Essays · Movies

The Long Reigning Queen of French Cinema

Agnès Varda has directed dozens of unique, dreamy-yet-realist films over the past 60 years.
Varda By Agnès
By  · Published on August 7th, 2017

Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, I experienced one of the most magical moments of my life when I saw Agnès Varda in person. She was in Toronto for the festival, specifically to speak after a retrospective screening of her 1977 film, L’Une chante, l’autre pas, and I was merely working as an usher at the movie theater. When she walked past me — wearing an incredible red pant suit that matched her hair — I was acutely aware that I was in the presence of a legend. This is a woman who has been directing films since the mid-50s, and has been around for all the cinematic movements of the past 60 years. She has worked with other legends of French cinema, including Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and of course her husband, Jacques Demy.

If I seem to be rambling, it is only because I think so highly of Agnès Varda, and to be in her presence was a special experience. Jake Wilson of Senses of Cinema writes that she is a director who has never stopped working, but is “rediscovered” every so often. He notes that she is somewhat critically neglected, and has remained outside of the mainstream entertainment industry throughout her career. She is fairly well-known, but it is true that her films are small-budgeted, and frequently produced by her tiny production company, Ciné-Tamaris. This does not diminish her value as an artist however, and my goal is to provide an introduction to the works of this phenomenal director, as she deserves more recognition than she is typically given.

In Ginette Vincendeau’s lovely essay on Varda’s first feature, La Pointe Courte (1955), she notes that the director studied philosophy and art in Paris. Her studies clearly impacted the sensibilities and themes of her work throughout the years, and her films were no doubt influenced by the fact that she worked as a photographer for a period of time as well. Her artistic background allowed her to develop a thoughtful, lyrical filmmaking style which is quite distinctive. Vincendeau writes that Varda claims she had not seen any films before making her first feature (with the possible exception of Citizen Kane). Filmmaking clearly came naturally to Varda, who also had no professional experience in the film industry.

Her first feature turned out beautifully, with a mature and developed style despite any potential limitations. La Pointe Courte takes place in Sète in the south of France, in a small area of the town known as the fisherman’s village. Vincendeau points out that Varda lived in Sète during her adolescence, and this personal connection adds to the richness of the film. The film is essentially split into two narratives: one following the townspeople, and the other focusing on a married couple (Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort) who wander around the town contemplating whether or not to stay together.

The divide between the storylines — stylistically and in terms of acting style and content — is striking. Vincendeau notes that the film contains a multitude of contrasts — neo-realism and high culture, documentary and fiction, and urban and rural sensibilities. Varda captures the townspeople’s daily rituals — cooking food, taking care of children, fishing, and gossiping — in an ethnographic documentary style. These are not trained actors and she captures them using portable cameras and natural lighting, much like the Italian Neo-realist filmmakers did, as Vincendeau notes. In contrast to this, the storyline with the married couple is seemingly a precursor to the European art cinema — the characters wander and talk extensively about existential issues, their dreams, and their feelings. Varda frames them in off-center angles, frequently with their faces aligned much like the iconic shots of the two women in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). This is a more dreamy and poetic style of filmmaking than the gritty realism of the townspeople sequences. Vincendeau notes how remarkable it is that Varda was able to combine these complex styles and weave them together into a coherent whole. In this way, she created her own unique style in which form and content are fluid and ever-changing.

La Pointe Courte is also historically significant in that it is considered to be the first film of the French New Wave, or La Nouvelle Vague. Vincendeau points out that even though the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and François Truffaut are seen as the key works of La Nouvelle Vague, Varda’s La Pointe Courte was released years before them, and inadvertently fits perfectly into the movement. La Nouvelle Vague is typically defined as the moment in 1960s France wherein film critics-turned-directors turned out stylish, jumpy, youthful works shot on portable cameras. La Pointe Courte was shot on portable cameras using only the natural sunlight of southern France, mostly due to financial restraints — but it also comes across as a stylish choice, and points to the realism of the film. It is also clear that Varda had authorial control over the film, with its disparate storylines, poetically framed shots, and focus on poor peoples’ daily lives and feelings. This is a key hallmark of the Nouvelle Vague, with the directors believing it is a positive thing for the artist’s personality to shine through their work.

