All praise Godard and Truffaut, but let’s not forget another true auteur in Agnès Varda. To name her position in this celebrated movement, Varda was associated with the (so-called) ‘Left Bank’ sub-group of the New Wave (with Alain Resnais). However, she like the rest of them was an individual and independent filmmaker, who grasped the opportunities to make films as the money arose and imprinted them with her own particular vision and style. Therefore, they demonstrate the same ‘break’ with traditional forms of cinema that characterises the other French New Wave films – the engagement with a freshness both of theme and of cinematic style. Different to the other leading directors, though, is her lack of agenda in her filmmaking – of a deliberate desire to break from the ‘cinéma du papa’. Godard and Truffaut’s work (critically and cinematically) is shot-through with this frustration and rejection of the outmoded style. Varda’s work was a more simple personal focus on telling the stories she wanted to tell, in the way she wanted to tell them.
Varda, therefore, developed her own framework and cinematic, developing her own concept of ‘cinécriture’ – “cinewriting” independently of Astruc’s more famous ‘caméra-stylo‘ to describe the artistic vision of a director. Both emphasised the construction of the film’s narrative during the process of filming and editing – arguing for the audio-visual as a writing medium itself, separate from the more literary form of the screenplay. Varda met the ‘right bank’ boys when she was editing her first film La Pointe-courte (1954) and wrote (in her book Varda par Agnès in 1994): “I was anomalous, I felt small and ignorant, and the only girls among the Cahiers boys.” She did not have the knowledge of the cinephiliacs – whose freshness was a reinvention based on their knowledge of the past. Hers was complete invention, based on blissful ignorance: “If I had seen at the time films made by masters, either male or female, and which I have discovered since, I would perhaps have been intimidated or even inhibited.”
The production context of La Pointe-courte is interesting because it embodies this innocent confidence, the ability to try because she was not constrained by over-knowledge of what was and wasn’t possible. Having trained in photography, she worked at the Théâtre national Populaire as the official stage photographer. Feeling constrained by the ‘silent’ limits of the photographic medium, she spread into filmmaking in order to develop her artistic ideas more fully – to explore ideas about the “passage of time” and “hiatus between subjective and objective description”. She returned to the area of her childhood (Sète in South France – although she was born in Brussels) to shoot the film, set in the small fishing village of La Pointe Courte. To do this, she used money she had inherited on her father’s death and other borrowings. She established a production company (Ciné Tamaris) forming a cooperative with the cast and crew. There is a pioneering spirit about this that links her, spiritually, to someone like the French producer and filmmaker Alice Guy. If you do not know the constraints for filmmakers in general or for women in particular in film, then there are none – just as for Guy who was at the invention of cinema itself. Both women might rightly question their position in the histories of those institutions – another question for another time.
However, Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961) has at least turned up in some of the celebrations of the anniversary of La Nouvelle Vague, particularly in Joe Queenan’s article (see as part of my list below). “Looking back on Varda’s jewel now, one can imagine that moment when releases like this seemed to provide a new baseline for cinema itself, ushering in an era when filmmakers would no longer simply make ‘product’ but would take a crack at producing great art.” Varda is equal in her ambition to Godard or Truffaut and the film itself qualifies as art on several levels. The film occupies the period between five and seven in the evening, when an actress and singing star, Cléo (real name Florence) waits until she can ring her specialist for her cancer test results. The sense of disassociation and isolation from those around her is incredibly tangible, captured by Varda’s expressionistic use of the camera. She is able to be ‘visually emotive’ to help us empathise with Cléo’s state of mind. The sensation is of a real time narrative, and the way Varda has captured Cléo’s reflections (looking at and into herself) guides us to enter her internal world.
This accords with André Bazin’s idea of the ‘documentary’ element in cinema. Godard described À bout de souffle as a documentary on Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Cinematic language enables this realism to the action – that there is real action taking place between the two characters as well as the telling of the story. The production situation of these films aimed to play up to these possibilities of creating something that was truthful and Varda was no different here.
Cléo de 5 à 7 was shot in chronological order, and often at the time specified by the action. Using natural light to film (enabled by the availability of fast film stock – the film was shot in black and white 35 mm, for cost), shooting at the right time of day recreates the ambient mood of that light. The time of day is thematically relevant – 5 til 7 is the time when French monsieurs traditionally visited their mistresses; it is the hiatus between the two parts of the day when ordinary life is temporarily suspended. Cléo wanders through different ordinary settings, in suspension because her life literally hangs in the balance. The flexibility of using hand-held cameras is obvious on a low budget film, but it also contributes to an identified aesthetic value of Varda – to shoot ordinary subjects such that they appear different and aethereal. As Cléo stops to have a brandy in a bar, the camera, she is reproduced across a number of mirrors within the bar and the fractured sense of her own identity. This relates to Varda’s wish to create a “subjective documentary.” Similarly, the sound recorded on the film could achieve a greater degree of realism because the crew were able to use portable sound recorders, as opposed to having to synchronise sound in post-production. Therefore, there is the documentary effect of the ambient sound recorded as Cléo steps through the streets; where sound is emphasised is to create the character’s own heightened awareness and sensitivity. Hence, the idea of a subjective documentary. Whilst the presence of the diagnosis does create a linear narrative structure, the progress of the story is more in this impressionistic style – of dropping in and out of the different places and people, structured as a literary text with Cléo as its centre of consciousness.
Cléo is a French New Wave film, in exactly the same way as Godard’s films, through its inclusion of a multiplicity of other references. Hers are less allusions to popular culture, but rather, as film analysts have commented, inspiration from literary sources. The poet Rilke and the painter Dürer are referred to by Varda – the latter painted a cycle of pictures depicting a young beautiful woman kissed by Death. The casting of Corinne Marchand in the lead role was a departure from new wave style though – her pneumatic beauty and particularly her blondness were against the ‘naturalness’ in appearance demanded by the other filmmakers. (Even Godard’s muse, Anna Karina, appears in the film – as does Jean-Luc – but Anna’s trademark dark bob is hidden under a blonde wig). Blondeness, for these new filmmakers, is associated with the outmoded, star-driven form of cinema. Without knowing Varda’s intention, there is something vulnerable and fragile about Cléo that her blondeness serves to emphasise. Together with her slim frame, there is a feeling of her being a slight presence – one which could easily disappear out of the frame – signifying visually the death sentence that hangs over this character in the narrative. Varda is not afraid of other non-naturalistic touches – such as the song performance in the middle of the film, dissolving the fourth wall of the cinema screen directly out to the audience in a more theatrical form of emotional engagement.
A final thought, mentioned in the Queenan article, is the prospect of Madonna in an American remake (to be directed by Varda herself). The project fell through (the funding never came through). Watching Marchand’s delicate and sensitive 60s waif-actress, the idea of Madonna suggests how this piece of casting might have unbalanced the indeterminate ambience of Varda’s story. Cléo is a star, but one who is caught, a wisp, between the more definite characters around her. Could Madonna have encapsulated that aethereal being and nothingness quite the same?
The articles I refer to: Joe Queenan: ‘We’ll always have Paris’: Guardian 27 March 2009; Adam Thirlwell: ‘Forever Young’: Guardian 18 April 2009. I also used: Cléo de 5 à 7 by Valerie Orpen (April 2007).
Trailer for Cléo de 5 à 7:
and the trailer for Le bonheur (1964):