Rory Gibb discusses Agnès Varda and her work
Agnès and her cat Nini
Though renowned for directing films such as Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond, one of Agnès Varda’s most surprising mainstream successes was her turn of the century documentary, The Gleaners and I. This film – and its sequel, Two Years Later – were low-budget affairs in which Varda, armed with a portable digital camera, searched France for gleaners – those who find use for things others have discarded. We meet a variety of gleaners, from psychologists to potato farmers, from button collectors to homeless people. Ultimately, the audience is left with the suggestion that Varda herself is also a kind of gleaner – a director who finds stories of people on the margins and gives them a voice through film.
Varda knew well the experience of being an outsider. Throughout her life she was frequently on the move from city to city and country to country, and as she embarked on a film career in the 50s and 60s, she was one of the only female directors working in France. Though often donned, ‘the Grandmother of the French New Wave’, Varda’s involvement with the Nouvelle Vague was tenuous. True, she was friends with Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. But aside from La Pointe Courte, to which Resnais lent his editing skills, Varda’s films have few stylistic similarities to the works of these rive gauche directors. Crucially, unlike her male counterparts, Varda was not – at the outset of her career, at least – an avid cinephile. Prior to shooting her first feature she had zero aspirations to be a filmmaker, had barely seen any films, and, even after completing the project, still considered herself a photographer above all else. For their early New Wave efforts, directors such as Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol reached into the grab-bag of film history, pulled out the noirs of Hitchcock, the social misfits of Nicholas Ray, the lyricism of French poetic realism, and melded these influences into works which simultaneously broke new ground while paying homage to the past. Varda, meanwhile, approached film from something of a blank slate. Structurally inspired by William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, her 1955 debut, La Pointe Courte, seesaws between two contrasting plot threads: the troubles faced by the residents of the eponymous fishing village, and the strained relationship of an unnamed couple (played by Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort). Whilst Varda follows the villagers’ predicaments from a subdued, neorealist viewpoint, the sequences featuring Noiret and Monfort are highly stylised, featuring photographically composed faces which seem to presage Bergman’s Persona.
After La Pointe Courte, Varda went on to film several shorts which further solidified her artistic preoccupations. Whilst ostensibly commissions for the French tourism industry, the documentaries Along the Coast and Ô saisons, ô châteaux revealed Varda’s interest in travelogues and set the stage for her more politically charged 60s works, such as Salut les Cubains and Black Panthers. 1958’s L’opéra-mouffe, on the other hand, foregrounded women’s issues, a subject matter which would prove central to much of Varda’s work.
In her autobiographical film, The Beaches of Agnès, Varda recalls that she originally ‘tried to be a joyful feminist’ but found herself ‘very angry’. In 1971 she signed the Manifesto of the 343 and marched with her friend, the actress, Delphine Seyrig, in favour of abortion rights. Taking inspiration from these events, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, with its depictions of motherhood, abortion, and protest, is Varda’s most overtly feminist work, but her continued ‘rejection of a fixed version of female subjectivity’ is what, for scholar Delphine Bénézet, lends all of Varda’s films an unmistakeably ‘feminist stance’.
Just as Varda rejected a ‘fixed version of female subjectivity’, she also rejected fixed notions of genre and style. Cleo from 5 to 7, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, and Jane B. by Agnès V. all contain elements of the musical genre, yet none could be called a musical alone. In works such as Les Creatures, One Hundred and One Nights, and the shorts The Vanishing Lion and Les 3 Boutons, Varda crafts peculiar narratives which borrow from fantasy and science-fiction. Above all, in even the most seemingly fictional of her films, Varda imbues a sense of documentary realism. For instance, the café and street scenes from Cleo from 5 to 7 were filmed with real bystanders rather than extras. The overheard conversations, the drivers parking their cars, the men who ogle Cleo as she walks by – all of these are genuine, unrehearsed moments captured on film. Likewise, while shooting a sequence for her 1981 film, Documenteur, a couple began having an argument on the other side of the street. Varda quickly panned her camera over to them and the fortuitous scene remained in the final cut. The Gleaners and I is filled with tiny instances of chance encounters and discoveries. At the end of one interview, Varda lowers the camera to her side, capturing – by virtue of forgetting to stop recording – what she calls ‘The Dance of the Lens Cap’. And midway through filming a pile of discarded potatoes, Varda excitedly interrupts upon finding a potato shaped like a heart.
Varda’s post-1990 filmography, with its focus on mortality and the passage of time, can largely be seen as a series of reactions to the death of her husband, Jacques Demy. Demy was a successful director in his own right: his colourful musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort received widespread acclaim. While some of his later films – such as A Slightly Pregnant Man, Lady Oscar, and Une chambre en ville – shared Varda’s interest in gender and class, the couple preferred to keep their projects distinct from one another. By the end of the 80s, however, Demy was dying from AIDS and, unable to continue filmmaking, had begun writing down his childhood memories. From these notes, Varda constructed Jacquot de Nantes – a biopic which is both an elegiac portrayal of illness and a celebration of the magic of cinema. Across the two-hour runtime we switch back and forth between home video footage of Demy in the present and a dramatised version of his upbringing in the 30s and 40s. Although Varda shoots the majority of these historical scenes in black and white, she allows key moments to bloom into colour. Fairy tales, puppet shows, and Technicolor musicals temporarily illuminate the bleak greys of wartime Nantes, evoking the young Demy’s fantastic dream of escaping to faraway Hollywood. It wasn’t until 2008 that Varda would famously claim ‘if we opened people up, we’d find landscapes’, but a beautiful summation of this philosophy is already evident in Jacquot de Nantes. As the war ravages France, Jacques and his brother escape to the relative safety of the countryside. From a sweeping black and white shot of wheat fields in the breeze, Varda cuts to an extreme-close-up of the aging Demy’s greyed hair, linking the past to the present, the landscape to the person. In a contemporaneous interview, Varda was asked if Jacquot de Nantes was an attempt to stop time, to somehow prevent her husband’s death, if not in reality, then at least on film. ‘Not to stop time,’ Varda replied. ‘To accompany it.’ Demy died a week after the film finished shooting.
Save for the glorious – and criminally underappreciated – One Hundred and One Nights, all of Varda’s subsequent feature films were documentaries, often revisiting her older works in a process of self-examination and recontextualisation. Premiering only a month before her death at the age of 90, her final film, Varda by Agnès, follows the veteran director as she delivers a series of talks across France. Pulling examples from her decades-long career, she illustrates the three stages of her filmmaking process: ‘inspiration, creation, sharing’. About ten minutes into the film, she is joined by cinematographer and frequent collaborator, Nurith Aviv, who asks why Varda chose to make Daguerréotypes, a 1976 documentary about the everyday lives of Paris shopkeepers. Varda’s reply perfectly encapsulates why her films are so magical, so rewarding, and so humane. ‘Nothing,’ she explains, ‘is banal if you film people with empathy and love.’