Viva Varda! La Cinémathèque Française Shines a Light on Agnes Varda

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Viva Varda! La Cinémathèque Française Shines a Light on Agnes Varda
Quirky, innovative, socially engaged, a feminist trailblazer – can one exhibition sum up Agnès Varda’s 70-year career in film and photography? There’s an intriguing poster outside the Cinémathèque Française in Bercy, where Viva Varda! is running until January 28th. A young Agnès sits demurely, hands folded in her lap, looking wryly upwards, as if pausing from filming to reflect on life’s idiosyncrasies. She is photographed in black and white, a nod to the 1950s when she started her career, but set against a cheerful background of swirling shapes in bright blue, fluorescent pink and jaunty orange.   Inside, at the exhibition’s entrance, is another poster, of a much older Agnès, with her trademark plum-colored bob, thumbing her nose as if to say “I do what interests me. I hope you like it, but if you don’t, I’ll do it anyway.” The first film clip on show inside shows her struggling cheerfully down a 1950s Paris street, laden with photographic equipment. It captures her determination to take pictures, whatever the difficulties. If you didn’t already know that Varda was one of the few women of her generation to make a career in photography and film, these images mean you wouldn’t be surprised to hear it. It’s fitting then, that she is the subject of the Cinémathèque’s first ever exhibition devoted to a female filmmaker.  Agnès Varda Exhibition. Photo: Marian Jones Agnès, who was born Arlette, changed her name as soon as she was 18, an early sign that she intended to do things her own way. Still in her 20’s, she installed a dark room in her home in Rue Daguerre – and later a makeshift film studio – and began filming La Pointe Courte, despite not having been to film school or worked on any films as an assistant. She set up her own production company, Ciné-Tamaris, another daring move for such a novice, and, on a tiny budget, made this  experimental piece. It combined the story of a couple who’ve reached a crisis point in their relationship with documentary footage showing the plight of poor fishermen in the southern French town of Sète. People, above everything else, were her subject. A whole section of the exhibition is devoted to what Varda called “cinécriture,” her  radical approach to filming which brought her early critical acclaim. Before the French New Wave in cinema really took off, Varda was pioneering the techniques for which it would be known. She left the studio to film outdoors, used novice or amateur actors, portrayed strong female characters and above all saw the filmmaker as the “author” of the film in every sense. She wrote the script, then filmed and directed the piece. Until this point, women’s role in films had been largely limited to acting, but Agnès claimed much more control over the whole process.  She made over 40 films, many of them referenced in the exhibition, for example  Cléo, from 5 to 7, made in 1962. It shows, more or less in real time, the two hours when Cléo is waiting for the results of a medical test and fills her time in various low-key ways. She walks through Paris, meets a friend, buys a hat, takes a taxi ride and the focus is always on her, rather than on the way she is seen by others. The critic André Bazin praised the “total freedom” of Varda’s style which, he said, made her the “auteur” of the work, exactly the effect she had wanted. Varda explained that “the film hit like a cannonball,” because she was a young woman with no experience of making films and that was so unusual.    Agnès Varda Exhibition. Photo: Marian Jones
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Lead photo credit : Agnès Varda exhibit. Photo: Marian Jones

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.