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Agnes Varda’s Special Light

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Cinematheque’s “The Light in Her Eyes: A Tribute to Agnes Varda” commences tonight at Raleigh Studios with the local premiere of the French New Wave pioneer’s “One Hundred and One Nights,” a poignant, witty salute to the 100th anniversary of the movies.

It’s a film buff’s delight, crammed with references, clips from old films and appearances by hallowed international stars. On another level it’s a reverie, a contemplation of love and loss, of youth and old age, of dreams and memories, of mortality and the eternality of the cinema.

Michel Piccoli plays Monsieur Cinema, who embodies the history and spirit of film, and in particular, that Fabulous Invalid, the French motion picture industry itself. (Since Varda is such a playful director, Piccoli is sometimes simply himself.) Monsieur Cinema may have been inspired by the director of the landmark “Napoleon,” the late Abel Gance, whom Piccoli resembles when he puts on a long silver-white wig.

In any event, Simon Cinema is bedridden in his cha^teau-museum, and has hired a pretty young cineaste, Camille (Julie Gayet), to keep his memory sharp. The word is out that as his 100th birthday approaches he’s ailing, which prompts a flood of visits by stars, starting with the late Marcello Mastroianni, who settles in as a regular visitor. Meanwhile, Camille and her boyfriend, an aspiring filmmaker (Matthieu Demy, son of Varda and the late director Jacques Demy), are trying to figure out how he’s going to get his picture made.

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Jeanne Moreau and Hanna Schygulla turn up as Simon’s ex-wives, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Gina Lollobrigida play a team of memory-restorers, seemingly dubious yet skilled enough to provoke in M. Cinema’s imagination a scene of Catherine Deneuve and Robert De Niro in a fanciful gondola floating on a pond. (Oh, for a whole movie with Deneuve and De Niro.) Among other visitors are Gerard Depardieu, Alain Delon and Anouk Aimee. Look for Harrison Ford to pop up unexpectedly near the film’s end.

Varda will participate in a discussion with the audience between the 7:15 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. screenings of “One Hundred and One Nights.”

“Vagabond” (1985), arguably Varda’s finest, most powerful film, screens Saturday at 7:15 p.m. Sandrine Bonnaire was instantly confirmed as a major new actress for her portrayal of an 18-year-old drifter who maintains a cool reserve and resolution in the face of worsening circumstances. Varda is as uncompromising as her heroine as she considers the interplay of fate and character in the drifter’s destiny.

Also screening is Varda’s marvelous 1958 short “L’Opera Mouffe,” which celebrates a woman’s pregnancy as a time of heightened sensual awareness. Its earthy, intellectual quality would prove to be characteristic of Varda’s entire work. Varda will discuss the films after their screening.

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At 10 p.m. Saturday there will be a screening of Varda’s debut feature, “La Pointe Courte” (1954), a film that until now has been virtually impossible to see in the U.S. yet is one of the most pivotal pictures in the French cinema. That’s because it’s widely regarded not only as the first feature film of the New Wave but also as having a crucial impact on its editor, Alain Resnais, when he came to direct his first feature, the landmark “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959).

Certainly, “La Pointe Courte,” which takes its title from a South of France fishing village, offers a jolting contrast to France’s highly polished “cinema of quality” of the time. Drawing upon Varda’s background as a photographer, “La Pointe Courte” has a bold, intensely visual look as the fishermen, all of them actual villagers, go about their daily lives, while a young man (Philippe Noiret), a native absent for 12 years, returns to try to save his marriage to a Parisienne (Silvia Montfort).

The couple, both intellectuals of admirable candor and wit but of drastically different backgrounds, make an all-out attempt to make their relationship work in scenes that play like poetic reveries. Meanwhile, the fishermen are confronted with an indifferent, big business-minded government bureaucracy that finds their fishing waters polluted but tries to prevent them from fishing elsewhere.

These parallel stories do seem to anticipate Resnais’ even more stylized “Hiroshima Mon Amour” in its love story set against a moral probing of the atom bombing and its aftermath. The nonprofessionals are a bit overly self-conscious, but on the whole “La Pointe Courte” is durably provocative, striking the note of audacity that characterizes Varda’s work to this day.

Playing with it is Varda’s 1958 short “Du Co^te de la Co^te"(Coasting Along the Coast), which takes a bemused look at the tourists in France’s fabled South of France resorts.

Saturday brings a major Varda double feature, “Cleo From 5 to 7" (at 7:15 p.m.) and “Le Bonheur” (at 9:45 p.m.). In “One Hundred and One Nights” we hear a passing observation that from 5 to 7 p.m. is the perfect time for a romantic rendezvous, but for Cleo (Corinne Marchand) it’s the time she must wait to learn the results of a test for cancer.

Cleo, a glamorous pop singer, is about as radically different a woman from Bonnaire’s vagabond as possible, but Varda is no less concerned with revealing the character of a rather frivolous woman facing up to the possibility of mortality. This 1961 film, a key release in the international breakthrough of the French New Wave, is justly celebrated for capturing the atmosphere of Parisian street life in a fresh way. Also screening is the short “Les Dites Caryatides,” an amused, provocative survey of those marble and stone ladies who decorate so many of Paris’ grand Beaux Arts structures.

The superb, uncompromising 1964 “Le Bonheur” (Happiness) asserts that only those who havethe courage to follow their own natures and to defy convention can hope to achieve fulfillment in love. Deliberately re-creating the effect of an Impressionist painting, Varda places a handsome young carpenter (Jean-Claude Drouot) and his pretty wife (Claire Drouot) in an idyllic existence on the pastoral Ile de France. Every Garden of Eden, however, has its Lilith. “Le Bonheur” is as breathtakingly beautiful as it is tough-minded. In between “Cleo” and “Le Bonheur” there will be a French country picnic at 8:30 p.m. (213) 466-FILM.

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In an effort to fill the gap left by the closing of the Silent Movie Showcase, some of its patrons have formed the Silent Film Guild, and as its initial offering will present tonight at 7:30 at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, “That Certain Thing” (1928), a romantic comedy starring Viola Dana and Ralph Graves, along with the surviving 30 minutes of Frank Capra’s “Beggar on Horseback,” a 1925 comedy with Edward Everett Horton and Esther Ralston. The program also marks the recent centennial of Capra’s birth. Robert Israel will provide live organ accompaniment. (213) 389-2148.

Eran Palatnik’s vaultingly ambitious “The Rook,” from a script by Richard Lee Purvis, takes Martin Donovan’s pious 19th century detective to a derelict industrial town to investigate a murder only to get caught up in what seems to be a living nightmare. Nothing is what it seems to the detective, and the point is that the narrowness of the man’s religious views blind him to reality. This is an unapologetically demanding movie, an allegory charged with ambiguity. Yet Palatnik and Purvis are tough-minded enough and Donovan such a persuasive and wide-ranging actor that it’s worth the effort.

Sebastian Schroder’s settings, which are strikingly and deliberately anachronistic, contribute strongly to the film’s effectiveness, as does Zack Winestine’s superb cinematography. “The Rook” screens Fridays and Saturdays at midnight at the Sunset 5 and Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. (213) 848-3500.


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