Agnès Varda 1928–
French director and screenwriter.
Although her work is sometimes compared to that of her husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, Varda is more often grouped with Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. These filmmakers are considered, along with others, the "Left Bank group," directors pursuing various experimental styles and emphasizing technique in film. Varda worked with Resnais in editing her first film, La Pointe courte. Resnais was hesitant to greatly alter the work Varda had done, for he saw in the film cinematic ideas which he himself intended to realize. Many critics have indeed called Varda a forerunner of the nouvelle vague (new wave) movement in film.
Varda worked on La Pointe courte with almost no prior experience and little formal knowledge of filmmaking. In some ways, however, she had already acquired an intuitive conception of contemporary film theory, and had definite ideas of what she wanted to accomplish with the medium. "I had the feeling … that the cinema was not free, above all in its form, and that annoyed me," Varda states.
She was a still photographer for the Theatre Nationale Populaire, and this experience is stylistically reflected in her films. She independently produced her first work, and was then commissioned to film three short travelogues for the French Tourist Office. The project had inherent limitations, but O saisons, O châteaux and Du côté de la côte nonetheless display the original artistic personality of their maker.
A distinguishing trait of Varda's cinematic method is her attempt to distance the viewer from characters in the film. Part of her objective with such films as Cléo de 5 à 7 and Le Bonheur is to avoid establishing a relationship between the characters and the audience, so that the situation of the characters might be judged more than sympathized with. The focus on stylistic aspects in Varda's films, in addition, eclipses character and narrative content. Varda moves more toward narrative meaning and message in her recent work Une chant et l'autre pas. A study in feminism, the film has been termed simplistic but technically artful propaganda.
It is for her technical skill and innovation that Varda is most often praised by critics. The graceful artificiality of Varda's cinematic world adds a distinct style to contemporary film, as well as enlarging the possibilities of the art form.
According to the advertisement—which, for once, is true to the work being promoted—[La Pointe Courte] is a "film essay to be read," made up of two accounts: one about a couple who have been married for four years, and another about a fishing village (La Pointe Courte, near Sète). The film doesn't try to reproduce an experience or to prove any point. It tells its stories slowly, in rhythm with the consuming, transforming passage of time, in rhythm with inexorable time, under the glow of time that is beautiful as well.
Behind the suspect simplicity of the project, a number of secret intentions are hidden, left unstated because they are almost impossible to articulate. Some might fear they bear only a distant relationship to the direction and the handling of the actors.
Since the heroine of the film is in touch only with iron, and her partner only with wood, there is an intense moment of crisis when, at a certain moment, the saw cuts into a plank of wood. That is the kind of idea—I would not have discovered this one unaided!—that recurs in La Pointe Courte, as images that have been a bit too carefully "framed" follow one another, accompanied by exchanges of dialogue that are straight out of the highly intellectual theater of Maurice Clavel.
It is difficult to form a judgment of a film in which the true and the false, the true-false and the...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
[L'Opéra Mouffe] is a sensitive documentary, and, as such, "experimental" to the extent that it introduces imaginative moods into the documentary. We see lyrically, unaffectedly nude lovers; we see children playing monsters in masks; we see the pitifully old, the morally and physically misshapen. But is the method of showing these things imaginative enough? For one thing, it is uneven. At times, it is pretentious, arty, and banal (as in the young girl running slow-motion through a field and in the trapped dove) and at other times it simply "drifts" by adding one image statistically, rather than meaningfully, to another (as in the sequences of drunks and the people wiping their noses)…. Image added to image without development or impetus is not true montage but picture-magazine journalism…. Technically, L'Opéra Mouffe is a "suite," a series of facets, but these facets possess no unifying principle either intellectual or sensuous. Supposedly, one thinks: "How human! how pitiful! how sweet! how strange!… in brief: how lifelike!" Yet, however interesting and well-photographed in the conventional sense, the "anthology" attitude that life is an endless network of strange contradictions can never get, in terms of meaning, beyond the stage of clever reporting; it can never reach the stage of meaning that is art as an efficient form; it falls apart into the scattered materials of potential art.
(The entire section is 403 words.)
[A] French film that fairly glitters with photographic and cinematic "style," yet fails to do more than skim the surface of a cryptic dramatic theme, is "Cleo From 5 to 7."… Objectively, it might be favored as a fair example of the slick techniques of the French New Wave….
[The] film indicates at the outset that it is going to be a thing of fleeting moods, of casual illustration of the vagrant and fragile anxieties of a shallow girl….
Obviously, Mlle. Varda has wanted the changing scene to reflect the moods of her young woman, the encounters to counterpoint her thoughts. And, in some respects, she has succeeded, superficially but quite attractively. There are times when her girl is moving around Paris and picking up wisps of street music, or other times when she is listening to the chatter of her companions that flash little hints of haunting sorrow.
But, generally, Mlle. Varda is so absorbed with her camera stunts, as she is in that scene in the hat shop or when she is screening [a] comedy short, that the essential concentration on the heroine is neglected and the interest lost. The character becomes incidental to the techniques by which it is being explained.
Bosley Crowther, "'Cleo from 5 to 7'," in The New York Times (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1962, p. 43.
(The entire section is 224 words.)
[Cléo de 5 à 7] is a film that very much depends on the extent and nature of the sympathy you can find for the particular girl with whom you are invited to spend a hundred minutes during a crucial period in her life. She has two hours to wait for the results of a medical examination which will confirm whether or not she has cancer and, if she has it, whether or not she can be saved from death.
Cléo is a vain, spoiled, revue artist at the beginning of a successful career as a popular singer…. Yet she is not altogether worthless; she is in fact still quite human, though the vanity of her life has given her neither the emotional nor the spiritual resources with which to face a period of endurance such as this. So at the point when we discover her she is pathetic and vulnerable, facing a particular test of character which any one of us might have to face at any time….
Cléo is discovering that everything that happens to her now is a heightened, almost symbolic experience. The streets that seem real and ordinary to us … become alien and unreal to her; her lover comes and goes, but there is no human or physical contact; one of the new songs composed for her, 'Sans Toi', has a bitter and melancholy significance. Everything is memento mori….
[Cléo de 5 à 7] is a film of personal vision, and its strength lies in this. The structure to which Agnès Varda commits herself...
(The entire section is 491 words.)
[Agnès Varda's method in Le Bonheur] is the antithesis of the conventional scripted film: she has hoped that it will draw from its audience the kind of reactions she experiences herself when she looks at snapshots or at impressionist paintings: the ideas reside in the images, in the light and warmth and delicate shadows of summer, and later on in the maturity of autumn when sweaters worn by humans match the golden leaves but the idyll is modified by a chill fogging of the breath.
Happiness exists en famille at a picnic in the woods to celebrate Father's Day. The pictures have a gentle glow, and the careful planning of colour serves to remove us sufficiently from reality, into the small and personal world of a carpenter untouched by the social and political distractions of life around him. Placid at work amid his wood-shavings, weaving contentedly around trees in the square as he rides home on his bike, physically and emotionally fulfilled with his wife, he is not a man who must go searching for happiness. (pp. 30-1)
A minor tone-poem, [Le Bonheur is] about human nature and the seasons, at times almost somnolently quiet in its representation of happiness, isolated from the wider world: and in the long run about sadness as well. A brave try at making something fruitful of a wholly cinematic language; if it doesn't really work, that might be more a fault in our conditioning than in Agnès Varda's...
(The entire section is 603 words.)
When Resnais or Godard use a series of fragmented shots, they do it with a purpose that is visually cumulative; the whole sequence will stand for more than any one or two of its parts; style and content are inextricably linked…. [In Le Bonheur] fragmentation is simply a method of varying the presentation of a series of pretty pictures. It is style for style's sake: a symptom of all that is wrong with Varda's picture. (p. 200)
[With] every shot, reality recedes a little further from Varda's grasp. The film begins and ends with a picnic (picnics or making love or both are François's characteristic ways of being happy), and the very first scene is shot to extract, at least to some extent, a drooling response…. [Behind] it all there is the music of Mozart, an embarrassment of riches that, despite effective moments, rather suggests that for this purpose Michel Legrand might have been much better. The kind of happiness that one associates with a composer like Mozart has something just a little cerebral about it, which brings us to the worst aspect of Agnès Varda's film: the feeling that it is a kind of intellectual slumming.
Just as a picturesque shot of a shower of wood shavings precedes the first glimpse of the carpenter at work and sums up his happiness there, so everything in the film is exactly what it seems at first glance. These are simple people, Varda seems to be saying, who experience only simple...
(The entire section is 779 words.)
Drawing inspiration from William Faulkner's novel The Wild Palms, [Varda built La Pointe Courte] around the juxtaposition of two disparate themes. The first of these concerns the efforts of two young people … to revive their four-year-old marriage which is on the point of breaking up…. [In La Pointe Courte the] characters remain deliberately abstract, nameless and unpersonalised, and their conversation has a distinctly literary ring. One of the few weaknesses of La Pointe Courte is that the excessive theatricality of these two leading performances causes an unnecessary clash with the soberly handled background theme, which is concerned with the lives of the fishermen of La Pointe Courte, the village to which the couple has come. Varda shows a warm sympathy for the struggle which these people wage against poverty and the officialdom that keeps them from their traditional, but now polluted, fishing grounds; yet social problems have only a marginal interest here, as a comparison with Visconti's masterly La Terra Trema shows. As might be expected there is, in La Pointe Courte, a certain tendency to dwell on picturesque detail, and Varda's experience as a stills photographer is apparent in the way that the impact comes from the composition within a single frame rather than from a sequence of shots, but in its maintenance of a balance between the personal and the political, the theatrical and the documentary, the...
(The entire section is 1196 words.)
After perhaps some initial confusion, a viewer might most profitably view Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur as a pastoral, in the old, even Renaissance sense of the word. Imbued with a simple gravity, nymph and shepherd enact a gracious courtship (here a self-refreshing marriage), which is yet miraculously attuned with nature. It is a genre convention as little current today as the implied vanity and death theme in Varda's earlier Cléo de 5 à 7. But it has the advantage of suspending the apparent implausibility of the wife's suicide in a mythic mold that would be totally unexplained in the usual narrative, or psychological context. Set in a modern Paris suburb, replete with high-rise housing projects, the picture quite magically evokes an ancient pantheism, a vegetable efflorescence, alien to tragedy. More than that, it is a celebration of all sensory pleasure, unaffected in what it depicts, yet subtle and willful in how it depicts it.
Part of the fascination here emerges in an improvised artifice that takes a bit of catching on for its comprehension. Unlike The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by her husband Jacques Demy, Varda's Le Bonheur does not announce itself as anything so hyper-stylized as operetta. The tale of a young carpenter, his wife, and the post-office girl he meets and loves—without surcease of desire or affection for the one, or guilt with the other—spins out in homely fragments. But their naturalism...
(The entire section is 1579 words.)
[Lions Love must be counted among] film weirdities. Agnes Varda abandons the sureties of the conventional film (like Le Bonheur) for what tries to be new, liberated, and honest and nearly succeeds. Story-telling is out: each scene connects to what has gone before as its significance unfolds in the viewer's mind—no plot guides us. The point is to enjoy what is at hand, as in Cleo from 5 to 7. No other choice except nonenjoyment or suicide exists for the three main characters, Viva, Jerome Ragni, and James Rado, who live in a rented house (metaphysical note: as the soul is said to do in the body) in Hollywood and wait for stardom (read "immortality," i.e., death). It should be clear that Varda intends something serious, a philosophy underlying all her films. Unfortunately, she flops. The film mixes contrivance (heavy directional hand) and spontaneity (underground "instant movies") with a result sometimes charming, but more often phony or confusing. For example, a terrible falseness pervades the argument with a Hollywood mogul over rights to the final cut of a film in the making by Shirley Clarke [who plays the lead character] who has happened into the life of our three lions…. Lions Love has a strong inclination toward the New York underground film, and the viewer's reaction will be determined largely by either an assumption that the underground deviates from or that it advances toward some desirable cinematic goal. Let's...
(The entire section is 362 words.)
Some may feel that [Daguerreotypes] is too claustrophobic in its form, in its photography, and in its approach to the content, that more controversial issues should have been raised for discussion, that this section of the so-called silent majority might have been given a greater opportunity to condemn itself in the eyes of a sophisticated and radical audience, and that more of modern Paris might have been provided as a context. It would have been interesting, particularly for an English viewer, for whom much that was shown is already virtually of a bygone era, to have known how much such ways of life are in jeopardy and what kinds of danger are foreseen by the Daguerreotypes themselves. After all, the development around the tour Montparnasse is creeping none too slowly up the Avenue de Maine in their direction. But it is possibly because the film guarded its intimacy and because it did not inquire into sensitive matters that it held the confidence of its subjects, so that they relaxed and, paradoxically, gave more of themselves….
If Daguerreotypes owes some of its attraction to its location with its unexpectednesses and eccentricities, it owes much more to perceptive direction and an eye for the details that make up people's minute to minute lives—things that can be found wherever people are living and working—and to a hesitancy to a draw conclusions, to underline points uncovered, with its consequent avoidance of...
(The entire section is 275 words.)
["Une chant et l'autre pas" or "One Sings, the Other Doesn't"] is all up front. It's a cheery, educational feminism-can-be-fun movie. Pomme and her combo tour provincial towns, performing songs with lyrics … such as "I'm neither a tough cookie nor a busy beaver nor a utopian dreamer—I'm a woman, I am me." Decked out in harlequin colors that suggest a French child's dream of what Haight-Ashbury was like, they chant "My Body Is Mine." Singing about the joys of pregnancy when it's "your choice and your pleasure," they wear pillows stuffed inside their long dresses—"It's beautiful to be a balloon." When these bubble dollies send actual balloons into the sky or sing about the "ovules," Varda brings a Disney touch to women's liberation. The sunshiny, masscult-hip simplicity of the feminist movement celebrated here is so laughable you can't hate the picture. You just feel that some of your brain cells have been knocked out.
Visually, the film has the glamorous real-unreal quality of the new feminine-hygiene ads—muted realism. Happiness here is a flower-print dress on a summer day in the country. The appeal of the film is of life seen as sensuous banality, in a pretty pastoral flow. Pomme has the look of an Auguste Renoir model with a bad dye job: a cherub with the frizzies. There's unforced charm in her complacent impudence. But she belts out her songs in a brass-lunged style, and she has a brute quality: her mind, like her lyrics, is...
(The entire section is 1034 words.)
So much life is looked at in ["One Sings, the Other Doesn't"] that it has a certain old-fashioned and well-furnished vastness, like that of a family saga. It is, however, an extended family of women friends and children. Men are not excluded and they are not unimportant, but they are peripheral to the action. And this is neither inaccurate nor unfair. How many of our fathers have actively been there? (p. 26)
There is a spareness and lightness to Varda's decisions about her images which keep the melodrama contained to particular moments, balanced by dailiness and irony. She narrates the story herself in a quiet, editorial voice, and this makes it possible to read the film with a certain distance, to perceive Varda's captions, to see it as a work of imaginative criticism rather than pure fiction.
"One Sings, the Other Doesn't" is also a very clear and valuable account of a certain period. The two personal stories are in turn braided around a third strand—women's history between 1962 and 1977. Both women demonstrate for abortion at Bobigny. Apple [or Pomme] brings her feminist café-theater to the squares of provincial villages. Suzanne and the women factory and farm workers at her clinic have a political and sexual consciousness-raising group, and Varda, who shot the scenes in a real clinic, with "real" women, uses them to pose questions critical to her own narrative.
I felt at times that certain...
(The entire section is 320 words.)
[One Sings, the Other Doesn't is] full of virtues and empty of life. With a plot thicker than The Edge of Night, with stylish acting and memorable images, One Sings, the Other Doesn't sinks under the weight of its worthiness. (pp. 69-70)
There are some things Varda cares passionately about, notably a woman's right to abortion: When Pomme and Susanne meet after a long separation, it's at a pro-abortion rally where Pomme sings Mon corps, c'est à moi. But the movie is so cool and passive that you long for any sort of passion. If it lacks the stridency of a Lina Wertmüller movie, it also lacks the risk and flamboyance that made Swept Away or Seven Beauties compulsively watchable.
One Sings is unusually perceptive about children and friendship. And it's laden with telling moments such as Suzanne, forbidden from typing in her father's house, blowing on her freezing fingers as she learns to type in a shed, surrounded by cows. But the moments don't connect; there's no drive or fire. The music should have helped, only Mairesse is a woeful singer and Varda a dire lyricist. The real failure of this movie is that it doesn't make us care. It ends in a flush of sweetness and light; the New Wave is pumping old water onto familiar shores. (p. 70)
Mark Abley, "Fear of Flying beyond Feminism," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1978 by...
(The entire section is 241 words.)