In the distant past of April 2020, Chris and I dove deep into an episode of our podcast Cinema Dual on the films of French filmmaker Agnès Varda. Though technically not my first experience with Varda, that week of watching Varda’s movies was eye-opening, to such an extent that when Criterion announced they were going to release a Blu Ray box set of her complete filmography, I jumped at the chance to catch up on everything I had missed. Each post will cover 1 of the 15 discs in the set.
While this series has focused on the films of Agnès Varda, it’s reductive to describe her only as a filmmaker. Her career in photography predates her filmmaking career, and helps to inform her earliest film work, from the shots of the couple in La Pointe Courte to the contrasting images of a pregnant woman next to a pumpkin being hacked open in L’opéra-Mouffe. Likewise, her film work also informs her other artistic endeavors. In 2006, Varda reused film stock from Les Creatures, one of her less commercially successful films, to create the installation Ma Cabane de l’Échec (My Shack of Failure). A cursory glance at Varda’s work will show a specific eye towards visual details, which while not always pre-planned, always end up becoming incorporated into the final product.
As a creator of art, Varda has her instincts. As an interpreter of art, those instincts change over time.
After the success of Cléo from 5 to 7 in 1962, Varda traveled to Cuba to see what was happening culturally, artistically and politically at the time. Without much by way of a film crew, she took pictures. Lots of pictures: of the people she met and the places she experienced while there. She shot so many pictures she was able to produce rough animations of people dancing. That sense of motion, achieved through her still photography, is part of what gives Salut les cubains (1963) a sense of excitement. It replicates for the viewer a sense of the excitement Varda experienced in the moments she captured her subjects in camera.
In later years Varda would change her mind about the Castro government, and in the more recent introduction to Salut de cubans indicates the film is a product of its time and place. The history of her changing feelings is reflected in her art. In the short film Ulysse (1982), Varda attempts to recall the story of a particular image that she took 20+ years earlier, of two naked people standing on a beach near the water, a dead goat not too far away. With no memories of having taken the picture, she sets off on a small journey to talk to folks who might be able to shed some light, but to no avail. Faced with this lack of her own authorial intent, Varda is put in the same position as anyone else experiencing the picture, which is to interpret it for herself in the moment.
This feeling is replicated in another short film about someone else’s art, Ydessa, les ours et etc.(2004). In it, Varda travels to Toronto to visit Ydessa Hendeles’ art exhibit Partners (The Teddy Bear Project). Hendeles explains that the point of the exhibit is to use the wall-to-wall pictures of people holding teddy bears to create an illusion of safety, one designed to be destroyed in the last room with the solitary figure of Hitler. And yet, Varda also interviews several visitors to the exhibit, who largely describe the experience as creepy from the outset, not reassuring.
Whereas Varda’s appreciation for Hendeles’ art comes after the fact as a visitor to the exhibition, her relationship with photographer JR is much more collaborative in their film Faces Places (2017). Structured as a travel movie similar to The Gleaners and I, Varda delegates more of the filmmaking responsibilities this time, leaving the cinematography to her crew and letting JR and his people run the mural installation. Varda is far from absent however; she acts as a guide, maneuvering their expeditions towards some of the most interesting subjects in the film. From the spouses of striking dock workers to the last remaining inhabitants of an abandoned mining area, Varda’s curious impulses remains one of her most compelling traits as a filmmaker, and JR’s giant murals literally magnify those impulses.
The growing friendship between Varda and JR forms the emotional core of the film. While always game to make fun of each other’s quirks (like JR never taking his sunglasses off or Varda’s failing eyesight), the film’s conclusion reveals the depth of their connection. After being stood up by old friend and filmmaker Jean Luc Godard (with a seeming dig at Varda’s late husband Jacques Demy) Varda breaks down in tears. JR offers Agnès the one thing she’s been requesting the whole film, which is to let her see him without his sunglasses. It’s a tender moment that only gets punctured with humor by JR’s face being blurred to represent Varda’s poor eyesight. It gets me every time.
Watching Faces Places for the first time in a year was crucial for me as I come near the end of this series. I had concluded after watching The Gleaners and I that it provided the whole template for Faces Places. But in a move that I think Varda herself would appreciate, watching Faces Places again after watching her entire filmography I was able to notice so many missing or misremembered details that allow it to remain its own distinct film, even as it draws on Varda’s own history. And for all the extra collaborating that happens on this film, in the end it is most definitely an Agnès Varda film.
Next time: Here and There