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A Critic’s Appreciation of Agnès Varda, New Wave’s Leading Lady

In his book “The Judgment of Paris,” art historian Ross King points out that in the 1860s, France’s most esteemed artist was a man named Ernest Meissonier, a celebrated painter of horses and military tableaux whom few recall today. By contrast, many of the Impressionists whose genius we now celebrate were not properly recognized until after their deaths.

It’s a lesson worth remembering when thinking about contemporary cinema, in which pop entertainment earns instant praise, while the work most likely to endure a century from now a century from now goes relatively unrecognized in its time. French director Agnès Varda is the kind of filmmaker whose oeuvre is sure to stand the test of time — because it already has, holding up brilliantly since her 1955 feature debut, “La Pointe Courte,” about which Variety condescendingly wrote, “Main aspect of this film is that it was made for $20,000 by a 25-year-old girl.”

With her tiny seaside romance, that girl would go on to inspire the French New Wave, demonstrating the kind of independent spirit that paved the way for filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. But unlike those critics-turned-directors, Varda was not a disciple of cinema, paying homage to the thousands of movies that had come before. She was a still photographer whose natural curiosity led her to the motion picture and whose naïveté toward the medium enabled a uniquely avant-garde approach. Although her films are perfectly frank about the taboo subjects of sex and death, her approach simultaneously suggests a kind of innocence.

Born in Belgium but relocated to France during wartime, Varda began her career as an outsider and grew into an emeritus figure of French cinema, and a cornerstone of the Left Bank Group in particular — a crowd that included Alain Resnais (who edited “La Pointe Courte”) and Chris Marker (about whom she dedicated an episode of her 2011 “From Here to There” documentary series). Now 89, she has lived long enough to be embraced by the mainstream, accepting invitations for screenings and appearances around the globe — including the upcoming Governors Award from the American Academy to compliment the honorary César she won in 2001.

Los Angeles has been like a second home to Varda over the years. She first moved to California in the late ’60s, when her husband, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” director Jacques Demy, was hired by Columbia to make “Model Shop,” a spirit-sequel to his film “Lola.” During that time, Varda hung out with hippies — people like Dennis Hopper, Monte Hellman and Andy Warhol’s West Coast crowd, including Viva, who starred in her trippy film “Lions Love (… and Lies),” and filmed a demonstration by the Black Panthers for the release of Huey P. Newton.

Looking at her today — a little old lady with two-toned hair, traipsing about France with fellow photographer JR for the film “Faces Places” — it’s easy to forget that Varda was such a radical in her day. Today, it’s her profound empathy that comes through, especially after having dedicated nearly her entire career to depicting characters on the margins: drifters (“Vagabond”), graffiti artists (“Mur Murs”) and those left to pick up scraps mainstream society leaves behind (“The Gleaners and I”).

But however sensitive these portrayals, the films remain formally daring, even decades later. Her best-known — and most commercially successful — feature, 1962’s “Cleo From 5 to 7” depicts, virtually in real time, the two hours a glamorous singer spends roaming the streets of Paris while she awaits the results of a cancer exam — a role that Madonna once dreamed of remaking. With jump cuts, Michel Legrand songs and frequent costume changes, the movie anticipated MTV by nearly 20 years, while establishing the kind of playfulness that French speakers detected all along in her work. The dialogue and titles are thick with puns, as in “Daguerréotypes,” a group portrait of the eccentric figures found on rue Daguerre, the Parisian street where she has lived and worked since the early ’50s.

Where other directors make movies, Varda crafts personal works of art, revealing dimensions of herself in the process. Her heartsick, semi-autobiographical “Documenteur” is among the saddest films ever made in L.A., while her tough but honest 1965 couple’s drama “Le Bonheur” achieved the kind of piercing intimacy that America’s so-called “Mumblecore” movement tried so hard to mimic at the turn of the new millennium.

For years, Varda worked to keep Demy’s legacy alive, directing both a feature (“Jacquot de Nantes”) and a documentary (“The World of Jacques Demy”) about her late husband. Not until overseeing the restoration of Demy’s entire oeuvre did she turn her attention to her own work, which — now being upgraded for future release by the Criterion Collection — should ensure that her contributions to cinema are never forgotten

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