My favorite film by Agnès Varda—who arrives in town tomorrow for a weeklong residency at the University of Chicago—is the shorts compilation Cinevardaphoto. It’s an ideal introduction to her career, illustrating her artistic practice as it extends from still photography to moving pictures. (Two of the three pieces included in that work are featured in a program that Varda attends this Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center for the Arts.) In each of the shorts, Varda employs cinematic means (editing, narration, camera movement) to bring still images to life and then interrogate their meaning. The results are at once cerebral and playful, as Varda creates the impression she’s discovering things about her art right before your eyes.
In Ulysse (1982), the first selection in Cinevardaphoto, the filmmaker reunites with the subjects of a photograph she took about 25 years earlier and muses on why she chose to arrange them in the image as she did. Her central observation is that within each of her photographs lies a potential narrative, and that this narrative is as much a mystery to her as to any outside observer. This insight would explain why Varda’s movies feel so dense. The director, who studied art history as a student and began her career as a still photographer, treats every shot like a photograph, and every one of her photographs contains multitudes. At the same time, Varda’s movies are unfailingly breezy—like her photographs, they feel like moments plucked from out of the blue.
Some of her films even function like still images, encasing feelings that are difficult to convey in words. In my other favorite movie of hers, the 1965 dramatic feature Le Bonheur (screening at the Logan Center on Saturday at 2 PM), Varda invokes a sense of classical beauty while dramatizing a questionable fantasy of happiness. The film tells the story of a happily married man who falls in love with another woman; when his wife dies of mysterious circumstances, he simply replaces her with the mistress and continues his happy existence as though the first woman had never existed. The man’s callous behavior would seem irreconcilable with the film’s rapturous imagery and music, yet Varda presents them as one. Is it possible to disentangle the notions of male privilege from all the beauty on display? Or is a sense of male privilege inextricable from classical notions of the beautiful?
The questions raised by Le Bonheur point to why Varda is considered a pioneer of feminist cinema. (Fittingly the Logan Center will present a program of Varda’s feminist-themed works on Saturday at 4 PM; it includes the short Women Reply and the 1977 feature One Sings, the Other Doesn’t.) But even when Varda doesn’t explicitly question notions of patriarchy in her filmmaking, she subverts traditional, male-oriented notions of film narrative in her radical approach to form. In such films as the 1985 narrative feature Vagabond (screening at the Logan Center on Saturday at 7 and 9:30 PM) and the 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I (screening at Black Cinema House on Monday at 7 PM), Varda moves freely between different perspectives and different narrative strands. These movies reject linear narrative—which reflects a male perspective, according to some branches of film theory—for something more associative, circling around their themes rather than approaching them dead-on.
In their free-form inventiveness, Varda’s films often evoke uninterrupted trains of thought, and this makes them universally relatable. Pervading all her work is a sense of discovery—her films and photographs imply that by looking at life through a camera’s lens one sees things that wouldn’t be apparent with the naked eye. At the end of her 2009 film memoir The Beaches of Agnes (screening next Thursday at 7 PM at the Logan Center), Varda avers that she’s lived through cinema—a sentiment that resounds in many of her films.