The Complete Films of Agnès Varda

The Heart of Documentary

The Heart of Documentary

It’s the other famous shot in The Gleaners and I (2000) of Agnès Varda’s reaching hands. Not the one she said was taught around the world as the heart of her documentary-making, where, in a playful, perspicacious game of perspective, she appears to “catch,” in a ring made of her thumb and finger, articulated trucks seen through her windshield as she drives on a freeway. That one is a subtle, funny critique of the net of international corporations these trucks represent, in which the local agricultures and communities that she is documenting have been caught. Nor is it the widely cited shot, full of open, melancholy tenderness, in which she films “one hand with the other hand,” meditating on aging, gender, and time. The shot that really catches at the heart is the one that cues the other two: it is the first time we see the filmmaker reach from behind the camera into the frame, as Varda extends her hand to grab a heart-shaped potato from the heap of misshapen, outsize, damaged discards returned to the ploughed field by a farm­workers’ cooperative, and now being gleaned for food. “The heart,” she says. “I want the heart.”

Reaching avidly for the core matter(s) that others disdain—whether potatoes or the poetic, pregnancy or political radicalism—Varda shaped her oeuvre through what she describes in Gleaners as “la même geste modeste de glâner”—“the same modest gesture of gleaning.” The rhyme of geste and modeste, like the puns Varda adores, is itself a modest gesture, reaching for and treasuring the play of everyday language. In Gleaners, with her digital camera in one hand and a potato in the other, Varda illuminated her lifelong practice of radical compassion through vernacular filmmaking in a way that captured international attention and led to a late-life burst of feature-documentary-making that split its attention, like blood circulating through the valves of a heart, between Varda herself and the communities, both intimate and public, into and between which she traveled.

This shot marks the moment that Varda the filmmaker becomes Varda the gleaner—that she announces her entry into fellow feeling, compassion in its most literal sense. It is reaching for the heart-shaped potatoes—their shape echoing the colorful celluloid cutouts she used to tint shots of a joyous family meeting in the earlier Uncle Yanco (1968)—that shifts the film from a humanitarian documentary looking in from outside to an ethnography of shared practice. In gleaning for aesthetic pleasure and creative generativity, Varda shows that those gleaning out of necessity are also feeding parts other than their bellies: specifically, their hearts. As she will note in her cinematic lecture Varda by Agnès (2019), “I’ve learned that recycling brings joy. We feel things aren’t lost . . . We give them new life. It’s not wasted.” Varda catches instances of camaraderie and collective pleasure at the potato mound, such as the unemployed food-bank volunteers gleaning for themselves and for others, and the preteen boys singing about their daily diet of potatoes, showing off freely for the camera that, in gleaning, they “have the potato,” as the French expression goes—that they’re up for it, full of beans, alive in the moment and to its possibilities.

Reaching for the potato—not only crossing from behind the camera to in front of it but also announcing her desire—Varda undertakes what the American poet Joan Retallack calls “the poethical wager,” a risk- or chance-based poetics that is also an ethics, because it puts the artist’s body on the line and in the frame. Varda frequently named chance (hasard) as, in a sense, her codirector, but she also talks, in Varda by Agnès, about the need to have a point of view, especially for making documentary, and a plan or organizing principle (dispositif).

Drawing on another one of Varda’s beloved objets de hasard, we could pair these practices—point of view and plan—as a frame. In Gleaners, Varda is as conscious of the ornate (or not) frames given to paintings of gleaners as she is of how the paintings themselves frame gleaning (as a specifically feminine, rural activity). In the opening minutes of The Beaches of Agnès (2008), she sets up both mirrors and empty frames on a beach, tilting them to catch both the sea and the faces of her assistants. Faces Places (2017) similarly thinks about how faces and places frame each other, both literally and in the sense of mutual interpretation and representation. One of the projects Varda undertakes with the photographer and street artist JR, her collaborator on that film, is to post a giant version of a family photograph of a loving couple, given to the filmmakers by the couple’s great-granddaughter, on the side of a building. Varda goes to a flea market to find a locketlike oval frame to complement both the historicity and the intimacy of the image. Before the recycled frame is applied to the picture, we see it framing Varda’s own face. This is the poethical wager at work: Varda reaches for the heart by showing us what the personal stakes for her are in doing so, that she is a person who is “in a way like everybody.”

“The heart of her films always lies in the same place: in the truthfulness, the authenticity, of the people who appear within them.”

