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Retrospective Celebrating Agnes Varda Hits the Wex

Hope Madden Hope Madden Retrospective Celebrating Agnes Varda Hits the WexCleo from 5 to 7 - Photo via IMDb
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One year after the death of the extraordinary nonagenarian filmmaker Agnes Varda, the Wexner Center for the Arts has pulled together a small but lovely set of films to celebrate her work and her impact on filmmaking, Retrospective: Agnes Varda. You can catch these extraordinary films beginning this weekend. They run from March 6 – 26.

Chris Stults, the Wex’s Associate Curator for Film/Video talks with Underground about why Varda was so important to cinema.

CU: She’s less known than many of her French New Wave contemporaries, but she outlasted all of them. What is so special about Agnes Varda?

Stults: Varda is one of the most curious and playful filmmakers ever. Her work has continued to attract new and younger generations of moviegoers more than any other 90-year-old filmmaker I know of. I’d say that’s because her work is so accessible while remaining smart. She’s also a pioneer in portraying the interior lives of women on film. Also, one thing that’s less frequently discussed is that she’s been interested in the lives of outsiders and people who’ve fashioned their own ways to live or follow their interests. Relatedly, in order to follow her interests, she finds a different form for almost every film she makes.

And you’re right about her outlasting her French New Wave contemporaries. It wasn’t until her death last year that I’d considered that the “French New Wave” part of her career was such a tiny fraction of her work—mainly just Cleo from 5 to 7 and a few of the shorts, whereas that remains the defining moment for most of the other members of that movement. She actually started making films—completely on her own with almost no training—years before Godard, Truffaut, or the other New Wavers, so her career wasn’t really born out of the same impulse as those other guys. And if it wasn’t for her husband, Jacques Demy, and Alain Resnais, the editor of Varda’s first feature, she probably wouldn’t have been accepted into that boys’ club.

She had more of a kinship with the Left Bank filmmakers like Louis Malle and Chris Marker. Not coincidentally, all these filmmaker moved between fiction and documentary in unusually nimble ways. Varda and Godard were the last two filmmakers from the French New Wave left, and whereas Godard became more insular and hermetic and his films became more niche, Varda’s increasingly opened up to people and world and grew in their influence. The world is only now really catching up with her, as evidenced by her embrace by younger filmmakers like Greta Gerwig and Ava DuVernay.

CU: How did you determine which of her films to include in the retrospective?

Stults: The main constraint was that we only had four nights available. We screened her final film, Varda by Agnes, in January and that was kind of a teaser for the retrospective because the movie is kind of a masterclass by Varda retrospectively thinking about her career—a beautiful final farewell.

We’ve shown a number of re-released Varda films over the past few years, so we skipped things that we’d played recently. So the main desire was to give a sense of the range of her career. Like I’d mentioned, she takes a different approach to almost every project. So while many filmmakers’ careers can feel monolithic in style or theme, Varda’s films are real shapeshifters and contain such dazzling variety. It really is a joy to spend time watching a large number of her films in a fairly short period because you never know what shape the next film will take. As a curator, it was so fun to figure out programs when you’re able to draw from shorts, features, documentaries, and fictions, all from one filmmaker.

So we’ve got most of the high water marks of her career: the landmark Cleo From 5 to 7, the unflinching Vagabond, and The Gleaners and I, the essay film that set up the last few decades of her work. But they’re also rounded out with a few short films and other lesser-known, but still essential, works.

CU: What do you think will be her most lasting impression?

Stults: I think she’s been so important in showing women, and especially women artists, a model to be confident about following their own desires and curiosities. She’s a template for how to fight for what you want your own life to be, while still being kind and open. And, beyond that, Varda’s best films can permeate the bones of almost any viewer so that you walk out of the theater looking at the world slightly differently. It’s a feeling that lingers.

CU: Which film are you most excited to show?

Stults: The final double feature we’re showing, Documenteur and Mur Murs, is lesser-known but exemplifies Varda’s approach to filmmaking. She almost made these medium-length films to be shown as a double feature, and I can’t think of many other times where a filmmaker was a curator of their own work like that!

They were made during the second time she lived in Los Angeles for an extended period of time. The first time she lived in LA, she was there because her husband was making a film for Columbia Picture, Model Shop. On that first trip, Varda made some great documentaries about the Black Panthers or distant relatives of hers living in California. But on this second trip, she was briefly separated from Demy and it was much more melancholy. Documenteur is sort of an auto fiction about a woman alone in LA with her child. (An actress plays the Varda stand-in, but Varda and Demy’s son plays the child).

While making this personal film with actors, she began to get interested in LA itself and, in particular, the murals and public art around the city. So she also made the documentary Mur Murs at the same time, and it becomes one of the best portraits of LA in the early 80s. The two films have overlapping scenes and shots, so fiction and documentary collapse. And it really shows how, even when she was at a low point in her life, Varda’s interest in the world and other people was what sustained her. It’s such a generous worldview that we could all use to have more of in our lives right now!

Full lineup:

  • Friday, March 6, 7 p.m.: Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)
  • Saturday, March 7, 7 p.m.: The Gleaners and I (2000), The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002)
  • Thursday, March 12, 7 p.m.: Vagabond (1985)
  • Thursday, March 26, 7 p.m.: Mur Murs (1981), Documenteur (1981)

Tickets are $5 for students, $7 for members and seniors, and $9 for the general public.

For more information, visit wexarts.org.

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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