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In Focus: Viva Varda! Agnès encore!

Agnès Varda, in "Varda by Agnès"
Agnès Varda, in "Varda by Agnès"

Those unable to attend Agnès Varda’s Norton Lectures at Harvard, in 2018, will have an opportunity to enjoy much of what she discussed then in “Varda by Agnès” (Brattle, Jan. 23), an inventive and puckish first-person essay about her career that is a master class on the late director’s cinema philosophy, aesthetics, and strategies. She died last March, at 90. The Brattle will also be screening some of the works she discusses in the film in the series “Varda Rarities” (Jan. 31-Feb. 3), and her analyses in “Varda by Agnès” provides wry and illuminating insights into them.

“Big documentary journeys are too far from me,” she says in that documentary. “I want film close to me. What I know.” In fact she did travel to foreign parts for some of her early, politically charged shorts — including Havana, in “Salut les Cubains” (1963; part of the 2004 anthology “Cinevardaphoto," which screens Feb. 1) and Oakland, Calif., for “Black Panthers” (1968; included in the program “Varda Shorts (1958-1968), Feb. 2). But she did not stray far from home for her first documentary feature, "Daguerréotypes” (1976; Feb. 1).

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The title of the film comes from the aptly named Rue Daguerre, in Paris, where Varda lived at the time. She visits the tradespeople in the neighborhood — a butcher, a baker, a parfumier, a driving-school instructor, and others. She records them as they go about their tasks or talk about their lives, or simply observes them in unguarded moments.

Most mysterious is the wife of the parfumier. Her face expresses mute misery and despair as she shuffles aimlessly about the tiny shop crammed with quaint miscellany. One wonders if she has been abused; her husband’s affability seems strained — could he be hiding something? Eventually it becomes clear that the woman is suffering from dementia, and when she walks down the street clutching the arm of her husband the image tells a tale of tragedy and undying love.

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These lives might seem drab and trivial to some. Not to Varda. “Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy” she says in “Varda by Agnès.” “If you find them extraordinary, as I did.”

Agnès Varda arrives at the Oscars in Los Angeles on March 4, 2018.
Agnès Varda arrives at the Oscars in Los Angeles on March 4, 2018. Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

By any definition the life of the auteur Jacques Demy, the subject of Varda’s “Jacquot de Nantes” (1991; Feb. 3), was extraordinary. Varda’s husband of 28 years, until his death, in 1990, at 59, he made such masterpieces as “Lola” (1960), “Bay of Angels” (1962), “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964), and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967), taking “trite” details from his own experience and transforming them into absorbing romantic dramas and lush, technicolor music melodramas.

Near the end of his life Demy wrote down recollections of his childhood — growing up the son of a mechanic, making his first crude but ingenious stop-motion animated films, surviving the Nazi occupation and Allied bombings, resisting his father’s demand that he become a mechanic like himself, and finally attending film school in Paris. Varda told him he should make a movie about these memories. Demy said he was too ill and that she should.

The result is profound and intimate, a documentary-fiction hybrid that explores the possibilities and limitations of both modes of cinema. In it Varda meticulously recreates scenes from Demy’s past in black and white and changes to color at the moments that would inspire one of his movies, clips from which she sometimes inserts.

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The effect is exhilarating but balanced by Varda’s bittersweet interviews with her ailing husband. At times she films him in extreme close-up, the camera roaming his face and body, his hair and skin resembling a ravaged landscape. At the end of the film Demy sits on a beach staring out to sea as the tide goes out. Then the beach is empty.

Agnès Varda, in "Varda by Agnès"
Agnès Varda, in "Varda by Agnès"

“Beaches are a place of inspiration,” Varda says in “Varda by Agnès.” “A mental landscape. You have the three elements. Sky, sea, and earth.” In 1954 a beach inspired Varda to take a picture of a naked man facing the sea, with a naked child, sitting near him, and a dead goat in the foreground. Varda revisits that photograph and the subjects years later in “Ulysse” (1982; one of the shorts in “Cinevardaphoto”). The child of the title now has children of his own. He remembers little about the experience and does not recognize himself in the photo. The man, now art director of the fashion magazine Elle, remembers the discomfort of posing naked — as he is while being interviewed, a characteristically impish Varda touch, though with his modesty protected by a pile of magazines.

And the goat, as Varda notes, has become “pebble sand and bone dust.” So too has she, and though her films may preserve these lives and moments for a time, they too shall pass away.

There is a beach scene near the end of “Varda by Agnès,” an outtake from “Faces Places,” which was nominated for a best documentary Oscar in 2017. Varda and JR, the photographer with whom she collaborated on the film, sit on a beach in a sandstorm. They disappear in a blur. “The sea has the last word,” Varda says. “And the wind, and the sand.”

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Go to www.brattlefilm.org/category/calendar-2/repertory-series/varda-rarities.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.