The Gleaners and I

“Real people [les vrais gens] are at the heart of my work,” Varda says toward the end of Varda by Agnès, and it’s true, from the fishermen reenacting their families’ stories in La Pointe Courte (1955)—whose descendants she visits in The Beaches of Agnès and Agnès de ci de là Varda (2011), as if to demonstrate their “real reality” (as she calls it in Varda by Agnès) to viewers more than fifty years on—to the very different play with Jane Birkin as person and performer in Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988). While Varda indeed made films designated as documentaries throughout her career, starting with the shorts Ô saisons, ô châteaux, Du côté de la côte, and L’Opéra-Mouffe (all 1958), and continued to make short fiction films, such as Les 3 boutons (2015), in this century, what seems more to the point is that the heart of her films always lies in the same place: in the truthfulness, the authenticity, of the people who appear within them—in a reflexive, rather than naive, sense, as when she shows Birkin looking into mirrors hung in trees that tilt to show Varda looking at the performer and asking her to look directly into her camera.

In the opening of Beaches, a bio-doc in which Varda becomes one of les vrais gens interrogated by her camera, she walks backward on a windswept beach of Belgium’s North Sea coast, describing herself “playing the role of a little old lady,” then says that, despite the film’s title, she would rather talk about people other than herself. “Others intrigue me,” she says, “motivate me, arouse my curiosity.” The French word translated as “arouse my curiosity” is m’interpellent. Varda had been a canny, witty refractor of the currents of leftist thought swirling around her in postwar France, as in her casual allusion to Karl Marx’s Capital amid the columnar architectural figures of Les dites cariatides (1984), which mirror the unpaid and unseen work of women carrying the burden of unpaid domestic labor, famously missed by Marx. She would have known well of her near contemporary Louis Althusser’s use of interpeller to mean something more than “arouse curiosity”: the way in which states, religions, education systems, and other bodies maintain power by calling us into themselves based on our need to belong. Varda reverses the word’s charge: she is not just drawn in by others out of curiosity but drawn into, called into solidarity, toward alternative social formations.

Varda by Agnès

What arises from this draw is clearest in Varda’s most political films, Black Panthers (filmed in 1968, released in 1970) and One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977): one a documentary, the other fiction, both singing with witty and compelling agitprop songs that place politics at the heart of Varda’s aesthetics and vice versa. One Sings is also docufiction, of course, as it features les vrais gens: lawyer Gisèle Halimi plays herself in the film’s central scene of the 1972 protest for reproductive rights outside the Bobigny courthouse, a protest in which Varda herself had participated, heavily pregnant. In Beaches, Varda describes that protest as the moment when her feminist politicization and education became clearly defined for her. In Black Panthers, the English-language voice-over notes that, in Oakland, California, where the Panthers were gathered outside during the trial of party leader Huey P. Newton, “the courthouse lawn becomes an open forum where they teach Chairman Mao and the Black Panther program.” Again and again, Varda’s films are drawn into—and drawn to creating—forums like this, as open as their forms and frames.

As Newton discusses in an interview in Black Panthers, his party was inspired by the social and political reframing undertaken by the Cuban revolutionaries; Varda, likewise. Her photo-documentary Salut les Cubains (1964), composed mainly of black-and-white still photographs that she exhibited in Havana and Paris and then filmed, offers the clearest example of her practice of framing and reframing in which the aesthetic and political inform each other. It is a form of recycling that is not just re-utilitarian but—as with the potatoes in Gleaners—about the shifts of perspective that can emerge from reuse. We see this in the photographic portrait of Fidel Castro she will later show in Beaches when she talks about her potato hearts, (re)framing the rough, bicorned stone rising up behind the young rebel leader as, at once, a pair of angelic wings and a mineral heart.

Salut les Cubains

Salut les Cubains itself starts with an invitation: welcome to the photographic exhibition Cuba, 10 Years of Revolution, installed in a small gallery in Paris in June 1963. A Cuban band plays “Guantanamera,” and a close-up on the conga drum takes us back six months to the filmmaker-photographer’s time in Cuba, through a graphic match on a similar drum being played in a Havana street. Salut les Cubains shares with Black Panthers not only its Marxist-Leninist politics but also the enlivening spirit of music. The voice-over narration mingles revolutionary history with Cuban musicology; or rather, the musicology is a history of revolutionary Cuba, of its indigenous and African cultures and communities rising up against colonial power. It is Varda’s voice we hear narrating; there is Varda herself on the Paris street, caught on camera by Chris Marker or one of the other men we see filming and taking pictures. She does not have a camera in hand; she is a witness, a participant, unmediating, immediate, at the heart of the open forum that is both the event itself and the film she will later assemble.

