Agnes Varda: An Artist of The Times

One of the greatest film-maker of the French New Wave, Agnes Varda passed away on 29 March, two months before she would turn 91. Varda was a prolific filmmaker and continued making her personal and reflective films until she could. Her last film, Varda by Agnes just released last month. Her penultimate film, Faces Places, co-directed by JR, is a beguiling masterpiece which fittingly closes the chapter on her outstanding filmmaking career, spanning almost seven decades, on a soaring note.

Agnes Varda: An Artist of The Times Agnes Varda: An Artist of The Times Source : M. Pelletier|Getty Images


Throughout her career, Varda has explored female subjectivity through a variety of female characters. In The Beaches of Agnes, Varda includes excerpts from her second film, Cléo de 5 à 7, in which she interrogates female subject formation, images of women, and societal standards of beauty for the first time. Cléo, Mona, Jane, and she herself are different female protagonists through whom Varda explores representations of female subjectivity in layered ways, thereby altering traditional depictions of women as narrative and visual accessories.


Varda's refusal to be easily positioned, either politically or cinematically, has continued throughout her complex career. In The Beaches of Agnes, she continues to renegotiate stories of her life and career. Where others might sum things up, she has rejected reductive social and artistic categorizations. She challenges familiar understandings of her life and work by bringing new material to light and suggesting new avenues for interpretation. While this might be seen as disclosure or personal revelation, Varda insists on leaving interpretation ambiguous and in play. Varda's films invoke different media, and the conventions associated with them, across her career. They raise issues beyond the surface narrative-questions of identity and politics-and they explore documentary and self-reflexive cinematic practice.


Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961)


Cleo From 5 to 7 is an iconic film, made at the height of the French New Wave movement of the 1950s and '60s, and was used by Cannes to invoke Varda's long-standing reputation as the innovative ‘mother of the New Wave.' Cleo "posit a feminist critique of patriarchal structures through their critical explorations of both the production of femininity and its representations, yet they are often not understood as such."


"Varda's first film La Pointe Courte (1954) is widely praised as an important precursor to the French New Wave, anticipating the hallmarks of the movement. Cléo was made in 1961 at the height of the New Wave. The film portrays a female pop star awaiting the results of a biopsy, who, in crisis, breaks with expectations and roams the streets of Paris seeking solace with the individuals she encounters. Varda's playful, creative camera, which follows Cléo's trajectory through contemporary Paris, and her experiments with cinematic narration and editing were seen to exemplify hallmarks of the movement-the expression of the individual director and experimentation with film form. This has made Cléo an iconic New Wave film and in subsequent decades, as part of a broader reconsideration of the cultural politics of the New Wave, both the film and Varda herself have come to be interpreted as feminist. Scholars focus on the transformation of Cléo from passive, erotic object to active subject. For example, in the first half of the film, the camera and the gazes of other characters linger on Cléo's body, conveying her passivity as an object. In the film's second half, point-of-view shots represent her increasing agency as an active, seeing subject.


Cleo had been backed by New Wave producer Georges de Beauregard; it was creative and improvisational filming on the streets of contemporary Paris; and, as the story of a fictional young blonde pop star, it fit in many ways with how the New Wave was being championed. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the New Wave had been formally identified as a movement and was often associated with the explosion of popular culture being marketed to a generation of French youth (drawing on its contemporary and sometimes sexualized female subjects). Cléo was celebrated as fresh, modern, and formally innovative in the context of the New Wave, and in subsequent decades it has been heralded by scholars as an important feminist film."


Vagabond (1985)


"In 1985, Varda made Vagabond, her best-known feature, which chronicled the final two months in the life of a young woman wandering in the south of France during a bitterly cold winter. The French title plays on an expression in French, sans foi ni loi, "godless and lawless," with its connotation of both fearlessness and ruthlessness.


Back in Paris, finding funding to shoot another feature was so difficult that she nearly gave up feature-length filmmaking. Nevertheless, she forged ahead with the making of Vagabond, inspired by her positive experience with the experimental shorts filmed in the summer of 1984. Despite her enthusiasm, nothing about Vagabond-the financing, the shoot itself, securing a distributor-would be easy.


With Vagabond, Varda added a new element of experimentation: the construction of a complex female character who embodied the ultimate unknowability. Varda's planning notes emphasize the opacity of her protagonist: "we never know what Mona thinks" and "she says very little about herself." It's not that Varda had not bothered to think through Mona's backstory. An early draft of the screenplay contains an exchange between Mona and Professor Landier, the tree plague expert, in which Mona speaks of having lived with foster families and in an orphanage with her three siblings, but even this fragment of information was withheld from the final version of the film. Instead, Varda's goal was to "show the facts and the gestures of Mona, seen, recounted or thought by others." In Varda par Agnès, Varda calls her characterization of Mona a "puzzle-portrait". In the many interviews she has given about Vagabond, Varda emphasizes that instead of constructing a conventional character, she wanted to capture Mona's gestures and her daily movements. "What interests me is how Mona lives out her days, how she bears the cold and the solitude and why she walks and where.""


The Gleaners and I (2001)


"Ten years after Demy's death, Varda rebooted herself as a committed documentarist, experimenting with new forms and modes of narration while asserting her place as a viable, even beloved, figure in international art cinema with The Gleaners and I. The Gleaners would be Varda's first digital film, a feature-length documentary about the long-standing practice of 'gleaning' in France, originally a desperate scavenging for remnants of crops after the main harvest had taken place, and more figuratively a form of grazing for table scraps and leftovers in a variety of contexts, both social and cultural. The film is a fast-moving, heterogeneous work, more road movie than agitprop. Varda manages to criticize industrial farming's wasteful production practices while maintaining a witty and improvisational tone.


