It’s no accident that Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! has two forms of punctuation in its title; it’s at once concerned with the grammar of cinema as it is the merging of different cinema tropes/styles/modes of production, putting its hyphen to use and it does it with such aplomb that the exclamation point is apt – though adding another wouldn’t seem ostentatious when considering how much energy fits into its meager runtime. And that title almost feels like some sort of cinematic nom de guerre, tricking its late 80s audience into expecting a martial arts film and getting something much more complex, sweet and altogether Varda.
Tag: Agnes Varda
Widely lauded by critics upon its release, Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I is a freewheeling lyrical documentary that celebrates the timeless practice of gleaning and those who engage in it. Nowadays we usually speak about gleaning metaphorically: one gleans meanings or information. But in its original sense, gleaning refers to going into the fields after a harvest to collect the fallen ears of wheat, which is depicted in the famous Jean-François Millet painting. Varda references the painting in the beginning of the film, starting a conversation between the mid-nineteenth century oil painting, with its sympathetic portrayal of the austere peasants in the French countryside, and her similarly sympathetic film from the dawn of the digital age, which also brims with Varda’s signature sense of humor, curiosity, empathy, and openness to the world. The Gleaners and I is a quietly powerful meditation on not only the strength of those who make use of scraps of all kinds but also the very potential of documentary filmmaking to ennoble its subjects while nearly enchanting the viewer through relatively simple yet carefully deployed filmmaking techniques.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) epitomizes the “ticking-clock” film, but, unlike most of these films that accelerate toward their narrative destinations, you’d never know from this film’s leisurely pace that time is quickly running out for the protagonist. Shots linger until the characters are eventually instigated into motion, a drive in a taxi extends for several minutes, and a character makes unwavering eye contact with the camera while she sings a song in its entirety. Rather than bluntly reminding the audience of quicksand funneling through an hourglass, Agnès Varda’s steady direction causes the presence of death to eventually loom in the background of both Cléo Victoire’s (Corinne Marchand) and the viewer’s mind. Over the course of ninety minutes, Cléo undergoes a slow transformation from hopeless stasis to renewed optimism as she allows herself to live with the recognition of her impending death.
Influential French filmmaker Agnes Varda’s debut film La Pointe Courte (1956) is a great reminder to modern cinephiles what film-viewing experience can be. Following the footsteps of Italian Neorealism and in the wake of the French New Wave, La Pointe Courte serves as an amalgam of the kind of films that transformed our understanding and appreciation of film language and aesthetics. It not only represents a major step in cinema history, but is also a refreshing viewing experience for the modern moviegoer who is accustomed to conventional plot and character development and an easily discernable protagonist.
There’s a fleeting moment in Agnes Varda’s 2008 documentary The Beaches of Agnes where the filmmaker returns home sees her family of cats and bluntly states “I’m home. The cats are here.” And that moment summarizes the film as a whole – as a film that chronicles Varda’s life in cinema, as a woman and as a person aging – while staying as honest and playful as its subject and creator.
The Beaches of Agnes came at a point in Varda’s career where she had all but abandoned narrative cinema – her prior feature length narrative film, One Hundred and One Nights, was released in 1995 – and had spent the past two decades building a body of documentary work, something she had worked with in years prior leading to films like Mur murs and Daguerreotypes. But 2000’s The Gleaners & I brought forth a sea change for Varda, establishing herself as a subject worthy of the same attention she gave to anything or anyone else in front of her camera with the advent of small digital cameras allowing for an intimacy that she was unable to achieve until the new millennium.