Agnès Varda in California

Agnès Varda first came to California in 1967, when her fellow-director husband Jacques Demy’s international hit The Umbrellas of Cherbourg earned a Hollywood summons. Varda wasn’t sure how long she’d stay, but the place just smelled like cinema, mixed with the bracing whiff of American left-coast counterculture, and as she put it, “I had to work.”

As a de facto emissary of the French New Wave (she’s still too gracious to take credit as its matron saint), Varda was received with admiration from the likes of Lucas and Coppola, but her idea of networking was to introduce herself to a Greek emigrant relative who lived on a Sausalito houseboat. Uncle Yanco (1967) was the first of Varda’s California films, which now cohabitate snugly in a DVD set from Criterion’s Eclipse series, and make me wish she’d visit more often.

“I’m not rich because I never put money aside, says Jean Varda, a.k.a. “Yanco,” a readymade archetype of adorable avuncular bohemianism. “I don’t know what side to put it on.” A deft collage artist and a social fixture within his “aquatic suburbia,” Yanco seems to spend his days fielding inspirations, holding court among a handful of sweet-faced hippies, and generally being an excellent subject for an Agnès Varda movie. Over its hand-painted end credits, Varda describes her characteristically impish 19-minute whimsy as “an homage to age, humor, talent, wisdom, and goodness.” This may have been the case even if Uncle Yanco had turned out to be a jerk, but it seems highly unlikely that any relative of hers could ever do such a thing.

Her next stop was Oakland, for the half-hour documentary Black Panthers (1968), which studied the protests of Huey Newton’s imprisonment with empathy, discretion, and due humility. Even now this film is a vital primer on local political history, by default a sobering comparative account of so-called progress since it was made, and all the more engaging for Varda’s palpable eagerness to understand a uniquely American (and Californian) strain of activist pushback against authoritarian oppression. Whether or not she regretted missing out on the political upheavals in France in 1968, she certainly seized the opportunity to broaden her perspective here. Acknowledgedly an outsider, and a first-person observer, Varda in California offers an alternative to, say, the exquisite distance of Joan Didion; hers is the habit of open mind, open heart, open eyes.

“Now you know why they came to make movies in California,” someone says in Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969). “Because of the light.” The view at hand does bear that out, even if it is through a car windshield on approach to L.A., with its feeling that “you’re coming to a city, but the city’s never there.” A stiffly fruity zeitgeist cocktail, cut with the contemporaneous shootings of Robert Kennedy and Andy Warhol, Lions Love is the most contrived of this bunch, yet it still holds as a period artifact — or at least as Varda’s way of proving the Godardian pronouncement that every film’s a documentary of its actors. Her display of fringe bohemian dream-factory ennui involves an eminently au naturel threesome between a Warhol superstar and the co-authors of Hair, visited by a New York underground auteur with whom Varda herself briefly trades places to perform a suicide scene. Hard to get through, it is amusing and endearing in retrospect, having revealed that even the most insufferable of grating ’60s gibberish can’t quite defeat the power of Varda’s playful empathy.

She returned to L.A. in the early ’80s, during a temporary separation from Demy, for a decidedly cloudier version of California dreaming. The signature moves — jaunty cuts, irrepressible wordplay, witty self-reflection — remained intact if sometimes subdued. Whereas Mur Murs (1980) is a gregarious documentary survey of local street art (fitting for Varda, whose whole career is a shining monument to non-mass-produced imagery), Documenteur (1981) favors reclusiveness, in the semi-fictional story of a divorced Frenchwoman, played by Varda’s editor Sabine Mamou, making a go in L.A. with her young son, played by the director’s own son Mathieu Demy (another of her invitingly guileless on-screen relatives). Both films make use of some common materials, including narration: “As for me, in Los Angeles I mostly saw walls,” Varda says in both, exploring social margins from multiple angles. The striking final mural to appear in Mur Murs imagines an urban California done in by earthquake, “an island of ruins and silence, the ultimate failure of concrete.” But if that’s too worrisome, Documenteur offers an alternative apocalypse, in the form of a flip cultural rallying cry worn by the little boy: “MY MOM & DAD WENT TO CALIFORNIA BUT ALL I GOT WAS THIS DUMB T-SHIRT.”