Critic's Notebook: Criterion's 'Complete Films of Agnès Varda' Offers a Welcome Chance to Explore the Visions of a Tireless Searcher


Though often overshadowed by her male counterparts, the Belgian-born Greek-French filmmaker was a New Wave innovator who left a vibrant body of work, all of it restored and available in a new collection.

During these months of pandemic shutdown, even as the familiar metronome of work deadlines keeps clicking, many of us are experiencing time in new ways. The hours and days and weeks can take on an unaccustomed blankness, an unsettling fragmentation or elasticity. I've found myself wondering what Agnès Varda would make of this uncharted territory if she were still alive and well and making movies, and what inspiring connective leaps her work might be taking.

Varda, who died in March 2019, just weeks short of her 91st birthday and soon after her final work premiered in Berlin, had become a welcome and comforting screen presence in her latter years, in particular for her defining documentaries of that period — The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès and Faces Places. Documentarians who appear in their own films don't always avoid a distracting or downright annoying self-consciousness, but with her wry humor and deep curiosity about other people, she offered an uncommon solace — a model, even, for how to live an engaged life.

There's no catch-all handle to describe her wide-ranging creations, but Criterion's recently issued and definitive set of her complete films does a superb job of curating the work, dividing it into categories ("Around Paris," "In California," "Her Body, Herself") that aren't necessarily chronological. There's plenty of overlap and interplay of themes among the groupings, as there is within the films themselves. What's notable too is Varda's active participation in the restoration of her substantial output. Besides supervising the color grading, she recorded brief introductions to many of the films: She was an artist protecting her legacy and, in her unpretentious way, claiming her place in the pantheon — no small thing for a woman.

Even with their embrace of melancholy, their healthy political anger and their keen awareness of mortality, Varda's films often deliver a soul-stirring sense of hope, one that occupies the opposite end of the spectrum from chin-up manufactured cheer. It's a matter of mindfulness, empathy and synthesis.

And so it made perfect sense to me when a friend mentioned that the person who introduced her to the healing power of homeopathy was Agnès Varda. Rather than attacking symptoms, that system of alternative medicine uses remedies to support the body's response to illness. This is not unlike the way the writer-director observed the world around her, charting a way through her material that always feels organic and never, for all the artistry involved, imposed.

Her films don't tackle issues so much as illuminate them, and always from unexpected angles. Among her best-known narrative features is a music-infused drama about reproductive freedom (One Sings, the Other Doesn't, an antecedent, in ways obvious and not, to this year's Never Rarely Sometimes Always). She delved into the destructive imbalances of traditional heterosexual marriage with what she called "a beautiful summer peach with a worm inside," 1965's searing and deceptively sunny Le Bonheur, and, a year later, with Les Créatures, a surreal, sci-fi-tinged pairing of a domineering Michel Piccoli and a mute Catherine Deneuve. One of her lesser-seen works and certainly one of her most bizarre, it was met with some head-scratching upon its release. Years later, Varda wished only that she'd "dared to be nastier and more vicious," concluding that she "didn't take it far enough."

Self-taught, Varda made movies for 65 years, beginning with La Pointe Courte, the fiction-doc hybrid she produced, wrote and helmed when she was 26. Featuring residents of a fishing village as well as professional actors (future international star Philippe Noiret received his first credited screen role), the film arguably was the first completed project of the French New Wave. But it would be decades before it received a commercial release, and even with such masterworks as Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962) and Vagabond (1985) on her résumé, Varda was generally regarded as a minor member of the Nouvelle Vague, overshadowed by the likes of Truffaut, Resnais and her husband, Jacques Demy, among others in a de facto boys' club.

Undeterred, she kept working, and created some of her most acclaimed work in her 70s and 80s. (Among New Wave directors, only Jean-Luc Godard outlives her.) She became the oldest Oscar nominee in history for 2017's Faces Places, a film that blends her social awareness and her passion for large-scale art installation in a thoroughly endearing road-trip collaboration with Parisian street artist JR.

