April: Agnes Varda
We've lost one of my heroes. Agnes Varda was an incredibly thoughtful filmmaker who was able to give light to many points of view while having a calm awareness of herself in her films. She came out the gate hot and early - flexing her skills amongst her male counterparts in the French New Wave. She took time to learn new technology for filmmaking and for film preservation so that we can enjoy the work of her late husband Jacque Demy. A curious force of nature with dedication to craftsmanship and storytelling - here is some Agnes Varda to get you started (luckily, Criterion just launched a streaming service!)
1. La Pointe Courte (1955)
Varda's first feature film is worth a watch because it will give you a sense of her soul, and an appreciation watching her future work. This film takes place in a small fishing village in rural France with two parallel stories: one of a government inspector and the death of a child, one of a relationship between a local and a Parisian trying to find common ground. It's a film that's quiet and thoughtful - the setting is sparse and expansive, a simple backdrop for issues that are more complicated. It wants you to pay attention to the small in the face of the big.
2. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)
While many French New Wave filmmakers are busy sexualizing female leads (Goddard is the one who popularized the phrase "all you need in a movie is a girl and a gun"), Varda made a woman the lead in a story not focused on romance! In 2019 we are just barely getting there and this is 1962! Anyway, we follow hypochondriac Cleo (Corinne Marchand) in the two hours waiting for a call from a doctor. She's convinced that the doctor will tell her that she has terminal cancer and the singer thus tries to fill that time with her friends and lover. It's an intimate piece where we get to inhabit Cleo's world, wanting to hold her hand as we watch her conceal and grapple with what she worries will come.
3. Vagabond (1985)
A woman turns up frozen in a ditch, our unkempt vagabond. The layers of her life story, how she ended up here are peeled back through flashback and interviews. She falls in with men and women who then project onto her as she searches for meaning. It's a wandering film as she falls in love with a laborer helping him prune grape vines, drinks with an older woman, and helps someone trying to save the trees. Varda gives so much life and care to this woman, and despite her demise, we see her lead her story head first.
4. The Gleaners & I (2000)
A little personal moment: I saw this in a double feature with Faces Places (below) where Brie Larson led a Q&A with Agnes Varda. Was I in tears? Absolutely. Varda said at one point something along the lines of "there would be these ugly little potatoes and I just had to show them, I loved them so much." I think that's the best way to look at this movie: Varda will follow her subjects with respect, kindness, and love through fields and dumpsters. She plays with the filmmaking and participates in the field. It's a very special piece.
5. Faces Places (2017)
Up until the very end, Agnes Varda continued her curiosity and playfulness in a very intimate portrait with photographer JR. In high school, I watched JR's Ted Talk where he talked about his experience as someone in the streets taking portraits, pasting them high up in walls - even pasting large portraits of Israelis and Palestinians side by side on each side of the border. So, again, cried the entire time as they traveled around France printing large photos of the locals on their crumbling buildings, the barns they worked in, so forth. They have so much love for humanity and connect with each other as artists, looking after each other on the journey.
Thank you, Agnes Varda. You mean everything to me.
till next time, Pilar
About What She’s Watching
Hi y'all, my name is Pilar and I am a filmmaker & lover who has gotten overwhelmed by suggestions at film school parties and didn't know where to start. I'm hoping this column will give you some hors d'oeuvres to chew on and help you discover other great movies to inspire your own filmmaking. This is a safe space no judgement if you haven't seen it, in fact, I'm very jealous of you right now for getting to experience some of this for the first time.