All the Girls of Their Age

Offering a close to complete survey of the director's fiction and documentary features and shorts, "The World of Agnès Varda" allows us to see that Varda's films—the successes, the failures, and the ones in between—are part of a single, complicated project that involves the tension between social realities and subjective vision. At least two of her films—Cléo and Vagabond (1985)—are landmarks in world cinema, and her most recent, The Gleaners and I, despite its offhand quality, will probably stand up just as strongly to the test of time.

The tough, disturbing Vagabond is a combination of road movie and policier. At the opening, Mona (memorably incarnated by Sandrine Bonnaire), a young drifter, is found dead in a ditch. It's midwinter, and she had been wandering in circles around this 100 miles or so of French farm country for months—filthy, hungry, weighed down by her backpack and her tent. The film bears witness to Mona's precipitous decline and also, as if it were a documentary, takes testimony from those who encountered her. Not merely a behaviorist study of a character whose interior life remains a mystery, Vagabond is also a mirror of the fantasies and social attitudes projected onto women who break the rules. A former secretary, Mona preferred to take her chances on the road rather than knuckle under for the sake of a regular paycheck. Although she's young, strong, and willing to work, her refusal to accommodate anyone else's standards or desires—she doesn't bathe, she's demanding, she'll fuck for a joint and take off without a thank-you—guarantees that she won't survive.

Varda's underrated but equally transgressive Kung-Fu Master (1987) shows how a very different kind of woman comes to grief when she acts on her desires. Jane Birkin plays a divorced mother of two who falls in love and has an affair with her daughter's 14-year-old classmate. French literature and film abound with stories about adolescent boys initiated into sex by horny older women; Kung-Fu Master is different in that it focuses on the woman's desire (she's more than a notch on some guy's belt) and, to make matters more awkward, she's madly in love. Varda keeps the sex discreetly offscreen, perhaps because the actor who plays the film's object of desire evokes another taboo. He's the director's son, Mathieu Demy.

Sneak Preview: Durand and Alexis Roucourt in Hair Under the Roses
photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center
Sneak Preview: Durand and Alexis Roucourt in Hair Under the Roses

Among the other pleasurable films in the series are Jacquot de Nantes and The World of Jacques Demy, Varda's feature-length portraits of her late husband, and the limpidly beautiful Le Bonheur (showing in a brand-new 35mm print). Stay clear of the soporific One Hundred and One Nights and '60s curiosities like Les Créatures and Lion's Love ( . .. and Lies). No one could ever make a case for Varda's consistency, but her three groundbreakers easily earn her a place in cinema history.


Amy Taubin's review of "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema," Part 1, and Agnès Varda's Gleaners and I.

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