How appropriate that France's AgnÃs Varda, the director of The Gleaners and I, is coming to Madison just as the leaves are turning and the ground is hardening into stone. The subject of a weeks-long retrospective at the UW Cinematheque and the guest of honor at a symposium devoted to her films, Varda has pursued many themes over the course of her long, distinguished career. But here in America she's perhaps best known for her interest in rot and decay and the desire we have to retrieve something from life's compost pile, if only in our memories. Roaming the French countryside as well as the streets of Paris, The Gleaners and I, though a documentary, is perhaps the most poetic movie ever made about recycling. And that may be the key to Varda's whole esthetic: Moving at her own pace, she picks up discarded ideas and images, then shapes them into artistic creations all her own.
Bringing together scholars from Europe and America, Landscape and Portrait: AgnÃs Varda's Cinematic Geographies (Oct. 3-5) attempts to illuminate this filmmaker's life-long pursuit of people, places and things. Varda will speak at the Orpheum Theatre (Friday, 7:30 p.m.), and she'll be interviewed at the Elvehjem Museum (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.) by Laurence Kardish, senior curator in the Department of Film and Media at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile, the Cinematheque series continues this weekend at 4070 Vilas Hall with a number of rare and important screenings. In fact, if you're reading this on Thursday before 3:30 p.m., you may want to hightail it to a screening of The Gleaners and I, which will be followed by a Q&A with Varda herself. As those who are familiar with Varda's films already know, however, having her here in person is rather like gilding the lily, given that her films are suffused with her presence. CinÃcriture, she calls it, a kind of writing on film that's as identifiable as a fingerprint.
Whether she appears on the screen ' as she does in Gleaners, marveling at the age spots on her hands ' or pulls gently on the strings from behind the curtain, Varda is always there, posing questions and proposing answers. The questions are clearly more important to her than the answers, which is why her documentaries generally get filed under the heading Essay Film, alongside Chris Marker's. But the categories are always blurring in Varda's work: The documentaries are essay-like, the features are documentary-like. A wonderful example of the latter is Jacquot, which screens at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. One of the most loving tributes in the history of cinema, Jacquot was made while Varda's husband, director Jacques Demy ' the Vincente Minnelli of France ' was dying. It's an attempt to recapture Demy's Nantes childhood and tie it to his later life as a filmmaker, by any means necessary: dramatization, personal reminiscence, narration. Demy himself appears, often in extreme close-up, as if Varda were trying to hold on to every square inch of him.
The Cinematheque series has already shown Varda's first film, 1954's La Pointe Courte, which anticipated the French New Wave by several years, and her second, ClÃo de 5 Ã 7, which established her international reputation. But it was 1985's Vagabond, which is screening on Saturday at 5 p.m., that many have hailed as Varda's masterpiece. Starring Sandrine Bonnaire as a young woman who, in Varda's words, "doesn't give a damn for anything or anybody," Vagabond is the very definition of uncompromising. We hardly know anything more about Mona at the end of the film than we do at the beginning. And yet we're drawn to this Wild Child as if she were a long-lost member of our own family. Posing as a documentary, the movie opens with Mona's stiffened body being pulled out of a ditch, so we know things don't turn out well. But who is she? Where did she come from? How did she wind up there? And why didn't she try harder to stay alive?
Varda may draw a blank on these questions, but, as all artists know, blanks can be drawn well or be drawn poorly. Maybe Mona's the eternal outsider, a rebel without a cause. Or maybe she's one of life's rejects, freedom being just another word for nothing left to lose. But as she wanders around the wintry fields of southern France, hitching rides and bumming cigarettes and pitching her tent whenever her feet get tired, we're filled with both admiration and disgust. Which is to say, the film reveals more about us than it does about Mona. Her face, which always reminds me of Sandra Bernhard's, is a screen onto which we project our own fears and desires. Varda has her cross paths with various men and women, from a college professor to a Tunisian migrant worker, and they don't know quite what to make of her either. "I move," Mona says at one point, as if that summed up the whole movie. Drifters drift.
Varda's camera drifts as well, keeping a discreet distance from Mona while subtly reminding us that she's out of step with the rest of the world. You could say the same thing about Varda, perhaps. She's pitched her tent in areas that other filmmakers would have considered barren. And not only has she avoided dying of exposure, she's reaped a harvest that, except for her, would have withered on the vine.