Varda By Agnès. Opens Fri., Jan. 10. Continues through Thurs., Jan. 16. Harris Theater, 809 Liberty Ave., Downtown. trustarts.org/film
The documentary consists of clips of Varda speaking in front of eager audiences, talking with old friends, and addressing the camera directly. Interspersed are excerpts from her 50-plus year filmmaking career, as well as her ventures into visual art. She made narrative films, documentaries, and projects that fell in the purgatory between the two, though she might be best known for her 1962 film Cléo from 5 to 7.
Varda begins the film, and her public talks, by describing the three words that make up her filmmaking philosophy: inspiration, creation, and sharing. Throughout the film, she explains where she found inspiration for her wide variety of subjects — which range from a French New Wave drama about marriage and happiness, to an art installation dedicated to potatoes. With creation, Varda describes different filmmaking techniques she used, like panning from right to left instead of the typical left to right, or fading to bright colors instead of fading to black at the end of a scene.
The concept of sharing, Varda tells her audiences, is as important as the other two words, because films are not made to be watched alone. They are also, usually, not made alone. Almost every time she discusses the making of a film, Varda employs “we,” as in “we filmed it this way.” Male filmmakers of her caliber, or lower, are more likely to use “I” when describing their filmmaking. (I don’t have statistics to back me up on this, but the fact that her use of “we” stood out to me feels like evidence enough.) It is certainly true though, that male filmmakers get labeled as an “auteur” much more often than their female peers, which is a word that implies a singular person’s vision.
Varda, by contrast, used the community around her, including her late husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, her children, longtime friends, strangers she met and befriended through her curiosity, like apartment squatters or a group of widows on a small French island. In one scene, she tells the audience that when Demy was dying and she wanted to be as close as possible to him, she did so in the best way she knew how, by filming his body with extreme close-ups.
Varda By Agnès feels long because it covers such an expansive career (Varda was 90 when she died). At times it feels like a TED Talk or a college class which you find interesting but also kind of want to end. But mostly, it just makes you want to go back to Varda’s catalog and start from the beginning. Each of the film snippets featured in the documentary show why she was a unique filmmaker, not just in the shots or color palettes or subjects, but in her politics, which often found a way into her work, either overtly or covertly. In 1968, she made a short documentary about the Black Panthers during protests of Huey Newton’s arrest. Her 1977 film One Sings, the Other Doesn't includes abortion in a story about friendship set against the women’s movement in France.
In her filmmaking and her life, Varda had a vision for what she wanted to convey. She wanted people to see intimacy and beauty but also ugliness and the interior lives of downtrodden people. She wanted to make art about feminism as much as she wanted to honor a heart-shaped potato.