Friday, July 10, 2009

Agnès Varda

Varda was once described in a newspaper account as an ancestor to the French New Wave, a comment she thought was unflattering to her age. Yes, her La pointe-courte may have come out several years before Monsieurs Godard and Truffaut picked up their first cameras (and even their first pens), but the three were born only four years apart. Worse than disparaging her age was the insinuation that Varda was one of those dreaded things in artistic circles - the forerunner. While meant to be complimentary, the appellation of forerunner usually ends up conferring upon the recipient a few nice pats on the back: "Way to go with the inspiration, but we're going to go watch someone else's film now."

After spending a week with the Criterion Collection set 4 by Agnes, it became clear that if her work could be described as an ancestor to the New Wave, then the children never did surpass the accomplishments of the mother. Yes, I'll say it: Varda is my favorite auteur of the New Wave.

Of course there are a hundred qualifications to make, the most important is that I have never sat and watched four Godard or Truffaut movies in a week, and I've also only seen a handful of films combined by Resnais and the rest. (I also saw that Melville is sometimes included in the bunch, which just seems bizarre). My experience with these directors has been spread out over 15 years, starting with a failed effort to get my friends to watch The 400 Blows in high school, falling asleep during Jules et Jim in a college film class, and drinking far too much of something at Sean's house while barely tolerating Alphaville. Pierrot le Fou and Shoot the Piano Player could make an excellent tag-team start at challenging the Varda box set, but circumstances what they are, she's the best.

Ironically enough, the herald of the new filmaking style La Pointe-Courte (1954) was the weakest of the four films. Set in a small fishing village, it is the dual story of a failing love and a failing town, only one of which looks like it will survive. While the drifting and affectless conversations of the two lovers are what most seem to anticipate the big developments in French cinema, it's the shots of the town that are most revealing today. Though only fifty years ago, it seemed like another world, with the economy of the town looking quite like what it might have been 150 years ago - a few fishing crafts, a few small houses, and a rebellious and fearful relation to authority.

Varda's strengths as a director are immediately obvious - an alive camera and the ability to fill the screen with motion and arresting visuals. One scene of the two lovers walking is interrupted by a small train emerging from nowhere and moving at an impossibly slow speed. Another simply shows a man setting up his boat, with other workers cutting in front of the camera. In almost every shot, Varda makes sure the camera is doing something, or capturing something of interest. Watching La Pointe-Courte, one isn't surprised to learn that she was a photographer before deciding to become a filmaker.

In one interview in the collection, Varda claims to have seen only a handful of movies in her life before deciding she wanted to be a director, an astonishing fact when considered against how professional and structured her films are. While La Pointe-Courte, sticks to an inflexible division between the two stories, Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) presents a real-time classic, following a small-time chanteuse through the streets of Paris for the exact running time of the movie (which is only an hour and a half - the last 30 minutes are saved for Cleo and her man).

Starring the stunning, even by the standards of 60s French film stars, Corinne Marchand, Cleo examines the rigours of celebrity life on a day when Cleo is about to learn from her doctor if she has cancer. Instead of the stereotypical descent story, however, Cleo instead gets gradually better throughout the day, moving out of her inward shell and embracing people around her - it is, without any sentimentality, a wonderfully uplifting film. As Varda described the progression, she said she wanted the perspective of the camera to trace Cleo's perspective, beginning with close shots of the actress herself, and then moving to other people. The only way to avoid what Satre called "the gaze," Varda seems to be arguing, is to care about the people before they can start caring about you.

From the mostly cheery to the downright bizarre, and from classic Parisian B&W to the bright and shiny of country colors, the move from Cleo to Le bonheur (1965) is startling. Thrity-three years before Solondz took on that most elusive of all emotions, Varda delivered an odd and at times shocking film about the good life in the suburbs. Staring the real-life Drouot family as a seemingly content nuclear tribe, Le Bonheur introduces an obvious wrinkle (an affair) and a not-so obvious devastating one. Stories of families torn apart are nothing new, but the nonchalance of the husband Francois seems simultaneously to be the most natural and horrifying thing you could imagine. Your intellect says no, but almost everything else makes his courtship of a young postal worker seem like a romance for the ages.

For someone who started in classic black and white, Varda knew how to use color for effect, saturating scenes with two or three colors that shift throughout the film. Not as obvious as something like Hero, but enough matching sweaters and buildings to make each shot a study in composition. Add to this the creepy/beautiful Mozart that plays throughout the film, the story and filmaking make for a mindsplitting experience.

As good as the first three films were, I was unprepared for Sans toit ni loi (1984), or Vagabond. This is what a story of alienation and loneliness should look like. I'm tempted to compare it to recent films like Into the Wild and Wendy and Lucy, but even the latter film - fine in its own way - looks like a sentimental bit of Oscar-bait after 100 minutes of Varda's story of Mona Bergeron. Offering only a few glimpses of redemption, Vagabond is merciless in following the drifting Mona from town to town. The character she meets - mostly real people that Varda had scouted - range from friendly to terrifying, but they are all fully rounded characters rather than ciphers for the protagonist's experience. It makes sense given the casting choices, but Varda somehow seems to have captured something very real about life in the streets.

Amazingly, this isn't done Dardennes-style (though Mona gives Rosseta a nice run as tragic heroine) but through long dolly shots and a carefully choreographed set of images and music, which are felt but not obvious unless you hear the director's commentary. The story is of course about freedom vs. loneliness, and reminded me of a great Guy Clark line that seems akin to what Varda is after:

there ain't no money in poetry
And that's what sets
the poet free
And I have all the freedom
I can stand

It's no spoiler to tell you that Mona's journey does not end well, but there are a series of images near the end of the film so shocking and haunting - and one that is simply the strangest thing I've ever seen - that Mona seems like the kind of character you wont ever get out of your head.

*A thanks to the guy who left a copy of the Times Sunday Arts section in the library, where A.O. Scott's feature got me to see Varda's films.

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