Varda, Agnes (1928—)
Varda, Agnes (1928—)
Award-winning French filmmaker whose films, a creative mixture of both fictional and documentary styles, anticipated the French New Wave school of filmmaking. Name variations: Agnès Varda. Born in Ixelles, Belgium, on May 30, 1928, but raised in France; daughter of Eugène Jean Varda (an engineer) and Christiane (Pasquet) Varda; studied art history before pursuing a career in photography; married Jacques Demy (a French filmmaker), on January 8, 1962 (died 1990); children: Rosalie Demy ; Mathieu Demy.
Working in Paris as official photographer of the Théâtre National Populaire when she made her first film, La Pointe-Courte (1954), considered to be a major influence on the French cinema movement of the 1960s known as the New Wave; after a series of shorts, released second feature-length film, Cleo from 5 to 7, which brought international attention and was her first commercial success (1961); has since written and directed feature-length and short films in Europe and the U.S. which are known for their blend of personal history, social commentary, and dramatic intensity seen from a feminist perspective.
La Pointe-Courte (1954); O saisons, ô châteaux (Oh Seasons, Oh Chateaux, short, 1957); L'Opéra-Mouffe (short); Du côté de la d'côte (short, 1958); Cléo de cinq à sept (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1961); Salut les Cubains (Salute the Cubans, short, 1963); Le Bonheur (Happiness, 1964); Les Créatures (The Creatures, 1966); Elsa (short, 1967), Loin du Vietnam (filmed essay, co-director, 1967); Uncle Yanko (short, 1968); The Black Panthers (short, 1968); Lion's Love (1969); Nausicaa (television documentary, 1970); Daguerreotypes (1975); Réponses de femmes (film essay, 1975); Plaisir d'amour en Iran (1976); L'une chante, l'autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn't, 1976); Mur Murs (1980); Documenteur (1980); Une minute pour une image (One Minute for One Image, 1982); Ulysse (1982); Le Dites-Caryatides (The So-called Cariatids, 1984); 7P., cuis., S. de B … (7 rooms, kitchen, bath, 1984); Sans toit ni loi (Without Roof or Law, also called Vagabond, 1985); T'as de beaux escaliers, tu sais (1986); Le Petit Amour (1987); Kung Fu Master (1987); Jane B. par Agnès V (1988); Jacquot de Nantes (1990); Les demoiselles on eu 25 ans (1992); L'Univers de Jacques Demy (The Universe of Jacques Demy, 1993); Les 101 nuits (The One Hundred and One Nights, 1994); Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 1999).
Agnes Varda remembers her initial hint of the cinema revolution she helped create. It came in 1954 as she was editing her first film, La Pointe-Courte, when her editor mentioned that her picture reminded him of Luchino Visconti's 1948 Italian neo-realist film La Terra Trema. "Who's Visconti?," she wanted to know. Years later, long after she had been called "the Grandmother of the New Wave," Varda admitted that she made that first film, at 25 years of age, "without having seen twenty-five films. Not even ten."
She had, in fact, been intent on a career in photography when she discovered the creative possibilities of movies. She was born, one of five children, on May 30, 1928, in suburban Brussels, Belgium. Her mother was French and her father was Greek. Varda moved with her family to France when she was a child and came of age during World War II in Montpellier, in the south of France, where her parents had moved to escape the Nazi occupation in the north. Not far away from Montpellier was a fishing village perched on the Mediterranean coast which would lend its name to her first picture, but it was to Paris that Varda traveled after the war to enroll in classical studies at the Lycée Victor-Duruy and the Sorbonne. Sculpture and painting proved especially interesting to her, and she transferred to a four-year course of study at the school of the Louvre Museum, specializing in art history. She planned to become a museum curator. But she was soon bored by the heavy load of art theory her courses required, and in an effort to find a more practical means of making a living, she began taking night courses at the Vaugirard school of photography. By 1951, she had been named the official photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire, an organization founded in post-World War II France with the goal of creating popular interest in serious theatrical works. She would not relinquish the post until she had made her second feature-length film in 1961. Her work with the theater exposed her to the creative energies of postwar Paris and the new, innovative and sometimes controversial work for which the TNP was known; and two of its actors would take the leading roles in the film she began shooting during 1953—a film that was later hailed by one critic as "the first bell in an immense concert of bells."
