Agnès Varda in California: A French New Waver Surfs the Wild West


There exists a perpetually revisited question in film criticism as to the role of context in reviewing. Should critics make the best effort to evaluate movies regardless or independent of any knowledge about their making, or should one admit to and incorporate the inevitable framing that context provides on one’s viewing experience? Agnès Varda’s California — Criterion’s newest box set from its Eclipse collection of “lost, forgotten or overshadowed classics” — makes a case that context is not only key to understanding and appreciating a film, but that context can seriously enrich the experience of multiple films.

This collection consists of five titles that former French New Wave director Agnès Varda made in California between two extended visits: one at the dusk of the 1960s (while Varda’s spouse, filmmaker Jacques Demy, made his first English-language film, the L.A.-set Model Shop) and once again at the dawn of the 1980s. The box set consists of films in various modes — fiction and non-fiction, short and feature — but the reward of this collection is in the generative overlaps and similarities amongst these titles, not the distinction between them. Whether in documentary or narrative form (or, more accurately, somewhere in between) these films speak to and echo one another in ways that suggest the breadth of a full work realized across many types of filmmaking. Criterion’s assembly of these films together renders Varda’s visits to California into a rich and intricate cinematic poem about a vast and diverse state bristling with art, sex, political engagement and, most importantly, filmmaking itself.

Select films from this set are revelatory on their own, but together, they show how taking a real life place as a source of inspiration is, in essence, creating a film about a kind of reality no matter the “type” of movie one is making. With each title in this collection, we are witnessing a record of Varda’s experience in California at a historical moment. And even when she focuses on obvious sites, like Hollywood by way of Haight-Ashbury in the centerpiece of this collection, her observations in California are too esoteric to be at risk of cliché, thus producing a wholly unique and personal cinematic vision of some of the most photographed places in the United States.

Uncle Yanco starts off the set, a deft and very funny short documentary portrait of its title subject, a Greek relative Varda had heretofore never met. The film oscillates between a seemingly spontaneous tour of Uncle Yanco’s easygoing life on the colorful docks of Sausalito, a place brimming with young American bohemia, and staged “reenactments” of Varda meeting this endearing, far-flung kin. A perfectly charismatic subject at ease in front of the camera as Varda is behind, the director’s venture to California starts off as a sort of cinematic homecoming.

Black Panthers, another documentary short, depicts a courthouse protest in Oakland by the Black Panther Party against the arrest and jailing of Huey P. Newton. Produced one year after Varda’s contribution of a brief history of the Vietnam War to Chris Marker’s documentary compendium Far From Vietnam (see my review), Black Panthers is a less didactic but equally illuminating look at the work of contemporary American politics tailored implicitly for a French audience. Of particular note is how much time this documentary spends explaining the philosophy of gender equanimity within the party’s dynamics and the extensive interviews with Newton himself while in jail (he would later be acquitted). Alongside Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton, this is an essential record of the BPP’s political work captured in the present tense.

The centerpiece of this set is Varda’s 1969 feature Lions Love (…and Lies), a free-wheeling narrative of a polyamorous couple (played by Warhol regular Viva, and Hair composers Jerry Ragni and James Rado) filling their idle days with sex, cinema, and stream-of-thought insights within the groovy world of Hollywood. While technically a fiction film, Varda inventively blurs the line between nonfiction and narrative by doing the requisite New Wave work of referencing the artifice of the very film being watched (we first see the film’s setting as an outtake of a crew member wandering around it) and by incorporating real-time events into its narrative. After Lions Love depicts, often with very funny results, what the New York Times called the “banal beauty of Los Angeles” at its New York Film Festival premiere, the tone gives way to something far more grim upon news that Robert F. Kennedy has been assassinated within this very city, with the terrible news played at full volume on television. It’s like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice meets Gimme Shelter.

Along for the ride is fellow sometime-documentarian Shirley Clarke, playing a version of herself as a New York filmmaker coming to Los Angeles to make an underground movie. While riding from the Los Angeles airport into the city, Clarke mentions, “I don’t know whether I’m in a movie or directing one,” a central thesis Varda pursues here by depicting people constantly performing for an assumed camera and dreaming of their cinematic futures in the cool world of Los Angeles. Echoing Clarke’s own A Portrait of Jason, Varda at one point confronts Clarke from off-screen in one scene when the director/actress/subject alleges she can’t perform any longer. Varda then enters the frame, revealing herself to be clothed identically to Clarke. Rather than stage this revisited fourth-wall-breaking practice as a one-note joke or empty postmodern wink, Varda’s film dances across the line between realities in front of and behind the camera to depict the falesness of their distinction. Even if scripted, reality inevitably enters the frame.

Varda would continue playing with this line in the City of Angels over a decade later with two intertwined 1981 features, Mur Murs and Documenteur. The former is a detailed examination of the many murals across Los Angeles, featuring extensive interviews with talented and at-times eccentric muralists. But the film is as its most stunning in the moments in which it chooses to wordlessly gaze at these ornate creations within the strange geometric landscapes of Los Angeles, as Hiroshi Teshigahara would later mediate on architecture in Antonio Gaudí.

These murals also provide the backdrop for Documenteur, a semiautobiographical narrative that follows a French woman’s (Sabine Mamou) alienated experience in Los Angeles with her young son. Perhaps the least engaging of the five titles in this set, Documenteur is nevertheless enriched by its context here, which has given such a detailed look into Varda’s experience of California up to this point that it accentuates the emotional weight of Varda’s depiction of a woman lost in translation. And the son is, of course, played by Mathieu Demy, Varda’s own child, who at one points sports a shirt that reads, “My parents took me to California and all I got was this stupid shirt.”

“Agnès Varda in California” is available on DVD from Criterion’s Eclipse Label.