Beginners Guide: Agnès Varda, Director
In an industry famously inhospitable to women, Agnès Varda has been quietly and consistently surpassing expectations, for more than five decades. This is our guide to the legendary Godmother of French New Wave cinema.
In an industry famously inhospitable to women, Agnès Varda has been quietly and consistently surpassing expectations, for more than five decades.
Varda was born in Belgium in 1928, moving at age twelve to the French seaside town of Sète. Though fond of her childhood home (it would provide the setting for her first feature, and instill in her a lifelong love of beaches and the seaside), as a young adult she moved to Paris, where she studied art history and photography at the Ècole de Louvre. She was then hired as a still photographer at the Théâtre National Populaire.
It was this love of photography that drew Varda to cinema. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she had no great love of cinema before she started to make movies. In fact, she’d only seen twenty films in her whole life! It was her desire to combine her twin passions of photography and literature, pictures and words, that led Varda to pick up a movie camera.
Cleo From 5 to 7 was the film that propelled Varda to stardom as the only female member of the French New Wave. Recommended to New Wave producer Georges Beauregard by husband-to-be, Jacques Demy, she joined the ‘Left Bank’ contingent of the movement, alongside friends Alan Resnais and Jean-Pierre Melville. The Left Bank group were as a whole more liberal and experimental in their film-making than their more famous colleagues who originated as Cahiers du Cinema critics, like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
Varda’s career continued long after the New Wave ended: she has produced stellar works in every decade since the 1950’s, encompassing a broad range of styles and issues, whilst certain themes recur again and again. Here I will guide you through the most important films of her 50 years in the industry, reflecting on why they matter, and how they have contributed to Varda’s magnificent ouvre.
La Pointe Courte (1955)
Varda’s first feature is a simple one. Set in a French seaside town called Le Pointe Courte, the 75-minute film follows a married couple, played by Phillippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort, as they walk around the town and intimately discuss their floundering relationship. The scenes are interspersed with those of village life; the death of a child, an illicit romance and a health inspector who threatens the livelihood of all the town’s fishermen.
La Pointe Courte was filmed in Varda’s childhood home of Sète, and her familiarity and fondness for the place is obvious. She films the textures of the town with a loving lense; her camera often wanders away from the people in shot to focus on a passing cat, or sunlight playing on the water. Her photographic nous is put to good use throughout.
Though the French New Wave is considered to have started with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), LaPointe Courte is widely thought to be one of the movement’s most important ancestors, earning Varda the moniker ‘Godmother of the New Wave’, at the tender age of 27, Many elements of the film would become hallmarks of Le Nouvelle Vague; more importance being placed on form than plot, innovative, un-subtle editing techniques, the use of non-professional actors (also a common technique of the Italian Neorealists, and dialogue preoccupied with the existential.
Cleo From 5 To 7 (1962)
Varda’s second film is her most famous, standing in the pantheon of the French New Wave classics alongside A Bout De Soufflé and Jules et Jim. Taking place in real time, it follows lounge singer Florence (Corinne Marchand) between the hours of 5 and 6.30pm, as she awaits some important medical results. Along the way she gets her fortune told, meets her lover, goes shopping and to a café, and has a life-changing conversation with a total stranger.
Cleo From 5 to 7 marks the first film of Varda’s that could explicitly be labelled feminist. Though her interest in feminism would become more overt in her later films, Cleo is a well-drawn woman with agency. She’s often unsympathetic, her narcissism and hypochondria rendering her self-obsessed, yet she’s treated with empathy.
If you are just planning to watch one Agnès Varda film, it should be this one; it’s the epitome of all her best qualities. There are few black and white films as visually stunning as Cleo, and Varda’s compositional skills, as ever, are second to none. The film is also a great time capsule, much of it taking place on the achingly cool Parisian streets of the early sixties. It captures much of the social unrest that was happening in France at the time; the character of Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) giving voice to the many young men frightened of being sent to fight in Algeria.
Le Bonheur (1968)
The family at the centre of Le Bonheur seem completely perfect: Francois and Therese (Jean-Claude and Claire Druot) are in love and apparently devoted to each other, and their children are adorable. But when Francois falls for Emilie (Marie-Frances Boyer), and raises the possibility of an open marriage, their happy family unit is challenged.
Varda imbued Le Bonheur with a lot of ambiguity. Even now, nearly 50 years after its release, audiences are conflicted as to the meaning of that elusive final act. Upon first glance it seems a surprisingly anti-female pronouncement on relationships. After further reflection, it more closely resembles a furious indictment of the patriarchy.
However you read it, the film’s visual beauty is undeniable. Le Bonheur is Varda’s first film in colour, and what colour! Each frame is lush and vibrant, resembling a painting more than it does real life. Depending on your reading of the film, the picturesque palette might also take on a more political meaning.