Varda’s next film, Cléo de 5 à 7 is also beautifully reflective of her authorial vision. The film follows Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a young singer who wanders around the Left Bank of Paris as she nervously awaits the results of a medical test. The film is precise, taking place in “real-time” — as Adrian Martin notes, the only way Varda could have been more precise is if she titled this 90-minute tale Cléo from 5 to 6:30. Martin quotes Varda as saying this film is a “portrait of a woman painted onto a documentary about Paris.” Her camera lovingly glides alongside Cléo as she briskly walks through the streets, sits in cafés, sings and lounges in her apartment, and wanders through parks and courtyards. Place and time are central to Cléo, as Varda has captured the specificities of Paris in the early 1960s, but in the sense that Cléo herself feels time weighing down on her as she contemplates her mortality.

The film is associated with La Nouvelle Vague, but as Martin notes, Varda fits more into the more mature “Left Bank” side of the movement, alongside directors such as Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. Cléo features some elements of the youthful Right Bank style — jazzy, jumpy editing, playful in-jokes such as the film-within-a-film starring Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina (two very important Right Bank figures), and its focus on a glamorous young woman, her fashion choices, and her obsession with her reflection. Martin writes that the key Left Bank elements in the film are its political references — a radio can be heard detailing news about the Algerian War — and its multi-perspectival approach, wherein every character who enters the frame has an important point of view worth focusing on. Title cards signify these shifts in focus, such as when Cléo meets a soldier named Antoine, and “Antoine from 6:12–6:15” flashes onto the screen. The references to the Algerian War create a sense of darkness just outside the frame, and Varda makes it clear that there are bigger conflicts and worldly problems than those of a young singer (while never dismissing Cléo’s existential panic.)

Varda’s next two pictures are colorful, jubilant works with the same thoughtful, philosophical core as Cléo and La Pointe Courte. Le Bonheur (1965) and L’Une chante, l’autre pas (1977) both focus on femininity, nature, and freedom, although they both tell very different stories. These films represent a strengthening of Varda’s authorial style, although it was fairly well-developed even from the beginning. Her authorial voice is even more confident in her next film — and one of her most well known — Vagabond (1985). The film is an honest, raw, heartbreaking look at the life of a homeless woman, Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire). It has a unique structure wherein the film opens with a shot of Mona’s dead body, and the narrative then flashes back to the time leading up to her death, mostly through stories told by those who encountered her. We are given a mosaic portrait of Mona made up of other peoples’ perspectives of her, rather than delving into her interior.

Toronto-based writer Tina Hassannia brilliantly discusses female homelessness in the summer 2013 edition of cléo journal (a feminist film journal named after Varda’s film!). She writes that female homelessness is typically an issue that remains invisible — it is assumed that the economic and social hardships men face do not affect women in the same way. In truth, women who reside at the intersection of gender and economic inequality face a range of horrors and heartbreaks, which Varda directly engages with in Vagabond. Hassannia notes that Vagabond focuses on how the characters’ opinions of Mona are shaped by societal power structures which assert that women should not be living on the street. Various characters — authority figures such as security guards, and residents of the towns Mona travels through — show disgust and distaste at Mona, from the way she looks and smells to her willingness to sleep, live, and eat wherever she pleases. Varda constructs a brilliant piece of work wherein peoples’ (unconscious) biases about homeless females are revealed and interrogated.

