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Many people associate the first stirrings of the French New Wave with the chic formalism of Jean-Luc Godard and the whimsical storytelling of Francois Truffaut, but Agnes Varda got there first. The seminal member of the New Wave’s “Left Bank” made her feature-length debut with 1955’s “La Pointe Courte,” the freewheeling portrait of a small fishing village far from the city life. That was four years before Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Godard’s “Breathless.” Truffaut died decades ago, and Godard’s films have grown increasingly abstract, but Varda has never strayed from the focus that put her on the map — humanitarian stories about France’s working class.
At 89, Varda remains more fixated on that theme, so much that she committed what may be her final film to that focus. “Faces Places” marks the latest of her playful non-fiction efforts, in which she stars as the inquisitive centerpiece of a cinematic experience defined by her curiosity.
Co-directed by artist J.R., the documentary — which Cohen Media releases in the U.S. this week, pushing it directly into Oscar season — finds Varda and her younger cohort traveling the French countryside and meeting people. In the process, they generate large-scale, black-and-white photographs of their new friends, a staple of J.R.’s artistry that gels nicely with Varda’s intentions of magnifying the lives of marginalized figures. The movie’s most influential interview subject is a mailman.
“I love documentaries because I learn more discovering people,” the petite director said, sporting her trademark ring of dyed hair that surrounds the gray patch at the top. “I think I do better when I use image and sound to share knowledge.”
That’s been a recurring motif since the ’70s, when Varda made “Daguerrotypes,” a verite documentary profiling the various characters from her neighborhood in Paris, from neighbors to shopkeepers. “They felt confident with me, because I’m not tough with people,” she said. “I’m just a normal neighbor. I’m not pushing questions so much as conversations.”
In “Faces Places,” she meets men on the docks and their wives, jubilant children, and construction workers. In the process, she also reflects on her legacy, visiting the gravesite of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson as she contemplates her own mortality. The movie summarizes Varda’s creative ambitions as if she’s presenting a final mission statement, and she doesn’t deny the possibility.
“I’m not sure I’ll make another film,” she said. ‘It’s like boxing — they do an additional match they shouldn’t do. I’m not sure I should do another one. But I also do exhibitions, installations. I’m not going to bed.”
In recent years, Varda’s non-film work has received showcases around the world, including a recent retrospective at LACMA. “With this film,” she said, “we achieved something that’s according to my taste. That’s what it makes it stronger. So I was lucky to have that.”
The movie also confronts Varda’s bumpy relationship to the elusive Godard, who now lives in solitude in Switzerland. Early on, she shares a rare photograph of the filmmaker without his trademark sunglasses, recalling how she cajoled him into taking them during happier times. Later she attempts to reunite with him, initially approaching the filmmaker about appearing in “Faces Places” by suggesting that his dog Roxy (which some viewers met in Godard previous film, “Goodbye to Language”) might land a cameo.
“His assistant knew we were coming,” said Varda, who brought J.R. along for the ride; it didn’t go smoothly. “It’s his nature to be lonely,” Varda said of her contemporary. “He has been like this years. I thought it would be nice to meet again. OK, so we didn’t.”
Nevertheless, she remains appreciative of his work. “You have to understand that in French cinema, Godard is a very specific figure,” Varda said. “He has been searching for cinema in very different ways. He wasn’t like Claude Chabrol, who made wonderful films about the bourgeoisie, and went on doing wonderful films about that. He wasn’t a searcher.”
She was a big fan of “Goodbye to Language.” “Now he does these heavily philosophical films that are very mysterious,” she said. “Even the title is like saying goodbye to everything — to society, to cheap ideas, to facility, to advertising.” It’s a notion she relates to her in her own work, and bridges the gap between Godard’s intellectually dense exercises and Varda’s warmer approach. “I don’t do advertising,” she said.
As one of the few women lumped into the French New Wave, Varda said she was happy to see a more diverse industry. “It’s changing,” she said. “How many women were directors in France in the ’50s? Two or three, four maybe. Now there are hundreds. More than in other places. And women technicians, cinematographers, sound women. I am so glad about that. It’s not just a man’s job.”
Varda spent much of her career in the shadow of her famous husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, who died in 1990. In the wake of his death, she continued to chart a distinctive path. “Faces Places” follows 2000’s “The Gleaners & I” and 2008’s candid cinematic memoir “The Beaches of Agnes.” Her biographical projects find her returning the settings she’s explored in movies across the decades, from the narratives of “Vagabond” and “Cleo From 5 to 7” to the subjects of “Gleaners” and “Daguerrotypes,” both of which were followed by short sequels that found Varda revisiting her subjects.
She emphasized a need to avoid exploiting lower-class experiences. “We go, we meet people, they just give themselves to the film, and then we go to festivals,” she said. “I could steal their lives and just escape. Instead, I have to give them my empathy. Documentaries raise a process — do keep a connection with these people we film? We can’t just do it and go home.”
In other words, stay tuned. Varda might not be down for the count after all.
“Faces Places” opens in New York on October 6 and Paris on October 13.