Keith reviewed this film at Berlin earlier this year. Here are my thoughts on the film now in UK cinemas.
Agnès Varda’s last film opened locally with a ‘seniors’ morning screening. I wonder if many of those in the audience were watching their first Varda screening. All seemed to enjoy the show so Agnès judged her delivery well. She died earlier this year just a couple of months short of her 91st birthday, but as this film demonstrates she had lost none of her creative powers starting her tenth decade. In this personal statement about her own work she addresses us directly as part of the audience seated in several different auditoria. The film is an illustrated lecture taking us through nearly 70 years of work as a photographer, filmmaker and finally ‘visual artist’ (an English term she endorses). It isn’t a straightforward chronology. She jumps around a little but as far as I can see she covers all of her feature films and most of the shorts. The only disappointment for me was the short sequence on her photography (which preceded her first film in 1954) which comes towards the end of the film. I’d of liked to know a little more about this and how it informed her filmmaking. Her talk began with a statement about her three key ideas about filmmaking – here is how she describes them in the Press Notes:
INSPIRATION is why you make a film. The motivations, ideas, circumstances and happenstance that spark a desire and you set to work to make a film.
CREATION is how you make the film. What means do you use? What structure? Alone or not alone? In colour or not in colour? Creation is a job.
The third word is SHARING. You don’t make films to watch them alone, you make films to show them. An empty cinema: a filmmaker’s nightmare!
People are at the heart of my work. Real people. That’s how I’ve always referred to the people I film in cities or the countryside.
This gives you a good idea of how she set about ‘creating’ her story. In fact she made a statement at the Berlin press show when the film was screened saying that this film would now do her talking for her as personal appearances were becoming tiring. Varda’s presentation lasts nearly two hours and I could have taken double the time listening to her commentary and watching the clips. I’ve seen around half of her 23 features and now I feel more encouraged to seek out the shorter films, especially the earlier ones in California. The key to appreciating Varda is to tune in to her own fascination with the world and what she can do with her camera. Varda was true to the idea of the artisanal artist-filmmaker. She remains the definition of an auteur, developing her own company Ciné-Tamaris which has retained control of her films (and those of Jacques Demy and others) and re-released them on restored digital versions. She’s kept much of her filmmaking literally ‘in house’ with various production roles for her daughter Rosalie Varda and son Mathieu Demy and partnerships with a series of actors and crews. One of those who appears in this film is Sandrine Bonnaire, who reveals just how hard she was pushed as a 17 year-old in the lead role for Vagabond.
I would have liked to have seen a bit more about Varda’s marriage to Jacques Demy and how these two, in some ways very different, creative people bounced ideas off each other. She does discuss her documentary biopic Jacquot de Nantes (1991) made when Demy was very ill, but not the two documentaries she made after his death. The two were in California together during the 1960s but made very different films there.
Varda adapted to the possibilities of new technologies and embraced the use of digital cameras. Varda by Agnès is presented in two parts so that the early career is ‘analogue’ and the later career is ‘digital’. The split is also one of 20th and 21st century practice. The revelation for me was the ‘installation’ work in the second period when Varda became a visual artist. I wish now that I’d made more effort in 2018 to get to the Liverpool Biennial where there was a photographic exhibition, a new installation and a season of her films. As far as I can see this is the only time that Varda was received in the UK as a ‘visual artist’ and we might never get to see some of the intriguing installations glimpsed in Varda by Agnès such as Patatutopia from 2003 or the Cinema Shacks she built from old cans of her celluloid films in 2013.
Agnès Varda was one of the great filmmakers, photographers and visual artists of the last 70 years. We will be lucky to see her like again. All I can do is to urge you to see this hugely enjoyable current release and to dig out any DVDs or VODs from her catalogue that you can find. There are some posts you might find interesting on this blog.
