Movies about the US are never in short supply, but sometimes, the ones that offer the most lucid vision of America are the ones by foreign filmmakers.Wim Wenders, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, and a whole host of non-American directing greats have lent cinema their fresh take on the familiar sights and sensibilities of the States over the years, each to varying degrees of success: while Paris, Texas is cherished as an American road movie masterpiece, for instance, Zabriskie Point’s legacy is much more fraught.
But in terms of a director who is both insulated from American society and is particularly well-suited to repairing US audiences’ own cultural blind spots, there is perhaps no filmmaker better equipped than Agnès Varda, the godmother of the French New Wave. Her work is eclectic, diverse, and her style ever-evolving (she released her 53rd film at the age of 89 last year), but if there’s one thread running through her filmography, it’s her boundless curiosity. Whether filming an actress awaiting the results of a crucial biopsy, a couple’s day trip to the mosques of Isfahan, or a street tour of Los Angeles murals, Varda has an eye for beauty and a nose for finding the magic in the everyday, imbuing her work with a ruminative quality that is complemented by her gentle, genuine empathy (particularly towards those on the margins of a society).
Impressively, she’s managed this grand feat on her own turf plenty of times, most notably in 2000’s seminal documentary The Gleaners and I, which looks at the centuries-old culture of scavenging in France. But a handful of her films shot in California over the ‘60s and ‘80s are indisputable evidence of a remarkable ability to maintain both her confidence and her inquisitiveness even outside of her own borders.
It was when husband Jacques Demy briefly moved to California in 1967 to embark on Model Shop, his first American movie, that Varda (accompanying Demy) shot the first of her American works, a personal vignette about a long-lost cousin of hers titled Uncle Yanco. Ostensibly a documentary about Varda’s first meeting with her much older artist cousin Jean Varda in San Francisco, Yanco is, curiously, devoid of the rigid convention usually used in non-fictional filmmaking.
When Agnès and Jean first meet on the deck of his houseboat (the famous SS Vallejo), for example, we’re treated to shots and re-shoots of the same encounter, with the conversation first occurring in French, then in English, and lastly in Greek. Clapperboards and the voices of crew members follow, but these breaks with documentary tradition aren’t cumbersome to watch.
Instead, they come across as experimental and tongue-in-cheek, as is typical of Varda’s charm, which Yanco suggests is something of a family virtue: cousin Jean is boyish despite his grey hair, and lives out something of a fantasy existence as the resident of a huge floating studio in the “aquatic suburbia” of Sausalito. Further family resemblance is there in Jean’s relishing of curiosity — “wonder is the nourishment of the soul” — plus a shared fascination with the sea that is present in many of Varda’s works, from her first (1955’s La Pointe Courte) to 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès.
In Yanco, there’s a levity and a sense of playfulness with form, as well as an unquestioning confidence that allows Varda to comfortably eschew some of the formal conceits of filmmaking. This is a practice she followed in the only feature film she made in the Golden State during the ‘60s, Lions, Love (…and Lies). Starring Viva, one of Andy Warhol’s Superstars, and the co-creators of the controversial musical Hair (James Rado and Gerome Ragni) as hedonistic caricatures of their own personas, Lions is both a look at the hippie-ish excesses of the period and at Varda herself. (This is a self-reflective bent also present in Yanco and the autobiographical documentary The Beaches of Agnès).
Mirroring Varda’s own experience in Hollywood, the influential avant-garde director Shirley Clarke plays herself (and Varda) as she tries to contend with rejection by Hollywood executives in the Hollywood villa she shares with the trio of young lovers. She attempts to overdose on pills before appealing directly to Varda behind the camera: “I’m sorry, I’m not an actress […] and I wouldn’t take pills anyway […] it’s not my style.”
Varda completely does away with whatever’s left of the veil between filmmaker and audience by stepping in front of the camera and performing the attempted suicide herself. It’s a characteristically bizarre moment in a bizarre movie – Lions is mostly nudity and dress-up games – but the scenes that follow provide the kind of portrait of the zeitgeist of the day that makes Lions a gem worth seeing.
As the ménage a trois and existential crises of its characters continue, one of the most volatile periods of a volatile year — the week in which both Robert Kennedy and Warhol were shot — actually unfolds. We watch the characters as they watch the news live, and as such, there’s a real-time feel to the film that viewers may recognize from Cleo from 5 to 7 as Varda diagnoses the listless malaise of her characters as relating to the collapse of society as it happened around her, barely missing a beat.
In this respect, Lions also functions as a kind of time capsule for modern audiences, a quality that might not have been appreciated much at the time but that gives the film an added air of fascination today. All in all, though, it’s the fact that an image of Varda and her stars was chosen to grace the cover of the first ever edition of Warhol’s Interview magazine that best sums up Lions’ appeal: as a dialogue on celebrity between the already-famous.
Shot around the same time as Lions was the documentary short Black Panthers, a much less cryptic film that nonetheless bears the characteristic marks of a Varda movie. Peppered with interviews with Huey Newton (whose imprisonment is the focus of the Oakland rally it documents), Black Panthers primarily focuses on the concerns, the culture, and the community of the Black Panther Party, with its relatively staid style coming down to the fact that it was intended to answer a news commission from French TV. (The segment was pulled due to fears that its depiction of revolutionary activity would reignite France’s riots of May ’68.)
