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Look, Now Look Again: On Agnès Varda

At 89 years old, the Oscar-nominated codirector of ‘Faces Places’ and “godmother” of French New Wave cinema is as vital as ever

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Something was amiss in the back of this year’s Oscar class photo. “Who’s the ghost on the top row, behind Allison Janney?” someone asked on Twitter. “It’s really weird how only that one person is washed out. Is it me? You see it, right?”

I see it, yes, but that is not a person. It’s a cardboard cut-out of the French filmmaker Agnès Varda, a first-time nominee for her documentary Faces Places. Varda’s long overdue nod came with another distinction: At 89, she became the oldest Oscar nominee ever. If she wins on Sunday, she will be the oldest winner.

Cardboard Agnès was at the 2018 Oscar luncheon thanks to her Faces Places codirector, the 34-year-old French artist JR—a kind of Banksy–Jean-Luc Godard hybrid, known for flyposting humongous prints of his photographs on buildings and public structures. (Last year, he installed a piece in which a large photograph of a toddler named Kikito peers over the Mexican-American border.) Cardboard Agnès worked out for both of them: JR got to turn his Oscars luncheon appearance into a scene-stealing performance piece (he has also since been carting Cardboard Agnès around on Instagram, where he has amassed more than 1.1 million followers), while Varda, who doesn’t travel as much as she once did, got to rest up for her planned trip to the Oscar ceremony on March 4. The Oscar class photo is usually a Where’s Waldo of A-list actors, but JR’s stunt made the unassuming documentary nominee Varda—or at least a one-dimensional stand-in for her—one of the most popular people at the lunch. Here she is delighting Meryl Streep. There she is in a selfie with Oscar It Boy Timothée Chalamet. A few days later, after getting her through a TSA checkpoint at the airport, Cardboard Agnès even got to pose with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Why not?

Varda, in the flesh, is a great deal more than an eccentric photo-op: She is one of the most important filmmakers of the past century. Her earliest features, 1955’s La Pointe Courte and 1962’s Cleo from 5 to 7, earned her the nickname “the godmother of the French New Wave,” even though, it’s often been pointed out, she is only two years older than French New Wave figurehead Godard. (Consider it the French-cinema equivalent of Sally Field playing Tom Hanks’ mom in Forrest Gump.) Varda has directed acclaimed, genre-bending shorts and feminist-minded features, like 1985’s masterful Vagabond. In recent decades, she’s become best-known for her essayistic, proudly digressive documentaries, of which Faces Places may be her last—although she said the same thing about the one before that, 2008’s powerful self-portrait The Beaches of Agnès. “I’m just saying,” she remarked in an interview right after her Oscar nomination was announced, “I’m not dead yet.”

And yet some critics have found something frustrating about this sudden Oscar-and-Instagram attention on, shall we say, the Portable Varda. Earlier this month, in The Globe and Mail, the film critic Tina Hassannia wrote a piece headlined, “French director Agnès Varda is more than a meme.” “It is essential … for film lovers to talk more about Varda’s movies and less about her cute appearance,” Hassannia wrote, “now more than ever, to prevent her grandmotherly visage from becoming a meme, lest she become the new Werner Herzog.” She concluded, “The enduring French filmmaker may now have Instagram, but Varda refused to let selfies replace self-reflection—and that’s something we can all learn from.”

This is true; and yet it is also true that in 2003, Varda walked around the Venice Biennale dressed as a giant potato to promote a photo and multimedia installation called Patatutopia. It’s never a simple either/or with Varda—it’s usually “and.” She prompts one to search for the third way.

And so here is Agnès dancing with Jennifer Lawrence. Here is Agnès, after she received her Honorary Academy Award late last year, lounging with Angelina Jolie. As strange as these images are, they’re not all that different from the peculiar, star-studded encounters that have dotted her long career. Alexander Calder once custom-made Varda a mobile while he was hanging out in her courtyard on the Rue De Guerre; in 1962 she posed Fidel Castro for a portrait in which he appeared to have angel wings. Here is a picture of Agnès Varda with her friend Jim Morrison, who she brought to visit the set of Donkey Skin, a French fairy tale that her husband was shooting with Catherine Deneuve; here she is in the snow, embraced by her longtime acquaintance Harrison Ford. Varda is a profoundly provocative artist, filmmaker, and activist, and she is also the secret weapon to winning a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. To her fans, she’s indefatigably surprising. I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about her, and then last week I came across this extraordinary sentence: “Indeed, among other things, she is said to be one of only six people to attend Jim Morrison’s burial.”

Agnès Varda has always been a stranger in strange lands. And so, in this exhilarating third act of her life, why not Instagram? Why not Hollywood? Why not the 2018 Oscars?

