Friday 30 September 2011

5 Filmmakers (III): Agnés Varda

Three key films: Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961), Jacquot de Nantes (1991) The Beaches of Agnés (2008)

Underrated film: The Creatures (1966)
Varda’s under-appreciated film boasts excellent performances from Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve as an enigmatic couple, a writer and his mute wife, on the beautiful island of Noirmoutier in Western France. Controversial at the time, the film’s genre blur - it combines elements of fantasy, comedy and suspense thriller - now seems integral to its strange and singular fascination.

Unforgettable moment: Distressed about the imminent results of a medical test that she fears will confirm a fatal condition, the singer Cléo (Corinne Marchand) receives a visit from her composer and accompanist, Bob (played by Michel Legrand), who presents her with a new song, “Sans Toi.” Moved by the lyrics, which seem to refer to her predicament, Cléo’s performance of the song becomes a highly emotional, dramatic and expressionistically staged interpretation that marks a turning point in the character’s journey towards self-realisation. This scene alone is enough to make you understand why Madonna once set her sights upon starring in an American remake of this movie.

The Legend (1928-)
Encompassing fiction, documentary, photography, essay film and, latterly, installation art, Agnés Varda’s diverse output is connected by a wonderfully inclusive curiosity about the world: about people, animals, places, buildings and objects. Born in Belgium, Varda studied Art History at the Ecole du Louvre before becoming the official photographer to the Théâtre National in Paris. Those two disciplines have informed Varda’s pioneering approach to film-making, which began in 1954 with La Pointe Courte. Shot on location on a tiny budget (with Alain Resnais as editor), the film was stylistically ahead of its time, combining documentary footage of the fishermen of a French village with the story of a couple breaking up. La Pointe Courte is now recognised as the first New Wave film, although Varda belonged more precisely to the Left Bank wing of the movement, which included Resnais, Chris Marker, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras.

Throughout her career Varda’s work has been characterised by experimentation with film form. She has moved fluidly between documentary and fiction film-making; indeed, perhaps the most striking and innovative aspect of her work has been her blurring of the boundaries between fiction and documentary. Her masterpiece remains the classic Cleo From 5 to 7, in which a pop singer whiles away two hours in the shops, cafes, streets and parks of Paris as she anxiously awaits the results of recent medical tests. But Varda’s filmography is full of riches, surprises, delights. These range from the gorgeous textures and dark heart of Le Bonheur (1965), one of the most visually splendid yet subtly disturbing “family” films ever made; the feminist coming-of-age saga One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1977); the gritty homelessness drama Vagabond (1985); Jacquot de Nantes, her moving film about her husband Jacques Demy; and the extraordinary, life-enhancing documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), which explores the practice of “gleaning” from its depiction in 19th Century art-works to the actions of contemporary scavengers, who salvage discarded produce in order to survive and to denounce the excesses and waste of consumer capitalism.

In addition, Varda has made short films on a variety of topics - from cats and potatoes, to the Black Panthers and widowhood, sculpture to the Côte d’Azur - each offering a witty and profound discourse on its theme. A deceptive lightness of touch characterises much of her work, but her movies go fathoms-deep. Witness her most recent film, the eccentric and entrancing cine-autobiography The Beaches of Agnés, which ranges over episodes from her childhood and career, and features Chris Marker in the guise of an animated cat. What’s especially heartening is the centrality that “play” clearly retains in Varda’s concept of cinema. In her 80s now, this director continues to make movies with what can only be described as unfettered glee. “I don’t want simply to show, but rather to convey a desire to see,” Varda has claimed.. This commitment is evident in the way her films work to sharpen the viewer’s perception of the world, heightening our awareness of what can be noticed, appreciated and - ultimately - loved within it.

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