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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Agnès Varda's turn at an Oscar

As a classic film enthusiast, I consider "classic films" and "films of today" two different animals.  Despite the connective thread through film history, this is at least partly because the great filmmakers of the past aren't typically Still. Making. Films.  Enter director Agnès Varda, one of the rare exceptions.  This pioneer of the French New Wave began her film career in 1954, and at 89 years old her 2017 film Faces Places (Visages Villages in French) is her first to be nominated for an Oscar--we'll know in just one week if she will be the oldest living filmmaker to win any competitive Oscar.  This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend two very special screenings at the Harvard Film Archive, with Ms. Varda in person to answer questions after both screenings.  This post will summarize my thoughts about the films, with emphasis on Faces Places, and some insights Ms. Varda provided her enthusiastic fans at the screening.

As soon as the opening credits of Faces Places started rolling on Friday evening it was immediately apparent that we were going to be witnessing filmmaking at its very best. The clever use of animations brought us right into the whimsical world we were about to enter.
From opening credits of Faces Places (screengrab from film's trailer)
The film documentarians, Varda and her visual artist/collaborator JR, would not only tell the stories, they would BE part of the stories.  After the film, Varda commented that in her documentaries, she never believed that the filmmaker could or should be remote from her subject, and thus she is comfortable being in front as well as behind the camera: "When you do a documentary, you are part of it."

Varda (from Le Monde, 2017)
I'll admit right now that until a couple of months ago, I was a Varda newbie. I attempted to address that quickly by watching two of her most critically acclaimed earlier films, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) and Le Bonheur (1965). Cleo is the film that put her clearly in the French New Wave camp, and yet her place in that camp was special -- as a woman filmmaker telling a uniquely woman's story. Her contemporaries were the likes of Jean-Luc Godard (with whom she remains friendly), Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Jacques Demy, who became her husband.  She also had the distinction of coming to film from photography; born in Belgium in 1928, she moved to France early in her life and devoted over 10 years to her photojournalism career.  This perspective allowed her to craft intimate and compelling stories from everyday life and put them movingly on film.  

With a bit of background behind me, I can postulate safely that Faces Places is an amalgam of what makes Varda so great.  First, it's not just her film; she collaborated with a young French artist known only as 'JR', with whom she developed a strong artistic partnership. JR is a muralist, who takes black-and-white photos of people and places, enlarges them, and plasters them on the sides of buildings or other large inanimate objects as way to comment on the world.  Under the tutelage of master Varda, he embarks on a journey around France, capturing photos of everyday life, mostly of working classes or the marginalized, and makes them literally larger-than-life to bring attention to their causes, or just their humanity in an overly mechanized world. 

The journey, and the work, is beautifully filmed and edited by Varda, although she shares directorial credit with JR. A particularly poignant vignette contrasts two goat-milking farms. One farm has mechanized milking machines and all the goats have their horns burned off at a young age to prevent them from fighting. The proprietors of another, smaller, farm allow their goats to keep their horns, and milks the goats manually. Varda and JR, without being preachy, challenge the prevailing societal opinion that productivity is king; goats should be allowed to keep their horns.  This is illustrated no better than in their mural as shown below.

A number of such compelling stories of everyday life are illuminated in the film, a Varda specialty. At the Q&A Varda was asked about the extent of her planning ahead what she captures on film.  She answered, and I paraphrase, "I am mainly curious about people. In my documentaries, I get to know people by just being curious and wanting to learn. I plan where I want to go, but then I am ready for chance to provide direction."  In another moving scene, Varda and JR plastered the oversized images of three striking dockworkers' wives at a construction site at Le Havre, to give them a presence in their man's world. She elaborated in the Q&A by saying, "As a feminist, I want to move the needle, but we need to work with the men to change the circumstances." And also, "I never ask (her subjects) about politics, but I go quietly to these people."  

Although the focus of the film was mostly on others, it turned internal at times. On film, JR and Varda had a conversation in a cemetery about death, and Varda said she's not afraid of death, but wonders what is on the other side, and feels it getting closer. She elaborated a bit about mortality in the post-film discussion, saying her memory had holes in it, like swiss cheese, but that she has come to terms with that. "We are made as a mixture of memory and discovery."

Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond (1985)
Vagabond (1985) was screened on Saturday night, and unlike Faces Places, has a dark, existential tone. Sandrine Bonnaire shines as the titular character, a 17-year old vagrant in France, who tries to fit in society but ultimately it rejects her--and she it. The film feels in many ways like a documentary, as all scenes were filmed in real locations, and most of the supporting cast were not actors.  To better connect with her character of Mona, Varda spent time driving around rural France and picking up hitchhikers, learning about their lifestyle and their habits, "even what was in their backpacks," she said.  

The theme of  'journey' also connects the two films.  In fact, characters on some sort of physical, as well as symbolic journey, are common to Varda's writing. When asked about this at the end of the screening, Varda commented that the theme of 'walking' in particular was prevalent in the French New Wave.  (Cleo from 5 to 7 follows a young woman walking around Paris.)  "People walk as a reaction to society," she said.  

I'm so so glad I've discovered the films of Agnès Varda, and even more thrilled to have seen her in person, two extraordinary evenings in a row.  While I've not seen any of the other Oscar-nominated documentaries, I want Faces Places to win on March 4. I want to see Varda, along with JR, on the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood--the difference in their ages and heights poignantly on display--accepting an award that celebrates unheralded film history as much as one film.  This would be a significant step in bringing Varda's 70-year distinguished career into a brighter light, and further chipping away at the limitations and discrimination faced by women in film history for longer than that.

This post is part of the '31 Days of Oscar' Blogathon, hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, and Paula of Paula's Cinema Club.  Click here to check out all the other great posts honoring past and present Oscar films and stories.


  1. Thank you for sharing your Varda experience with us. I now too have something to root for when the Oscar roll call is announced.

    1. CW, thanks. AV is truly a special filmmaker and I do hope she will be called 'Academy Award-Winning Agnes Varda' (outside of her honorary award) very soon!

  2. I'm going to be cheering for Agnes Vardas, too. I'm a bit embarrassed to say before I read your essay, I didn't know much about her.

    1. Great! Varda's filmography is definitely worth catching up on. There are a few more I'd like to see, as well. So glad you stopped by, Ruth.

  3. I, too, am new to Agnes Varda. I have heard of "Visages Villagees," but I haven't yet seen it. I guess I should start now catching up on Varda's work. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. Hi Marianne, thanks for reading. Varda's films really are amazing. I hope you get a chance to check some of them out. I know, though, it's always 'too many films, too little time!' :-)