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Film

The Pleasure of Noticing

3.6.18

Agnès Varda

Photograph courtesy of the Mahindra Humanities Center


Agnès Varda

Photograph courtesy of the Mahindra Humanities Center

At the Harvard Film Archive, the staff called it V-Day: the date of Agnès Varda’s arrival in Cambridge, for appearances at screenings of Faces, Places (2017) and Vagabond (1985), and for her 2018 Norton Lectures on Cinema the next week. When the French film director walked onstage at Sanders Theatre on February 26, wearing queenly purple and her maroon-dipped bowl haircut, the crowd greeted her with a standing ovation. Varda gave a little bow and, helped up by an assistant, settled in her seat at the raised podium with a quiet “Et voilà.”

Some six decades ago, at age 30, Varda was dubbed “the grandmother of the French New Wave” upon the release of her debut feature, La Pointe Courte (1955), about an unhappy marriage in an unhappy Mediterranean fishing village. It interleaved scripted scenes between its stars with nonfiction scenes of the town’s real inhabitants. Often, the camera abandoned what, to more conventional filmmakers, might seem some key exchange between the lovers in order to follow, say, a cat picking its way atop a fence. 

Her shorts and features since then have all been guided by that wandering eye, and the pleasure of noticing. The overriding sensibility, especially in her later documentary work, is puckish and poignant. “Varda’s films are sometimes accused of ‘lightness,’ something that, especially for female artists, is all too often chalked up as a flaw,” writer Lindsay Zoladz recently observed on The Ringer. “But weight is easy: how much more specific the alchemy, to be able to float.”

“Inspiration is a very subtle and vaguely strange concept,” Varda told the Harvard audience. She described the feeling as “something that appears, a situation, something that invades my brain. And suddenly there’s no other way—it’s an emergency, I have to prepare a film, and make a film.” After that came creation, which required finding the right structure for the subject, she said, cueing up a clip from her early short Oncle Yanco. In it, a younger Varda (again in head-to-toe purple, her bowl cut raven black) springs joyfully into her first meeting with a long-lost cousin, an encounter she then reenacts and spoofs. “The point is to find a shape that can contain my enthusiasm, my excitement.”

Another key concept was sharing, she continued. “It's clear that I don't make films for myself. It's really—what I like to do is to share. To share the film with audiences and have what is called feedback. I wonder why it is not called feelback, because we want feelings to go through and to be shared.” Throughout, said Varda, what’s been hardest was the time between conceiving and shooting the film, and, of course, waiting for money. “My films never brought money to anybody. Never made money. But I received many awards.” She added wryly, “I wish I could find money more easily than awards.”

In that first lecture, Varda took the audience through her filmography up through 2000, skipping back and forth free-associatively through works from various decades and genres. She pointed out the careful pacing of her most famous film, Cléo from 5 to 7 (“I know every one of those steps,” she said, over footage of the actress Corrine Marchand descending the stairs), and the revolutionary fervor captured, alternately, in her documentary about Huey P. Newton and in her musical about French abortion rights, L'une chante, l'autre pas. In recent decades, she has shifted away from fiction filmmaking to focus on documentaries. ”Actors are so gifted, I feel shy,” she explained during the question and answer session that followed. For her, “It is interesting to get what’s unique out of ordinary people.”

Her second lecture, on February 27, sampled projects from the twenty-first century. Varda started out as a photographer, and says that she’s recently come to see herself as an all-around visual artist rather than a pure director. For her, it seems that cinema has become a tributary feeding into multimedia explorations. Her 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, about foraging, became fodder for Patatutopia, which arranged still images and videos of sprouting root vegetables around heaps of actual potatoes. (To promote the installation at the 2003 Venice Biennale, Varda walked around dressed up as one.)

That project was sparked by watching people salvage discarded food; another, in 2009, was brought on by her advancing age. When she was 79, she said, “It was like the number 80 was a train, coming far from far, to hit me.” The Beaches of Agnès celebrated her birthday by collaging her memories—represented in archival footage and photos—with scenes of her present-day antics: setting up huge mirrors on the beach, or dumping sand in a cordoned-off city street and inviting collaborators to lounge there in swimwear. As she explained it, “My self-portrait film is mostly about other people: the way they make me; the way I love them; the way they love me.” A companion project from that same year, Bord de Mer, recreated a seascape inside an art gallery by combining a still photograph, a looped video of the tide, and real sand.

At the time, Varda thought The Beaches of Agnès would be her last film, but this year, at 89, she became the oldest-ever Oscar nominee with Faces, Places, a documentary co-directed with the French artist JR. In it, the two travel the French countryside, talking to dockworkers and goat farmers, and pasting giant murals of the people they meet on the sides of buildings. Back in January, Varda delighted the Internet by sending a trio of cardboard cutouts of herself to the annual Oscars Nominee Luncheon—but she did show up for the ceremony this Sunday. (The film lost, but Varda had won an honorary Oscar some months earlier, and an honorary Palme d’Or from Cannes in 2015.)

Harvard’s screening of Faces, Places on February 23 was so popular that an overflow room was opened, and a second screening added. Moviegoers lined up two hours in advance just to buy tickets; the resourceful brought plastic-wrapped sandwiches, which they ate standing up, their damp rain gear dripping on the Carpenter Center’s concrete floor. Afterward, the question- and-answer session felt like a comedy of mistranslation, all in English, moderated by Harvard Film Archive director Haden Guest. An exemplary exchange:

Questioner: When you are filming, are you journeying back home? And what does that feel like?

Haden Guest: Are you journaling back home?

Q: Yeah, is that a journey back home...

HG: Ah.

Q: ...and what do you want us to take from that?

HG: [turning to Varda] Is there an aspect of you returning to—home—when you're traveling around rural France?

Q: [insistent] Is that a journey?

AV: [cheerily] Do I like to go home? Yes.

But, as with so many of her movies, the shimmer of humor faded, and the evening later yielded something simple and durably earnest. Her collaborator, JR, thought art could change the world. But for her part, she said: “I don't believe that. I think that art makes something sweet.” Varda added, “You're in one room, you are seeing the same film, you have shared some of your emotion, some of your pleasure, if there was pleasure.”

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