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Finding Agnès Varda

This article was previously published in Issue 19, ABSENCE (December 2018).

Still from The Gleaners and I, 2000, dir. Agnès Varda (Image: Cine-Tamaris & Zeitgeist Films)

Still from The Gleaners and I, 2000, dir. Agnès Varda (Image: Cine-Tamaris & Zeitgeist Films)

We find Agnès Varda and an anonymous man in a field in rural France, gleaning for potatoes

left to rot by industrial agribusiness.

The man: “There are deformed ones, heart-shaped ones.”

Varda: “I was glad. I immediately filmed them up close and set about filming perilously with one hand, my other hand gleaning heart-shaped potatoes.”

These heart-shaped potatoes, ‘deformed’ to some, draw clear parallels with Varda’s own hand, the hand of an ageing woman, something she is oh so aware of in much of her work. Yet these hands are fragile and are so frightfully overlooked, much like the subjects of Varda’s films; for it is with tenderness that she depicts the singularity of the human condition. Time again we see Varda’s subjects (so often women) in incorrupt scenes, some staged, some genuine. It is this genuine nature to Varda’s craft that draws me back to her. The Gleaners And I, the film from which the above scene is taken moves me ceaselessly.

Finding Varda is like the part in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps into technicolour. Amidst a seemingly endless sea of male directors, Varda’s warm, inquisitive interest in the otherwise unseen shines out, just like her aubergine and white hair. I’d like to identify Varda first and foremost as a pioneer of the New Wave, as opposed to the reductive and patronising ‘grandmother’ label often tagged on her. Her first film La Pointe Courte made in 1955 predates Godard’s A Bout de Souffle by 5 years and her most recent film Faces Places (2017) arguably outdates Godard’s last great film by decades. I find it disquieting that I probably only heard of Varda 5 or 6 years after I first saw Godard’s film, and only saw my first film of hers around 2 years ago. It is this absence of a femaleness within the filmic canon and within the repertoire of film that I am familiar with that concerns me about a medium I have grown to love.

We see Agnes both behind and in front and above the camera throughout her long and varied career. Always the director, the voyeur, but often the recounter or performer, she conflicts what we know about cinema and transforms it into a style entirely her own. Thus, her affiliation with the New Wave maybe starts with La Pointe Courte and ends with Cleo from 5 to 7, but the extension of her craft into documentary, into storytelling, photography and experiment goes beyond the stifling, patriarchal name of the Nouvelle Vague.

Still from Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962, dir. Agnès Varda (Image: Cine-Tamaris)

First, we meet Cleo, her visage sleek, striking, romantic, but flawed. Her eyes address us from our seats in the cinema or, today, from the screen of our computer. She commands our attention, she is formidable, and she finds herself in 2 hours in Paris. This is Varda’s doing. Cleo gives us what Godard’s ‘all you need is a girl and a gun’ does but without the gun. Varda doesn’t need a gun. It exhilarates me to think that Cleo comes just two years after Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation and the influence of this work as well as the Algerian War are potentially visible in the fraught 120 minutes of the film. However, Cleo from 5 to 7 is sacredly female! Cleo is a woman and so is Varda. This is distinctly the female condition, and this is 1962, the subject is not an object but a woman.

Then we see Sandrine Bonnaire as Mona in Vagabond. This is 20 years after Cleo and we have reached a technicolour status too. Mona, austere and beautiful, contradictory and complex, deserves our attention. The film is riotously nonconformist, feminist and still searingly relevant today. I imagine it as an antithetical Cleo, the two films have much in common, the key being the prosaic lives Varda covers. She rejects the ‘girl and a gun’ sequences of her counterparts, and without Varda, would these narratives be rendered absent in cinema?

Now back to The Gleaners and I, or Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse in its native French. Here, Agnes moves me more than ever. I’m touched by her love for discarded potatoes and I’m touched by her willingness to embrace the unexpected (namely, an accidentally filmed sequence of her lens cap, set to music: the dance of the lens cap.) She playfully blurs the lines between the prosaic and the prodigious, and the honest relationships she has to her subjects prove to me how magical and transcendent this film is. Varda has said: 'I love filming real people; I love to connect with the kind of people we don’t know so well.' A fact so obvious, so attractive and so endearing in all of her work.

Cleo, Vagabond and The Gleaners are seen as classics, with a concrete place in the filmic canon. Then why is Varda only now becoming ‘present’ in the film industry? This summer we saw a retrospective of her work at the BFI and at Curzon cinemas around the country, her work was shown at the Liverpool Biennial, and Faces Places, her most recent film, was widely shown and is held in justified critical acclaim.

Agnes Varda and her digital camera filming The Gleaners and I, 2000 (Image: BFI)

But Varda is ninety years of age. Is this all just too little too late? Or should we revel and rejoice in the attention she is now being paid, even if it is decades later than her male contemporaries?

So often in the creative industries, we see women eclipsed by their male counterparts, and so often they are only celebrated, or accepted years too late, despite being constantly critically successful.  I think of Rose Wylie’s paintings, only responded to in her old age, I think of Angela Schanelec, a wonderful German director still working today, and I think of Chantal Akerman, the courageous Belgian director, of whom so many films are lost, and why? For she is a woman and the absence of the woman in front of the camera perhaps changes the direction the film’s legacy will take. Or is it Varda’s willingness to sidestep the deification her peers were given that demystifies her, and thus has rendered her only present in the canon 6 decades after she began?

I can only say that when I found Varda, I fell in love, not just with her, but with Cleo, Mona and the many anonymous figures in her films. I adore the transient quality of The Gleaners and the sophistication of Cleo from 5 to 7 and devastation of Vagabond. I must confess that I cried watching Faces Places, and I cried selfishly, and awkwardly and for myself. I cried because I only found Varda so recently and I feel such a guilt for that, for not seeking out what is now so special to me beforehand.

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