On est complice,” as she says of her work with Birkin in Jane B. par Agnès V.: the subtitle translates this as “We were in it together,” but complicity and its complications are explicit in Varda’s poethics. “I was in Cuba,” she says in the Salut les Cubains voice-over (duties she shares with Michel Piccoli), a conscious echo of the female protagonist’s famous statement-and-denial in Hiroshima mon amour (1959), directed by Alain Resnais, Varda’s friend and early editor. The reference implies the vast poststructuralist and postcolonial question of presence, of the ability to witness and participate, facing Varda as a white European woman in Cuba. This is a question that resonates at every ethical level of her work as a documenteur—a docu-liar: Was I there? And if I was, was it as I? The images are proof both that she was there and that, in creating the dispositif,  she was not; she was the frame. Of her photographs and the film, she continues, “I brought back jumbled images. To order them, I made this homage.” She does not call it a documentary, or even a document, but rather an homage, a tribute, a greeting: a witty joke of sending picture postcards of Cuba from France back to the Cubans depicted in the images who saw the exhibition in Havana, saying, “Wish I were there (as you are).” Only the cinema audience can see the photographs of the Cuban attendees at the exhibition, which make us aware of our distance from the Cuban setting and experience, of our complicity in the fantasy of intimacy. Varda was there, and she was not: she was elsewhere, making images to show us “at home.”

In bridging Paris and Havana, colonizer and decolonizer, Varda undertakes a radical interpretation of the act of “making oneself at home”—s’installer, in French—by changing its meaning, to something impermanent and playful. When she is de ci et de là, she is truly here and there, insisting on a connection while still recognizing the asymmetries between the two places. Varda’s outstretched hand also marks the moment that her artistic practice shifted in the twenty-first century to entwine feature-length documentaries and installation art. In Gleaners, she shows the heart-shaped potatoes molding and sprouting in her kitchen, a process that instigated and formed the centerpiece of her first installation, Patatutopia, at the 2003 Venice Biennale, where she placed her own body at the heart of a potato costume. Both The Beaches of Agnès and Varda by Agnès reach out and catch the heart of the ephemeral experience of this installation and others like it for viewers who couldn’t travel to the galleries. In her later installations, Varda created new ways for viewers to be “at home” in her work, literally building cabins (cabanes) out of 35 mm prints of her films Le bonheur (1965) and Les créatures (1966), arranged over metal greenhouse frames. We are “in” the film as we cannot be when watching it, as Varda could be “in” Havana only by reframing her photographs; it is temporary, self-reflexive, filled with light that illuminates the process of spectatorship, identification, and desire. We want to be the heart of a film, and here we are; but we have to step outside of this inside-out experience—in which a fiction film becomes a material object, the opposite of the “real reality” translated into documentary—in order to see.

“Frank sexuality is as much part of the radical poethics of Varda’s work as her observations of bodies being bodies in public space.”

In a similar way, Varda makes herself at home (only) as a guest, revealing “home” as always mobile and open, a lesson in courage she took from her early life as a refugee from the Nazi invasion of Belgium, and her living through World War II on a cramped boat in Sète with her mother and siblings. Her work pays close attention to the need for a stable home for those who are rendered homeless not only by war but also by the inequalities of capitalist society. In her first “at home” documentary, L’Opéra-Mouffe, filmed at a market on rue Mouffetard in Paris, Varda fashions portraits of injured, destitute, and poverty-stricken older people of fifties Paris, in whose gazes the wars of the first half of the twentieth century persist. Similarly haunted gazes appear in La chambre occupée (2012), installed in a condemned building in the northwestern French city of Nantes, with three television screens—embedded in a gleaned mattress, a woodstove, and a microwave in a shopping cart—showing predominantly black squatters, some inhabiting similar spaces and some who have been evicted from them, talking about their experiences and revealing implicitly how the geopolitics of empire and global warfare that mark the bodies in L’Opéra-Mouffe persist. The unhomely homeliness of the installation was underlined by its being half of a diptych, with Des chambres en ville, installed on the floor below and paying homage to Jacques Demy’s Nantes-set film Une chambre en ville (1982). Although Varda by Agnès refers only to the former, the two installations were deeply interconnected: on est complice, Varda reminds us. To feel at home is to forget that others do not.

That same doubling is apparent in L’Opéra-Mouffe, in which a couple of young lovers, entirely self-focused, wordlessly enjoy each other’s nude beauty in a small studio. Frank sexuality—always hetero-, but also daring in the way it revels in the beauty of the naked male body—is as much part of the radical poethics of Varda’s work as her observations of bodies being bodies in public space, whether it is the unconscious alcoholics of rue Mouffetard or the dancing filmmakers of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos in Havana, including Sara Gómez. The juxtaposition of the comic opera of new love and new life with the traumatized population and war-damaged city amid which it takes place—as with the revolution and the cha-cha-cha in Havana—is not jarring but syncopated. It expresses neither anguished guilt nor naive hope but rather a mutual reframing of the authenticity of each mode. The filmmaker voices this in Varda by Agnès, sitting in her director’s chair looking out at the waves: “When I’m alone by the sea, I feel things better. Things are double . . . Even as I enjoy the gentle seascape, I know the world is filled with war, violence, suffering, and wandering.”