In life and her filmmaking, Varda has always tightly controlled some variables while leaving others to fate. She’s a self-defined person in many ways: Born Arlette Varda, she changed her first name to Agnès as soon as she turned 18 because she liked the way it sounded; not long after, around the time when she was studying photography in her early 20s, she found a haircut that pleased her—a short, often multihued bowl cut that’s a little reminiscent of a medieval monk—and stuck with it for the rest of her life. She started Ciné-Tamaris, her own independent production company, back in 1954, so that no one else could meddle in her vision. And yet there is a remarkable openness to her process. “On many occasions,” writes the film scholar Delphine Bénézet, “Varda has acknowledged that when she films, chance is her first assistant.”

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Agnès Varda’s movies make me want to have better relationships with my neighbors. They make me feel a little guilty for not knowing the names and eccentricities and wildest aspirations of every one of my ancestors; they make me want to ask strangers uncomfortably personal questions about love. Take, for example, Daguerréotypes, the excellent 1976 feature-length docu-essay she made about the shopkeepers in her Paris neighborhood. She shot it not long after giving birth to her second child, Mathieu Demy. Motherhood dictated the form of the film: She wanted to stay close to home so she could spend time with her son, so she decided that she would not film any farther away from her home than an 80-meter electrical cable that she attached to it at all times. “I started with the idea that women are attached to the home,” she later said. “So I attached myself to the home, literally, by imagining a new kind of umbilical cord.” What some might have seen as a restriction, or a reason to not make a film at all, instead made Varda look closer and more sharply at the things already all around her. She spoke with the butcher, baker, and hardware store owners not only about their work, but their families, their love stories, their dreams. She likes to complicate static identities, not the least of which being her own. Writing about Daguerréotypes, Bénézet quotes Sartre: “A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer.” The aim of Varda’s films, in these terms, is to offend the buyer.

A few years after Daguerréotypes, she made Mur Murs, the film of hers that feels like the most direct precursor to Faces Places. It is a documentary about the murals in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and the families, love stories, and dreams of the people who drew them. Varda sees murals, especially the ones of L.A.’s Hispanic population, as “living, breathing, seething walls,” and she’s drawn to their inherently anticommercial nature. “These walls don’t sell you anything,” she says in a voice-over. “A billboard—an enormous advertising panel—has to be well-placed, smiling, and made-up to the hilt. Not a mural.”

One of the most moving moviegoing experiences I have ever had—if one can call watching a VHS tape on an old TV in the basement of my college’s library a “moviegoing experience”—was seeing Varda’s Jacquot de Nantes, the 1991 movie she made about her beloved husband, the iconic French filmmaker Jacques Demy while he was dying. (She began it as a collaboration with him, after he was diagnosed with AIDS; by the time it was released, Demy had passed away at age 59.) Jacquot de Nantes is an attempt, through cinema, to do two impossible things: to crawl inside the private mind of one’s life partner, and to preserve and catalog all of the memories of a cherished mind that will soon no longer exist. It’s wrenching. Varda cast actors to stage some of Demy’s earliest childhood memories, as he recalls them—attending puppet shows before the war, idling in his mother’s hair salon and his father’s garage. There is something both indescribably tender and a little bit manic about her desire to stage and catalog as many of his memories before time runs out. Jacquot is an imperfect film that’s more profound than so many perfect ones. In a recent, wonderful essay the writer Patricia Lockwood wrote about Joan Didion (another of Varda’s famous American friends), she described Didion’s late-in-life work as “saying goodbye … [to] the way her mind works.” Jacquot is Varda saying goodbye to the way her husband’s mind works. The film itself—that it exists, and that she trusts the viewer enough to share it with her—is an extraordinary act of love.

It was Demy’s mind—vivid, Technicolorful—that took her to California for the first time, back in 1967, when he moved the family to Beverly Hills for several years. He was then, too, riding the wave of his first Oscar nomination, and the international success of his now-iconic 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Hollywood lured Demy with a self-defeating bait-and-switch: French auteurs are so hot right now! We should get one of them to come make a big American studio movie! It didn’t quite work out, although a few years later, Demy got the last laugh. He wanted to cast a young, unknown actor named Harrison Ford; the studio told him to go for an “established name,” so they insisted he cast … Gary Lockwood. After several delays, Model Shop finally came out in 1969. Demy, with a chuckle, later took to calling it “Model Flop.”

Varda’s initial time in California was more creatively fulfilling. She directed several enduring, tonally diverse shorts, including “Uncle Yanco,” a playful portrait of her hippie Greek uncle who lived on a California houseboat, and “Black Panthers,” a remarkable fly-on-the-wall documentary about Huey P. Newton’s imprisonment. (It was shot for French TV, but eventually censored by the network who feared it would “reawaken the students’ anger” after the protests of 1968.) And then there was Lions Lies (…And Love), her freewheeling, gloriously ridiculous 1969 homage to (and interrogation of) the end of the free-love fever dream, which starred the two creators of Hair and the Warhol muse Viva.

