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.
In 2010, Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal released a documentary called Exporting Raymond, which chronicled his adventures in Russia trying to break through cultural barriers while adapting his show for a new country. Though its success largely depended on you being in any way invested in the original source material, in the margins of the movie were little scenes of Phil trying out local food, showcasing Rosenthal’s harmless goofball nature. Years later someone would make the call that sending that goofball to different food spots around the world would make for generally pleasant televison, and they were right. Somebody Feed Phil (and its predecessor I’ll Have What Phil’s Having) is a gentle, comforting show featuring good food and Phil cracking terrible dad jokes. In the year of our Lord 2021, what more could you want?
On the success of Agnès Varda’s intended final film The Beaches of Agnès, she was invited to attend a variety of film festivals to showcase her latest work. Armed with her trusty digital camera and the opportunity to travel the world, Varda set out to meet and connect with artists and to showcase their exhibitions. Over the course of the following three years, Varda assembled and edited her footage into a 5-part miniseries called Agnès de ci de là Varda (2011).
If you are familiar with the rest of her work, the prospect of a series where you watch a perpetually curious Agnès Varda travel the world meeting other artists is enticing. I would immediately watch a Varda traveling show. All of the filmmaking styles you expect in this later period of her work are present. Varda herself however, no stranger to making herself a central figure in her own projects, recedes off camera just enough to function as a filter for her subjects. We see the artists projects through Varda’s lens.
As such, the success of the series largely depends on the audience’s receptiveness to what Varda puts in front of them. The results are almost by definition a mixed bag. It is delightful to watch Chris Marker (never actually shown) create a virtual Varda avatar for his own Second Life exhibit. It is inspiring when Varda interviews a woman who is putting together a film about her own experiences with alopecia. It is grossly compelling when Varda visits an exhibit of statues made of fat. The series is not without any moments of wonder.
That being said, I ran out of steam with this series about halfway through. It is definitely my own fault for coming in with expectations for a breezy uncomplicated travel show that Agnès de ci de là Varda was not interested in meeting. This is a series about an artist looking to connect with other artists and their ideas, giving them a wider platform to express themselves. But when enough of those artists don’t really register an impact on the viewer, it’s hard to call the series a success.
Ironically enough, I think that Faces Places, her next feature film after this series, is actually the better version of a project like this. Instead of expanding the best parts of a documentary into its own better series like Somebody Feed Phil, Varda cuts the chaff from Agnès de ci de là Varda into one of Faces Places, one of her best films.
Next time: Beaches