Now Playing! Soul Searcher Agnès Varda Casts a Glow at SFMOMA and BAMPFA

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Agnès Varda, 'The Gleaners and I,' 2001. (Courtesy of Photofest)

When Agnès Varda died last March, after 90 endlessly curious years, a light went out. That’s not a metaphor but a fact: Her unwavering instinct for beauty, palpable in every aspect and on every level of her films, cut like a beacon through the muck and struggle of everyday life.

Fortunately, movies have a long lifespan, and Varda’s filmography of affectionate exploration—cataloging one cat-crazy woman’s peripatetic search for the essence of stranger’s souls—will lift spirits and rekindle humanity for perpetuity. On this depressing day when Academy voters showered Oscar nominations on hollow, bloated and cruelly “entertaining” movies like The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Joker, I’m especially thankful for Agnès Varda.

The French writer, director, photographer and documentarian is the hub of SFMOMA’s current Modern Cinema series (screening most Thursdays and Saturdays through Mar. 21) and the anchor of BAMPFA’s career-spanning retrospective (continuing through Feb. 28), entitled Agnès Varda: An Irresistible Force. Although she was unquestionably determined and persistent—and perpetually perturbed that she wasn’t more widely celebrated as the director who launched the French New Wave with her 1955 debut La Pointe Courte (Feb. 1 in Berkeley and Feb. 15 and 22 in San Francisco)—Varda succeeded through empathy, generosity and, well, soul, rather than through relentless ambition.

Agnès Varda, 'La Pointe Courte,' 1954. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

This week’s offerings include one of my all-time favorite documentaries, The Gleaners and I (Jan. 16 and 18 at SFMOMA, and Feb. 21 at BAMPFA), a seemingly off-handed and seductively profound rumination on what we keep and what we leave behind, whose starting point is post-harvest fields. Varda’s genius lies in her lovely, understated evocations of the intersections between life and art, and her effortless blending of traditional documentary with personal commentary and revelation.

BAMPFA screens Varda’s Oscar-nominated 2017 crowd-pleaser Faces Places (Jan. 17), made with large-portrait photographer JR, and—more essentially, in my view—Le Bonheur (Jan. 18), her vivid, pensive 1965 story of a happily married man who takes a mistress and imagines his bliss is both transferable and enduring. As always, Varda absorbs the beauty of the natural setting, and the reality of the situation.