So, finally, one of the most impressive and distinctive European film-makers has departed this terrestrial cinema. One imagines she has gone to another great auditorium where cancer is long gone, where abortions are unnecessary, everyone is a good Samaritan, no-one gleans either in the streets or in the fields and sun-drenched beaches stretch as far as the eye can see whilst cats purr in undisturbed contentment. She will leave an obvious void on all the screens in discriminating cinemas.
I have yet to see everything that she authored but I enjoyed regular treats at the cinema over the years. My first look at a Varda film was of a 16mm print of Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962) at the local film society. The programme was regularly enlivened by the films of the several European new waves, but this was still a distinctive voice. It was only intermittently that I encountered the documentary shorts that followed.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (L’une chante l’autre pas, 1977) clearly engaged with actual political struggles in France. And Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985) confronted a deeply downbeat world with real humanity. Jacquot de Nantes (1991) had a rich sense both of the 1930s and of Varda’s fellow film-maker, Jacques Demy.
With The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000) one found the combined sympathy and empathy for ordinary people that runs through her career. The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d’Agnès, 2008) was rich in the playfulness that seemed an increasing mood in her recent films. Faces Places (Visages villages, 2017), a journey with photographer J.R., reminds one of her early art work as a photographer, then in theatre rather than as here in rural France.
Varda created a real impression in her early work. Her reputation then fluctuated up and down but in recent years she has acquired a magisterial status. This was fortunate in that, with foreign language films increasingly difficult to seek out, her titles did receive national [if limited] distribution in Britain.
Her final film, Varda by Agnès (Varda par Agnès – Causerie, 2019) was produced as a TV series but is available as a theatrical title. Revisiting her career and her films it provides a worthy testament to the fifty years and fifty odd films she has left us.
This film was screened in the Berlinale Out of Competition at the Berlinale Palast. The Brochure commented,
Agnès Varda takes a seat on a theatre stage. The professional photographer, installation artist and pioneer of the Nouvelle Vague is an institution of French cinema but a fierce opponent of any kind of institutional thinking.
And Agnès Varda received a Special Camera Award during the Berlinale.
What is offered is a journey through Varda artistic career, primarily that of film. The approach is partly chronological, partly thematic. Taking account of the changes in the medium the first part treats
‘her analogue period’ from 1954 to 2000 in which the director is in the foreground . . .
In the second part, Agnes focuses on the years from 2000 to 2018, shows how she uses digital technology to look at the world in her own unique way.
She includes her work on installations, and an aside her photographic work.
The film combines a series of illustrated talks by Varda. The opening one is in a palatial opera house remarked on by Varda. Another is a seminar for Higher Education students. In the latter Varda is reading from notes; I do not think this was the case in her talks for the general public. In either case she is articulate, informative, at time ironic, always charming and engaging. And her points are constantly illustrated by extracts from her films, extracts that are well chosen and make the point she is presenting. This is far better done than in some recent television programmes on cinema; and one intelligent head is better than a constant series of ‘talking heads’
One film that receives attention is the first of her features to make a real mark, Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 á 7, 1962). She talks about the making of the film, its star Corinne Marchand and the way in which the film presents ‘real time’. She added an amusing comment, that Andy Warhol remarked that he would have carried on filming to 7 p.m. (the film ends just after 6.30 p.m.). The film was innovative in a number of ways and it is worth noting that here Varda is really part of the Left Bank Group rather than the better-known film-makers of the Nouvelle Vague, In fact Alain Resnais was the editor for her first film La Pointe Courte (1955).
Another film is Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985). I think this is one of Varda’s finest films and has at its centre a marvellous performance by Sandrine Bonnaire. Her character Mona’s final weeks are reconstructed in the film in a collage of flashbacks and interviews. Varda talked about working with the actress and her contribution. She also talked about the style of the film where repeated tracking shots emphasize Mona’s travels across the countryside. This is a bleak film but one that demonstrates the humanist values that are embodied in all of Varda’s work.
