The great Agnès Varda has been redefining and refining fact and fiction, past and present, for nearly 60 years, ever since her 1955 debut, La Pointe Courte, a key precursor of the Nouvelle Vague. Her focus for the past two decades has been almost exclusively on documentaries. Of this more recent output, two titles particularly stand out: The Gleaners and I (2000), a look — one in which the “I” of the title is a vital, visible presence — at those who scavenge and salvage to survive in France, and the cine-memoir The Beaches of Agnès (2008). Animated by the director’s inexhaustible curiosity, both are exemplary first-person essays. That keen sense of wonder also drives her latest nonfiction project, Agnès Varda: From Here to There.
A five-part series that originally aired on French television in December 2011, this travelogue screens free in the amphitheater of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on May 31, the day before it becomes available for streaming on the subscription SundanceNOW Doc Club as part of its “Agnès Varda Month.” From Here to There is, in the words of its creator, an amalgam of “fragments, moments, people.” Shot roughly between the summers of 2009 and 2010, these 45-minute episodes find the Paris–based Varda voyaging to Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm, Saint Petersburg, and many points in between. Some of these trips are occasioned by the premiere of The Beaches of Agnès and attendant retrospectives of Varda’s work in cities around the globe, others by the inclusion of her installation pieces (a genre that the tireless filmmaker began to explore a little over a decade ago) in various art exhibitions. The souvenir of each trek, no matter its original purpose or geographical coordinates, is a touching collection of spontaneous and serendipitous events.
In the Swedish capital — which skyborne Varda describes as looking “like a Middle Eastern pastry” in voiceover, her narration evincing, as usual, delight without a trace of mawkishness — the interviewee becomes the interviewer. When a starkly bald female journalist named Christina arrives at Varda’s hotel room, the director asks, delicately, before the scheduled Q&A has begun, whether her interlocutor has been ill. Thus begins a fascinating digression on Christina’s alopecia, which the reporter believes was brought on by the stress of a painful breakup and her own career as documentarian. The vantage points of subject and chronicler also shift in Porto, Portugal, where Varda captures Manoel de Oliveira doing a nimble Chaplin imitation; when she hands her camera to the eminent centenarian, who made his first film in 1931, three years after Varda was born, her image is comically blurry.
Varda’s conversations with sculptors, painters, and the like, plus her surveys of big art happenings, likewise prompt felicitous observations and detours. During an alfresco lunch she hosts for the artist couple Christian Boltanski and Annette Messager at her Montparnasse home, Varda makes an offhand but poignant remark about her partnership with Jacques Demy. Since his death in 1990 (from complications related to AIDS, a fact not officially acknowledged until The Beaches of Agnès), Varda has tirelessly promoted Demy’s legacy, making three films about her husband and his work and spearheading the restoration of several of his movies, including, most recently, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Demy is a guiding, ghostly presence in The Beaches of Agnès, and he floats through From Here to There, too, whether in his hometown of Nantes, which hosts a tribute marking both the 20th anniversary of his death and the near half-century since the release of Lola, his first film, or in Rio, as evidenced by a handful of photos Varda includes of the couple’s first time in the city in the late 1960s.
Varda, who began her career as a photographer, mentions in one episode the importance of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s phrase “the decisive moment” to her work in the medium, though the concept would seem to apply equally to the expeditions, deviations, and re-routings so beautifully stitched together here. (“You have to film according to a vibration, not a screenplay,” the director told me during an interview in 2005.) After quietly marveling at the works of Sarah Sze and Pedro Reyes at the Lyon Biennale in 2009, where Varda is presenting her “shack of cinema,” the filmmaker briefly departs from high art to focus on Michel Jeannès, aka Monsieur Bouton, and other enthusiasts of the tiny disks, studs, and knobs. They are charming devotees of the most quotidian objects, whose collections and creations Varda generously sees as not out of place with the lofty biennale’s theme that year: the spectacle of the everyday.
If there is one leitmotif in From Here to There, it is cats, captured sleeping, scampering, or staring in several destinations, not surprising for the woman whose company logo features a kitty. When Varda visits with fellow ailurophile Chris Marker in his spectacularly cluttered Paris studio, the legendarily camera-averse auteur (he’s heard but never seen) introduces her to Second Life. Varda, her online avatar replicating her own signature burgundy-and-white bowl cut, finds the virtual world kind of fun. But she seems particularly eager to get back to the real one.