In her films, Agnès Varda constantly transfigured the world, and few directors so consistently sought out new methods and milieus with which to perform these transmutations. Looking back at Varda a year after her death, I can’t help but feel she spent her life giving us alternatives to living in the status quo. Now the Criterion Collection is debuting The Complete Films of Agnès Varda, a comprehensive box set of works by the iconic, voracious filmmaker. Here are a few highlights from the beautiful compendium.
Varda as Sorceress
Varda has a way of making things magical without overly romanticizing anything. She dispels tawdry expectations of gender, class, marriage, travel, death, and more in order to make room for critical, rigorous delight. As Jasmine Thiré, the teenage star of her 2015 short Les 3 boutons, says, “I don’t like to face reality … but I’m determined to love life.” Thiré rejects the offer of a Cinderella story to invent her own Fabulist tale. Practical yet radical magic dominates Varda’s oeuvre. In Le lion volatil (2003), the grand towering lion at Place Denfert-Rochereau disappears, replaced by Varda’s cat Zgougou. These shorts sparkle with impatience with the patriarchy, the empowerment of marginalized (often female) characters, and a trickster-like attention to fleeting details.
Varda as Tourist
Varda was an extraordinary traveler, be it in her own Paris, on the French Riviera, in the countryside, or in California, Iran, or Cuba. She seeks resonances between her practice and the lives of everyday people, unpacking assumptions about traditional notions of the exotic. In Salut les Cubains (1964), she braids together still images from a trip to Cuba. Their unusual arrangement and insistence on humanity dismantles hierarchies and superficial notions of place. Verbal ricochet in the voiceover underscores this. “Here’s tourism in the form of ladies’ hats. Here’s to Marxism-Leninism in the beret of a female militant.”
Even Varda’s early documentaries approach their subjects with a witty, sometimes acerbic impulse. Commissioned by the French national tourism board, Ô saisons, ô châteaux and Du côté de la côte (both 1958) put a twist on privileged getaways by de-mythologizing storied destinations. The voiceover at the beginning of Du côté de la côte (“Coasting Along the Coast”) announces what the film won’t be doing: “We won’t be filming the natives … In the popular imagination they’re always old and charming … Our subject is the crowd.” Varda covers all the high-class glitz of the Riviera, but also brilliantly turns the camera’s eye on the curious customs of “the tourists, the curious, the emigrants, the enthusiasts.” Ô saisons, ô châteaux explores the medieval castles of the Loire Valley, playfully poking at elegance and entertainment through two actresses role-playing as women of the court roaming and posing throughout. But Varda is careful to show that workers, not lords and ladies, are responsible for the painstakingly manicured gardens.
Varda as Shapeshifter
Varda constructed multivalent films. In the final minutes of Daguerréotypes (1975), she wonders in voiceover: “Does all this form a report? An homage? An essay? A regret? A reproach? An approach?” This documentary captures the daily routines of shopkeepers on Rue Daguerre, the street where Varda lived. Ambling inside cramped businesses and boutiques, lingering outside windows during uncomfortable customer-less pauses, it intimately captures working-class time, honoring the mundane mysteries of in-between moments. For Varda, form is always evolving.
No film of hers shapeshifts quite as cunningly as Lions, Love (…and Lies) (1969). Full of amusing asides, performative photo-tableaus, and intentional editorial stutters, this wild docu-fiction stews inside the pressurized America of June 1968. Experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke plays herself as a kind of stand-in for Varda arriving in Los Angeles to negotiate a big Hollywood contract that ultimately falls through. At the forefront are three artists — played by Warhol superstar Viva and playwrights Gerome Ragni and James Rado, of Hair fame —living in the house where Clarke is staying. Stiflingly slow verbal meanderings govern time’s passage for the trio, while outside the world shudders. At one point, Clarke breaks character and Varda herself enters the film as they argue about a suicide scene. Breaks and warps in Lions sing in tune with a country trying to make sense of its counterculture, civil rights, a newly elected Governor Reagan, and the horrific deaths of JFK, RFK, MLK, and others. One can only hope that Varda’s vision inspires others to work with the same spirited perspicacity in our own tumultuous times.
The Complete Films of Agnès Varda box set is now available from the Criterion Collection.
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Let’s remember, too, Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 —a brilliant piece of new wave filmmaking that was overshadowed in its day due the very sexism it decries. A deeply affecting meditation on sickness, death and the ephemerality of beauty and fame, shot largely on the streets of Paris, it depicts in real time two hours in the emotional life of a young woman forced to confront her own mortality while awaiting a diagnosis, she fears, of terminal cancer. Varda’s camerawork is exquisite—one extended dolly shot of Corinne Marchand in a hat shop, as seen from outside and reflected and refracted in both the window glass and the shop’s mirrors, is breathtaking. All of the performances are good, but Marchand’s is remarkable; she makes us believe we are watching her character grow decades in strength, self-awareness and maturity is just under two hours. And my god, look good doing it—the sight of her simply walking down the stairs or across the street remains for me the very image of human grace many years after I first watched it.
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