Réponse de femmes

Things are double: the poethical wager of resisting a single genre or perspective runs through Varda’s oeuvre. Yet seeing double requires being alone, a gesture repeated at the end of Varda by Agnès, when a group of children watch Varda’s installation-portrait-documentary-monument Le tombeau de Zgougou (2006) in a cabane du cinéma in the garden of the Fondation Cartier. Most of the children leave the cabane to talk Varda through their interpretation of the piece, but one girl doubles back, saying she can feel more when she watches alone. The solitary figure, like the pregnant woman separated from society in L’Opéra-Mouffe, catches Varda’s attention as she thinks through herself both as a solo ciné-écrivaine and in relation to/with Demy, her husband, whose work she explored in two documentaries made not long after his death, The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993) and The World of Jacques Demy (1995), the latter of which doubles the fiction feature Jacquot de Nantes (1991). L’Opéra-Mouffe, focusing on a sole pregnant figure (in fact, we never see her face, only her torso), finds its own doubles in the collective polemical portrait Réponse de femmes (1975), made for French television, as well as in One Sings. The latter film’s entwined female protagonists, celebrating their friendship over decades and distance, could also be said to face the lonelier figures of Varda’s next two fiction features: Documenteur (1981), in which Varda’s editor on Mur Murs (also 1981), Sabine Mamou, plays the assistant to a filmmaker making a film about murals in Los Angeles while estranged from her husband, as Varda was at the time; and Vagabond (1985), which sets Sandrine Bonnaire’s Mona drifting alongside eroded stone angels.

Yet these hermetic, solitary, and often resistant figures offer a route into shifting social and cultural networks that are harder to access than even the Black Panthers or the romantic dyad. Most famously and poignantly, there is Alain Fonteneau at the end of Gleaners, the apple eater who leads the filmmaker, after months of careful conversations in the market, to the community where he both fits in and stands out—as Varda is both included in les glaneurs (plural) and stands out as la glaneuse (feminine singular)—the predominantly West African immigrants alongside whom he lives in a hostel. This precarious community, marked by differences of racialization, immigration status, class, and gender from the filmmaker, has access to neither the French language nor the legal codes that govern their gleaning, along with the relations it enables. Varda places a lawyer in full robes in a cabbage field to show the absurdity of this, that the complicated and cruel letter of the law determines whether people can eat to survive.

Community and solitude, home and away, stillness and motion, reality and fantasy, love and grief, the natural world and the built environment, the filmmaker and the subject: Alain, like many of Varda’s subjects, shows that these are not binaries but necessarily yoked, both/and, doubled and doubling, reflecting each other’s difference as Varda and Birkin do. Doubling, coupling, itself becomes a dispositif, not just what is framed but a frame itself: the young lovers whose closeness is often staged like a Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso painting in La Pointe Courte, and the models who stand in for Varda and Demy, staged like a more explicit version of a René Magritte painting, in Beaches, frame a lifetime of thinking through the couple as more than a heteronormative given or a cultural archetype.

It is partially through documenting love that Varda disrupts the donnée of romantic fantasy. Her poetic documentary short Elsa la rose (1966) catches at the heart through the lifelong love story of Parisian writers Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon. While much of the film consists of readings of Aragon’s poems, in conversation with Varda, Triolet says: “It’s not the poems that make me feel loved. Not the poetry. It’s the rest. Life.” Aragon ends the film by saying it should be about the “real” Elsa, not the figure in his poems or of the film, “this fairy tale with its artificial resolutions.” As in Le bonheur, Varda uses the form of the romantic dyad to question it, here showing that mutual creativity and an ability to articulate the difference between fairy tale and life make for an undomestic, tough love situated by the film amid wars, revolutions, and strikes. “The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love,” Simone Weil wrote. Love is a political as well as personal necessity, a documentary poethics that enabled Aragon and Triolet to create, as it did Varda. Her gift for revealing the heart of her on-screen subjects was one that she also turned on herself in her late, great documentaries, where she reveals her own poethics at work, producing the beautiful by fixing her attention on something real. All her films begin in this attention as an act of love for those who spark her curiosity; those without whom she—and we—cannot create or exist. As Piccoli sings on the soundtrack of Elsa la rose: “What would I be without you / But a heart turned to stone.”