Starring Agnès Varda. In English and French, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
Whether you’re a die-hard Agnès Varda fan or you’ve just discovered her in 2017’s wonderful Faces Places, this retrospective is exactly what you want right now.
Until her death earlier this year, at 90, the Belgian-born filmmaker stood with Jean-Luc Godard as the last surviving surfers of the French new wave—the movement that added politics and playful self-regard to Italian neorealism and let North American audiences know that foreigners smoked a lot and had sex, sometimes with their clothes off.
Varda was snubbed by Godard at the end of Faces Places, perhaps because she became more popular over the years while he grew more inscrutable. Anyway, it’s clear she never saw herself in anyone’s shadow. Her late husband Jacques Demy’s films have largely fallen by the wayside, apart from the colour-rich musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And she made her first feature, La Pointe Courte, six years before Demy had his debut, with Lola.
As she explains in this valedictory document, built around several retrospective lectures illustrated with copious clips, the then 26-year-old was a photographer with no background in cinema or storytelling. She rarely crafted pungent dialogue, but proved a master of the long tracking shot and the penetrating close-up: places and faces, indeed.
This leisurely look back, combining two hourlong French TV specials, arrives just as the BBC has released its multicritic tally of the 100 greatest films directed by women. She landed six titles there, more than any other director, with 1962’s infinitely watchable Cléo From 5 to 7 near the top. Here, she explicates its origins and happy accidents (Godard and composer Michel Legrand make cameo appearances), along with anecdotes about many of her other efforts, sometimes with participants (like Vagabond’s Sandrine Bonnaire) showing up to chat.
In recent years, film fans grew used to seeing the diminutive director’s friendly visage, ringed by partially red-dyed hair, at festival events, sometimes accompanied by the photographer and codirector known as JR. But Varda by Agnès’s biggest revelation comes with its exploration of noncinematic venues. Over the years, various curators invited her to create multimedia installations, and those we glimpse prove to be remarkably accessible, whether tackling themes as serious as French collaboration with the Nazis or as funky as a house made of discarded film strips. What emerges is a picture of someone who planned little but seized almost every opportunity, invariably turning her experiences into pleasures she just had to share.