The idea for La Pointe-Courte came to her when she shot some 8-millimeter footage of the fishing village near her family home for a childhood friend who had become terminally ill. While still photography had provided her with a good living, Varda soon realized that the effect of a moving image on a viewer provoked stronger and more immediate reactions, both emotional and intellectual, while at the same time capturing a sense of place as no single photograph could. "I believe that people are made not only of the places where they were brought up," she once said, "but of those they love." La Pointe-Courte, which she wrote after friends encouraged her to explore this idea on film, tells the story of a recently married couple who return to the village where the husband spent his childhood. The wife, however, is a cosmopolitan Parisienne who comes to loathe the very different lifestyle of the village—a lifestyle carefully laid out in the scenes of village life which are interwoven with the couple's story. While Varda cast her leads with two actors from the TNP, she used actual villagers in actual situations for the other part of the story—a daring mixture of fiction and real life never before seen in French cinema. It was so daring, in fact, that the film galvanized a group of young filmmakers and writers that included François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, the front line of what would become a style of filmmaking so different from anything that had come before in France that it came to be called la nouvelle vague, or the New Wave. Varda's use of real locations rather than studio sets, a hand-held camera, natural lighting and an unrehearsed atmosphere in the scenes she captured in La Pointe-Courte so excited these neophyte directors that Varda could barely follow their enthusiastic reactions at a screening of the film for the bible of the New Wave, the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. "They referred to a thousand films," Varda said, admitting she knew none of the titles, "all speaking quickly, arguing with animation. I was nobody, ignorant, the only girl among the men of the New Wave."
She would, in fact, remain outside the New Wave's inner circle; and in histories of the New Wave, she is often relegated to a more intellectually and politically oriented "Left Bank Group" of filmmakers. Indeed, she would not make another feature film for seven years, turning instead to short subjects and documentaries after the modest success of La Pointe-Courte. She also returned to her career as a still photographer, shooting photographs for magazines until the French Government Tourist Office gave her a commission to make two short travel films. The resulting films, O saisons, ô châteaux (Oh Seasons, Oh Chateaux, 1957) and Du côté de la d'côte (1958), both in color, proved to be very unconventional travel films. Varda did not admire the lavish houses and private beaches of the rich, a fact made clear in both films. In place of the expected melange of tourist sites, she produced films that made playful fun of aspects of modern life in France, contrasting, for example, the elaborate clothing of French models with the older and sometimes rundown buildings they posed against, or comparing the beaches available for public use with the lavish recreational preserves of the wealthy. Some of her other short works, like her first film, were just as intensely personal and just as tightly bound to a strong sense of place. The 1958 documentary L'Opéra-Mouffe, for example, recorded how her reactions to a familiar neighborhood changed when she was pregnant with her first child, examining through her eyes a number of residents of the Left Bank's rue de Mouffetard. Her pregnancy was a result of her relationship with the great French director Jacques Demy (best known for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), whom she had met at the Toulouse Film Festival, where one of her short films had been entered; the two would marry in 1962, but not before Varda made the film that brought her international attention, Cléo de cinq à sept (Cleo from 5 to 7).
The film examines 90 minutes in the life of a Parisian singer (played by another of Varda's actor friends from the TNP) who fears she has developed stomach cancer and is awaiting the results of the medical tests she undergoes at the beginning of the picture. Agnes used the story to examine another of her favorite themes, how the passage of time affects what she called "the wounds of the soul." Most of the film is centered around a long walk that Cleo takes through the city of Paris, observing party revellers and talking to a young soldier who, under normal circumstances, she might have ignored. It becomes a walk of self-realization and spiritual development. At the beginning of the movie, Cleo makes the comment that "being ugly is like being dead." Accustomed to being the object of looks from others, she begins, in her journey through Paris, to become a "subject who looks." In contrast to her lavish lifestyle in a fashionable apartment, Cleo encounters scenes of suffering on the streets of Paris that make her own life seem trivial and superficial. (Varda told an interviewer in the late 1990s that she would like to modernize the story with a remake starring Madonna , and replacing cancer with AIDS.) The film was an instant success in France and was the first of Varda's films to be shown in mainstream American theaters rather than in the small art houses in which La Pointe-Courte had found a home.
