Sunday, January 12, 2020

“The Restless Curiosity of Agnès Varda” at SIFF Cinema: Jan 4 - 19 & "Agnès Varda: The Eternally Youthful Soul of World Cinema"

Much has been written about French Left Bank director Agnès Varda in the last decade, particularly with her passing in March of last year. Fitting then, for an incomparable director and personal essayist to leave us with two of her more intimate and inviting works in the form of 2017's "Visages Villages", and her parting gift to the world, "Varda by Agnès". Her final published interview for The Guardian, "Agnès Varda's Last Interview: 'I Fought for Radical Cinema All My Life'", is characteristic of the life she lived channeled through the endless curiosity of her investigative, creative oeuvre. Also representative of her reach and influence, the British Film Institute and New York Times obituaries, AO Scott’s “Agnès Varda: The Filmmaker as Rigorous Friend”, Peter Bradshaw's "'Greatest of the Great': Agnès Varda: The Eternally Youthful Soul of World Cinema", and Le Monde's recognition of her as the grandmother of the French New Wave, "Agnès Varda, Réalisatrice Pionnière de la Nouvelle Vague, est Morte", all go some way to express the cultural and personal investment Varda gave to the world. Belatedly championed, and with numerous opportunities in the spotlight in the final years if her life, Varda was lauded with both critical and very public appreciation and recognition. Her Academy Award nominated "Visages Villages" received attention from all the right places, she was seen on the red carpet at Cannes for the Cate Blanchett-organized events of that year's festival, and she donned the cover The British Film Institute's Sight & Sound in their summer feature on, "The Irrepressible Agnès Varda".

In the course of her humble, groundbreaking, 60-plus year career, Cannes 2017 stood out as one of her most exuberantly populist seasons. Much in the way of her quietly triumphant, "The Gleaners & I" her film of that year watches as a tour de France that is both a romp and a meditation on photography, cinema, cultural identity, community and mortality. Additionally, it also exists as a document of the unexpected kinship between anonymous 33 year old visual artist JR, and the octogenarian Left Bank auteur. Inspired equally by JR’s large scale photographic portraits produced in his mobile photo booth, as the locales they aspire to have a visual dialogue with, Varda enlisted her counterpart for an impromptu cross-country road trip through France. At once poetic and naked truth, like director's best work, the documentary essay shape-shifts before one’s eyes, once again, "Agnès Varda, People Person, Creates a Self-Referential Marvel". Returning to similar ground as her "The Beaches of Agnès" of a decade before, "Varda by Agnès" looks to approach the contents of her life through the lens of her creative work. As a companion to SIFF's own mini-retrospective, “The Restless Curiosity of Agnès Varda” The New York Times, "The Many Ways of Seeing Agnès Varda", creates a summation of the complex meeting of geography, persons, and spaces she defined and explored. Her concerns and interests were discovered and expressed through movies set in cities such as "Cléo from 5 to 7", and the country, on the road as in "Vagabond", in streets and public markets seen in "The Gleaners & I", and homes, in France, Cuba, California and Vietnam. Hers was a life traveling widely, collecting friends, insight, and images, as expressly depicted in "Visages Villages". She had numerous other interests that made their way on to screen; "One Sings, the Other Doesn't" is a film of women, motherhood, bodies, geography and the divide between fiction and nonfiction that she explored, and expanded.

Varda's life could also be considered as a series of before-and-after chapters. Before and after traditional cinema, having exploded it's boundaries in the French New Wave, after the death of her husband and creative collaborator of decades, Jacques Demy, and her own 1991, "Jacquot de Nantes". A film version of Demy's autobiographical notebooks, expressed through a hybrid dramatization and documentary account of Demy's childhood and his lifelong love of theater, craftsmanship and cinema. And in later life, before and after relative cultural celebrity as a major contributor to 20th century global cinema. As the New York Times cites, her worldview could be described in relation to French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, with whom she studied in the 1940s. In a excerpt from a 1970 interview, Varda spoke about how; “He really blew my mind” singling out his ideas on the poetic imagination, the material world and the elements (earth, air, fire, water). Imagination isn’t a means for forming images of reality, Bachelard observed. “It is the faculty for forming images which go beyond reality, which sing reality,” he wrote. “It is a superhuman faculty.” Adding: “The imagination invents more than objects and dramas; it invents a new life, a new spirit; it opens eyes which hold new types of visions.” When asked in a recent interview with The Guardian how she would like to be considered after she left the world, Varda's response was typical of this attitude and a poetic, imaginative grappling with the contradictions and complexities of life; "I would like to be remembered as a film-maker who enjoyed life, including pain. This is such a terrible world, but I keep the idea that every day should be interesting. What happens in my days – working, meeting people, listening – convinces me that it’s worth being alive."