Review: Agnès Varda: From Here to There
“Art is unlimited. Art is a party. Art is a fair.”
Early in the marvelously fluid, five-part cine-essay Agnès Varda: From Here to There, the eponymous veteran auteur briefly pauses to ponder the difference between cinema and photography. Legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson is Varda’s subject in this mini-digression, yet her comments on stillness and movement as captured through a camera lens clearly apply to her own art, particularly in light of her eccentric and deeply personal recent documentaries. Like The Gleaners and I (00) and The Beaches of Agnès (08), this miniseries (shot for French television roughly over the course of one year) envisions a form of portraiture that is forever on the move, its brisk, airy images darting and rippling like the frank, fearless filmmaker’s memories and emotions.
That feeling of emotional mobility is something Varda has always shared with her late husband, the great director Jacques Demy, whose benevolent specter is never far. Visiting Brazil—in the first of the various global travels she documents in Here and There—Varda shares some of the home movies Demy shot in the country many years earlier. (“Jacques was known for his tracking shots, but here his camera stood still,” she muses over the grainy, flickering footage.) While in Demy’s hometown of Nantes for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his feature debut Lola, Varda captures the aged Anouk Aimée abstractedly repeating a coquettish gesture from the young heroine she once portrayed. That tinge of continuity is further enforced in a heartening moment when Demy’s poetic manifesto on why he films is recited by his son Mathieu over a montage of pictures depicting his cinema as well as his family life.
Indeed, renewal and continuity are recurring themes. Each of the segments is prefaced with glimpses of Varda’s backyard, where wild foliage has sprouted on previously bare trees. It’s a spiritual metaphor that, like the key image of mirrors on a beach, would feel heavy-handed if it weren’t worn in such a fleet and open-hearted manner, its transparency an integral part of the film’s dizzying array of friends and events. Now in her mid-eighties, the director savors playfully childlike artifice. In The Beaches of Agnès, sand is poured in a Parisian street as clerks in a mock-office lounge in bathing suits, and former child actors from Varda’s neorealist early effort La Pointe Courte (55) enact one of their scenes as old men. From Here to There doesn’t have as many tableaux, but it retains that same impish, analog spirit as she makes her way across the continents, omnivorously searching for “fragments, moments, people.”
Leaping from lecture to tribute to retrospective, in the air aboard planes or down rivers in boats, the movie is a voyager’s diary. (It’s close in concept to José Luis Guerín’s Guest, though with a far denser focus.) When not chatting with students or setting up installation pieces, Varda seeks out colleagues. In St. Petersburg, she talks to Aleksandr Sokurov about Russian Ark’s continuum of national identity and wonders if it might be sacrilege to show a clip from a film intended as a single take. At Carlos Reygadas’s Mexican home, she marvels at Japon’s unconventional sex scene. After being honored alongside Manoel de Oliveira in Porto (and relishing his Chaplin impersonation), she lets the centenarian borrow her handheld digital camera for a blurry snapshot. Most evocative of all is Varda’s visit to the “magnificent mess” that is Chris Marker’s private studio, a veritable jungle of photographs, stacked-up discs, screens within screens, and grinning feline figurines. A kindred spirit in inquisitiveness and generosity, Marker (shortly before he passed away, heard but never seen) introduces his friend to the online community of Second Life. (“I immediately got swallowed up,” Varda wryly observes as her avatar saunters into an abyss in this newfound virtual world.)
Varda’s expansive view of art, which suggests a mixture of pavilion and flea-market, is scarcely limited to film. Throughout, personal expression is found (and celebrated) in expected and surprising places. There’s Miquel Barceló with his clay-spattered canvases, Pierrick Sorin and his video performance art, Christian Boltanski and Annette Messager discussing how their very different art forms affect their marriage, and a frail and ardent Jean-Louis Trintignant reading a Jacques Prévert poem. And then there’s the unorthodox passion of Michel “Monsieur Bouton” Jeannès, who praises the emotional value accumulated by buttons; the fortitude of Christina, the Swedish writer who deals with her severe hair loss through a tenderly confrontational documentary; and the rough artisanal beauty of the ropes and nets used by Sète fishermen. (Varda clearly relates to the Lyon Biennale’s motto: “The spectacle of the everyday.”) Beguiled by these moments in the now, Varda is also very aware of the weight of the past—evident in her odes to old masters like Magritte and van der Weyden, or in the way she can’t help but feel a tinge of horror as a young Japanese artist repeatedly uses the word “Hiroshima” while describing his project. The title From Here to There evokes geographical spaces, but the distances covered here can just as often be temporal.
Varda’s curiosity about human beings is bottomless and unpredictable. (I can personally attest: I briefly met her at a screening of The Beaches of Agnès, and a question about my accent somehow led to a conversation about my grandmother’s days in Czechoslovakia and my brother’s passion for tubas.) From Here to There is an unabashed self-portrait in which the auteur is luminously reflected in the friendships she’s gathered over the course of her life. Varda ruminates on mortality as the film’s travels come to a close, pondering gravely morbid, ancient sculptures before deciding that the jolly-skeleton folk art at Mexican Día de los Muertos festivities is more her speed. Watching this fond, vibrant documentary, one can easily imagine Varda continuing her search, camera in hand, into the great beyond—after all, heaven for her has always been other people.
Agnès Varda: From Here to There screened last weekend at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and is available here via the subscription service Doc Club as part of “Agnès Varda and Personal Cinema” month.