Varda defied predictions that her marriage to Demy would cut short her career by creating a second major full-length feature (Le Bonheur) and two documentaries during the first years of the union. She had complained that Cléo threatened to stereotype her as a director of films about "dying blond singers," and she chose a very different subject for Le Bonheur (Happiness, 1964). In writing the scenario, Varda claimed that she was influenced by old photographs which recalled memories of happy times, particularly vacations, and by looking at Impressionist paintings. She called it a story "told in the content and style of Impressionist painters." While Le Bonheur's idyllic settings—lush and sunny natural visuals, summer picnics, and vivid colors—helped to make it one of her best-known films, it also contains a jolting plot. A youthful carpenter from the Parisian suburbs, seemingly happily married and with children, falls in love with a young woman working at the nearby post office. He suggests to his wife that the postal worker move in with the family, in what he thinks is a quite "natural" combination. The carpenter is shocked when his wife refuses—he thinks it shows that she is too possessive—and then is stunned when she drowns herself.
Some writers believe that the major point of the film is that there is no genuine line between the "real" world and the world of film, a viewpoint reinforced by the fact that the actors were all actual family members—the French television actor Jean Claude Drouet, his wife Claire Drouet , and their children. And Varda, who has said that she enjoys playing with colors in many of her films, uses colors which do not reinforce the mood of particular scenes but, instead, actually seem to clash with what is happening on screen. In her view, it is a technique likely to cause viewers to become more than "voyeurs" or passive spectators. Although some of Varda's admirers were put off by the film, regarding it as an attempt at a fantasy rather than her usual reality-based documentary style (she herself called it "a beautiful fruit that tastes of cruelty"), it won a number of awards, including the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival and the David Selznick award.
A similar theme pervaded Varda's Les Créatures (The Creatures, 1966). Photographed in black and white but including sections tinted in color, the film explored the relationship between illusion and reality. Les Créatures portrays the visit of a married couple to an island in Britanny. Both are recovering from injuries suffered in an automobile accident; the wife is unable to speak and the husband, a writer of science fiction, is recovering from both physical and emotional injuries. During the time that couple spend on the island, the husband works on a new book he is writing, incorporating into the story actual people he meets there. In another Varda juxtaposition of "fiction" and reality, he even plays chess with the "creatures" in the book in a successful bid to destroy forces that he believes are threatening to them. Les Créatures was not a financial success, and from 1966 and 1975 Varda would be unable to obtain outside financing for making films.
When Demy was offered a three-year contract with Columbia Pictures in 1967, Varda settled easily into the creative life of Hollywood and into America's political left by making several documentaries for French television about, among other subjects, the Black Panthers and the anti-Vietnam War movement. She was fascinated by San Francisco and in 1969 produced, in color, an homage to hippie culture entitled Lion's Love, a film which also lampooned some of her experiences in Hollywood. But like Demy, who directed only one picture in Hollywood, Varda found it difficult to find a place in the studio-dominated atmosphere of American filmmaking. During these years, she later said, she was "at a standstill. Not of inspiration, but of courage," and she would later record her frustrations in two documentaries about Hollywood, Mur Murs and Documenteur. A question raised in both short films is the nature of reality: is it "objective" (the literal picture that the camera sees) or "subjective" (what those on screen see)? In fact, the title of the second film, Documenteur, is a kind of pun, a combination of the French words for "documentary" and "liar." In effect, Varda seems to be raising the questions of whether documentaries contain fiction, as well as how much truth is in "fictional" films. Of the two films, Mur Murs gathered the most critical
praise, winning the Josef von Sternberg prize at the Mannheim festival and the grand prize at the Florence film festival.
