At the heart of Agnès Varda
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), Agnès Varda’s second feature length film, and arguably her most well known, is a portrait of two hours in the life of a singer, Florence ‘Cleo’ Victoire (Corrine Marchand), as she anxiously awaits biopsy results. It’s a film of the French New Wave – the movement that Varda either “initiated” or “inspired” with her 1955 debut, La Pointe Courte, depending on which version of film history you read. Cleo from 5 to 7 unfolds in real time. It features experiments with film form, handheld camerawork, music by Michel Legrand (Varda’s husband Jacques Demy’s frequent collaborator), and location shooting in which Paris plays itself.
What sets Varda’s film apart from most New Wave films is its distinctly female perspective on a female protagonist. When we first meet her, Cleo is vain and self-involved. She’s worried about what cancer might do to her looks. In a key scene she removes her ornamental wig, as if she’s peeling off layers to reveal her humanity beneath the façade. Cleo is also signaling she’s no longer content to simply be an object to be looked at. Taking to the streets and walking around, she rejects passivity, and carves out a space in the world for herself.
The figure of the ‘flâneur’ – the “passionate spectator” that the poet Charles Baudelaire identified in his 1863 essay, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ – omitted women from its mythology. The flâneur was idealised as man of leisure who looked and observed the pleasures of city life. But he was also a visible citizen, part of the configuration of the modern world. Cleo, as ‘flâneuse,’ claims a space for women to do and be the same. Getting to know the city by walking its streets and interacting with its inhabitants she challenges how the world sees her and how she sees herself.
Varda, too, is more than a passionate spectator, although her films certainly reveal a great gift for observing and understanding what she sees. Trained originally in art and photography, Varda picked up a film camera, in part, because she never thought she didn’t have the right to. In an interview with The Believer in 2009, Varda suggested that she began making films because of the freedom her naïveté permitted. “Sometimes I say, If I had seen some masterpieces, maybe I wouldn’t have dared start.” Legend has it that Varda had only watched ten films before deciding to make her own when she was 25. Like Cleo, Varda refused the limitations of a woman’s place in postwar France and within the film industry. She took to the streets, photographed and filmed them, and changed how we see.
Born in Belgium in 1928, Varda’s family relocated to the south of France in 1940. Varda would eventually move to Paris, change her name from Arlette to Agnès, and study art history and photography at the École des Beaux-Arts. With her first film, La Pointe Courte, she instituted an ideological framework evident across her fiction films, documentaries, shorts, and art installation – to record the times in which she lives, to use cinema as a means of personal expression, and to locate the lives of her characters or subjects in a social context. Varda’s influences have always been more artistic and literary than cinematic. Her signature style fuses montage and movement, still images and objects into the film’s fabric, to create what she calls cinécritue, or ‘writing on film.’
One of only a handful of women making films in France in the 1950s, Varda set herself apart from the crowd early on. Her contribution to cinema was recognised in November 2017 with the awarding of an Honorary Oscar – the first of its kind to a female director. Appointed the “Grandmother of the New Wave” when she was 30, she was the movement’s only female ‘member.’ Her association with the Left Bank Group (New Wave luminaries, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut helmed the Right Bank Group), which included Chris Marker and Alain Resnais (who edited La Pointe Courte), cemented her commitment to colloboration and political engagement, but never at the expense of real people’s stories or humanist ideals.
This spirit continues to burn brightly in Varda. Her latest film, Faces, Places (2017), reveals her ongoing commitment to spontaneity and the stories that one can gather out and about in the world. Varda’s move from fiction to almost exclusively working with documentary has allowed her to synthesise her aesthetic and intellectual concerns. Over the past 50 plus years she has made films about Los Angeles (Mur Murs, 1980), Cuba, and the Black Panthers. What each of these films shares are an interest in community, a boundless curiosity about people and places, and a belief in the power of art.
Faces, Places originates from similar concerns. Here, Varda collaborates with the visual artist, JR. Known for his Banksy-like anonymity, and the enormous blow-up photographs he erects semi-guerilla style in built up urban spaces, the 34-year-old might seem an odd collaborator for the 89-year-old Varda. But as Varda explains, “art is meant to surprise us,” and the sincerity and warmth of their work together certainly does just that.
Travelling around rural France in JRs mobile photo booth, Varda and her younger sidekick take photos of people living in places rarely chronicled on screen. As Varda did with The Gleaners and I (2000) – her exploration of people gleaning a life from the food, objects, and things that are discarded – she gives dignity and a voice to real people whose stories are too often invisible. As she explained in a recent interview with Variety, “I don’t feel like filming people that have power. I’m much more interested in the rebels, the people who fight for their own life.” Faces Places is full of such resisters – factory workers; a postman; farmers; a waitress; the wives of dockyard workers, empowered by their newfound visibility.
Throughout Faces, Places, Varda is in a self-reflexive mood, as she is in all her documentary films. In The Gleaners and I, Varda comes to the realisation that she is also a gleaner – an artist who picks and chooses ideas from other artists. The Beaches of Agnès (2008), is an autobiographical essay that works as a memory collage and extends the idea of Varda as a gleaner picking at pieces from her own past to create new art. Similarly, Faces, Places is as much about Varda’s face and her place in the world as it is about the working-class people she and JR meet and talk to.
As she has done throughout her career, Varda lets her subjects talk. “Chance has always been my best assistant,” Varda explains. She leaves it to her subjects to tell her what her film will be about. Her open heart sews it all together. As the odd couple head off on their adventure, Varda reflects: “I’m always game to go towards villages, towards simple landscapes, towards faces.” She still revels in the surprises; in the emotional connections she forges and encourages us to forge alongside her. Just like Cleo, she’s still out there, walking around, challenging how we see ourselves and the world.
Discover the vivacity of Varda in our film season Agnès Varda: Life is Art