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Four Ways of Looking at Agnès Varda

Four Ways of Looking at Agnès Varda

Over the course of an adventurous career that encompassed narrative and documentary filmmaking as well as photography, sculpture, and video installation, Agnès Varda was a shape-shifter who merged her deep engagement with social reality with a playful, endlessly inventive approach to form. But no matter how sweeping her vision or how risk-taking her style, her work was always rooted in moments of intimacy and her tenderness toward the lives she depicted. To celebrate the release of The Complete Films of Agnès Varda earlier this week, we spoke with four contemporary filmmakers—Ashley Connor, Anna Rose Holmer, Kirsten Johnson, and Lauren Wolkstein—about the scenes from her oeuvre that resonate most deeply with them. Their selections, drawn from different periods in Varda’s six-decade filmography, turn our attention to her genius for capturing small gestures and exchanges that illuminate complicated human truths.

Lauren Wolkstein on La Pointe Courte (1955)

La Pointe Courte is a film that exists in my dreams. I return to it often to think about its representation of liminal spaces and the fraught relationships that exist there. Agnès Varda became so fascinated with taking pictures of a small fishing village in France that she returned to shoot her first film there. She embraced the townsfolk and made this small film with them for very little money. The film, which is named after the village, brought with it the birth of the French New Wave. But that fact is not recognized widely enough, since Agnès was a woman in a man’s world and wasn’t a part of the original Cahiers du cinéma crew. Alain Resnais edited La Pointe Courte, and its influence on his Hiroshima mon amour is apparent. Both films, through astute editing, explore the in-between state of memories and tense emotions, juxtaposed with the consciousness of the natural world.

At the center of La Pointe Courte is an unhappy married couple. Their names are never spoken aloud in the film, but we will call them Elle (“her” in French) and Lui (“him”). La Pointe Courte is Lui’s childhood home, and he takes his wife to travel there. We soon realize that she feels imprisoned by this marriage and wants to leave Lui, but he is on a mission to show her that their relationship has evolved from its nascent drunk-in-love stage into something simpler and more banal, like the rest of the married folk in his hometown.

Varda does something incredibly daring and bold for her first film. She throws out all the rules of narrative structure and decides to tell two seemingly disjointed stories, each with its own distinct aesthetic, and have them coalesce only at the end. With a neorealist and documentary approach she observes the daily life of fishermen and their families. This naturalistic style is juxtaposed with the highly aestheticized framing she uses to showcase the married couple’s turmoil. Varda’s confident direction and camera show the couple in rigid, unnatural poses amid the architecture and the land, with the townsfolk in the background observing their odd behavior.

My favorite scene in the film, one that I return to often for inspiration in my own work, depicts Lui taking Elle to an abandoned ship in the middle of a remote part of town. It feels like the couple (and we too) have stumbled upon forgotten treasure. We see them walk down the windy beach hand in hand when Elle says that she can see the strangeness of their connection in Lui’s childhood town in ways she didn’t back in Paris, where she is from and they now reside. We follow their feet as they track across the edge of the water, past artifacts and objects strewn about the sand, until Elle spots a sun-shaped object made of sticks that she picks up and chucks playfully into the water. Elle tells Lui that she wanted to break up with him but this town has given her pause. They continue to walk up to the ruins where Lui expresses that he has given her everything of his youth. He claims that what was his is now hers too. It is then that we see a shot of her standing behind him, merging into him, and the couple become one unit.

Then they crawl into the ship, appearing small compared to their surroundings, as if their troubles have diminished for now. The ship is a magical treasure that will revitalize their marriage with wonder and awe, picking them out of the rut they were in. That’s the power of place. The time this couple shares on the ship awakens Elle to her childhood memories of adventure. We get a glimpse into Lui’s life as a boy playing in this ship as if in the belly of a whale. Elle thought her life should be full of ambition and wanted to make a name for herself in Paris, but here she recognizes the pleasures of stillness, away from the hustle of the city. Lui sits, resting in the natural light shining down from the ship’s opening, while Elle walks to the opposite end of the boat, unable to remain still. They couldn’t be further apart in this moment, and this is a reflection of their relationship: his stillness versus her restlessness. Elle eventually walks back over to Lui, and he pulls her up to sit down next to him. Finally, she is still and also soaked in the light. Now the only thing that exists in the frame is these two lovers in a perfectly balanced two-shot, the center of our world at last.

