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“Where Does Play End And Art Begin?”: Remembering Agnès Varda
Robert Barry , April 14th, 2019 10:09

On 29 March, Agnès Varda, the great French film-maker associated with the Nouvelle Vague and the Left Bank group, passed away. Here, tQ film editor, Robert Barry remembers her life and work

Agnès Varda, Visages, Villages (2017) cinetamaris

“The mind zaps all the time. We can zap through our memories, and we can zap through film too.”

I spoke to Agnès Varda only once. It was nearly ten years ago. We met in an office in London where she was holding court with the press to promote her (then) new film, Les Plages d’Agnès. I was young and inexperienced and ill-prepared for the interview. There’d been a mix up with the distributors and as a result I hadn’t been able to see the film that I had come to talk to her about. When I arrived at the office, the publicist slipped a screener disc into my hand, “Don’t tell her you haven’t seen it yet,” he said.

The interview did not go especially well.

Looking back at that article now, the bits that stick out for me are the moments when I’m trying to get to grips with what is so singular and special about Varda’s oeuvre, which was still fairly new to me at the time: their “poetry of just-missed connections and coincidental encounters”; the way the intertitles in Cléo de 5 à 7 remind us “us of the differences between psychological time, mechanical time, and cinematic time”; the frequent “fleeting glimpses” that film offers of seemingly incidental background characters and passers-by, opening up myriad windows into the “smaller stories of everyday people”. She was a director, I wrote, both “fascinated and fascinating”.

“Cinema, for Agnès Varda, is in itself an opportunity. An opportunity to learn from her subjects, to be led by her imagination and the inner logic of the images to a better understanding of people. The film acts almost like a thought experiment, through the experience of which everyone involved – author and audience alike – develops a better understanding of other people, through what she calls a ‘common denominator of knowledge and understanding.’”

A few years later, Varda became an odd sort of background character in my own life. I moved to Paris, to a little top floor flat in the 14th arrondissement on the rue Raymond Losserand. Varda, at that time and for most of her career, lived on rue Daguerre, not five minutes walk away. All of a sudden, we were practically neighbours.

In 1975, she made a film about the neighbourhood – her neighbourhood – or at least, about a bit of it. Daguerréotypes, she writes on her website, is “un film sur un petit morceau de la rue Daguerre, entre le n°70 et le n°90.” The eastern end of rue Daguerre, where it meets the Avenue de Général Leclerc and Denfert Rochereau, has always been picturesque, almost to the point of twee. With its near-permanent market of fruit sellers and fish mongers it is the very epitome of Paris’s almost perverse insistence on regarding itself as a petit village, an image mined ruthlessly and rather cynically by films like Amélie. But the western end, the end which Varda inhabited and nearer to my own address on rue Raymond Losserand, is something else; a kind of ragtag agglutination of slightly forbidding looking shops selling things like accordions and balls of wool.

“This is the truth about Paris XIV,” Varda says in the voiceover to that film, “the pavement smells of soil.” The pavements in my old neighbourhood may no longer smell of soil, but nonetheless I recognise the rue Daguerre in Varda’s film as the one I used to live round the corner from five years ago. It has gentrified somewhat since the mid-70s, there are now more smart-looking restaurants and upscale wine shops and fewer iron mongers. But there is still a bakery and an épicerie where Varda found them. The accordion shop has expanded. There is also Varda’s own shop Ciné-Tamaris, a shop which for some reason I never went inside, but seemed to sell DVDs and other merchandise relating to Varda’s films and those of her late husband, Jacques Demy. I would walk past it regularly and see in the window the giant cardboard cutout of the cartoon cat which Varda’s friend Chris Marker often used as his onscreen avatar. After Marker’s death in 2012, that cardboard cat took on a peculiar poignance when I would pass it on the street. And I would think of it again, when, in 2018, Varda sent a cardboard cutout of herself to the photoshoot for all the Oscar nominees in Hollywood.

The rue Daguerre was more or less on my way into town, so I used to see Varda around a fair bit, poking around in the cheesemonger or at the brocante street markets. The word that comes to mind now is “potter” as in to “potter about”. She pottered about the rue Daguerre, agreeably but with a sense of industriousness. I am tempted to say that she chose the images for her films in the same way that she chose her cheese: fastidiously, but with an unbridled and wide-ranging curiosity.

You can get a sense of this from her (2000) film, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse. For many film-makers, the advent of cheap, handheld digital cameras provided the spur towards new forms of realism. The Dogme ‘95 manifesto by Lars Von Trier and others sought to erase the distance between film and reality behind new kinds of immediacy. But for Varda, the new cameras produced, on the contrary, a new kind of reflexivity. She turned the camera onto the film-making process itself, here re-conceived as a kind of “gleaning”, a gathering up of what is left behind after the harvest has been reaped.

“We take what we find,” as one of her interviewees, a solitary gleaner of leftover potatoes in the fields of the north of France, says to the camera. Varda applies the same philosophy to her shoot, finding poetry in images captured impromptu or by accident. Her own hands, the hands that hold the camera, become its stars. “This is my project,” she says, “to film with one hand, the other hand.”

I remember once attending a talk by the great director Terence Davies. He said the first thing he does when he starts editing a film is he goes through all the rushes and picks out his favourite shot, the most beautiful, the most treasured image of the whole shoot, and immediately discards it, lest the charm of the isolated shot distract him from his true priority: the story. Such a philosophy strikes me as totally alien to Varda’s way of thinking. For her, the primary task was the gathering of images, the encounters and occasions produced in the process of gathering images. Story – and filmic structure – proceed from there as a kind of emergent property.

When I met Varda, ten years ago, she told me she had only seen maybe ten films when she started making her own. Maybe that’s why none of the established rules and norms of cinema ever seemed to apply to her work.Varda’s unique cinécriture was a genre in itself, a whole approach, a way of life. Hers was a voice as singular as Lynch, as Tati, as Ozu. “Where does play end and art begin?” Varda asks in Les glaneurs et la glaneuse. Perhaps the lesson of her cinema is that play doesn’t have to end in order for art to begin.