One of the reasons for that is that I couldn’t possibly watch or re-watch 39 films before writing this feature. So I sampled different films and features in the set to get an overall sense of its quality. Varda is fascinating in that I find my appreciation for her work grows every year. I think as I get older myself I’m increasingly drawn to her genuine curiosity about other people. Roger wrote in his review of “The Gleaners and I,” that Varda was writing the “story of herself, a woman whose life has consisted of moving through the world with the tools of her trade, finding what is worth treasuring.” Watching her pick up those treasures through her art moves me more as the collection grows. Being able to catch up with a few blind spots in my personal viewing history of Varda with this set felt like an oasis in the chaos of 2020. I will certainly return to the films I had seen and loved like “Vagabond,” “Faces, Places,” and, of course, “Cleo from 5 to 7,” and I’m eager to see the supplemental material on those, but I chose to start my personal Vardafest with titles I hadn’t seen before. Here are brief thoughts on four of them.
My journey began with 1976’s “Daguerréotypes,” a documentary that Varda filmed for TV almost as a challenge after taking time off after the birth of her son Mathieu. Varda was interested in directing again but couldn’t be far from her child, and so she literally crafted a filmmaking challenge to fit both needs—making a documentary about the people and the businesses on Rue Daguerre, where she lived. The entire film takes place within 300 feet of Varda’s home as she visits a quaint perfumery, salon, driving school, and even a magic show. The result is an absolute delight. It may lead one to believe that there are enough stories on any block to make an interesting documentary, but that would undervalue what Varda is doing here. She’s not just an observer. Her empathy and interest comes through her camera, and she puts it in the viewer. I was increasingly fascinated by these people, most of whom go through daily routines that don’t change much, but many of whom also seem to be remarkably content. She gets them to open up about where they came from and even their dreams, but she also carefully watches her subjects, just as captivated by the longing looks out the window of the perfumer’s wife as she is the magician.
They’re not on the same disc but “Daguerréotypes” fit perfectly with my second film, 1980’s “Mur Murs,” in that both films not only display Varda’s bottomless empathy but her belief that neighborhoods are defined and shaped by the people who live there. While shooting “Documenteur” in L.A., Varda became interested in the city’s elaborate, gorgeous murals. This documentary features interviews with many of the artists, most of them Chicano, and often in front of their own work. The result is mesmerizing, watching how human stories manifest into art, which is obviously another way to look at Varda’s entire career. Through all of her work, there’s a genuine interest in other people, and so her desire to see how experiences have been shaped into these murals, something of which will outlive us all, is contagious. “Mur Murs” blew me away. It’s a gorgeous meditation on the human need to express artistically, which then becomes a part of one of the biggest cities in the world. Art is literally shaping the landscape here.