In the digital works one discussed is The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000). The original French title makes the point of the commonality between the film-maker and her subjects. Varda films and interviews many people who ‘glean’ their existence, both in urban areas such as Paris and in rural areas. Varda’s ability to pick up on fresh and unconventional subjects as well as her skill in constructing visual and aural tapestries is exemplified in this film. It is both a moving and fascinating set of portraits.
The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d’Agnès, 2008) presents recurring settings, images and motifs that appear across her work. Besides the beach we have innumerable mirrors, references and homages to visual art and, a favourite with Varda, cats. She also revisits her first film, La Pointe Courte. In one of those inspired and totally unconventional tropes we watch as people originally involved in the film revisit it as it is projected on a cart that they push through the village.
This was one of Varda’s homes in her younger years and autobiography runs through her talks and the film examples. This includes the films about her one-time partner and fellow film-maker Jacques Demy, as in Jacquot de Nantes (1991).
Towards the end of this film Varda talks about recent work on installations, including the now famous potato [referencing The Gleaners and I at the Venice Film Festival]. There is a section on her work as a photographer, which goes right back to her youth before she took up film. One can see in these examples her fine visual sense.
This is a fine two hour self-portrait full of humour, intelligence and revelations. Born in 1928 in Brussels, at 91, Varda is one of those long-lived European film-makers. She is also one of the most important. She now has 54 credits as a director, plus those as writer, producer, editor and more. [About a third of these are illustrated here]. Her reputation has risen, fallen and risen again. Some of the films presented, such as Black Panthers (1968) have [unfortunately] not been successful. But Varda has continued always to work in her own idiosyncratic way. Now she is an established and revered artistic voice. One aspect of this means that this new film should certainly get a proper British release. I am sure, when it comes, that it will be one of the outstanding experiences in cinemas at that time.
[This review does discuss the film’s events in some detail, including its conclusion.]
Agnès Varda’s latest film, Visages, villages (2017), is a collaboration with the artist-photographer, JR. It brings to life again the cinema she has described herself as a ‘cinéma d’auteur-témoin’, an ambiguous phrase which can be loosely translated as the ‘cinema of the author-as-witness.’ Varda discussed how she felt uncomfortable with the word, ‘auteur’, presumably recognising its cultural resonances in relation to the figure of the filmmaker filtered through the French New Wave critics’ imagination; a person who authors the text and controls a vision, through images and sound.
One of Varda’s auteurist traits has been a control of bringing other voices into her films and a deep empathy for her subjects. Her films have been consistently celebrated as they represent a different, more apparently inclusive form of cinema. She came to a much wider audience with Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) an odyssey through the French countryside and cities sharing and witnessing as to the activity of gleaning from the waste that others throw away. The heart-shaped potato became a powerful symbol from that film, representing the mountains of allegedly misshapen potatoes that the supermarket buyers leave behind as too unappealing to go on their shelves. Varda, through her technique of juxtaposition effects, in Mireille Rosello’s words, a ‘surrealist encounter between the word heart and the dull potato’, creating a new set of associations. The abandoned potatoes are a metaphor for the people that she meets that somehow sit outside of society or are ‘misshapen’ in terms of normal ways of living. As with her potato art installation (Figure 2), she gives them space within her film to tell their stories, to show their accomplishments and creativity and to interact with Varda who happily stages these encounters so that they are entertaining and often very moving. Varda understands that what she is doing should appear effortless, almost ‘throw-away’ in its own technique; however, her work is tightly constructed as a piece of performance art. The little old lady she has played in her later documentaries has created a receptive context for drawing performances out of her contributors.
Later in the film, Varda films her own ageing skin (then at seventy-eight years old) and comments on the ‘horror’ of this process. Her wish to acknowledge her ageing is present in her trademark two-tone hair colour. Varda’s deep empathy and understanding shown by her interviews and revelations generated many personal letters by return, where audiences sent her stories and images based on the heart-shaped potatoes. It was acknowledgement of how many of us feel we may really fit that allegedly marginal, misshapen category.
Figure 2: Les glaneur et la glaneuse (2000). Ciné-Tamaris.
