France in the Films of Agnès Varda

A pioneer of the “French New Wave,” second-wave feminist and photographer, Agnès Varda’s films blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction and influenced several filmmakers to use the techniques of location setting and experimental realism in their films.

Agnes Varda
Agnès Varda directs La Pointe Courte, 1954

Agnès Varda belonged to the Left Bank Side of the French New Wave Movement, which is strongly tied to the ‘nouveau roman’ movement in literature. Her works are an amalgamation of documentary filmmaking and a heightened interest in experimentation and film treatment as art. Varda seemed to be a poet for whom France was the muse, and her films are deeply rooted in the culture and milieu of its times. Unlike her contemporaries, whose films mainly dealt with the male psyche, Post World War disillusionment and were a stark social commentary on the tumultuous times depicting mostly a male protagonist as the main character who, like Sisyphus, had to carry all the burden, Varda’s films addressed the women issues along with her social critique since she was widely associated with second-wave feminism movements. Varda, a photographer before a filmmaker, was always keen to capture time’s fleeting nature through her location shooting. Her films exude a subtle sense of poetry through the way they are true to the tradition of its time and space.

  1. La Pointe Courte

La Pointe Courte is not entirely but can be termed as an autobiographical work of Varda. Agnès left Belgium with her family in 1940 for Sète, where she spent most of her teenage years and lived on a boat with her family during World War II. La Pointe Courte was set in Sète, a city located in an unusual, marshy region between sea and lagoon on the western Mediterranean coast. Two entirely different narratives are running in the film, with the only common element being La Pointe Courte’s location. One report is about the fishing community, the hardships endured by them, and their lifestyle; the other narrative is about the married couple – Lui, a local boy who grew up in this fishing community, and Elle, a Parisian girl who visited the town to work on the crumbling foundations of their marriage.

In this film, Lui might symbolize the pre-modern France before the war where Varda grew up, and Elle might suggest modern France plagued by suffering and chaos, which might justify the rifts in their marriage. While Lui found happiness in the presence of his wife Elle, Elle couldn’t find happiness in their togetherness and rather always remained unsettled in finding the cause of her unhappiness. Varda’s filmmaking oscillated between the couple wandering around the coastal landscape contemplating their marriage and the fishing community utterly detached from the rest of the world. Change was a distant dream in such a restricted town; life was mundane and drudgery, yet its inhabitants enjoyed their sense of privacy and comfort. Varda, at times, placed the couple’s faces in extreme close-up, at an angle to each other, which might have influenced Bergman while making Persona.

On the surface, the film might be an existential love story. Still, it’s a documentary documenting the people’s lifestyle in Sète, eating, quarrelling, courting, working, and annual jousting sports. There’s a sharp dichotomy in the film between Pre-Modern France and Post-Modern France, which could echo Varda’s relocation to Paris as a Sète local and the alienation she faced while embracing her newfound sense of modernity. The film for Varda might be a walk down her memory lane. Still, in the end, it offered reconciliation as the only solution through the reunion of the married couple in a town replete with their tradition and culture that possibly rekindled their passion for romantic love.

  1. Cléo de 5 à 7

Cléo de 5 à 7 was an ode to the streets of Paris where Cléo, like a tourist, was wandering around maybe to escape her fear of death. The narrative of the film revolves around Cléo, a singer who, while having a tarot card reading with a fortune teller, discovered her impending doom. The film depicted two extraordinary hours, i.e., from 5-7, which in France is generally considered the hours when lovers meet. Varda chose her main character to be a female in this film since the film was a part of the feminist movement that spanned across Europe in the 1960s and ironically juxtaposed the themes of love and death. Cléo wandered through the streets of Paris, first accompanied by her superstitions and then all alone as she tried to engage in various activities and spectacles throughout the day to comfort herself. We see her looking at herself in the mirror several times throughout the film- once when she was trying hats in the hat shop, next in her apartment, which can be compared with the Lacanian mirror stage paving the discovery of self.

Through her poetic filmmaking, Varda captured the existential angst that plagued France in the 1960s due to the Algerian War. Her protagonist, Cléo, was a victim of her own and this collective existential angst. Agnés portrayed working-class women in this film where we see them driving taxis, posing as models for art classes to earn their daily bread, which was difficult to find in films of her contemporaries like Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol. Cléo, even though she had a lover and a successful career, was always overshadowed by men around her and, therefore, felt stifled and lonely. She loitered in a black dress through the cafes, parks, and studios of Paris for respite. Still, the mortality always haunted her until she came across Antoine, a soldier on leave from the Algerian War who also had an impending doom hung around his fate but preferred to live in the moment without worrying about the future. It is in a stranger that Cléo found a sense of peace and comfort; she confided in him that her real name is Florence while he complimented how the picturesque flora of the park and her name went hand in hand. Antoine accompanied Cléo to the hospital to get her test results, where she was diagnosed with first-stage cancer and was advised by her doctor to go through two months of radiotherapy.

At this point in the film, it was expected that Cléo would fall apart since then she had to face her deepest fear, but instead, she astonishingly replied that her fear seemed to be gone, and she looked happy. Through this film, Varda reminds us of the fleeting time when death is the only reality. However, we should never be bothered by this fact. Instead, we should learn to cherish every moment of our existence. Cléo de 5 à 7 traced the journey of a disoriented young singer based in Paris torn by personal and social crises who eventually found love in a stranger who helped her discover herself and taught her to live in the present. Agnés subtly made the soldier Antoine her mouthpiece in the film, who expressed her views on the futility of war, reflecting on the fact that people die for nothing in a fight, and that scared him the most rather than the fear of death. The film thoroughly examines the psyche of a female undergoing an existential crisis using tumultuous France as its backdrop.

