Review: Agnès Varda at the Cinematheque

During the month of May, I was lucky enough to be traipsing around Italy with my camera in hand, pointing and cooing at all sorts of cool, old things. My family had been planning the trip for months, and I had been romanticizing about Europeans with unkempt hair, hot nights in the city, and delicately spooning gelato into my mouth for just as long. These wild thoughts were mostly informed by the movies, as most of my wild thoughts are. Would I be Audrey Hepburn on the Spanish Steps? Or perhaps I would find fame and foreign friendship à la Lizzie McGuire? Either way, I knew that Italy would probably turn me into a girl who does nothing but meander and who wears tiny sweaters and lipstick to the park, as informed by my daydreams. This was all fine and good, and I enjoyed my European fantasies with fervour for the early half of our trip. Until we arrived in Florence. Florence, as some may know, is home to a hoard of grand Renaissance artwork, and I had the privilege of standing before many of said masterpieces at the Ufizzi Gallery. However, I was entirely shaken up by one in particular—Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, a bloody, charismatic image and the only work in the entire gallery done by a woman. I could sense its singularity from the second I took my place in admirance. The painting was immediately different, somehow, in emotion and personal connection. I realized that my prior fantasies, of sauntering through the city in a cool daze, were nearly all fed to me by a culture created by men. Gentileschi’s painting was an exception to that social rule, and I felt the necessity of it.

Filmmaker Agnès Varda

Filmmaker Agnès Varda

After coming home from Italy, I could not stop thinking about the importance of that painting. I craved art made by fellow women. Thankfully, I did not have to look far in order to find that kind of connection again. The Cinematheque’s series of films made by French director Agnès Varda were my solace. Varda was the only woman making films in the French New Wave (she is often named as the “grandmother” of the nouvelle vague), and her movies reflect this cultural singularity in magnificent ways. The series of choice films were split up into two parts, between Varda’s earlier and then later work. The first part ran from May 1 to 5, and included Le Bonheur (a stylized look at happiness and marriage, controversial upon its release), La Pointe Courte (a soulful examination of relationships and loss), and Cléo from 5 to 7 (a quintessential New Wave feature about fame and the search for contentment). The later half of the series ran from May 27 to June 1, and included Kung-Fu Master! (a sensitive take on taboo love between an older woman and a teenage boy), Jane B. par Agnès V. (a fantastical filmic interview with Jane Birkin as collaboratively imagined by herself and Varda), and Vagabond (widely considered to be Varda’s masterpiece and as bittersweet a film as I’ve ever seen). Each was a testament to how important it is for women to make movies. As I sat in the theatre, greasy with popcorn and cherry soda, my internal monologue kept repeating, this is different and important! I can see the femininity in this, and it is necessary!  I was overtaken by the same emotions I felt while standing in front of Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes—a wondrous combination of awe and fearlessness.

Still from Cléo from 5 to 7

Still from Cléo from 5 to 7

Agnès Varda began her career in the nouvelle vague with little in common between her and her male peers. She was not a film critic or writer, nor did she claim any sort of high cinematic knowledge, but she knew what she wanted to see onscreen. Her films are visually dynamic, and the camera’s movements create subtle connections between character and place. In La Pointe Courte, a couple’s struggle with their faltering marriage is mirrored by the cinematography, as the camera wanders through scenes of every-day life as if trying to understand their rhythm. In Vagabond, the main character’s ingrained need for solitude and independence is reinforced by the camera’s unflinching look at the elements which eventually leave her deserted completely. And in Cléo from 5 to 7, one woman’s obsession with the self becomes a search for common beauty, as the camera jumps from moment to moment with increasing delight and ease. There is such care in Varda’s take on life and the inevitable trouble that comes with it, which makes viewing her films a poetic experience. These poetics easily translate into whimsy, and it is this quality which I admire the most. The most whimsical feature of the series was probably Jane B. par Agnès V., a documentary of sorts, brought to life through collaboration between the film’s star and its director. Jane Birkin, woman of many talents and style/film icon, is the film’s muse as she jumps in and out of both cinematic and art historical scenes, trying to visually express her tumultuous career and personal meditations. The film could be characterized as a documentary, but it’s actually a combination of fantasy, doc, fictional drama, and memoir. There is no limit to the twists and turns both narratively and visually, as Birkin and Varda toss ideas and invent scenes candidly in front of the camera. Varda says to Birkin at one point, “we agreed the film would wander”; an honest sentiment.

Still from Jane B. par Agnès V.

Still from Jane B. par Agnès V.

Which brings me back to my own wanderings, as a woman engaging with the arts and learning from inspiration. This series has proved to me that seeking out culture made by women is valuable. I feel really good when I watch movies made by women. Just as that painting in the Ufizzi Gallery stopped me in my tracks, so did this eccentric and explorative series of films by Varda. I have since changed my take on what it means to be a woman inspired by art and beauty, and I don’t think I’ll stick to the meandering nymphet as created by men in film. What I do know is that Agnès Varda is now the kind of woman whom I dream of becoming—honest and fearless, with sincere spunk.