Demy and Varda remained in California until the early 1970s, by which time Varda had given birth to a second child. She returned to Paris and to familiar territory with her 1974 documentary Daguerreotypes, about the street where she had set up her first photography studio, the rue Daguerre (where she still lives); and by turning her increasing interest in the feminist movement into a filmed essay called Réponses de femmes in 1974. She had been active in the feminist movement since the 1950s, when she had joined a group of politically liberal French women to protest the anti-contraceptive policies of the country's Communist Party; and later, in the 1960s, she had publicly supported a group of prominent French women, including the actress Jeanne Moreau and the novelist Marguerite Duras , who challenged the government to arrest them under the then-current law for having had abortions.
I'm more loved than well-known.
The struggle for women's rights was reflected in Varda's next feature film, L'une chant, l'autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn't), released in 1976. It was the story of two women, friends since childhood, whose lives take very different courses, which they relate to each other in a series of letters and postcards over a ten-year period. Pomme is a protest singer active in leftist causes who takes up with an Iranian boyfriend, suffers under the repressive anti-feminist laws of Iran when she moves there with him, and moves back to France with her children, where she is able to retake control of her life. Suzanne, on the other hand, finds herself married to an emotionally troubled man who commits suicide, forcing her to move back to her home village with her two children, where she is ostracized to such a degree for being unable to attract another husband that she marries a man whom she doesn't love. At the end of the film, the two women reunite and discuss how their lives might have been different had they enjoyed the freedom to make different choices.
L'une chante became one of Varda's most popular films and won a Grand Prix at the Taormina film festival The film is unique in the sense that it is Varda's only film dealing directly with the women's movement. The legal right to an abortion had recently been established in France; early in the film, Pomme helps Suzanne obtain an abortion. Part of the film is a recreation of the Bobigny trial, a trial in France in 1972 of four women accused of obtaining an abortion for the daughter of one of them; included in this section of the film is a lawyer who was actually involved in the trial.
By now, Varda had developed a style of film making she referred to as cinécriture (film-writing), a reference to her opinion that making a good film is similar to writing a good novel. "A well-written film is equally a well-made film," she said. "The rhythm of the direction and editing have been felt and thought like the choices a writer makes—dense phrases or not, the kinds of words, the frequency of adverbs, parentheses, chapters which continue the story or go against it." She told one interviewer, for example, that at least part of the inspiration for the way she constructed and shot La Pointe-Courte had been taken from the novel Wild Palms by one of her favorite authors, William Faulkner.
She refined her cinécriture even further with 1985's Sans Toit ni Loi, released in English as Vagabond. The film is a marvel of careful construction, drawing the viewer into the mystery surrounding the death of a "wandering character," a teenage drifter named Mona, whose body is discovered in a ditch at the beginning of the film. The young woman's story is told in a series of flashbacks (narrated by Varda) and in interviews with people who came in contact with her—a truck driver, an old woman, an immigrant worker, and others—each of whom offers a different view of her. Just as she had explored in La Pointe-Courte the way in which her characters' backgrounds influence how they view their surroundings, Varda examined in Vagabond how that influence extends to how we perceive other people. She herself claims that she did not understand Mona—there is something about Mona, she noted, that "both attracts and repels me"—lending credence to rumors that Mona was based on an actual "street person."
Although Varda began Vagabond with only a two-page scenario, by this time she had gained enough of a national reputation that she was able to secure financing from French television and the French minister of culture, among others. Like many of her films, Vagabond mixes nonprofessionals—a variety of mechanics, workers, and some real drifters—with professional actors. The theme of people's alienation from other people, apparent in Varda's other films, appears again: Mona, the character most alienated, seems to be unreached by the other characters, although all of the other characters turn out to be interconnected (often to know each other casually) in some way. The film appears to be edited to cause the audience to be concerned about Mona's unreachability, and some critics believe the ending—Mona's death—is intended to produce a sense of relief rather than grief. Varda commented that she hoped the film would cause viewers to question how they would have reacted to Mona personally. Would they, she asked, have given Mona a ride if she were a hitchhiker?
