The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Film Features

Agnès Varda: Walking Backwards Moving Forwards
Robert Barry , October 14th, 2009 13:24

"I'm playing the part of a little old lady," says Agnès Varda, walking backwards against the sunset on one of the many beaches to feature in her latest, autobiographical film, Les Plages D'Agnès. I wonder what part she is playing for me today as she bumbles about the offices of her UK distributers, Artificial Eye, poking into different rooms, smiling amiably. "I'm not somebody else," she tells me, talking about the difference between working in film, photography or installation art. "Or, I'm a thousand women in one." The film presents Varda's life, much like the first 'official' self-portrait she shows within it, as a mosaic, a collage, and, as such, it is a film not just about about Varda herself but "a point of view about cinema." In a sense, for Varda there is no gap here, but rather a direct continuity between life and art, memory and cinema: "The mind zaps all the time. We can zap through our memories, and we can zap through film too."

Though she has been called 'the grandmother of the French new wave', Agnès Varda was no cinéaste film buff like Truffaut or Chabrol. In fact, she claims that when she made her first film she had only seen about ten others. Her influence came far more from painters, like Paul Cézanne (painter of everyday life and ordinary people), Claude Monet (whose dappled light and smudged colours infused Varda's Le Bonheur), and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. As such, her work can be seen to act as a kind of bridge between the impressionist and poetic realist films of Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Jean Cocteau, and the more free-wheeling documentarian style of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd. What links both groups of film-makers with Varda and the impressionist painters she so loved was a preference for capturing subjects en plein air, and a fascination with the effects of natural light — which Varda claims to love "more than anything."

Perhaps nowhere is this bridge more apparent than in Varda's first film, La Pointe-Courte. Visiting the western Mediterranean district familiar from her youth — initially to take some photographs for a friend — the decision to make a feature film seems to have occured quite spontaneously, almost as an afterthought. What resulted was, in effect, rather like two films in one: an almost ethnographic, if deeply affectionate, portrait of the daily lives of the local residents; and the (scripted) story of a couple on the verge of breaking up, shot largely through strikingly composed close-ups that anticipate Bergman's Persona but whose chief influences were Georges Braque and Pierro della Francesca.

If, upon hearing stories such as that of La Pointe-Courte's origins — or her claim to have written two picnics into Le Bonheur because she liked picnics while her husband (Jacques Demy) did not, and filming it would allow her a month of picnics — we are tempted to paint Varda as something of an opportunist, we should do so only in the best possible sense. Cinema, for Agnès Varda, is in itself an opportunity. An opportunity to learn from her subjects, to be led by her imagination and the inner logic of the images to a better understanding of people. The film acts almost like a thought experiment, through the experience of which everyone involved — author and audience alike — develops a better understanding of other people, through what she calls a "common denominator of knowledge and understanding."

Le Bonheur ('happiness') can be seen as just such a thought experiment: the story of a man very happily married with children (played by Jean-Cluade Druout and his real life wife and kids) who meets another woman, falls in love and becomes even happier. "Happiness," he says, "works by addition." The story is followed through without judgement but with an insistence on following actions through to their consequences. An eerily pervasive sense of dread fills the whole film — not present in the characters themselves or the things they say, but instead in a near conspiracy of non-human actors: animals, signs, objects, and colours. Filmed entirely in the glorious sunlight of high summer, the impressionist haze of the Fontenay countryside fades ominously to stark blocks of primary colour that recall Mondrian.

Varda is dismissive of the notion, oft suggested in the sixties, that what linked her films with those of her husband was a love of colour. "We lived in the same house. We shared food, bed, children, holidays, our friends, but we never worked together. I don't think [our films] have the same values, not even the same world." Varda and Demy were married from 1962 until his death in 1990 from AIDS related illnesses, bearing one son, the actor Mathieu Demy. Prior to his death, Demy wrote extensive memoirs regarding his childhood growing up in the north-west city of Nantes, in the Loire valley. These memoirs were then filmed by Varda as Jacquot de Nantes: part biopic, part essay on the continuity between cinema and life, with scenes from Demy's memoirs juxtaposed with images from his films — an anecdote about a mechanic becomes a scene involving mechanics in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, for instance. Demy would visit the set from time to time and give his approval, knowing perhaps that he was looking not just at his past but also his future, his existence beyond death guaranteed both by his own work and his wife's loving tribute.

