Eighty-five years young, filmmaker Agnès Varda has been enjoying something of a victory lap in Los Angeles of late: last month she was the Guest Director of the AFI Film Fest, and now through June, the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA) is hosting Agnès Varda in Californialand, an exhibit dedicated to her installations and photography. Alongside the exhibit LACMA is screening her films, starting with this four-night series of her most acclaimed features.
Each movie will play with one of Varda‘s acclaimed short films, notable works in their own right (“tiny jewels,” in the words of Jean-Luc Godard). LACMA will be showing more of Varda’s work in 2014, along with that of her Left Bank compatriots Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Jacques Demy. Sounds good to me.
All screenings are at the Bing Theatre, and are DCP except where noted.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Friday, Dec. 6, 7:30 p.m.
The film that made Varda’s reputation, now and forever. Varda introduced a DCP restoration of this movie at the AFI Fest last month; afterward I couldn’t believe I had let such a classic elude me for so long, and yet seeing it with the wry director herself in person was the perfect way to discover it.
A beautiful, spoiled young pop singer (Corinne Marchand) traverses Paris in the 90 minutes that she has to wait for the results of a biopsy that will determine whether she has cancer; in Varda’s hands those 90 minutes become so rich and layered as to make a cineaste feel a little giddy. (The filmmaking technique alone is intoxicating.) I could happily watch this again, a month later, just to take in the views of Parisian street life, and to appreciate again the subtle shift in perspective that Varda creates halfway through the movie, as Cléo starts to will herself into a different person.
A fascinating time capsule of the early 1960s, yet it feels strikingly contemporary as well: for one thing, Cléo anticipates a kind of female celebrity that all but defines 21st-century pop culture, yet Varda has far more on her mind here than taking a swipe at celeb culture.
A life, an incipient love affair, a carefully worked-out, real-time travelogue through the city; Varda gets it all into the brief running time, yet the movie always feels graceful and elegant, with time for whimsical digressions and musical interludes. The score is by Michel Legrand, who contributes an amusing supporting turn as well. Look for other cameos by Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy and Godard himself, in a most uncharacteristic whimsical guise.
La Pointe Courte (1955)
Friday, Dec. 6, 9:25 p.m.
Pointing the way to the New Wave four years before The 400 Blows, Varda’s debut feature was shot in the Mediterranean port of Sète, and juxtaposes the bittersweet fictional story of a marriage hitting the skids with a documentary–like portrait of the town’s struggling fishermen. The location is picturesque yet never sentimentalized; even this early in her career Varda’s work comes across as almost preternaturally wise and compassionate. And boy could she compose a shot. (She turned to filmmaking after getting her start as a photographer.)
On La Pointe Courte, cast and crew worked for free, and Alain Resnais was the editor. Godard was clearly an admirer of this movie; fans of Alphaville in particular should see this just to discover how much inspiration JLG drew from Varda. But one highlight of the film will appeal even to moviegoers who aren’t Nouvelle Vague connoisseurs: the depiction of the annual “water jousting” tournament that takes place in the canals of Sète, a charmingly anachronistic custom.
Le Bonheur (1965)
Saturday, Dec. 7, 5:00 p.m.
As formally beautiful as it is enigmatic, this is the cryptic story of a happily married young carpenter with an adoring wife and child, who nonetheless starts an affair with a postal clerk. I say “cryptic” because of how the narrative offers a shocking twist halfway through, and yet the tone remains provocatively deadpan and ambiguous. The soundtrack is suffused with Mozart, intentionally mixed just a little too loud, perhaps, and the screen is filled with color-saturated, Renoir–like compositions, wherein the reds are pumped up just a little too much, perhaps, so that you have to question what the filmmaker is up to.
I first saw Le Bonheur on disc five years ago and haven’t been able to forget it since then — a more arch, devastating critique of male privilege is hard to imagine.
A must-see, particularly since it’s screening in 35mm.
Lions Love (… and Lies) (1969)
Saturday, Dec. 7, 7:30 p.m.
For a few pivotal years in the late ’60s, Varda and hubby/fellow auteur Jacques Demy relocated to Venice Beach (where they befriended Jim Morrison, among others). Far from sneering at shallow L.A., they became fascinated with the experimental lifestyles and radical politics going on around them in California. Hence Lions Love, described as a collision between the East and West Coast countercultures of the late ’60s, and made the same year that Demy made L.A. cult curiosity Model Shop. Lions Love has lapsed into obscurity in recent decades, so this LACMA–sponsored restoration is an ideal opportunity to discover it. Screens with Varda‘s 30-minute documentary from 1968 about the Black Panther movement. (Agnès really got around in those days.)
Friday, Dec. 13, 7:30 p.m.
Tougher than much of Varda’s other work, this is the movie that brought her back to the limelight, in the U.S. at least; Sandrine Bonnaire gives an award-winning performance as a teenage drifter making her way across parts of the French countryside that tourists rarely see. Her life is recalled in flashbacks, as refracted through the perspectives of various men who met her — but never really knew her at all. Showing in 35mm.
Friday, Dec. 13, 9:25 p.m.
Per LACMA, “one of Varda’s most beautiful and mysterious works,” Documenteur hails from Varda’s second stint living in L.A. circa 1980, and examines how much the city had changed from the heady days of the late ’60s. Newly restored and rarely screened in the U.S. (so you might want to put off seeing what Smaug looks like for a night).
Kung Fu Master (1987)
Saturday, Dec. 14, 5:00 p.m.
Another one of Varda’s works that’s virtually unknown in the U.S., Kung Fu Master finds Jane Birkin falling for a 14-year-old boy who is one of her daughter’s classmates — and her daughter is played by Birkin’s real-life daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Varda’s son Mathieu Demy plays the kid. Showing in 35mm.
Jacquot de Nantes (1991)
Saturday, Dec.14, 7:30 p.m.
“Part biography and part bittersweet whimsy,” this is Varda’s tribute to her husband Jacques Demy, who had died the year before. The film intercuts recreations of scenes from his childhood with excerpts from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lola.