Uncharacteristically, Varda test-marketed the film, giving test showings to focus groups whose responses became a basis for editing the preliminary version of more than 140 minutes down to slightly less than two hours. The film was well received by critics—some of whom were intrigued by the fact that it pretends to be a documentary but is, in fact, a fictional film. Critics also praised the film highly for its sense of authenticity, its lyrical structure, and the striking imagery used in the film. It won a Cesar for actress Sandrine Bonnaire , who played Mona, and won the Golden Lion. "It's perfectly evident why this film won the Golden Lion at the 1985 Venice Film Festival," film critic Pauline Kael told her New Yorker readers on the film's American release in 1986. "It's the work of a visual artist." And Roger Ebert wondered after seeing the film, "Although many have shared our time, how many have truly known us?"
The 1980s saw the release of two more films for which Varda was much praised. Her friendship with the French actress Jane Birkin resulted in the documentary Jane B. par Agnès V. in 1986; and the feature film Kung Fu Master, released in 1987, was a dark-tinged coming-of-age story in which Varda cast her son, Mathieu, and Birkin's daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg as the love interests. All the while she was working on yet a third picture, a tender mixture of documentary and imagined biography about her husband, who had become terminally ill and who died in 1990, the same year Varda's tribute to him, Jacquot de Nantes, was released in France. Again blurring the line between fiction and fact, Varda told Demy's life story using actual interviews with Demy and those who had known him interspersed with fictional recreations of episodes from his life. Agnes called the film an "evocation" of Demy's life, and still photographs of Demy are prominent in it. Parts of the film are playful: the main character, Jacques, appears early and demands that the credits appear immediately, instead of at the end. In what appears to be another Varda device to remind the audience that they are only watching a story, the credits promptly appear. Varda would produce a second, more traditional documentary, The Universe of Jacques Demy, in 1993.
Varda turned to more light-hearted material in 1994 with Les 101 Nuits (The One Hundred and One Nights), which she made to mark the centenary of the French film industry. It was her first outright comedy, and she stuffed it with as many celebrities as she could talk into appearing in it, from Catherine Deneuve to Robert De Niro, all of whom materialize while the film's 101-year-old "Mr. Cinema" (played by the French actor Michel Piccoli) reminisces about the favorite films of his long life. "The whole thing was an opportunity to make some references to films I love and to have visitors, because on a first level, cinema is about stars," she said. "Whatever we love—the auteur theory, the directors—what people see is faces on the screen." It was a remarkable statement from the woman who, nearly 30 years earlier, had never heard of Luchino Visconti.
As she entered her fifth decade of making films, the motivation for her filmmaking came under her scrutiny. Taking Millet's famous painting The Gleaners for her inspiration, Varda spent seven months in the French countryside with a digital video camera and a small crew to make Les glaneurs and la glaneuse (released in English as The Gleaners and I), ostensibly a documentary about scavengers of rural fields, lonely beaches and urban trash cans but equally about her own career of picking through the lives of her characters on screen to arrive at basic truths about the human condition. Varda herself appears frequently on camera in the picture, discussing everything from the wrinkle patterns on the backs of her hands to a collection of discarded, heart-shaped potatoes she gathered during her seven months of scavenging. She turned 72 as The Gleaners and I premiered at the 2000 New York Film Festival. "I'm somewhat of a leftover myself," she joked at the time, pointing out that she had three grandchildren to occupy her, "so you don't do movies like a machine." No one could ever accuse Agnes Varda of that particular method of filmmaking in her idiosyncratic career, and the observations she has collected on film over the years remain fresh and piquant for all to share.
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Varda, Agnes. "Agnes Varda: A Conversation with Barbara Quart," in Film Quarterly. Vol. 40, no. 2. Winter 1986–87, pp. 3–10.
——. Varda par Agnes. Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1994.
Acker, Ally. Reel Women. NY: Continuum, 1991.
Arnes, Roy. French Cinema since 1946. Cranburg, NJ: Barnes, 1970.
Bandy, Mary Lea, ed. Rediscovering French Film. NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1983.
Buss, Robin. The French through their Films. NY: Ungar, 1988.
Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Hayward, Susan. French National Cinema. London: Routledge, 1993.
Varda's films are held by her company, Cine-Tamaris, and her films are still studied at film institutes such as the Cinema Studies Institute of New York University or the Centre Universitaire Americain du Cinema et de la Critique in Paris.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York, and
Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois