“I’d say you’ve seen about 88 springtimes,” says famed photographer and muralist JR to Agnès Varda in just one of the many endearing moments in Faces Places. The film follows Varda -- artist, photographer, and of course, patron saint of French New Wave -- and JR in an on-the-go documentary that celebrates ordinary people.
The two travel through villages producing larger-than-life portraits of the locals they encounter. All the while, the odd couple forms a touching bond of their own. It’s no surprise that the film has opened to ebullient reviews. It uplifts, envelops, and tugs at the heartstrings -- all the trappings of what will surely be an enduring classic.
Varda has now seen 89 springtimes. In recognition of her life’s work, she was awarded with an honorary Oscar at the Governors’ Ball this November -- the first female director to receive such an award. During a particularly emphatic moment in her acceptance speech, she says, “I’ve been loved and praised... because I try to work to get the essence of cinema; finding a different structure for each film.”
To expound, she says, “La Pointe Courte -- double-narration. Cléo from 5 to 7 -- real-time. Vagabond -- thirteen continuous and uncontinuous traveling shots. Jane B -- each portrait is a puzzle with missing pieces.” Every one of Varda’s films attempts a different cinematic feat, but they all ultimately point towards the same pervading objective: to revere ordinary tensions and revel in the commonplace. She often refers to herself as “the queen of the margins.” Over the course of her 60-year stint as a filmmaker, she has imparted stories suffused with the pleasures and pitfalls of the periphery. Her characters, like herself, are fringe folks; but through her works, she exalts them.
While much of her oeuvre exudes Nouvelle Vague, Varda considers California to be a kindred spirit. In 1967, she touched down in Los Angeles alongside her late husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, unsure of what to expect, but her love affair with the city began at once. Varda’s fondness for the Golden State was quite literally put on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the 2013 exhibition entitled, Agnès Varda in Californialand. The show restored four of her films and commemorated her time spent in California during the late sixties.
Two of those restored films pay homage to the Bay Area. In Uncle Yanco (1967), Varda tracks down an estranged Greek emigrant relative, her much-older artist cousin (respectfully referred to as her uncle) who cultivated a bohemian life for himself in Sausalito. Then, in the summer of 1968, Varda covers the demonstration against the imprisonment of activist and co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton. Black Panthers (also known as Huey) was shot on location in Oakland and includes interviews with folks like Kathleen Cleaver and even Newton himself. The documentary records a crucial period in the Bay Area’s turbulent political history.
And now, on the heels of Varda’s Oscar, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive hosts an unofficial month-long Agnès Varda retrospective of sorts. As part of The Art of Cinematography, a series that champions cinema as a visual art form, BAMPFA screens both Cléo from 5 to 7 and La Pointe Courte.
In the former, we follow two hours in the life of an anxious and fiercely superstitious young singer. Cléo has reason to believe she is dying of cancer after an ominous doctor’s appointment prompts her to consult a tarot reader. Both meetings leave her feeling dejected. Despite her palpable fears about her unfortunate fate, she spends the afternoon catching glimpses of herself in every available reflective surface, deducing, “As long as I am beautiful, I’m even more alive than the others.”
La Pointe Courte, Varda’s very first film effort, is the cleaved tale of a reunited couple, inspired by William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms. The setting -- a Mediterranean fishing port plaited with the sun-streaks and shadow-play -- is just as much a character as the dysfunctional lovers.
As two of her most beloved works, both Cléo and La Pointe Courte make for a perfect introduction to the world of Agnès Varda; and for seasoned fans of the French New Wave genre, the screenings are an opportunity for a refresher. BAMPFA also hosts multiple screening of this year's Faces Places, suddenly making December the Bay Area’s designated month for all things Varda. Extra points if you get a Dutch-Boy haircut to better mark this glorious occasion.
'Faces Places' screens at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive on Dec. 8, 13, 17 and 28; 'Cléo from 5 to 7' screens Dec. 9 and 27; and 'La Pointe Courte' screens on Dec. 17. For tickets and more information, click here.