  1. Le Bonheur

Le Bonheur was set in a tiny suburb far away from Paris. The opening sequence was that of a sunflower field where the camera focused on two sunflowers, one which was in full bloom and the other of a bee sucking nectar from the sunflower. The narrative revolves around a couple: François, a carpenter, and Thérèse, a dressmaker, who are happily married with two children until the entry of a third person in their marriage, i.e., Émile, an attractive single woman who works in the post office. Varda captured the pastoral beauty of French suburbs through the scenes of the family picnicking in the woods on weekends. She delved deep into the theme of marriage, issues of nuclear family, and infidelity that are pretty prevalent in all societies across the world through space and time. Agnés used the flora of the French suburbs as a pathetic fallacy in this film. Le Bonheur means Happiness, and Varda deliberately used Spring as the season in the film’s initial sequences when the love between the couple bloomed. An analogy can be drawn between Bertha Young, the protagonist of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Bliss,” and Thérèse Both of these women, being oblivious of their husband’s infidelity, enjoyed bliss in unison with nature’s heavenly rapture until they discovered it all in an epiphanic moment or in a sudden moment of revelation which made their whole world fall apart.

However, in Varda’s film, when François confesses in front of Thérèse that he found new happiness with Èmile, Thérèse accepts his happiness to be that of hers and encourages him to make love to her for the last time before her death. Her death remains a mystery in the film, and Varda, like Antonioni, keeps it to open interpretation. One could never figure out if she committed suicide or if she died accidentally falling into the lake located in the woods. Varda used Autumn as the season to depict Antoine’s new life with Èmile. There’s a sharp contrast in the beginning and ending of the film. The film begins with Spring and ends with Autumn. It seems as if Thérèse took away Spring with her departure, but that didn’t impact Antoine much as he readily embarked on a new life journey with his lover.

Like Clèo de five à 7, Varda chose her protagonists to be female in this film too; however, she depicted two categories of women- passive women like Thérèse, who were mostly silent and did not have any voice of their own, and active women like Èmile, who expressed themselves freely without any fear and hesitation. Agnès, in this film, captured the lifestyle and family values of the French working class. Still, through the movie, she exposed the transitory nature of human emotions, be it happiness or grief, and also left us with questions like, “What is happiness?” “How much happiness is to happiness?” And “On what basis should happiness be measured?”

  1. Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse

Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse is a documentary focusing on gleaning and gleaners as the film’s chief subject. For the first time, Varda used a digital camera to make this film. She travelled extensively across the French countryside, interacting with different types of gleaners- people who glean out of necessity for the sake of survival, people who glean out of passion, people who glean to recycle and reuse the salvaged material to make art, and lastly people who glean to aid the needy and poor with basic amenities of life. The film documented the gleaners and gleaning processes of France’s rural and urban areas.

Varda highlighted the economic and social imbalance that plagues French society through this documentary. She drew references from famous paintings such as Des Glaneuses by Jean- François Millet, depicting that gleaning was one of the most ancient and valuable crafts in French agriculture, thus thriving into the nostalgia of this craft through this film. She became a gleaner as she gleaned through the stories of several gleaners. Varda had this tendency to constantly remind her audience of life’s transient nature. She did the same in this film in those sequences when Varda placed her hand in front of her car’s window, her index finger and thumb forming a circle, framing each passing truck down the highway. She kept repeating this gesture, maybe to highlight how time and moments slip by no matter how hard we try to hold onto them.

Through this documentary, she represented the gradual shift in French society across time and the evolution of French art and culture through the process of gleaning; however, she posed a question of whether this evolution or rapid digitalization is serving the purpose of the greater good.

  1. Les plages d’ Agnès

Les plages Agnès is an autobiographical documentary film where Varda, on the eve of her 80th birthday, revisits the locations of her movies, reminiscing all the memories and reliving them in the present. The film opens with the beaches of Belgium where Varda grew up and Agnès directly speaking to her audience, breaking the fourth wall -“I play the role of a little old lady telling her life story, pleasantly plump and talkative. And yet others interest me so I prefer filming them”.

This documentary gave us a view of Agnès’s inner world – the subject matter of her films, her passion for photography that shaped her career as a filmmaker, her relationship with her children, and her husband, Jacques Demy, another celebrated French New Wave cinema director. In many sequences of the film, we see Varda moving backward on the beach, which is reflective of the fact that the film is introspective, where Varda looks back on her works, explaining the story behind every sequence and tracing them back to their space and time. France also played a pivotal role in this documentary since we see how Varda explored different shades of France and its culture across time through her films. This film charted not only the evolution of French society but also Varda’s evolution as an artist and her passion for her art, “Cinema is my home. I think I have always lived in it”.

Agnès Varda’s works can be broadly classified into two sections – fiction when she was a detached observer and non-fiction when she became both a participant and an observer. However, she always managed to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction in her films, which later influenced Iranian filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami to employ the same technique in their films, following in her footsteps. Her films accurately account for the times in which they are placed. She is known as the “godmother of the French New Wave” because of her experimental realism style; her works dealt with a vast range of issues that plagued not only France but also the world as a whole, yet what sets her apart is the theme of universal love, humanity, and brotherhood that she subtly attempted to preach through her works.

She lived her life as a commoner in a tiny purple house at 86 rue Daguerre, situated on the pedestrian street of Paris. In most of her films, she tried to record/document/capture the life of commoners; perhaps that’s what makes her work timeless; she gave a voice to the commoners through her films, looked at life the way they did, and both celebrated and critiqued their values which shows her responsibility as a true artist who used art for the sake of people’s betterment.

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Srilekha Mitra

Srilekha is a post-graduate student of English Literature whose world revolves around three fs- films, football and food. She is an overthinking cinephile who occasionally seeks refuge in poetry and music.


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