This scene reminds me of my favorite scene in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, when Dana Andrews’s character wanders into an airplane graveyard and hides away in the nose of a B-17. Inside that old airplane he vividly recalls his life during the war, and we see this in the way he physically changes in that space, as if the space alone triggered all his past memories and traumas. Likewise, the abandoned ship in La Pointe Courte represents childhood for Lui in a way that makes Elle grow fonder of him and makes him vulnerable to her. Locations provide insight and reflection to these characters in a visceral and tactile way. With her childlike curiosity and inquisitive imagination, Varda was able to carve out a brilliant career by exploring people’s relationships within specific places, in both narrative and documentary—and in the case of this film, a hybrid of the two. This debut feature is a pure expression of her imagination, which lives in a liminal space that she invites all of us to explore with her.

Lauren Wolkstein is a writer, director, and editor. Her short film The Strange Ones (2011), codirected by Christopher Radcliff, is now playing on the Criterion Channel.

Ashley Connor on Documenteur (1981)

The first time I saw Documenteur was this past January. I was preparing to be on a panel about Agnès Varda at Lincoln Center and was brushing up on films of hers I hadn’t seen. It’s emerged as one of my favorites. When I was studying film, I felt a large gap in my knowledge of female filmmakers; being introduced to Agnès’s work was a revelation. This was someone speaking a language I could understand. She created characters I related to and wanted to be. She is one of very few filmmakers who can get to the depth of melancholy and aloneness. It is in this aloneness that she gives her characters the space to exist on their own terms.

Documenteur was made in the early eighties, when Varda returned to Los Angeles for a second large chunk of time, having recently separated from Jacques Demy. I know that this film—which shows a woman’s depression after leaving her husband and while struggling to take care of her child alone in LA—isn’t entirely autobiographical, but you can really feel the weight of Varda’s own sadness. The film gently meditates on a lot of the pain she was experiencing. It’s also a movie that presents complicated ideas about motherhood and self-identity. I’m not a mother, but I’ve worked in childcare a lot, and as I get older I love talking with my friends about boundaries that you set with children and what it means to look at your child in the face and say, “I’m in pain.” How much space can you find for yourself in the world to say that you’re struggling and still be there for them?

Varda went out to LA to make Mur Murs and ended up making Documenteur on the side. Her editor, Sabine Mamou, is the star of the film. I find there’s something so beautiful about editors, and they aren’t celebrated in all the ways they should be. They’re people who sit in a room mining footage very carefully, feeling out performances, and the best editors are those who really get to the emotional core of what a film is trying to say. I imagine Mamou and Varda in communication with each other making this film, and I’m so moved by that. Mamou had never acted in anything before and didn’t ever again, but she puts it all on the line here. It is a very vulnerable performance. It’s a very smart directing move, too, to know that you could make a film like this with your collaborator, on your own terms. It’s interesting to view Documenteur as a precursor to Vagabond because, in a lot of ways, Varda was confronting these very difficult parts of herself for the first time. She was finding new ways of defining who she was as an individual.

Her lens is a democratic one. The way she interacts with the faces of these incredible people, the way the camera frames and photographs them—there’s never a moment of judgment. The moods just bleed through. You can tell that she just loves people and has a careful, caring approach to taking an image. I’ve learned this from her, and it’s become very important to my own process and sense of playfulness. I’m always impressed by her ability to make a film actually feel joyful, which is something that’s often lost on filmmakers now, especially when you’re on set in a very pressurized environment. When I’m watching Varda’s films, I feel there’s someone behind the lens who’s really happy to be there and is looking at the world with fresh eyes. She’s entering communities and loving everything about them. Architecturally, LA is very different from Paris and other places she’d lived—it’s a stucco nightmare, but it’s a space made for murals and public art, and you see her processing that in the footage. Being from LA, I was very touched by the way she connects to the beach, it makes me miss home.

Throughout Documenteur, Varda builds these little circles within the film, loops that keep coming back; sometimes they’re repetitions of motion, sometimes repetitions of words. There’s so much playful language. A beautiful scene that’s stayed with me is one in which we’re given an intimate moment alone with Mamou’s character. It starts off at her place of work, which is the home of a French actress we never meet. She’s at her typewriter, staring off into the landscape of the beach, and we see the words on the page: “BODIES SEPARATED . . . WORDS . . . SHATTERED PHRASES.” I love literal filmmaking sometimes, and this is a very literal moment. Varda is telling us what we’re about to see. Mamou receives a phone call and then leaves the phone off the hook and walks into her employer’s bedroom. She strips down naked, gets on the bed, and looks at herself in the mirror.

I mentioned these loops that keep coming back throughout the film, like the way her partner touches her hair in one moment and then we see her touch her own hair the same way here. These are actions that remind her of her pain and ask questions about how we deal with pain. I love this scene so much because you watch her take pleasure in herself and that feels so empowering. You realize she just needed a moment to herself, to get back in her body, to be alone. As a cinematographer, I also love a good mirror shot. Mirrors are full of meaning, and looking at yourself is full of meaning. There is this idea of body as landscape, as a disruption, and usually that disruption is just how we view ourselves. Mamou’s body is dissected and disconnected in the reflection, but something lights up in her. You feel her exhale. It is an exquisite release.

