At a talk on February 28th that kicked off a celebration of her work at FIAF, Agnès Varda jokingly referred to herself as “the dinosaur of the New Wave”, and the moniker ought to stick. At 88, she remains a true iconoclast who hasn’t only survived most of her contemporaries, including her late husband Jacques Demy, but in fact has thrived where other legendary filmmakers force themselves into retirement when they feel their way of working isn’t of “the times”. Rather than succumbing to the challenge of innovation, Varda has become a master of adaptation, who finds ways in which to channel her creative needs. Appearing in New York to celebrate the opening of her very first art exhibition at Blum & Poe, Varda commented how becoming a visual artist was something she never planned, and yet those who visit the gallery might find themselves in awe of the simple beauty of many of the pieces including an installation titled Borde de Mer, which sees a one minute clip of crashing waves against a beach repeat itself on a loop, creating a sense of displacement heightened by the sand on the floor. After a long day at work, it’s nice to “be at the beach” joked Varda at a subsequent discussion.
Over the last decade or so, Varda began experimenting with the intersection between film and reality, another of her pieces called La cabane du film is a scale model of a greenhouse, the walls of which are built with Super8 film from her film Le bonheur. She confessed the piece had been inspired by a larger structure she built in France, the walls of which were made from copies of her Les Créatures, a commercial flop that led her to reexamine the path her career would take. Wistfully speaking about the film, her eyes lit up when she recounted first walking into the structure literally made from her failures, “when I enter the house, I feel I’m living in cinema”.
She indeed has made a house out of the artform, as proved in her gorgeous Daguerréotypes, a 1976 documentary presented at FIAF, along with Jacquot de Nantes and Demy’s Lola (Mar 7-21), in which she set out on a mission to make a film about the shopkeepers of her street. In the film one meets couples who have been running businesses together, such as a butchery, a barbershop, a hardware store, and a bakery among others. Perhaps fascinated by the idea of the shop windows as her own little multiplex, Varda captures the magic of the quotidian and becomes fixated on hands and the power to create. It’s no coincidence that all her stories converge at a magic show where a local illusionist delights the shopkeepers with psychological games and an assortment of tricks. The camera notices that as Varda’s neighbors sit in awe of the magician’s skills, they might have not realized that to Varda what they did with dough, tools, fabric and scissors was perhaps even more miraculous.
Varda still happens to live in the appropriately titled Daguerre Street, and she talked about how it’s become a victim to gentrification. At one point she too owned her little shop there, except hers was an editing studio where she also sold DVDs of her films, perhaps the only director in the world selling copies of her own work, as she added. She had to sell her shop when she needed to finance a film, proving once more her resourcefulness might be the root of her eternal youth.
Varda’s exhibit, and the cinematic tribute by FIAF are being presented in conjunction with Rendez Vous with French Cinema which celebrates its 22nd anniversary and seems to pay indirect tribute to the director judging by the number of female filmmakers featured this year including Nicole Garcia and Justine Triet.