Varda’s touch is still there, in the film’s feminist emphasis and its humanistic tone — features that were often devoid from mainstream treatment of the Black Panther Party at the time. It’s not just a historical document, though; viewed now, there is ominous weight behind a shot of two police officers watching the rally from a window, both in terms of the events that would soon follow the film (i.e. the murders by police of Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark), and the persistent problems of police racism and brutality in modern America.
Yanco, Panthers, and Lions were all shot during that first stay in California. It wouldn’t be until 1980 that Varda returned to examine the US with her unique brand of empathetic curiosity. To this end, she shot two films, originally conceived as complementary projects: Mur Murs and Documenteur: An Emotion Picture. The former, a visually sumptuous documentary take on LA’s mural culture, provides an introduction to the setting of Documenteur, which is a gentle drama about a single French mother eking out an existence in LA against the city’s dramatic painted walls.
The playfulness of Varda’s early California movies is still there in these films, but she seems more interested in the frivolity of language here than in breaking any fourth walls. Both films feature narrations that indulge in contemplative free word association, and their titles demonstrate a penchant for puns: Documenteur is a wink at French audiences specifically (“menteur” meaning liar) while the title of Mur Murs teases dual meanings in French and English (literally Wall Walls in French, as well as a style of speaking in English that Varda imagines the painted walls engage in).
Documenteur opens on one of the murals pictured in Mur Murs, and there are many more links to discover between the two movies. Sabine Mamou, the editor of Mur Murs, plays Emilie in Documenteur, Tom Taplin, who worked on the documentary, shows up in the fictional film as Emilie’s ex, Mur Murs’ production manager Lisa Blok-Linson is Emilie’s imposed-upon friend Lisa, and both films feature Varda’s own son, Mathieu Demy (in Documenteur, he plays Emilie’s affectionate young son Martin). In one scene, typist Emilie is required to voice a documentary as a stand-in for her absent movie-making employer; that documentary turns out to be Mur Murs.
Even beyond these surface similarities and casting Easter eggs, the two films are linked by their inverse treatment of the city. Mur Murs explores the close-knittedness of LA’s artist communities as well as its postcard-perfect weather, while Documenteur is primarily about the “emotion” of living there and the isolation that such a huge city can foster (it also presents a rain-filled picture that’s counter to most representations of LA).
For Varda fans best acquainted with her more high-profile work, Documenteur and Mur Murs are veritable treasure troves of reference. In Documenteur, there are the tracks of an obsession with the shoreline that began in 1955’s La Pointe Courte and that would resurface most prominently, as might be guessed, in Beaches of Agnès. Early indications of a fascination with “gleaners” are also present in the images of Documenteur’s protagonist Emilie picking out still-usable furniture from dumpsters; Varda would go on to dedicate 80 minutes of documentary material to France’s own gleaners in the aforementioned The Gleaners and I.
And then there are the links between Mur Murs and Varda’s most recent work, Faces Places, a co-directed documentary about her trip through France with street artist JR. In the latter, JR and Varda embark on a friendship-forming road trip through France, taking photos of people and printing them out to make murals of their village walls. Varda, who began her career as a photographer, is still obsessed with images; Faces Places is evidence of that. So is Mur Murs, which may, in fact, have sparked her interest in the power of the blown-up artistic image and the blending of faces with architecture.
Some of the faces of Mur Murs include those of TV stars painted as the Holy Trinity by a born-again artist, and of Jean Harlow and Thomas Edison in murals by young Hispanic painters. Much of the movie’s runtime is spent on exploring the latter artists’ pieces, most of which are related to the experiences and histories of their communities. For example, one of the artists Varda interviews charts the tragic cycle of gang activity with reference to Aztec imagery in his visual work, as well as the struggles of living in his neighborhood in a moody, self-penned song titled “Barrio Blues.”
Varda is clearly awed by the scale and limitlessness of the mural as an art form in Mur Murs, and by its political potency. It is likely audiences will be, too; there’s no getting sick of the perfect composition in Mur Murs’ montages of people juxtaposed against the dazzlingly painted walls, or the artists’ profound explanations of their work (including one man who illuminatingly describes his own tattoos as being murals).
In Mur Murs, vestiges of the rebellious attitude to documentary filmmaking featured in Yanco remain, as Varda stages some scenes between the subjects of murals and the walls their faces are painted on. And there is a curious link to be made between this and Black Panthers, which features a line of narration that discusses the bullet-holes (made by police) in the window of a Black Panther office as evidence of police “killing” Huey Newton’s image. In the 1981 movie, Varda considers a mural which has had its top half cut off by the authorities to better facilitate police surveillance; you get the sense this decapitation of an image is also viewed as an act of state aggression.
There is so much to discover and consider in these films — in terms of their relationship to the rest of cinema, to reality, to one another, and to Varda’s wider oeuvre — that their collective five hours of runtime have the potential to inspire in audiences the kind of endless curiosity that has fuelled Agnès Varda’s extraordinary career.
All five of these films are included on the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series 43: Agnès Varda in California.