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Agnès Varda’s charming and approachable film is a semi-dramatised lantern lecture, an autobiographical, auto-critical work using footage of her speaking at various events, with clips and playfully dramatised reconstructions and superimpositions looking back over the director’s remarkable life and career.
Maybe it is her final film, but I don’t think so. Her energy seems undimmed, yet quite controlled and at ease, channelled into a tone of calm and beguiling wisdom: witty, equable, gentle. She is not grandmotherly, but godmotherly, granting wishes and making the business of film-making seem as magically straightforward as writing words on a page.
We never see an angry or fearful Varda – although she talks about her fears. She discussed the horror she had of turning 80, the figure seeming to her like the number on the front of an express train heading towards her. Now 90, she seems amused by that fear. Even problems with her eyesight are resolved into a whimsical, droll piece of visual comedy with the photographer JR, her collaborator on the documentary Faces Places (2017). Just occasionally, she talks about her films that flopped commercially, especially her fantasy comedy One Hundred and One Nights (1995) with its all-star cast, and featuring a “boating scene” with Robert De Niro speaking a hilarious phonetically learned French – surely alone worth the ticket price. However Varda felt about this box office disaster at the time, she just shrugs and laughs about it, a tiny incidental memory.
Is Varda a difficult or demanding director on set? It’s difficult to believe she might be. This film includes a fascinating section on her 1985 work Vagabond, starring the then 17-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire, and the two are reunited now for this film, speaking affectionately. But Bonnaire remembers how curt and unsettlingly rude Varda was on location, when she showed the director the blisters she had got with her method-acting approach to playing a homeless person. Varda was dismissive about those blisters. “I should have licked them!” Varda now exclaims, penitently.
Varda has always been fascinated by documentary and documentary realism: some of the greatest moments of her early masterpiece Cléo from 5 to 7 are simply showing the real people of Paris reacting to her imaginary character walking through the streets. But Varda loves to talk about how her approach to this realism is governed by a need to juxtapose the image with the reality. She loves to interview and photograph people, show them the results of these types of portraiture and then record their reactions. It is a collage effect and this movie adds another layer.
She speaks about her late husband, Jacques Demy, and how they were both briefly courted by Hollywood after his success with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. She speaks also, with great modesty, about her extraordinary film about him, Jacquot de Nantes (1991) with its stunningly good dramatisations of Demy’s childhood. But her emotions, then and now? An enigma: they are dispersed into her work.
In her late phase, Varda has rediscovered her love of still photography – and rediscovered her own still photographs, selecting from a remarkable personal archive, built up over many years. And again, she superimposes, juxtaposes, collagises, creating new mysterious tableaux.
The image she returns to, again and again, is the beach – an arena of timelessness. “The opposite of a wall is a beach,” she says gnomically: the kind of nicely turned phrase that deserved to be graffitied around Paris in 1968. Two hours in this director’s company is a pleasure.
Source: The Guardian
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