Goings On

The Unstoppable Varda on the Cusp of Ninety

On Film / The Daily — May 24, 2018
Detail from a 2009 self-portrait

Next Wednesday, May 30, Agnès Varda will turn ninety. Few of her fellow filmmakers or artists her age have been as active or as celebrated as she has these past few years. At the top of 2018, Faces Places, the documentary she made with the artist JR as they traveled across rural France last year—a film that Amy Taubin, writing for Film Comment, called “one of her most profoundly personal and exuberantly populist works”—was nominated for an Oscar. Last fall, she became the first female director to receive an Honorary Award from the Academy.

While Varda’s filmmaking career stretches back to the beginnings of the French New Wave—her debut, La Pointe Courte (1956), precedes Godard’s and Truffaut’s first features—she’s shown few signs of slowing down. An exhibition of her photographic and installation work is currently on view at Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris; along with Frederick Wiseman and Wim Wenders, she was one of three filmmakers to deliver the prestigious Norton Lectures on Cinema at Harvard in February; and there’s hardly a day on the calendar anymore without a retrospective of her films running somewhere. A few weeks ago, there was one on at TIFF Cinematheque, in Toronto, programmed by the editorial board of cléo, whose current issue is devoted exclusively to Varda’s work.

Today sees the opening of CineVardaUtopia: The Films of Agnès Varda, Part Two at the Museum of the Moving Image, in New York, and it, too, is accompanied by a publication, a new book based on the 2016 Reverse Shot symposium bearing the same title. And then on Friday, June 1, a new 2K restoration of Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), a pro-choice feminist manifesto tracking the lives of two young French women from 1962 to 1972, begins a weeklong run at BAM.

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody calls One Sings “a radical blend of genres and moods that matches its artistic originality with its protagonists’ quietly revolutionary audacity,” and at Lyssaria, Ela Bittencourt looks back to the reviews that greeted the film when it arrived in the States. You won’t be surprised to learn that the New York Times’ Vincent Canby all but dismissed it as a “women’s picture,” while Molly Haskell, writing for the New Yorker, embraced it as essential Varda.

The MoMI series opens tonight with Vagabond (1985), which begins with the discovery of the body of a young woman in a ditch; a portrait is drawn in flashbacks by those who encountered her. “Vagabond is tailored to interpretation because it’s structured around the varying subjective, subconsciously agenda-driven perspectives of strangers on an ultimately unknowable, taciturn, and barely named enigma,” wrote Justin Stewart in the Reverse Shot symposium. “Any themes you throw at it might stick, but they can’t or shouldn’t be divorced from the remarkable aesthetic merits of this righteously bleak, powerful film.” Vagabond won the Golden Lion in Venice and a best actress César for Sandrine Bonnaire.

Mur Murs (1980), a documentary about murals in Los Angeles, screens Saturday and Sunday—and also on June 15 and July 4 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, where Juliet Clark notes that Varda “casts a curious eye on graffiti and photorealism, roller disco and gang violence, evangelical Christians, Hare Krishnas, artists, angels, and ordinary Angelenos.”

And the weekend features more work that Varda made during two extended stays in California in the late 1960s and early 1980s. Documenteur (1981), focusing on a divorced mother and her child, who’s played by Varda’s own son, screens on Saturday with Uncle Yanco (1967), a portrait of one of her Greek relatives living a very ’60s life in Sausalito. Documenteur screens again on Sunday with The Black Panthers (1968), which captures a demonstration in Oakland.

This week’s announcement of the closing of Interview, the magazine founded by Andy Warhol, reminded us that Varda and the cast of Lions Love (. . . and Lies) appeared on the cover of the very first issue in 1969. In a rented house in the Hollywood Hills, Viva, flown in from Warhol’s Factory, and James Rado and Gerome Ragni, the creators and stars of the early rock musical Hair, “inhabit a space fully within quotations, playing at being actors who are playing at living together for Varda’s camera,” as Eric Hynes puts it in Reverse Shot. Enter filmmaker Shirley Clarke (The Connection, Portrait of Jason) as herself and a surrogate for Varda. “The layers of self-awareness in Lions Love aren’t negating,” writes Hynes, “but accumulative and coexisting.”

MoMI’s series picks up again in two weeks with Daguerréotypes (1976), which documents the lives of shopkeepers on the Rue Daguerre in Paris, and two films Varda made in 1988 with Jane Birkin, Jane B. for Agnès V., a portrait of the actress and singer laced with fantasy sequences, and Kung-Fu Master!, a love story in which Birkin falls for a fourteen-year-old boy obsessed with video games. The cast is drawn from the families of the filmmaker and star, with Varda and Jacques Demy’s son, Mathieu Demy, playing the boy and Birkin’s daughters, Lou Doillon and Charlotte Gainsbourg, pretty much playing themselves.

Meantime, in London, the BFI’s two-month season Agnès Varda: Vision of an Artist opens on June 1, with Varda taking part in an onstage conversation on July 10. She’ll also present a new video installation at the Liverpool Biennial 2018, running from July 14 through October 28.

Back in March, Alexandra Schwartz reported on Varda’s Norton Lectures for the New Yorker, recalling that she hung around afterwards to listen in as Varda spoke with the admirers gathered around her. “‘I’m just a little deteriorating lady,’ she said, using a word, abîmée, that might refer to a rotting piece of fruit. ‘But I’m not sad! I have trouble seeing. I don’t hear well. I’m not good with stairs. But people always tell me that I’m full of energy. I am! Energy has nothing to do with the body. It’s the mind, it’s the brain, it’s the joie de vivre.’” 

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