La solitude est un des sujets majeurs de notre temps.
– Agnès Varda
Sundays: Chris Marker and Agnes Varda
From The Left Bank
By Tobi Haslett
Where to begin? Perhaps with an epigraph—no, two—on the pain of beginnings:
“The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black. ” Sans Soleil, Chris Marker 1983
“I was in Cuba. I brought back jumbled images. To order them, I made this homage, this film… ” Salut les cubains, Agnes Varda 1963
For the generation of French filmmakers that bore witness first to the ravages of Nazi occupation and then to the cruel hypocrisies of the Cold War, the world refused to present itself as anything but shattered. Politics, love, even film—everything was a pile of shards to be sifted through and mourned for, perhaps never to be put together again. So we can imagine Agnes Varda sorting her snapshots from Cuba, gawking at revolution and wondering when it will come to France; or we might think of Chris Marker twenty years later, clinging to his precious found footage from Iceland, finding happiness in someone else’s blurred, grainy memories, trying to fit it all into a film.
For that generation, the dream of socialism imposed a kind of order upon the disarray of postwar Europe—so the story of Marker and Varda, of Left Bank Cinema, is also the story of the New Left. It is the story of a culture marshaling its forces to combat exploitation and empire; it is the story of young people stupid enough to follow their conscience; it is the story of the wars in Vietnam and Algeria that seemed at last to expose the logic of (neo) colonialism to be not only cruel, but weak and ill-equipped for the coming insurrection, for the brave new world.
But we know how that story ends, and so do the filmmakers whose work we present to you here. This retrospective is an opportunity to reflect not only on two brilliant careers, but also to try and make sense of the roiling mess that was the latter half of the 20th century. And finally, it is an occasion to commemorate Chris Marker’s life; he passed away last July, on his 91st birthday.
So we find ourselves acting out our favorite scene from Sans Soleil, in which a Japanese couple burns incense at a temple consecrated to cats. In paying tribute to Chris Marker, we might repeat their prayer for Tora, their cat who was not dead, but had only run away:
“Cat, wherever you are, peace be with you.”
inédits 17 juin 2014 dlp
… and then there is the filming in the atelier where each frame feels priceless and you just want to enlarge everything, see around corners, zoom in on books, click on all the hard drives, flip through the magazines, find out what is hidden under piles of other things, play with time and space to get a full interactive VR exploration capabilities. i wonder: did they take photos. will it be ported to a museum. is the rent being paid? has all this stuff been packed up and archived? have the hard drives and other digital storage media been backed up? is there forming noiselessly on the horizon a digital archive of borgesian proportions from chris marker’s forays and machine memories? these are more questions are present in my mind after speaking briefly on marker and the digital at whitechapel via skype and once again the idea floodgates are open, the imagination is piqued, the metaphysician is loose in the town on on the electronic highways and byways …
In her new five-part travel series “From Here to There” (available through SundanceNOW’s subscription program, Doc Club), the French filmmaker Agnès Varda, now 86, sometimes referred to as “The Grandmother of New Wave,” attends art and film festivals, visits old friends, interviews favorite artists and makes new acquaintances. Most of the time, a camera is in her hand. Occasionally, someone else is filming and she enters the scene. Whether in front of the lens or behind it, her curiosity is boundless and rooted in a desire to share her friendships and pleasures. “The main subject is ‘the other,’” she says. “I’m present in my films, I’m among the others.”
Varda, who was married to the French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Demy, made her first feature, “La Pointe Courte,” in 1954. Working in the small fishing town of Sète, she recruited locals and two professional Parisian actors, contrasting and comparing their different realities with fictional stories. Later work, like “Cléo from 5 to 7,” “Vagabond” and “Daguerréotypes,” similarly married poetic and documentary impulses. Her most recent film, 2008’s “The Beaches of Agnès,” an autobiographical stroll through her memories as she celebrates her 80th birthday, is a precursor to this latest series of vignettes, many of which she filmed during her publicity tour.
“Thanks to life, I’m continuously allowing new thoughts to replace others,” Varda explains. “It’s like a river. It flows nonstop.” That’s the feeling the vignettes create. She goes to see her camera-shy friend Chris Marker, the director, most famously, of “La Jetée.” We don’t see him, but we see his gloriously messy studio, and he introduces her to his hobby, the online virtual world “Second Life.” She travels to Nantes for a celebration of the 20th anniversary of her husband’s death; there, she sees Anouk Aimée, the star of Demy’s 1961 film “Lola,” which was shot there, along with her children, Mathieu and Rosalie. In Portugal, her friend Manoel de Oliveira dances for her, after she discusses his magical-realist film, “The Strange Case of Angelica.” In Stockholm, a bald female journalist enters the room to interview her, and immediately, Varda asks if she has been ill, pulling us into the woman’s world. In St. Petersburg, she considers the young press photographer sent to take her portrait, noting that he has the face of a dreamer. She travels to Sète, chats with the old fisherman who starred in her first film, and visits the artist Pierre Soulages at his beach home. In Mexico, she visits Frida Kahlo’s house and talks to the filmmaker Carlos Reygadas.
Throughout, Varda also offers glimpses of her own art: recent installations at museums and biennales, retrospectives of her films, new photography projects. And she has always inserted herself into art that she finds compelling; she reveals an old self-portrait she took in the Venice Accademia and stands with the wise men in the painting “Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo” by the Renaissance artist Gentile Bellini, as if she were one of them.
“Another level of truth appears in the representation of life,” she says. “Another level of showing off as well.”
“From Here to There” is available now through SundanceNOW’s Doc Club as part of the series “Agnès Varda and Personal Cinema,” docclub.com.