In the 60 years since she made her first film, the inexhaustibly curious Agnès Varda, who turns 87 next month, has always worked outside the limits of either/or. “What I’m trying to do — what I’ve been trying to do all along — is to bridge the border of these two genres, documentary and fiction,” Varda told me when I interviewed her fifteen years ago. Her ingenious hybridizing is spotlighted in the second week of Art of the Real, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s showcase of boundary-expanding nonfiction work, which continues through April 26. Made between 1955 and 2000, the three shorts and seven features — a mere sampling of her extensive filmography — on view in “The Actualities of Agnès Varda” point the way forward for future cross-pollinators.
Varda, who’ll be present for several Q&As at the Film Society, began her career as a photographer, and was in her mid-twenties when she shot her debut feature, La Pointe Courte (1955), a key precursor of the Nouvelle Vague. Filmed in the southern French coastal town of Sète, where the Belgian-born Varda lived as a teenager during World War II, La Pointe Courte moves seamlessly from micro to macro, fiction to fact as it follows a couple on the verge of breaking up, their marital crisis alternating with the larger dramas of the seaside village. The adrift spouses, who are never named, are played by the film’s only professional performers, Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort. Actual Sète locals make up the rest of the cast but exist in a twice-removed reality: These charismatic port-town fishermen, housewives, and teenagers speak lines that Varda wrote for them — dialogue that later had to be dubbed by actors during post-production.
Varda, working in fiction or nonfiction, has consistently revealed her gift for capturing the theatricality of the mundane — a sensibility especially evident in her 1975 documentary, Daguerréotypes, an affectionate chronicle of the shopkeepers within 50 yards of her Paris home. She has also playfully demonstrated the converse. The Los Angeles–set Aquarian Age riff Lions Love (1969), made during the filmmaker’s first of two fruitful sojourns in California, features a trio of outsize personalities — Warhol Superstar Viva and Hair co-creators James Rado and Gerome Ragni — in a ménage à trois dominated by napping, drinking Dr. Pepper, and arguing over who’s going to make the coffee. These three exhibitionists aren’t the only ones playing versions of themselves: Shirley Clarke, the New American Cinema pioneer who also deftly blurred fiction and fact, announces to Viva and the boys that she’s in town to make “a movie in which movie stars are real people.” While equally besotted with and perplexed by the mythologies of Hollywood and the American counterculture, Lions Love is also a sober reflection on the blood-soaked first week of June 1968, when Warhol was shot and Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
Varda herself appears in front of the camera twice in Lions Love, filling in for Clarke when the latter “erupts” in a fit of staged pique. Her time onscreen has only grown more substantial since then, becoming a hallmark of the documentaries and cine-memoirs she’s made in the past twenty years; in The Gleaners and I (2000), a marvelous nonfiction collage of those who scavenge and salvage in France, the “I” of the title is a vital, inquisitive force. Yet paradoxically, nowhere does the director seem more nakedly on display than in a film in which she doesn’t appear at all: Documenteur (1981), a wrenching fictionalized account of her temporary separation from her husband, Jacques Demy, which Varda punningly refers to as “an emotion picture.” As the filmmaker’s surrogate, Sabine Mamou (an editor for several films by Varda and Demy) stars as newly single Emilie, who struggles to find lodging for herself and her eight-year-old child, Martin, in L.A.; enhancing the rawness of this profoundly personal film is the fact that this adorable moppet is played by Mathieu Demy, Varda and Demy’s own son (who, while continuing a career in acting, has now become a filmmaker in his own right). “We do and undo,” Emilie says via voiceover, a poignant reflection on the maddening cycle of romantic relationships, quotidian tasks, and parent-child attachments.
In her mission to make sense of lives, whether her own or others’, and whether via fact, fiction, or something in between, Varda has also reminded us that enigmas still abound. Vagabond (1985) — starring a seventeen-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire in a career-defining performance as Mona, a former secretary who’s now engaged in full-time rootlessness — opens with the drifter’s death, her body found frozen in a ditch in the countryside. Varda structures the film as a police inquiry, saying in voiceover: “I spoke to witnesses who knew her the last weeks of her life,” setting in motion a series of episodes that detail Mona’s increasing abjection, each punctuated by an “interview” with mostly nonprofessional actors, filmed in their actual, largely rural milieus, about their encounters with the vagrant. The headstrong young woman stirs up envy, pity, lust, or disgust in these interlocutors, as mysterious in the end as she was in the beginning. And yet this wholly invented character seems as fundamentally real as the dirt caked on her corpse.