Similar in its structure, Visages, villages (Faces, Places (2017)) moves into slightly different territory through a collaboration with fellow artist, JR. At ninety years old, one might presume that Varda was bringing in a companion to take away some of the burden of artistic control. In fact, this is another development of her ‘cinema d’auteur-témoin’ and a vibrant intellectual interaction between them through the film. The project arose out of the sympathetic strands of their individual projects between the young photographer-artist and the nonagenarian. JR undertakes his own kinds of odyssey in his work, making poster portraits of ordinary people in his travelling photo studio. These images are then placed on structures that relate to the subjects and their experiences. The French title, Visages, Villages indicates their plan to visit only villages on the trip (and also recalls Varda’s consistent love of rhythm and rhyme in her writing for the cinema, especially her voiceovers). The film foregrounds another series of moving testimonies, such as the image of the last inhabitant still in place in the mining village (Figure 1 above), the image of the women who work closely with their husbands at the dockyard or the face of Varda’s early model and friend, Guy Bourdin, who himself went on to be a photographer.
Varda and JR’s relationship is staged onscreen, but there is an affecting conviviality and mutual respect, often indicated by the insults directed towards each other. They joust pleasantly over a running joke about JR removing his glasses. This, as is pointed out, triggers a memory for Varda of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s propensity never to remove his glasses. Godard was a close associate of hers as part of the French New Wave, introduced to her by Jacques Demy, Varda’s future husband at the time. She has described Godard as the ‘chercheur‘, the seeker, a word she repeats on camera here and as containing a genius situated in his deep silence, a stillness that keeps him separate from others. Varda managed to persuade Godard to reveal his ‘sad eyes’, for a short film she made, Les Fiancés de Pont Macdonald (1961). It is the film that Cléo/Florence (Corinne Marchand)) and her friend, Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) watch together through the projectionist’s window at the cinema during their Parisian car jaunt in Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962).
Travelling marks many of Varda’s films. Her early films reflected her travels, after leaving home as a young women, to the south coast of France. Varda mended nets with fishermen and lived amongst them; her first feature, La Pointe-Courte (1955) records the rhythm of the lives of fishermen and their families in Sète (alongside a more surreal narrative). Varda, living in Paris, pursued topics in and among her neighbours, including L’opéra-Mouffe (1958), Daguerréotypes (1976), Ulysse (1982) and Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988). Varda went with Demy to Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s, as part of joint explorations with Hollywood studios, where she made the essay film, Oncle Yanco (1967) and the surrealist, erotic fantasy Lions Love ( . . . and Lies) (1969). She returned to L.A. in the early 1980s, and made the short fiction Documenteur (1981) and the essay film Mur Murs (1981). In both instances, there were failed negotiations regarding projects with the American studios.
Varda’s travels, therefore, have become an integral part of her biographical and artistic narrative, continued in her third age with her television series, Agnès de ci de là Varda (2011), where she travels to other countries and encounters other people, including other artists. (Other artists have long before featured in her work, including Ydessa Hendeles’ Teddy Bear Project in Ydessa, les ours et etc (2004). Each episode of this television series began with a short verse outlining the impetus for travel, being the pruning of the trees in her courtyard at Rue Daguerre, the home she has lived in for over sixty years. The title sequence joke runs that by the time they have returned, the tree need pruning again.
In the same way, Visages villages is concerned with movement in space and questions of time and memory (a preoccupation across Varda’s work). Going on the road with another artist enables her to extend the possibilities, creating a dynamic between two ‘auteur-témoin(s)’, both sharing a fascination with the lives of others. JR is a good match for Varda, both enjoying playing with ephemera and playing with whimsical commentary. Delving into people’s histories and working in temporary materials means that time as a subjective medium is very prevalent in the film. JR’s art installations are temporary posters which will only survive until the elements wash or wear them away. His creations are always destined to be destroyed by the weather. This is particularly brutal in the case of a recovered Varda photograph of Guy Bourdin, memorialised on a beach by JR. Its complete disappearance by the next day reminds us how much these two artists are working with time and what passes – through travelling, gleaning and recycling. It becomes less about image being constructed and more about the new practice made by JR and Varda and their interplay in the moment of recreating the photo. All that remains is the photographic and filmed record of their work together and their group photograph at its completion.