In Lions, there’s a scene in which a female director tries, and fails, to let her studio grant her final cut. It was autobiographical: Varda was in talks to direct a script she’d written called Peace and Love for Columbia, but when they refused to give her full creative control, she nixed the projects. All throughout her life, things might have been easier if she’d compromised—but they wouldn’t have been nearly as Varda. “I didn’t have a career,” she reflected recently, in a Criterion interview, “I made films. It’s very different.”

One of my favorite things about Faces Places is how willing she is to tell JR when she doesn’t think his jokes are funny. A spirited, string-beany French man in the prime of his health, JR has a certain masculine joie de vivre about him, and whenever it bothers her, Varda swiftly punctures it. In one scene, when one of the people they’re photographing asks how they met, JR quips that it was on a dating site. “I don’t like that,” she tells him. Agnès Varda always gets the last word.

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“It would be hard to imagine [Chris] Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, or any of Varda’s other French contemporaries co-directing at the end of their long careers,” Jackson Arn wrote in a review of Faces Places for the Los Angeles Review of Books. That’s true, but it’s not new for Varda: Her first feature, La Pointe Courte, six decades ago, was credited as having been written and directed by, “Agnès Varda et les habitants de La Pointe-Courte.” Six decades later, for The Beaches of Agnès, she shared her directing credit with her children and grandchildren. There’s a generosity, plurality, and communal aspect to her filmmaking that belies the self-serious of the stereotypically isolated (and usually male) auteur.

Loss and mortality have haunted every work Varda has produced in the 28 years since Jacques Demy’s death. But just as Daguerréotypes—in its formal structure and very existenceforces us to question the idea that motherhood and work cannot go hand-in-hand, Varda’s more recent documentaries and installations invite us to question the same stereotypes about wives, widows, and grandmothers. Her moving 2004 video installation The Widows of Noirmoutier invites the viewer to pick up one of 14 pairs of headphones, corresponding to a monitor featuring one of 14 widows telling their stories (Varda included).

In a poignant scene in her popular 2000 film The Gleaners and I, then-septuagenarian Varda uses a hand-held digital video camera to shoot her own hand. Her reaction is a mixture of technological wonder that cameras are now portable enough to film with one hand, and a sense of melancholy at the way digital video seems to highlight every wrinkle. Varda, the critic Shirley Jordan wrote about The Gleaners, “calls us to witness the socially and existentially unpalatable textures of aging.”

In Faces Places, which comes a decade after The Beaches of Agnès (which Varda cheekily called a “portrait of the artist as an old lady”), Varda boldly invites the viewer to observe a body in further decline. She now walks with a cane and—in a memorable scene while trying to climb to the top of a water tower—has trouble getting up the stairs up that JR so blithely climbs. Her eyesight is also blurring, a fact that Varda depicts both bluntly (a squirm-inducing shot of the routine eye surgeries she must now undergo) and playfully (by assembling a group of people in alphabet costumes to reenact what she sees when she tries to read her doctor’s eye chart.) As with Jacquot de Nantes, and so much of her work, there is a desire to show the viewer exactly what the subject sees, blurriness and all. If Faces Places is her last full-length documentary, it rounds out one of the most extraordinary third acts a filmmaker has achieved, and some of the most profound meditations on age and mortality committed to film.

In the end, Varda seems to regard JR and his meme-friendly art the same way she did the DV camera in The Gleaners and I: bemused, fascinated, and a little haunted about what it all says about her own mortality. Although some have pointed out that Faces Places feels like a buddy film, there is a disconnect and even slightly antagonistic quality to their relationship that keeps things from feeling too warm and fuzzy. I see you, she finally says to JR at the end of the film, though the viewer’s image of him in that moment, like Varda’s, is blurred. I see you imperfectly, Varda has perhaps spent her whole career saying to her subjects, but I still see you.

Another shiny statue, another dubious distinction: In December, Varda became the first woman ever to be awarded an honorary Oscar. It was presented to her in Hollywood—the fickle mistress that lured her and Demy years ago, even if it didn’t give them the trust and financial backing to be themselves—by Angelina Jolie. “Because I became older and older without losing my desire to work and create,” Varda quipped on stage, seeming to find absurdity, levity, and genuine honor in the whole thing, “I started to get lifetime achievement awards.”

Varda’s films are sometimes accused of “lightness,” something that, especially for female artists, is all too often chalked up as a flaw. But weight is easy: how much more specific the alchemy, to be able to float. Speaking in slow, evocative English, Varda concluded her speech with an anecdote. “The other day,” she said, “I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking about my speech. I got nervous, started to move my legs and arms in the bed. And after a while for some reason, I started to forget the weight of my body on the mattress. I felt I was dancing. … Tonight, I have almost the same feeling. It is a big event, very serious, full of meaning and weight. But I feel, that between weight and lightness, I choose lightness. And I feel I’m dancing. The dance of cinema.”

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