BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: round one of shorts by the doyenne of the French New Wave.

AGNÈS VARDA’s films are so disarming because they are at once playful and philosophical without the two strands frustrating the other. Following on from screenings of The Beaches of Agnès and Cléo 5 to 7 at the New Zealand International Film Festival, Monday’s Film Society programme played a collection of her shorts where the two elements of her films were again evident. Even if some of her political films have dated somewhat, her love of her characters and her idiosyncratic approach to filming ‘reality’ remain as compelling as her best feature-length work.

The programme was split into her “travel” work and her “counterculture” work. Varda was extremely well-travelled, and having trained as a photographer, she’s got an eye for a specific image being able to convey a particular meaning. Her tourist films juxtapose whimsical elements with their picturesque locations. Her love of architecture is obvious (as is her love of cats). O Seasons, O Châteaux (1957) examines some of the Loire Valley’s castle with jazz, models, and day-glo pastel work; Pleasure of Love in Iran (1976) equates the exquisite minarets in Iran with sexual pleasure; and Coasting Along the Coast (1958) is a collection of postcard memories to her friend Chris Marker (a bit like Marker’s later, wondrous film Sans Soleil). The last film in this collection works the best: it’s funny, charming, and traps some wonderful little ideas.

The “counterculture” films are slightly less interesting in that they are explicitly of their time. The best was Uncle Yanco (1967), where she catches up with an old relative in California – her uncle being a Greek/French émigré who hangs with a bunch of hippies (the film was shot in 1967) on a boat. Her uncle is a compelling figure, and Varda’s film manages to mix the personal with a document of the time. Black Panthers (1968) captures the Black Panther movement at the time its leader, Huey Newton was being tried for murder. Some excellent footage was captured despite feeling a little anachronistic (not in terms of its content, but in terms of its approach) and the footage of one of the twentieth century’s most intriguing figures (Newton) is worth the watch alone. Women Respond (1975), while laudable in its themes, certainly feels of its time, despite its subject matter still being relevant. Perhaps it’s the essentialising of “all women” the narration utilises which mitigates her point, but there is a classic juxtaposition involving the women and the “misogynistic” men. The six films form an eclectic bunch of themes and styles, but the signature ‘Varda approach’ is a key unifying factor, and provide a key bridge from her winning personality to her seminal oeuvre.