Agnès Varda is nothing short of a living legend. She will turn ninety next month and has been making films for seven decades which is remarkable considering in those seven decades very little has necessarily changed to make it easier for women directors to have a long career. She is one of the key filmmakers of the French New Wave movement and the movement’s only woman. And unlike most other filmmakers she has made movies almost exclusively out of the purview of studio executives, which means that for seven decades we have been blessed with a director of remarkable talent and unique vision only making films that interest her in the way she specifically wants them to be made.
Unfortunately for me, I managed to avoid most of her work simply out of a lack of effort. Her films are a little hard to track down and for years that was a good enough excuse for me to ignore her work. This post is my first major attempt to correct that. And it has been nothing if not one of my most rewarding film journeys:
LE BONHEUR (1965)
The movie opens on a picture-perfect scene: a husband lays in his wife’s arms on a bright summer day in a pastoral setting reminiscent of Monet. Their two children join them and together they walk through the fields. They are, without a doubt, a portrait of happiness. It would seem impossible that anything could break the bonds of happiness formed in this family. But of course, it does and in the most cliche form: the happy father seemingly cannot be happy enough and begins an affair with another woman. And his justification for the affair is even more cliche, as each woman seemingly makes him happy in different ways thus he is an even better and happier man as a result. And for both women, to voice complaints or objections about the arrangement he came up with himself is to deny himself this newfound happiness. This is a problem seeing as both women have defined their purposes as bringing a man happiness. It would seem like a maddening capitulation to a toxic masculinity until you realize that this is precisely Varda’s point, that to define a woman by a man’s happiness cannot result in anything but the diminishing of her personhood (a clue: listen to the music). Those who don’t get this point due to the movie’s deceptive cheeriness naturally might leave unhappy that he sort of gets away with it while those who do get it might be offended for the way it undermines the patriarchal notion of a man being head of his household. For Varda the message is clear: the pursuit of a man’s happiness at all costs is ultimately nothing more than a poison pill. Even the brightest summer days eventually turn to the death of autumn.
THE GLEANERS AND I (2000)
The film takes its title from a Jean-Francois Millet painting depicting three gleaners in a field which serves as a jumping off point for a meandering and free-flowing exploration of how that ancient gleaning tradition has evolved into modern use. Varda explores people who still glean much like the gleaners in the painting, scavenging up food in farms that isn’t harvested by increasingly sophisticated machines for themselves. She also follows a group of unemployed young people who traipse through dumpsters in order to get their own food (what she would make of today’s fully-employed dumpster divers would make for an interesting follow-up movie). Along the way she comes to realize that she too, as a filmmaker, is a gleaner of sorts who picks and scavenges through her own experiences and the experiences of others to develop her own stories. As she is making her first film here on a digital camera, you can sense her liberation as she is freed from the more meticulous style of traditional film. Much like her most recent documentary Faces Places (2017), this film also finds Varda contemplating her legacy and mortality as she presumes her end is near (her worries proved to be premature and she is still active today at 89). And thankfully she views her mortality not as a reason to close ranks, but to throw abandon to the wind and film what interests her, when it interests her, and for no other purpose than she finds it interesting. She shines a light in The Gleaners and I on the people who don’t normally fit into a conventional societal role, the ones who aren’t shiny and polished and finished products. And that is exactly what makes them worthy of notice. As the true kickoff to Varda’s directorial interests in the 21st century, it is an invigorating discovery.
CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7 (1962)
When my wife was pregnant with our first child we had a medical test come back as inconclusive but potentially problematic and were told we’d have to redo the test in two weeks for a more conclusive result. And I just remember that for those two weeks I walked in a hapless auto-pilot haze as I was too distracted to do anything but the bare minimum to function, but I was also unwilling to give into my deepest fears of my unborn child’s health leading me in an existential limbo (it ultimately turned out to be nothing and my child is now a healthy three and a half year old). I mention this because the first time I watched Cléo From 5 to 7 I appreciated it but did not necessarily fall in love with the movie, but I had not ever experienced my own medical scare. Now having gone through that myself, it is just remarkable how perfectly Varda captures the existential helplessness that is waiting to hear if your life is going to be irreparably changed forever or if you’ve been let off the hook. The movie details, as the title suggests, two hours in the life of Cléo Victorie, a famous singer, as she waits to hear from her doctor to see if she has cancer. Driven to distraction and despair, she wanders through the town and meets up with friends and acquaintances in increasingly desperate attempts to keep her mind of the impending diagnosis. Wherever she goes there is the sinking feeling of knowing that most of the world goes on normally in spite of her existential pain and that her mortality has very little universal significance. There is the clear sense that whatever the diagnosis turns out to be, the mere threat of death has shifted her own perception of her position in the world and unsettled her own cleverly constructed narratives of herself. It is a sobering movie but also incredibly honest, anchored by a star-making performance by Corinne Marchand as well as the truly revolutionary and assured direction of Agnés Varda. In both Marchand and Varda’s hands, Cléo is allowed to be a complex mess of contradictions and to be a woman who struggles with her place in a world defined by men. In the all-too often masculine world of the French New Wave this movie provides a much needed and far-too-rare mature feminine voice to the proceedings.
The movie begins with a farmworker finding the body of a woman in a ditch. It becomes quickly apparent that no one knows who she is, the few people who recognize her conclude that she was a vagrant and eventually she is buried in an unmarked grave. From this moment Varda turns the clock back to paint a portrait of this woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) who we later find out is named Mona entirely through the random assortment of people she meets along the way. Using mostly nonprofessional actors, Varda’s humanistic touch is on full display, as is her seemingly undying interest in people on the margins of society as Mona meets up with fellow vagabonds, vineyard workers, farmers while travelling to places not often visited. The movie has an eerily hypnotic feel to it, as the camera frequently hovers around Mona without focusing on her, as if we too are aimless vagrants on the edge of the world. There is much to be admired in Mona’s plight, as she stands as a brave rejection of most societal conventions. But because this is a Varda film, we’re not allowed simply to revel in that simplistic life choice as she is just as interested in highlighting the naivety and selfishness that inspires Mona’s choice as much as she celebrates Mona’s liberty. Varda has said that she wanted to make Vagabond to “film what freedom and dirt feel like.” It is quite obvious that she succeeded.
THE BEACHES OF AGNÉS (2008)
What is wonderful about Agnès Varda’s late period is that every new film she has produced in this period has a wonderful sense of melancholy that this could be the final work of the master. And at 81 Varda seems to assume this will be the case as she pours her heart into every new project. In this case we have Varda at her most reflective as she creates what amounts to a visual memoir of her life that was obviously meant to function as the final capstone to her remarkable career (she would be wrong about this being her last film of course). Filled with her impeccable wit and warmth Varda walks pretty much chronologically through all the important locations of her life. She uses old photographs, trinkets she has obviously gleaned through her life, reenactments, film clips from her movies, and interviews with old acquaintances to paint a marvellously rich and self-deprecating portrait of her truly wonderful life. In The Beaches of Agnès we have the rare opportunity to hear a living legend muse on the significance of her work and career while giving us a first-hand view at her creative process, and the results rather than being self-congratulatory are truly illuminating. She reflects on her place as the only woman in the French New Wave movement where she at once downplays her trailblazing nature as simply an act of survival in a man’s industry which simply emphasizes even more just how remarkable her career has been. With her entire life examined side-by-side as it is in The Beaches of Agnès it cannot help but punctuate that Varda with her unique eye and inimitable voice is simply one of the all-time great movie directors and perhaps one of the great all-time artists. We can only hope that she will make more great “last-ever” films like these.