dozens of movies, short and feature length, fiction and documentary. (She never made “Peace and Love” but remained friends with Ford.) She directed her first feature, “La Pointe Courte,” in 1954, when she was 26; her last movie, “Varda by Agnès,” had its premiere in February at the Berlin International Film Festival. It will be a long time before we fully grasp her legacy. The retrospective that runs at Film at Lincoln Center through Jan. 6 is a fine place to start exploring her bequest.

There is nothing surprising about Varda walking away from a Hollywood studio. “I understood pretty fast that this was not my thing,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “I really do movies because I love them,” she continued, “I cannot put my life in a factory.” She was fully independent, which is the first place to start when considering her work; she was an artist, feminist, mother, wife, innovator and restless seeker.

Her work can be classed by geography and spaces, by movies set in cities and the country, in streets and homes, in France, Cuba, Vietnam and the States. She ended up making great films in California, including the short “Black Panthers,” for which she interviewed Kathleen Cleaver and the imprisoned Huey P. Newton, and the feature “Lions Love (...and Lies),” with a turn from director Shirley Clarke. Peripatetic by inclination and by calling — filmmakers spend a lot of time on the road making and promoting their work — Varda traveled widely, collecting images, faces and friends.

You could also categorize Varda’s life as a series of befores and afters: before and after cinema, after Demy and before her later-life celebrity. An entire series could be created out of her images of cats, her spirit animal and constant companions. There are cats everywhere in her movies and in the art installations that became a crucial part of her artistic output. One cat rubs against her in “The World of Jacques Demy,” one of several movies she made about him; a cartoon of another cat rolls his eyes at her in “The Beaches of Agnès.” She had many other interests: women, motherhood, bodies, surfaces and the divide between fiction and nonfiction that she explored (exploded).

Varda’s films have a strong tactile quality, which may seem strange given the medium she chose. She’s particularly attentive to textures, like the rough, furrowed dark earth that becomes the grave for the protagonist in her masterpiece “Vagabond,” about a young rootless woman wandering a cold country. You see the touch of Varda’s camera in the sublime “Jacquot de Nantes” when she closely pans over the mottled, wrinkled face of her dying husband (Demy died soon afterward in 1990), a tender cinematic caress that finds a corollary in the blunt image of her own mottled, wrinkled hand in “The Gleaners and I.” In each, she faces mortality directly as a concrete fact.

A documentary about foraging — in life, in art — “The Gleaners and I” became Varda’s best-known movie, and it brought her new audiences and ushered in a final, excitingly productive period. She shot some of it herself using a small, light digital camera that she could use as freely as a pen. She had always been a personal filmmaker. Finally, in her early 70s, she had a camera — a tool, she called it — to practice what years earlier she had termed “cinécriture” (cinematic writing). The coinage had nothing to do with scripts but instead expressed the ineluctably Vardian aspect of her cinema, one that is fundamentally handmade rather than industrial and fully alive to the world.

In a 1970 interview, Varda spoke about French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, with whom she studied at the Sorbonne in the 1940s — “He really blew my mind” — singling out his ideas on the poetic imagination, the material world and the elements (earth, air, fire, water). Imagination isn’t a means for forming images of reality, Bachelard observed. “It is the faculty for forming images which go beyond reality, which sing reality,” he wrote. “It is a superhuman faculty.” Adding: “The imagination invents more than objects and dramas — it invents a new life, a new spirit; it opens eyes which hold new types of visions.” This too is a way of approaching Varda’s work.

Varda’s inspiration for her first feature, “La Pointe Courte,” was Faulkner’s “The Wild Palms,” which alternates, contrapuntally, chapter by chapter between two stories. She had her own idea for a similarly structured narrative that she envisioned as a novel. Visually minded — at the time she was a photographer for a theater company — she created a drawn outline of her story that a friend suggested would work better as a film. With help from a cooperative and a budget of $14,000, she turned her story into “La Pointe Courte,” which alternates between a man and woman dealing with their relationship and a fishing village facing its own challenges. (Her editor was Alain Resnais, who introduced her to Jean-Luc Godard and other future new wavers.)

As the couple walk through the village in “La Pointe Courte,” amid people and past a stray cat, the man (Philippe Noiret) and woman (Silvia Monfort) pause. The woman walks out of the shot while the man remains, standing in profile as the camera pushes past him to focus on a jumble of cut trees in the background. As the man speaks (“I’ve wanted to come back for a long time”), the camera at last stops, the image now centered on a tree trunk with two long branches that look like outstretched arms.

Offscreen, the woman asks the man why he didn’t come back sooner without her. The camera stays on the strangely anthropomorphic tree trunk, which could be waving or asking for help but is of course also a piece of wood. The man, who has remained offscreen, murmurs, “With or without you,” and then there’s a cut to the woman, who’s standing still next to a huge metal winch. “It was the same to you,” she says quietly, perhaps with regret or accusation. In one short scene, Varda has opened up the coordinates of this relationship and deepened our perception of these two characters.

Here and throughout “La Pointe Courte,” the performances of the leads are stylized, self-conscious, a touch awkward, and convey a sense the couple is stuck. Varda is expressing something about them through how they walk and talk together but also by how she juxtaposes them with the village, its inhabitants as well as its physical properties. She wanted to associate the woman, who’s from the city, with steel, and the man with wood, because his father was a carpenter. She wasn’t dabbling in symbolism but counterpoising characters and specific images that together create meaning.

“La Pointe Courte” announced Varda to a world that wasn’t prepared for her. It was shown at Cannes and found admirers, but it would be seven years before she made her second feature, “Cléo From 5 to 7.” (Varda describes its title character perfectly: “from the looked-at subject she becomes the looking subject.”) This remained a pattern, with success followed by struggle, which is at least partly attributable to her sex. But she persevered, finding ways to film even when she stayed home raising her son, Mathieu Demy. For instance, for her 1976 documentary “Daguerréotypes,” an allusion to the Paris street where she lived, she powered her equipment with an electric cord plugged into her home, limiting her range to its length. She called it a “new umbilical cord.”

It was an ingenuous solution to a practical problem. It is also a reminder that one of the persistent hurdles that female filmmakers face is finding the time and the space for their art while caring for children (something that, at least historically, male directors didn’t worry about). Varda found, as she always did, a way to keep making movies, which is another way to view her legacy. She carved out a cinematic space for herself and in doing so — by the example of her films but also by insistently pursuing the life of the artist — she helped open a space for other women. During another interview, around the time of her 1977 drama “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t,” she said, “Ninety-nine percent of the films you see are so much against women.” She was for us.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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