Agnès Varda has a unique perception of the ways women's personalities are formed by the worlds in which they live; that skill has made her the feminine voice of the French New Wave. The Varda retrospective playing over the next month at the NW Film Center covers her catalog from early successes (Cleo from 5 to 7, Lion's Love), through a stark midperiod (Vagabond, Kung-Fu Master) and up to her current, sublime obsession with Chris Marker-style docu-essays (The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès). It's a rare look at one of the most cohesive and lasting film careers of the 20th century.
Cleo from 5 to 7 (7 pm Friday-Saturday, July 10-11), made and released in 1961, has the distinctly New Wave quality of serving as a capsule for a particular time and place in Paris. Shot cheaply on the city's streets, it's populated by a cross section of beautifully realized Parisians whose lives interlock with that of Cleo (Corinne Marchand), a pop chanteuse whiling away an afternoon in anticipation of the results of a cancer test. Somewhat like Godard's Breathless, Cleo is a youthful film about life-changing decisions and unrealized love, shot through with a stylish tone of affirmation—a passion for the possibilities of moviemaking and the variety of life.
By the time she made 1985's Vagabond (7 pm Sunday, July 26) a quarter century later, Varda had hardened to the social realities of modern France so far as to allow her beloved protagonist, Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), a wretched drifter, to freeze to death in a nondescript ditch, shut out by everyone she's ever met. (As this is the first thing shown in the film, I've hardly added a spoiler.) Vagabond nonetheless shows Varda's uncanny ability to capture the lived-in weariness of the poor. The same is true of 2000's The Gleaners and I (7 pm Wednesday and Friday, Aug. 5 and 7), a look at a no less serious social condition: the practice of gleaning, the scavenging of harvested farm fields by France's lowest social classes. But Varda had softened enough to present a picture of working-class France—set in the same fields where she'd let Mona die alone—which could transcend the overarching despair to find, as Cleo had through her cancer, the things to appreciate among ostensibly meaningless lives.
If you can make it to only three of the nine films this retrospective will offer, no triumvirate could be more complementary than this. .
Vardian Vision opens Friday and runs through Sunday, Aug. 9, at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium.