Agnès Varda

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Roy Armes

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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 film fulfils to a remarkable extent the intentions and ambitions of its author. (pp. 80-1)

[O Saisons, O Châteaux] contains the obligatory architectural shots and historical references [of a publicity film], but Varda has sought to enliven this hackneyed material by including a number of original and satiric touches, among them a ballet by the castle gardeners, and fashion models in Jacques Heim dresses parading and posing like exotic birds in the castle courtyards. The director shows an ability to fuse contrasting material, lightly switch moods and compose beautiful shots, but there is no trace here of any depth or seriousness. (p. 81)

[Opéra Mouffe] is the freest of all Varda's films…. [It] gives a picture of the Mouffetard district of Paris, as seen through the eyes of a pregnant woman. Its range of material is wide: documentary shots, taken with a concealed camera, of the old people of this slum district shopping, gossiping, drinking; children playing in masks; images expressing symbolically the hopes, fears and preoccupations of pregnancy (gourds and doves, for instance); and some balletlike nude love scenes. There is no attempt to give a narrative link and related shots are simply grouped together under a suitable heading: "Lovers", "Pregnancy", "Drunkenness" etc. The true unity of Opéra Mouffe is provided by its subjective approach, the way in which the images and rhythms reflect the contradictory thoughts and feelings which dominate a woman at such a time. (p. 82)

[Le Bonheur ] is a strange and in many ways disturbing work. For this investigation into the nature of happiness, the director has left aside as irrelevant all considerations of psychology and morality and chosen to make her hero an artisan simply to avoid social issues. We are left with something that is more of a symmetrical pattern than a plot in the conventional sense: François loves his wife and children dearly and enjoys a serenely contented home life, but this does not prevent him from falling in love with a pretty post-office clerk. When he tells his wife about this state of affairs, she commits suicide, but his happiness is preserved: after a decent interval his mistress moves in to look...

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after him and his children and life goes on as before. The tone ofLe Bonheur is uniformly idyllic, reinforced by the accompanying music of Mozart, and nothing could be further from realism than this make-believe world where children never cry and nobody utters an angry word. Though the characters are viewed with detachment and the whole film examines a lhilosophic notion, Le Bonheur is Varda's most decoratively resplendent work, showing perhaps the influence of her husband, Jacques Demy. There is an echo too of Renoir's use of landscape in Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe … in the importance accorded to Nature: the film begins with a summer picnic which is the perfect picture of happiness and ends with an autumnal one in which the replacement of wife by mistress is the only alteration. Throughout colours are used symbolically and Le Bonheur remains in the memory as a film full of flowers and sunlight.

Agnes Varda, one of the few woman directors at work in the cinema today, has revealed a complex personality in the short and feature films she has made to date. She is in many ways typical of the new cinema and the exact antithesis of the "professional" director of the previous generation. Both independent and original, she is quite uncompromising in her approach and uninterested in expressing any views and insights but her own. (pp. 83-4)

Perhaps the most striking of the formal devices in Varda's films is the exploration of the possibilities of non-identification. None of her characters are fully rounded and often they are pruned of all individuality…. [In] Le Bonheur there is a total lack of psychology … and of concern with morality. It is this latter—the complete absence of any Christian awareness of sin—that gives the film its air of belonging to an alien age or culture. The particular relationship of audience and characters which Varda achieves in films like these is closely akin to that pursued by Resnais in all his features and by Marker in La Jetée. She shares too with Resnais a total detachment from her own characters, claiming, for instance, not to know whether the wife in Le Bonheur commits suicide or not, just as Resnais is doubtful about the outcome of Hiroshima mon Amour. As early as her first feature film, non-identification had been the theoretical basis of Varda's work: "I had the feeling that the spectator should remain outside, a feeling of alienation … I wanted to make a film where the spectator does not identify himself but, instead, judges—a cold film." It is this same desire to maintain distance that lies at the root of the formal patterns already noticed in Cléo and Le Bonheur.

The source of Agnès Varda's individuality and the sense of life and vitality one finds in her films is her training as a photographer…. All her films are impeccably shot, with a sharp grasp of detail and a keen interest in a documentary approach, most clearly apparent in the backgrounds of her films: the fishing village in La Pointe Courte and the Parisian settings of Opéra Mouffe and Cléo. She shows a great sensitivity to tiny variations of light and the atmosphere they produce (in Cléo for instance) and has made a bold and imaginative use of colour (in Le Bonheur). Despite her literary interest and tendency to abstraction Varda remains a true filmmaker whose central preoccupation is with seeing…. (pp. 84-5)

Roy Armes, "Agnès Varda," in his French Cinema since 1946: The Personal Style, Vol. II (copyright © 1966 by Roy Armes), A. S. Barnes & Co., 1966, pp. 80-5.


Elizabeth Sussex


Max Kozloff