An interesting side note; Francois and Therese are played by a real life married couple (the children are their actual children), who remain together today, nearly 50 years later. A rare case of real life being happier than the movies.
One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1977)
One Sings, The Other Doesn’t follows the friendship of two women between the early sixties and mid seventies. When we meet her, Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) is 17 years old. She’s kicked out of home when her parents discover the money they gave her for a school trip was actually used to fund the abortion of her older friend Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard). This doesn’t faze the forthright and independent Pauline; she moves in with a friends and sets about advancing her burgeoning singing career.
Meanwhile, Suzanne struggles to adjust to life as a single mother after the suicide of the children’s father. Pauline helps out all she can, but circumstances keep the two apart for years. They meet again at a women’s right rally, and over the rest of the film, catch up on what they’ve missed.
If you didn’t know, you’d never guess that One Sings, The Other Doesn’t was written and directed by the same person who made La Pointe Courte, Cleo From 5 to 7, or Le Bonheur. Those earliest films of Varda’s are all ninety minute or less, whilst this film is a full half hour longer. Those films were filmed with an achingly cool style; every shot beautifully composed. Here, style takes a backseat to the message of this urgent polemic. While Varda seems incapable of making a visually ugly film, here, style is no longer her priority.
Watching today, it’s hard to escape how badly it has dated, particularly the musical numbers. The events of the plot, particularly in the film’s second half, veer off into the ridiculous. Yet the potency of her message remains strong, even whilst these other elements have dulled with age.
In Vagabond, Varda tackles another social justice issue: homelessness. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Mona, a young female drifter, who when we first see her, has frozen to death in a field. The film then winds back to look at the last few weeks of her life, following her as she encounters many different people, some casually cruel, others surprisingly friendly, as she makes her way around rural France.
Varda filmed many documentaries, both shorts and feature lengths, over her long career. Though it is a fiction film, Varda treats it as a documentary, staging interviews with her actors and using reconstructions to weave a picture of Mona’s downfall.
Like Cleo, and many of her other female protagonists, Mona is a hard woman to like. She’s prickly and rude, when people do show her kindness she never seems very grateful. Yet the film shows convincingly what she’s had to cope with every day, and how the dangers are different for a female drifter than a male. The risk of sexual violence is ever-looming. Many people she encounter don’t take her plight seriously, assuming she’s just playing the part in order lure men.
In the end, even more than it is about homelessness, Vagabond is an entreaty to pay more attention to the people you pass on the street. It’s a plea for kindness and empathy, particularly toward society’s most vulnerable.
Jacquot De Nantes (1991)
Varda was married to fellow New Wave pioneer Jacques Demy from 1962 until his death, ten days after this film film finished shooting. Jacquot De Nantes follows him through his childhood, as his love of puppet shows, songs and cinema lead him to make his first film.
A lovingly assembled patchwork, Jacquot De Nantes is filmed both in colour and black and white, with recreated moments from his childhood interspersed with clips from the films that were inspired by them. Sprinkled throughout are appearances and reminiscences from the man himself, frail but glowing with nostalgia for his idyllic youth.
And it does seem idyllic. Demy was raised in his father’s garage by parents who loved each other and their two sons. Barely a scene goes by where someone isn’t singing, or creating something. Though much of the film takes place against the background of the Nazi occupation of Paris, its horrors don’t do much to impact upon the life of the young filmmaker.
Through his childhood appeared blissful, the film is shot through with a tangible current of melancholy. Demy wanted to make this film himself, but he was to ill to undertake the enormous challenge. You can feel Varda’s love for her husband in every frame, but particularly the extreme, languorous close-ups that make his hair, and his arm look like their own little worlds. It’s a deeply moving tribute to a deeply important man.
Epilogue: The Beaches of Agnès (2008)
Though she is still working (she has a documentary, Visages,Visages slated for release later this year) , Agnès Varda’s 2008 autobiography film, The Beaches of Agnes, has the feeling of a career-capper. Using a format similar to her work in Jacquot De Nantes, Varda takes a playful, patchwork look back at her long and lively life. She uses reconstructions, film clips and art installations to recreate some of her most important moments, re-encountering people who have been integral to her work.
This one film encapsulates Varda’s five decades in cinema. It incorporates the style of her early work, the politics of her middle period, and the emotion-fuelled nostalgia of her later films; a fittingly creative self-portrait of a cinematic pioneer.
Varda is an inspiration to so many for her long, consistent career, her trailbrazing in the French New Wave, and her unrelenting support for the causes she cares about. She’s paved the way for countless women in film, making it that little bit easier to break into an industry that remains so dominated by men. She is a true legend, with a body of work to prove it.
Have you seen any Agnès Varda films? Which is your favourite?
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