Sunday, 7 April 2019

Agnès Varda

In Memoriam

I don't have the right words to pay tribute to Agnès Varda; that endlessly inspirational filmmaker who predicted the new wave of French cinema with her extraordinary debut feature, La Pointe Courte (1955). In that film, Varda took two professional actors - Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort - and placed their scripted melodrama against the backdrop of an actual fishing village; allowing the two strands of a story - one fiction, the other documentary - to contrast and collide. It was a film that advanced on the early concerns of the Italian neo-realists, allowing the actuality of the location and its inhabitants to become not just a counter-point to the conventional drama, but a genuine focus.

La Pointe Courte remains a quiet masterpiece; the debut of a film director who was coming to the cinema not out of devotion to the medium itself, but out of a deep and inquisitive interest in the world, and those that inhabit it.

The Gleaners and I [Agnès Varda, 2000]:

The making of La Pointe Courte [circa 1954-55, photographer not known]:

Unlike her contemporaries of the nouvelle vague, Varda wasn't looking at life through the cinema screen, the theatrical frame or the written word, but through the lens of her own camera. If Rohmer was wrapped up in books and Rivette lost to the stage, and if Godard and Truffaut thought life could only be understood when reflected on-screen, then Varda, more than any other filmmaker associated with that revolutionary period of French cinema, was preoccupied with people.

From La Pointe Courte she would go on to produce a similarly groundbreaking and enduring work in each subsequent decade of her career. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977), Vagabond (1985), Jacquot de Nantes (1991), The Gleaners and I (2000) and more recently Faces Places (2017), each show the evolution of Varda's aesthetic, from black and white 35mm, to 16mm colour, to handheld consumer-quality video and finally digital. If the equipment was always changing, becoming less cumbersome, less distancing, more free and inclusive, then the technique, the focus and the sensitivity remained the same.

Throughout her career Varda would maintain a photographer's closeness and intimacy with her subject matter, telling personal stories, both from her own life and experiences, as well as the lives and experiences of those existing within the same vicinity. There were other interesting features made along the way, such as Le Bonheur (1965), Daguerreotypes (1976), Jane B. by Agnes V. (1988) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), as well as short films, installations and photographic exhibitions. Varda's creative energy was inspiring, and her work remains thought-provoking, visually distinctive and essential.