Agnès From '54 to '01

French director Agnès Varda's iconoclastic oeuvre displays a feminist intelligence across six decades

Structured as an investigation into the final days of Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), a young homeless woman who freezes to death in a ditch, Vagabond (Wednesday, February 21 at 7:00 p.m.) begins with the discovery of her body. From there, it uses her journey across Southern France--during one of the coldest winters in the nation's history--to present a cross-section of post-counterculture society: an ex-hippie farmer who smugly claims to have found a "middle ground between freedom and loneliness"; a college professor who investigates tree-rotting fungi (originally brought over by Americans, in a subtle bit of symbolism); Arab vineyard workers; druggies who hang out at a train station and hassle tourists for money. Although the film is set in 1985, the year it was made, the presiding mood of burnout feels more like 1975. Indeed, in its despairing postmortem of Sixties idealism, Vagabond is a belated counterpart to films like Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Third Generation.

Sympathetic without being particularly likable (cf. Le bonheur's François), Mona is needy, selfish, and prone to using people for temporary access to food, shelter, money, or drugs, and then running away as quickly as possible. Even so, men tend to desire her, while women view her as a symbol of liberation--an impression often tinged with class condescension. In their own ways, people of both genders objectify Mona, rather than accepting her own, admittedly prickly terms. Her moments of real connection are few, far between, and short-lived.

Two other films in the Walker series--Cléo From 5 to 7 (Saturday, February 10 at 7:00 p.m.) and One Sings, the Other Doesn't (Saturday, February 17 at 7:00 p.m.)--center on female performers. In the first, Cléo doesn't realize how she has allowed herself to be made into a puppet of male manipulators until she suspects that she may have cancer; while Pomme, the heroine of One Sings, the Other Doesn't is a Gallic Helen Reddy who could hardly be a better feminist role model. Mona has little in common with either of these women, and she's never onstage, yet Vagabond is equally concerned with the way in which women's lives are often viewed as performances. This view cuts particularly deep because it lets neither gender off the hook: Almost everyone Mona meets either rejects or wants to rescue her. How could Mona be led toward a happier fate without being tamed? This question lingers long after the film's oddly mythical ending.

Home movie: Director Agnès Varda on the road
Home movie: Director Agnès Varda on the road

Varda's next major work, Jacquot, is far more cheerful, even though it was made while Demy was dying of AIDS. An enormously generous gesture, this biography would be the first of Varda's three films about her husband. (Disappointingly, if not surprisingly, neither it nor Varda's 1993 documentary The World of Jacques Demy acknowledges his bisexuality.) Weaving together three strands, Jacquot mixes documentary footage of Demy speaking about his childhood, Varda's fictional re-creations of his youth, and clips from his films.

Inspired both by a puppet show and Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Demy found his métier early and pursued it with a relentless single-mindedness. Although he insists he had a happy childhood, Demy had to struggle against his father, a garage owner who forced him to attend technical school and scoffed at his ambition. Alas, Jacquot largely ignores Demy's inner life in order to track his dogged pursuit of his craft. (Growing impatient with other people's unreliability, Demy turns to animation and finally finds his voice.) The film is not likely to mean much to an audience unfamiliar with Demy's work, since most of its emotional resonance stems from the rhymes between his childhood and the images he came to create. Additionally, Varda's mix of black and white with color (often in the same scene, with no apparent rationale) can be confusing, especially if one doesn't recognize the origin of the clips. Nevertheless, Jacquot is a moving elegy that avoids the coming-of-age genre's sentimental pitfalls.

Judging from the youthful joie de vivre of the early New Wave films (including Varda's Cléo From 5 to 7), it's surprising how well the directors of this movement have aged. (I'd gladly take The Gleaners and I over the vast majority of work by Francis Ford Coppola or Brian De Palma during the past 20 years.) The wide range of Varda's oeuvre makes it nearly impossible to offer any sort of cursory summary, but one thing many of her films have in common is that their modesty belies their ambition. At the beginning of a new century, The Gleaners and I has as much to say about life in the century's first decade--especially the chinks in corporate capitalism's armor--as Cléo From 5 to 7 and Le bonheur did about the need for women's liberation, and Vagabond did about the aftermath of the Sixties. If The Gleaners and I should turn out to be Varda's final film, it would be a fine epilogue to an uneven but hugely valuable body of work.


The Agnès Varda retrospective continues at Walker Art Center through February 23, and includes a dialogue between the filmmaker and critic Bérénice Reynaud on Tuesday, February 20 at 8:00 p.m. For more information on the series, call (612) 375-7622.

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