Although Varda has been hesitant to accept the label of “feminist” filmmaker as Adrian Martin notes, she has been politically-minded since the beginning of her career. Varda may not explicitly identify as a feminist, but her films are deeply in touch with feminist issues and female perspectives. Her left-leaning political sensibility is on display in the series of pithy yet powerful short films she has made throughout her career. Du côté de la côte (1958) humorously explores the tourist industry of the French Riviera, exploring how this beautiful area overflows with ridiculously-dressed tourists in the summer. Her 1968 film Black Panthers focuses on Oakland California, and the Black Panther protests over the arrest of Huey P. Newton. She steps back and points her camera towards the crowds of Black protesters, allowing them to share their differing opinions and viewpoints without any interference. Her 1975 short, Réponse de femmes: Notre corps, notre sexe (a personal favorite of mine) focuses on the female body, and how Western society is obsessed with it. Women speak back, appearing naked on camera and sharing their feelings on being a woman and being constantly objectified. Varda pushes back against mainstream ideology with her short films, allowing her subjects to advance alternative viewpoints and to be seen as individuals rather than as stereotypes.

At the turn of the millennium, Varda released Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, an essay-like documentary focusing on the concept of “gleaning” — originally defined as the act of gathering remnants of crops after a harvest. Varda takes this concept and expands it, connecting it to modern society, to art, and to herself. Jake Wilson writes that the film features ideas and themes that have been prominent throughout Varda’s career, such as a focus on crafts and rituals, as well as an up-close and empathetic view at the poor and marginalized, those who are typically excluded from the cinema. Varda follows urban gleaners, those people who look through trash and scraps to find vegetables and meat which are still edible, and appliances which can be fixed and used again. Some of her subjects express disgust at those who would allow perfectly good food and products to be thrown away when they can be salvaged and reused. These people engage in gleaning out of economic necessity, but Varda frames them in a poetic way, perhaps positing that this is a perfectly reasonable way to live one’s life.

Wilson points out Varda’s democratic approach to her subjects, and how she does not condescend or differ between any of them, despite their varying professionals and socioeconomic statuses. She interviews unemployed young people, gypsies, a magistrate and a psychotherapist, and she allows them to speak without passing judgment on them. This is a key element of Varda’s oeuvre: she always has utmost empathy and respect for her subjects and her characters. Everyone is allowed to tell their story and share their worldviews, without being judged or condescended to, even if Varda does not personally agree with them (she rarely makes it known whether or not she does). She also equates herself with her subjects, noting that she herself is a gleaner, collecting scraps of images on her digital camera as she travels around France. The images she captures — of the grass, of her hand, of a window, of her cat — could be seen as mundane or inconsequential, but when woven together through editing, they take on a poetic significance. Varda reflects on old age, economic status, and creative success in this film, while also providing a glimpse at a marginalized section of society which is rarely given a voice.

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Varda premiered her newest film, Visages Villages (out of competition.) Visages Villages is a collaborative documentary created by Varda and street artist JR, in which they travel around in JR’s van (which also doubles as a photography studio), interviewing and photographing subjects. As is always the case with Varda’s documentaries, her subjects are active participants, collaborating with Varda and JR on the portrait photographs being taken of themselves. Varda told Variety that she does not want to seduce her audience, but rather bring them on a journey with her and JR. Varda has never been the type of director to try and seduce and distract her audience, but rather, she speaks frankly to her spectators and encourages active thought and participation in her meditations on art, life, and meaning.

It is amazing that Agnès Varda is still making films — and more amazing still that she never really stopped. She is one of the most important French filmmakers, having essentially begun La Nouvelle Vague. She was present during the Oakland protests in the late 60s, and made films about Cuba and Vietnam. She has always told stories about women — complicated, at times difficult and confusing women — and about those who are disenchanted and disadvantaged. Varda is a tiny powerhouse of a woman, filled with deep and beautiful thoughts and ideas which she has an incredible talent for adapting onto the screen. She is an intuitive director, having no formal training yet still understanding the importance of framing, sound, editing, and narrative. Varda’s career, while at times overlooked, has been legendary, and there is a good chance that she will continue making movies well into her 90s. The world continues to be lucky to have a filmmaker like Agnès Varda in it.

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Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.