The breezy depths of Agnès Varda – in two magical moments

At 90 years old, Agnès Varda is living proof that you don’t need to be a tyrant or to take yourself too seriously to create great art. Her filmmaking approach may be free-wheeling, but there’s magic in the detail.

• Explore the Agnès Varda: Vision of an Artist season at BFI Southbank

Sophie Monks Kaufman

Faces Places (2017)

Faces Places (2017)
Credit: Agnès Varda (c) Cine Tamaris

“The idea of fragmentation appeals to me. It corresponds so naturally to questions of memory.”

The cinema of Agnès Varda is deceptively rich. Most filmmakers who want to be seen as ‘important’ adopt a sober and confrontational approach. Agnès is playful, curious, willing to use herself as a figure of fun.

In her documentaries, she includes herself rapping, dancing and talking to animated cats. She offers the audience lively images, confident in the knowledge that she can riff on them until they connect to the pulse beneath.

She has faith in serendipity. “Chance is my best assistant,” she says in her new film, Faces Places. This outlook frees her personality from the pressure to be a control freak, meaning that she isn’t an asshole to her collaborators, and interviews she conducts in front of the camera flow like a warm stream. Agnès Varda is a living proof that you don’t need to be a tyrant to create great art.

In the course of a 55+ year career, the Belgian-born 90-year-old has created so much and in so many forms, weaving comfortably between fiction, documentary and hybrids; using the medium of film, installations – and sometimes using one to immortalise the other.

It feels futile to attempt a summary. Instead I want to channel the freewheeling connective ambience that blows warmly through her work, by choosing two vignettes that go a way towards representing her style and breadth.

Breathing new life into dead loves

In The Beaches of Agnès (2008) she returns to the Avignon Festival in south-east France where 49 years ago she had one of her earliest photographic assignments. This was thanks to actor, director and festival founder Jean Vilar, who’d invited her to assist him in snapping the artists and artisans in attendance.

The Beach of Agnès (2008)

The Beach of Agnès (2008)

As she takes a boat down the Rhone river, she also floats back into her memory, but as she arrives – typical Varda – she doesn’t let nostalgia cloud the details of the moment. Past and present are connected in one whimsical observation: “There are no plays in the orchard. But I did meet a wandering musician there.” She folds this meeting into the film, asking the musician where he’s from and using the sweet resonant sound of his steel drum to punctuate the sequence.

Her return here is to re-exhibit those old photos. It goes without a hitch, yet the occasion itself is sped through in favour of focusing on the ceremony planned for when she’s alone with the looming black-and-white photos of so many fallen friends.

With a plate of pink roses and begonias, she cries, walks and scatters, reciting names: “For Casares, who’s gone. For Gérard Philipe, gone. For Noiret, dead. For Denner, dead. For Germaine Montero, dead. For Vilar…”

A close-up on flowers strewn on the grey stone floor. Agnès sits with her legs tucked neatly under each saying: “I cry for them from my heart”. In the frame with her are a camerawoman and a sound man. Both are too absorbed in documenting her grief to step into it, as things were designed.

This is emotion – not as a cry for help – but as a proud artistic document for the beloved dead. Varda uses personal feeling as a source of narrative strength, letting it lead her back to its strongest root: “All the dead lead me back to Jacques. Every tear, every flower, every rose and every begonia is for Jacques.”

The Beach of Agnès (2008)

The Beach of Agnès (2008)

She is referring to Jacques Demy who, as the ivy-flanked gravestone in the next shot informs us, lived from 5 June 1931 – 27 October 1990. He was a fellow French New Wave luminary, but for the purposes of this moment, he was the love of Agnès’s life.

Bringing giant women into a male workplace

En route to the port of Le Havre, where she has never been before “except in song”, Agnès sings the ditty in question from the war. She was 13 the first time she sang it and recalls it was accompanied by a little guitar. Lyrics include references to “figs and strawberries and sweet grapes.” The way her coarse voice grapples with the simple, high melody is charm itself.

Agnès is dubious at first when JR, her co-director on Faces Places, pitched the idea of bringing their mobile mural-making lab to a shipping dockyard. They were supposed to be based out of villages, but as JR says: “When I told her they were only men, she warmed to the idea.”

Agnès responds: “I asked where the women were.” She has ferreted out three blonde dockworker wives – Morgane, Nathalie and Sophie – and talks to them, as they sit before her cross-legged in the grass. Their professions are schedule planner, hairdressing instructor and port truck driver (the only female one out of a fleet of 80).

“Faces are beautiful. But it’s good to see a woman standing tall,” says Agnès wearing a bright orange visibility bib that reads FORMATION DOCKERS.

For herself, she is standing small between four men, but still very much the boss as she and JR take full-body portrait photographs. She talks as she works and explains the logic for blowing up these women and pasting them on shipping containers: “We want you to be like three big statues, totems, up there, entering this world of men, finding your place.”

Faces Places (2017)

Faces Places (2017)
Credit: Agnès Varda (c) Cine Tamaris

This statement has resonance beyond the dockyard, circling back to describe the speaker’s position as the lone female of the boy’s club that was the French New Wave.

The film runs with this reference all the way to the Louvre where Agnès and JR poke fun at the sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964) as he pushes her at a gallop through the gallery.

Back in the dockyard, a giant Morgane, Sophie and Nathalie have been pasted on the shipping containers and the tiny real-life ones have climbed up to sit inside their personal totems, legs dangling from on high.

What better symbol for the nature of Varda’s achievements than that of a towering woman still comfortably residing within their own heart?

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