Varda comments in Visages villages on the workings of the ‘mise-en-abyme’, which is appropriate to this and other moments in the film, when we are looking at the subjects inside or in front of the images of themselves (as in Figure 1). In some ways, it appears as if they are standing inside their own past selves. It is a trope very familiar in Varda because of her fascination with the passing of time and how we relate to our former selves. At the end of Les plages d’Agnès, she sits in her house on Rue Daguerre with her eighty brooms, delivered for her birthday by friends and neighbours. She comments at this point, the moment is already gone, as the filmed image recedes in upon itself (Figure 3).
The loose structure of Visages villages does disguise one underlying narrative, based on an echo of the past into the present, which is the movement towards visiting Godard created by his resemblance to JR. In the last scene, at Godard’s house in Switzerland, a planned visit is thwarted by the French New Wave legend’s unavailability. Godard appears to be playing against the role Varda has made up for him; he does not want to appear as part of someone else’s odyssey. He has written a message on his porch window, referring to his condolence note to Varda on the death of her husband, Jacques Demy. The note recalled happier times, dining together with Demy, placing a very personal note in the public space (window and film).
This moment could be part of the narrative construct; perhaps Varda anticipated he would not be willing to appear on camera. However, she is clearly deeply upset and takes several moments to verbally accept what Godard has done. Varda onscreen in her later films has been, in her playful words, the ‘little old lady’; however, one who has performed her unassuaged grief at Demy’s loss (in 1992), a grief she has turned into art to bear witness to an experience we all have had or will suffer. Les veuves de Noirmoitier (2006),
Other echoes in respect of Demy enter the current film. Varda filmed Demy, shortly before his death, during Les plages d’Agnès (2008), following the contours of his face and focussing on his eye. Varda is gleaning parts of him, capturing them on film, before she loses him forever (Figure 4). Exhibiting these fragmented images in the film accentuates the loss, being all she has of Demy now.
Artistically, a new echo is created in Visages villages when JR photographs Varda in close-up, taking her eyes and her feet. He places these images on a train, so that she can continue her odyssey to places she cannot go to now she is the age she is. However, this strikes a new emotional note. It is not a capturing or preserving of someone who is disappearing; instead, it affirms and celebrates his witnessing of her intellectual vigour. It sends Varda off, in virtual form, to continue to look and to travel and to create ‘surrealist encounters’, just like the one they have enjoyed together as artists. [SPOILER] JR’s removal of his glasses, brilliantly executed by the camerawork (having spoilt that part, I will avoid a further technical spoiler), is the perfect narrative conclusion as if devised from the start, having guessed at Godard’s unavailability. However, the warmth of their relationship, his obvious distress at her distress, makes the moment completely emotionally engaging as well as providing a satisfying conclusion. If Godard is to be known as a chercheur, then Varda deserves the sobriquet equally, still producing her intellectually demanding meditations on time, memory and our relationships to each other. JR knew he had to run – intellectually – just to keep up.
Conway, K. (2010). ‘Agnès Varda at Work’, Studies in French Cinema, 10(2), pp.125-139.
Murray, R. (2015). ‘The Significance of Agnès Varda’s Old Lady Onscreen.’ in Jermyn, D. and Homes, S, (eds). Freeze-frame. Women, Celebrity & Cultures of Ageing. (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan).
Rosello, M. (2006). ‘Agnès Varda’s Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse. Portrait of the Artist as an Old Lady’, Studies in French Cinema, 1(1), pp.29-36.
Ryder, K. (2016) ‘A Piercing View of the Twentieth Century, Through the Eyes of the Teddy Bear’, The New Yorker.