Collaborators are often front and center in Varda's work, their names sometimes read aloud by the filmmaker in quirky credits sequences. This is no thank-you-to-the-little-people from the dais spotlight; the workers who keep things running might be news to many in our moment of coronavirus uncertainty, but they never escaped Varda's attention. Yet even as she went beyond the norm in acknowledging her assistants and artistic accomplices, she was every inch the auteur. She called her approach to filmmaking cinécriture, or "cine-writing," and she brought a bracing lyricism to dialogue and voiceover narration as well as to visuals. (Her first calling was as a photographer, and one of her shorts, Salut les Cubains, is a dynamic composition of stills she took in 1962-63 Cuba.)

The visual language of her breakthrough second film, Cléo From 5 to 7, is exceptionally fluent and lithe, the sinuous camera a vibrant rebuttal to the linearity of the (mostly) black-and-white feature's real-time structure. Varda divides the story into 5- to 15-minute chunks as she pits her pop-singer main character (Corinne Marchand) against the cruel reality of the clock: Cléo is awaiting biopsy results. Along her dithery career-obsessed way, she breaks free of the controlling men in her life, and the heavy shadow of fate gives way to a spiritual awakening.

As with many of Varda's narrative features, documentary elements invigorate that film. Vagabond, winner of the top prize at Venice in 1985 (most of her awards would arrive only later, she noted, "now that I'm old"), combines trained actors and "real people" in its story of an asocial female drifter. Daringly, Varda doesn't "explain" her via backstory, and the extraordinary performance by 17-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire never seeks audience sympathy. Vagabond is not a treatise on the dispossessed but a mirror to our own perceptions of them. It's telling that many of the women the title character encounters project romantic notions of freedom and self-determination onto her, one of them thrilling to how "wild and filthy" she is.

Whether her format is fiction or nonfiction, Varda's key interest is behavior, not psychology. In Daguerreotypes, a portrait of shopkeepers in her Paris neighborhood, she was drawn to "the slowness and patience of their work … their downtime and their empty moments … the mysteries of daily interactions" of this "silent majority." In 1968 California, she was drawn to a galvanized and very vocal minority, borrowing a 16mm camera for the short Black Panthers, a crucial and revelatory chronicle of the period, its political relevance undimmed 50 years later.

Varda's cine-essays, among them a delightful five-part 2011 TV series, From Here to There, are discursive and flowing, opening out rather than drawing in toward predetermined conclusions. Cataloging the caryatids of Paris (women's flesh rendered in stone, a recurring motif in her work), she finds the connective tissue between Les Misérables, Das Kapital and the poetic visions of Baudelaire. She's a master archivist, a fan, a gleaner, recycling and excerpting others' films. She often made films in communion with other films, from the delirious and shambolic valentine to cinema One Hundred and One Nights, for which she gathered a who's who of European and American movie stars, to her tender and stirring tributes to Demy — one of them, Jacquot de Nantes, made with his input while he was dying of AIDS.

It was through moviemaking (and, later, installation art) that Varda embraced life, and the power she saw in aesthetic beauty, quotidian work and communal protest was inseparable from a clear-eyed awareness of mortality. In The Gleaners and I, a nonfiction tour de force that struck a chord with an exceptionally wide range of viewers, especially in France, Varda can be seen joining a scavenging artist friend, and the cast-off item she rescues from the street is a clock without hands: incisive humor and mournful undertow in one pitch-perfect cinematic image.

Mourning is very much in the air as I write this, and as when anyone as young as Chadwick Boseman dies, questions of mortality and longevity are occupying many of our thoughts. Varda was blessed with longevity. Boseman, heartbreakingly, wasn't. But they both worked until the end. The gift they left us, ultimately, was more than their creativity. In an age when every celebrity hangnail is a matter of social media concern, they gave us the example of their generosity and dignity.

The chance to explore Varda's rich body of work is a chance to commune with movies, art, philosophy, her beloved cats and, not least, an exquisitely generous yet wise and discerning spirit — precisely the kind of guide many of us could use right now, in this suspended state of time out of time.