IN PHOTOGRAPHY there has been a continuous dialogue between documentary and art, between truth and a more expressive fiction that creates a meta-truth. Filmmaker Agnès Varda, who began as a photographer and has revisited that practice throughout her long and illustrious career, has always been interested in this dialogue — provocatively alternating and fusing these two concerns. Best known as the “grandmother of French New Wave cinema” (a sobriquet she says she doesn’t mind), Varda anticipated in her earliest experiments with film the innovations of Truffaut, Godard, and their Nouvelle Vague brethren of the early 1960s — use of daylight and natural settings, realistic dialogue, contemporary and personal issues rather than Hollywood templates, and, most importantly, the notion of filmmaker as auteur with a signature style. She had been making photographs since the age of 19, and it’s possible that the autonomous, multitasking nature of that work bled into her view of how a film should be directed.
There were other women making films, but I raised the bar to make a new cinema. I believed that it’s not what you’re filming that’s important, it’s how you film. What do you want to invent as a contemporary language in 1954? Cinema should start from nothing and have its own structure, invention and shape.
Without having studied it formally, Varda had slid into the film medium because her still images were compelling her to fashion a structure for them, as inspired by a book: Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, which is composed of alternating plotlines that shift from chapter to chapter. The result was La Pointe Courte (1954), about a married couple who work through a crisis of commitment. It alternates with sequences at the dairy of a fishing village. As it was her first film, she made stills to guide her shooting. She went on to create titles that have established her as an iconic figure in French cinema: Cléo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur, Vagabond, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, and Les Gleaners and I. She also made documentaries born of her fascination for seismic change: China in 1956, Cuba in 1962, the Black Panthers in 1968.
From her home-office-studio complex on Rue Daguerre (a resonant name in the origins of photography) near Montparnasse Cemetery, Varda looks back at her life’s work. “My films are more loved than successful. But they are loved and people don’t forget them. So they come and speak to me about films I made 40 years ago, 60 years ago.” Several of her films are joyfully autobiographical, notably The Gleaners and I, Jacquot de Nantes (about her late husband, the director Jacques Demy), and The Beaches of Agnès — celebrated for their intimate realism, thoughtful feminist angles, and freewheeling editing style. They are films full of love, humor, and the nuanced observations, often self-narrated, that gather up into an earned wisdom revered by many. In each project, Varda sought to erase borders — between black-and-white and color, motion and still, life and art. “I take reality and do something with it.” Despite years of accolades and the admiration of her peers, Varda expresses some surprise that her “vintages,” as she calls her early photographs, have lately become a hot item. Her first exhibition was an improvised affair, photos displayed in her patio for friends. Her neighbor at the time was the estimable Brassaï, who came to look and encourage. He let her take a photo of him, using her large, clunky camera. “He was a nice man, very sweet and patient with young people.” Thus was Varda anointed as a photographer early on.
Varda traveled to Cuba toward the end of 1962, not long after Fidel Castro’s overthrow of pro-US dictator Fulgencio Batista, and shot thousands of photographs. She had in mind to make a film out of them upon her return to Paris — a fusion of still and motion images that became Salut les Cubains (1964). To Varda, the real subject was the Cuban people — sugarcane cutters, school children, artists and entertainers, government officials, and just citizens she met randomly in Havana’s teeming streets. The revolution was fresh in everyone’s mind, including the French intellectuals of her generation who cheered Castro’s coup, so Varda endeavored to capture its spirit and reality in her pictures (including shots of Fidel himself). But she was also especially attentive to how music of all kinds pervaded and energized Cuban life. Under the spell of the island’s ambient sensuality and spontaneous revelry, Varda ventured deep into the culture and daily routines of both urban and rural Cubans newly proud of their rejuvenated nation. Her work there was more celebratory than critical. “When you read about those programs they are good and fair,” she says. “They bring concepts of justice and democracy that are very important.”
A selection of these photos is being shown in the new photography gallery at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, along with the film. Mounted on the gallery walls in a manner that suggests storyboards, they reflect Varda’s strategy for the 30-minute film: shooting the photos on an animation stand in sequences that created narrative flows — stills that graduated into motion, set to indigenous rhythms, with texts read by well-known actor Michel Piccoli and Varda herself. The film is segmented into subject categories (Cigars, Beards, Dance, Cowboys, Cuban Women, etc.), much as a photographer might organize her work into series. Thus were her twin vocations, filmmaker and photographer, merged. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Varda/Cuba remains on view at Centre Georges Pompidou through February 1.
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