Agnès Varda, Retrospectively
Sep 28, 2015 by Nickelodeon on The Nickelodeon Blog
“I feel as if I am an animal, worse, I am an animal I don’t know,” Agnès Varda observes in The Gleaners and I (2000). What amounts to little more than an aside distills her decades-long directorial career to its fundamental motivation: her films circulate around unknowable centers, protagonists opaque to others (Vagabond), themselves (Cléo from 5 to 7), or both (Kung-Fu Master). With a complexity rarely seen in film, the characters’ desires morph according to the capricious logic of their fantasies, and others’ fantasies for them. Always the documentarian, though, Varda’s attunement to the real-world consequences of whimsy lends her sensibility the weight of acute social critique.
On the occasion of Kung-Fu Master’s restoration and re-release, the first theatrical showings of the film since 1988, the Nick will play four films by Agnès Varda: from her early entry in the French New Wave Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), through her widely-held masterpiece, Vagabond (1985), the scandalous and resultingly little-seen Kung-Fu Master (1988), and her documentary masterwork, The Gleaners and I (2000). Equal only to each other in vitality, the diversity of their styles is astonishing. They all connect around women who, for one reason or another, society has marginalized: Cléo the narcissistic pop star, Mona the smelly vagrant, Mary-Jane the middle-aged divorcee, and Varda herself, whose male peers unfairly overshadowed her among the cinephile establishment.
Varda’s second-tiering makes sense though, not because her formal deftness leaves anything to be desired (it doesn’t), but because her sympathy for disempowered people, at their most atomistic in Vagabond and most categorical in The Gleaners and I, shakes the foundations of a neoliberal, capitalist society that only functions if certain people and their motivations are hidden away. For Varda to rest with the unspeakable desires of her characters, their obsessions with dirt, rot, escape, liberation, paraphilia, trash, or their own decaying bodies, to take these characters seriously as human and deserving of a sympathetic ear, is to push back the horizon of society and show us the danger and freedom lurking there.