The backbone of the film consists of interviews of gleaners-from Paris to southern France to the island of Noir moutier-who glean out of need or desire. We meet poor people who must supplement their diets with leftover produce from urban markets and rural fields, an environmentalist from Aix-en- Provence who forages in dumpsters in protest against waste, and artists who seek discarded objects for their work. Varda stumbles upon famed psychoanalytic theorist and winemaker Jean Laplanche, who is happy to tell Varda why gleaning has been outlawed in Burgundy, and another winemaker who is a descendant of cinema pioneer Etienne-Jules Marey. The film also contains brief segments touching on a wide range of subjects that have little do with gleaning but that, taken together, provide a portrait of the filmmaker: Varda's love of painting, observations about her aging body, and her fascination with her digital video camera.


Although one of the primary themes of The Gleaners and I is the scandal of waste and hunger in an era of industrial farming, the film does not seek primarily to invite the viewer's pity or outrage or to criticize directly those who perpetrate the waste. Varda's rhetorical project is not to lecture the viewer about the problems of waste or hunger, but instead to demonstrate through her filmmaking technique and her own on-camera persona the beauty and humanity in things, practices, and people that have been rejected or marginalized. Neither lecturing nor employing the observational strategies of a Frederick Wiseman or a Nicholas Philibert, Varda instead foregrounds authorial intervention and the strategy of digression. The film's constant, playful shift in attention from paintings of gleaners to practices of gleaning and to Varda's self-portraiture work simultaneously to encourage a way of looking at the world that rewards openness to unexpected encounters and a respectful curiosity about others. This of course is her way of looking at the world."


The Beaches of Agnes (2008)


"In The Beaches of Agnès, Varda again invokes various media within her film to explore questions of her identity, focusing on themes of age, gender, speech at the awards ceremony, she engages the celebration of her life's work but also challenges it by raising broader questions about her place as a female filmmaker. suppressed memory, and nostalgia.  In 2008, at age 80, Varda released The Beaches of Agnès-a complex artistic meditation on her life and career that she describes as a self-portrait. Varda makes herself the object of documentary scrutiny, seemingly revealing highly personal information, which many critics have accepted as her emotional candor or her life story revealed. Indeed, the filmmaker herself classifies The Beaches as documentary.


The film reviews her childhood, her career as a filmmaker and artist, the process of aging, life with her late husband, Jacques Demy, and her subsequent widowhood. It is roughly chronological, but continually moves back and forth between Varda speaking directly to the camera (in a poignant and seemingly personal manner) in the present and providing voice - over narration and clips of previous work, historical film footage and photographs, or family photos and film. Varda highlights her ongoing process of reconstruction and her enduring belief in the incompleteness of her own story. She renegotiates her own legacy, resisting simplifying her life into easy summary and therefore denying a conclusion to a career that has spanned more than six decades. This strategy is, if not expected, not entirely surprising, either. Varda is a feminist filmmaker who has been making films that complicate attempts to pin her down or associate her work with a single-or simple-position. It seems fitting, then, that Varda would choose to strategize once again and in doing so, cast her work and life into a particular kind of relief, toward the end of her career.



In fact, Varda deliberately blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, participating in a much larger mixing of modes once thought to be antithetical. She positions herself as both the film's narrator and main character, underscoring the role of subjective memory in interpreting the past. Varda denies traditional conventions associated with the documentary genre: objective presentation, consistent historical reconstruction, and thorough exposition of the chosen topic. If conventional documentary often employs an overarching framework to give coherence to the portrayal of a biography and history, Varda withholds such a framework. If traditionally, history is narrated chronologically and as complete and separate from the present, Varda narrates from the point of view of the present, exploring the fragmentary and distorted nature of her retrieval of the past. Varda illustrates the fraught project of trying to create a historical reconstruction of one's life, by emphasizing the uncertainty of her memory and her increasing forgetfulness. She captures the uncertainty of memory visually. Throughout the film, Varda revisits beaches that have marked her life.


Varda creates a disjunctive combination of truth and fiction. She publicly acknowledges her marital separation during this period, while she protects her privacy by relying on fiction films and contributes to the continued distortion of the relationship between artist and oeuvre. Despite the film's insistence on the incompleteness of its reconstruction of the past, it also reopens consideration of Varda's life and career. It makes sense that as she looks back at her career, she confronts the important narrative that has shaped reception of her work: the question of her position in the New Wave. Varda includes an interview with her colleague Chris Marker in which she tells a familiar story about the New Wave. As this occurs, she incorporates various images, including a reworking of another Magritte image, to question the surface narrative. Marker is represented by the cartoon cat Guillaume, who asks her about the New Wave in a robotic voice, conveying how often this question has been asked."


In 2015 Cannes festival, the organizers described their decision to honor Varda that year: "Her work and her life are infused with the spirit of freedom, the art of driving back boundaries, a fierce determination and a conviction that brooks no obstacles...Simply put, Varda seems capable of accomplishing everything she wants."



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References:

Rebecca J. DeRoo-Agnes Varda between Film, Photography, and Art-University of California Press (2017)

Kelley Conway - Agnes Varda-University of Illinois Press (2015)

Cybelle H. McFadden - Gendered frames, Embodied Cameras- Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (2014)

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