The ghost of Jacques Demy haunts Les Plages d'Agnès and hovers around some of its most poignant moments. And though she is unwilling to discuss which is her favourite out of her own films, she does admit to loving many of her husband's, especially Les Demoiselles de Rochfort — "His most joyful film" — which she has been personally involved in the restoration of. If there is one thing we might say unites the films of Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy, it is a cetain attention to the poetry of just-missed connections and coincidental encounters; somthing most often associated with Jacques Tati. Les Demoiselles de Rochfort is full of these moments — this is the very fabric from which the film is woven — and they are almost as prevalent in La Bonheur and her second feature, Cléo de 5 à 7.

As well as being the year of her marriage, 1962 was also the year of Varda's inuagural nouvelle vague film: Cléo de 5 à 7, featuring cameo appearances (in a mini film-within-a-film) from Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. The story, of a singer afraid she has cancer encountering a soldier about to leave for Algeria, is frequently anchored by subtitles informing us of the passing of time, reminding us of the differences between psychological time, mechanical time, and cinematic time. Madonna once expressed an interest in remaking Cléo de 5 à 7 with herself in the lead (Varda said Madonna had the same "angelic face" as Corinne Marchand, the original Cléo), but the real magic of this film is not its star — who comes across mostly as petulant and somewhat spoilt — but the background cast. Cléo de 5 à 7 is full of crowd scenes — in cafes, bars, on buses, and so forth — in each of which we're given fleeting glimpses into the lives and stories of countless other characters as we eavesdrop on their private conversations. It is precisely these stories, these smaller stories of everyday people as opposed to the portrait of a singing star of the film's ostensible plot, that make the film so fascinating and enchanting.

Her biggest success came with Sans Toit Ni Loi (or 'Vagabond' as its UK distributers humourlessly retitled it), the story of young drifter called Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) alone on the road. As the various people she meets along the way relate their frequently negative and mean-spirited impressions of her in interviews direct to the camera, the images we see of her life tell a different story, revealing a gentle humanity, steely phlegmaticism and a strangely inspirational free-spiritedness. Only the cinema is able to tell the truth about people. What Bazin called the 'ontological realism' of the camera cuts through the superficial impressions of the villagers to reveal a more profound, truer representation of the film's heroine. The whole thing is leant a tragic dimension by the knowledge, revealed to us at the start of the film, that it can all only end in her death. Throughout the film, further and further apart from each other as the film progresses, there are scattered a series of linked scenes (one ends on a shot of a phone box, the next starting with a phone box; another ends with a road sign, and the next starts with one, and so on). In each of these scenes, the camera moves from left ro right, almost always following the steps of Mona, accompanied by the tense post-tonal music of Polish composer Joanna Bruzdowicz. The purpose of these scenes, Varda reveals, is to enclose the film in a "dance of death."

Music has always played a significant part in Varda's films, and her musical choices always show a great attention to detail. In La Pointe Courte, a great deal of the story-telling is done in the contrast between the austere dodecaphony of composer Pierre Barbaud (who would become the first French composer to work extensively in computer music, founding the Groupe de Musique Algorithmique de Paris) and the somewhat merrier airs locaux. "I don't like specialists," she tells me, comparing 'specialist' film composers to "specialists in music for hotels, specialists in advertising". In Les Plages d'Agnès, snatches of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony — the only classical music Varda knew as a child — recur fleetingly throughout, like a little refrain to mark time and mark a territory whilst simultaneously fleeing from both.

Despite photographing both Castro's Cuba and Mao's China, Varda denies any direct political affiliation: "I never was in any party, I never signed for anybody — not the socialists, not the communists, not nothing; not even the women's groups, because I don't like to be in a group." Nonetheless, she has campaigned and rallied for feminist causes such as abortion rights, and made an experimenetal documentary in the seventies on the subject of women's relationships with their bodies: Réponse de Femmes. She remains cautious towards Hélène Cixous's notion of a particular écriture féminine, though admits there are things she would never film (such as rape) and talks of the way she performs her own gender in various ways in her latest film. "I have to respect Cixous," she says, "but my fight is not to make an écriture féminine but to make an écriture of the cinema — a cinécriture."

More rive gauche than gauchiste then, Varda is ultimately one of the great humanist directors of the late twentieth century. Her concern is with filming simple human stories in a manner that is at all times totally specific to the cinema, and with exploring and exploiting to the fullest the cinematic in the service of a better understanding among people. Her latest film is no exception: a cinematic essay about life and film as a kind of moebius strip in which each is defined ultimately by its relations to its other. "I'm playing the part of a little old lady," she says, "telling her life story. And yet it's others I'm interested in, others I like to film. Others who intrigue me, motivate me, make me ask questions, disconcert me, fascinate me." She remains amongst the most fascinated and fascinating directors working today; still exploring, still daring, still as brilliant as ever.