It must be a horrid thing sitting in the dark through hundreds of thought-provoking films from all over the world just to pass judgement for the benefit of Witchdoctor readers. We gave REBEKAH DAVIES this most demanding of jobs.
To me, Agnes Varda was a humanist first and artist second. Not discounting her broad and distinctive body of work, made over a 60-year career, however — as evidenced by this wonderful self-made biopic, Agnes By Varda — she wasn’t driven by the egoic impulses that occasionally plague others in her field. She was fascinated by people, their stories, what actors make of their characters; it was palpable in everything she did.
After an education in psychology, literature, art history and stills photography, Varda made her first film on a whim, with little technical ability. Her foray into cinema had an air of innovation and irreverence, until the last; she was a feminist before anyone even dreamed up the term, a woman unbounded by convention. Her approach to life and work bled into her work: she made more than one film starring an unlikely heroine.
One of those, Vagabond, is the tale of young female drifter who is variously described as ‘never saying thank you, stinks, and tells everyone to fuck off’. It’s one of the most authentically ‘punk’ stories, and performances, I’ve ever had the supreme pleasure of witnessing. Mona, the teenage protagonist, has a hazy past as a secretary who has dropped out of society to live a transient life, a genuine ‘rebelle without a cause’ who has no desire to transcend her relentlessly harsh existence.
Despite trailing Mona on her haphazard travels through a bleak and grey Gallic winter, we never get much insight into what compels her, if anything; there’s no great reveal. At one point, an uptight philosophy major-turned-farmer rages at her for being too lazy to take advantage of an opportunity – Mona struggles to summon the energy to protest. It could be a tale of the tragically dispossessed, or it could be an almost pure depiction of existentialism.
Daguerréotypes, a documentary Varda made about the street she lived on for many years in Paris, is the perfect example of how there’s a story on every doorstep, if you care to open your ears and eyes. It’s a fascinating capsule of life on Rue Daguerré in 1976. Up and down the street we go, meeting all the shopkeepers, acquainting ourselves with their daily rituals.
Embedded in the film is a magic show, in which we see these now familiar characters enjoying themselves in not only a social setting, but one in which their inner child is at the fore — a departure from the tensions of their daily effort to sustain themselves and their families. It’s absurd, and jarring, and elevates the film.
The film is bookended by the gentle comings and goings within the Blue Thistle, an apothecary selling outdated cosmetics and dubious colognes, distilled by the elderly owner and haunted by his disoriented wife, who has become a prisoner of her own mind. It’s uncomfortable viewing, yet you’re afraid to look away, lest she disappear irretrievably. Somehow she’s the heart of the film, the spirit guardian of Rue Daguerré
I wonder how cathartic, how healing it was for Varda to make Jaquot de Nantes, a film about her husband, the director Jacques Demy. The film traces his discovery of, and burgeoning fascination with, filmmaking as a boy in rural France. Varda intercut scenes from his childhood with confrontational close-ups of her dying husband. As she discloses in Agnes By Varda, these ECU’s — extreme close-ups in film parlance — were shot in order to be as ‘close as possible’ to her fading partner.
Understandably, it’s a more sentimental film than we are used to from her. There’s a dislocation, giving a stilted quality to the background story. Perhaps it’s a lesson in how, sometimes, we can be too close to someone to allow the necessary perspective. Ultimately, a joyous quality is aimed for, yet missing. It’s still a moving film regardless.
Agnes Varda was a truly unique presence in the world of film. I’ll be revisiting her work in years to come, and expect to unearth riches with every new contemplation of her oeuvre.