To regard the late Agnès Varda as a painter and writer enlarges our capacity to understand how good filmmakers capture a sense of molecules in constant motion. Think of Mary Cassatt, of her portraits of arrested movement in all their embarrassment and capacity to surprise. In Varda’s debut feature Cléo from 5 to 7, the audience’s sharing a secret with Corinne Marchand’s title character, a singer who will likely die of cancer, lends a poignancy to her adherence to routine. The accidental poetry of the found object. The person as found object. Varda didn’t transform her men and women into people worth studying; her approach insisted that men and women as they are were all worth studying.
Thanks to a filmography notable for its brevity but capacious in its truth telling, Varda trusted behavior. Although almost never praised for such, Le Bonheur (1965) is one of the great studies of infidelity, down to a title whose irony doesn’t karate chop the audience but becomes enriched by what takes place onscreen. With the help of editor Janine Verneau, Varda assembles these shards, aware of their deadly sharp edges, into clear glass. By the time her adulterous protagonist François (Jean-Claude Drouot) has moved after his wife’s suicide –promoted by his confession — the move looks less swinish than inevitable. The casualness with which Varda accepts cruelty doesn’t curdle her films with cynicism either. Vagabond (1985) represents the extremes of this position: a film with the clarity of Bresson that examines the impact of a drifter (César Award-winning Sandrine Bonnaire) on the people whose lives she briefly brushed.
Starting with The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993), about her husband Jacques Demy — with whom she shared a sensibility — and his classic The Young Girls of Rochefort, Varda turned to the expressive possibilities of the documentary. The Gleaners & I (2000) is one of the great films about labor made in the new century. Expanding the contours of “gleaning” so that it encompasses agricultural and cultural scavengers, Varda puts a mirror in front of audiences. Didacticism she could not abide. “The more l met them, the more I could see I had nothing to make as a statement,” Varda said. “They make the statement; they explain the subject better than anybody.
2017’s Faces Places impressed me less than it did colleagues. For the first time in her career Varda turned herself into an adorable thing; she became Varda ™. To be fair, The Beaches of Agnès had already shown the acceleration of this process. Yet Faces Places likely introduced Varda to a new generation, and it’s hard to begrudge her the Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. She was at work on another film. To watch Varda and Jean-Luc Godard continually challenge audiences whose connection to the French nouvelle vague is at best academic refreshes one’s interest in rigorous old age.