Varda was always putting the camera in the right place to show the audience exactly what they need to know in that moment. I love how economical she was with coverage. Filmmakers often forget that you can do things simply and elegantly. She made this film with multiple cinematographers; they were just shooting on the weekends, picking up shots, and filling it in with this story about a woman we get to observe. It’s not flashy by any means, but it’s emotional. Her heart was always in the right place to tell these stories honestly and truthfully, and that’s the ethos of her work.

Ashley Connor is a director of photography. Her work includes Madeline’s Madeline (2018), The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018), and Person to Person (2017).

Kirsten Johnson on Vagabond (1985)

Vagabond is a portrait of a young woman’s life in reverse, starting from the moment she is found dead, frozen in a ditch. You could say that it’s like watching a person in a rearview mirror, which feels fitting for the story of Mona (played by a sixteen-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire), who hitchhikes—stopping and starting, staying and leaving—through the wintry countryside of Montpellier. It’s been thirty years since the first time I saw Vagabond. Watching it now, for the second time, was such a startling experience. Not only was I seeing the film again, I was also seeing my own self just as vividly as a young woman in a rearview mirror.

The first time I saw Vagabond was in 1989. I had just moved to Paris with the hope of applying to La Fémis, the national film school of France. I had never heard of Agnès Varda. I hadn’t heard of too many women film directors at all, in fact. So I was very excited by the prospect of seeing Vagabond, which I had heard great things about. 

I hated it. 

I was so disappointed that the rare woman “given a chance” to make a film would do something so boring and repellant.

As I watched Vagabond this second time, I kept seeing flashes of my younger self who thought those things. This time I loved the movie. Instead of imagining that someone “let” Varda make this film, I felt it was clear that she made Vagabond completely on her own terms and with profound purpose. I marvel at every aspect of the film, from the way it is shot to the economy and confidence with which it brazenly weaves what is documentary and what is fiction. How distressing that I believed myself to be “bored and repelled” that first time I saw it. Now I can only think about how heavily defended I must have been to wall myself off from such a remarkable movie. The world it so incisively portrays was unfamiliar and threatening to me then. The kindred connections between the destinies of marginalized people, despite their differences, which are depicted in the film with such generosity, were something I was not yet prepared to acknowledge as a young woman. It seems that I didn’t want to think of myself as part of the club. That happens to young people fortunate enough to not have experienced the violence directed at women yet. It takes a while for us to realize it. Varda sees the world of Vagabond through the eyes of many people. She shows us men who look at women and women who know they are being looked at. But Varda throws no person under the bus. As much as the film is a portrayal of Mona seen through the many eyes of the people she encounters, it’s also a film about memory and images and aging and society and nature. Which is part of why it is so electric to rewatch. It not only commands my attention, it simultaneously activates my own memories of seeing it the first time. Furthermore, it provokes me anew to consider how we as humans must navigate the distance between how we may be seen and who we are inside.

I realize now how much my younger self didn’t want to know what the film was revealing. I didn’t want to know how systemic misogyny was. I hated having it held up to me that a young person alone on the road was at risk of being raped. I remember so vividly how upset I was by one of the early scenes, in which Mona is rude to a truck driver who picks her up. I was mad at her. Why couldn’t she be nice to him? I realize now how much I must have wanted to blame her behavior instead of imagining a world that could value her so little. I certainly didn’t want to imagine a world that would value me that little, and luckily for me (and primarily because of privilege) I hadn’t had to encounter it yet. What’s so remarkable to me now is that that same privilege rendered me incapable of seeing how Vagabond is a meditation on seeing and valuing what it is to be human, even and especially when we have nothing and are at our most vulnerable.

There is an unforgettable moment in the film in which a woman named Mme. Landier almost electrocutes herself. She has grasped onto the light fixtures in her bathroom and can’t let go as the shock shakes through her. The scene starts with the sound of the shaking glass, heard by a person in the other room. It’s a fantastic separation of sound from image, making each more mysterious and powerful. In the midst of her being electrocuted, when we finally realize what is making the sound, the image in and of itself is a shock, as if we the audience were in water and the electricity had just reached us.

As Mme. Landier recovers, she describes having seen violent fragments of images all out of order. We imagine she might have been seeing images of her own life flash before her, but she says that she was seeing her time with Mona, whom she picked up hitchhiking.

The first time we see Mme. Landier, she’s taking a luxurious bath, talking to someone on the phone about Mona. From her comfortable place in the warm water that looks like it smells good, the immaculately made-up Mme. Landier is incredulous and laughing as she describes what it was like to be in the car with the terrible stench coming off of Mona’s unwashed body.

The contrasts between the two women continue. Mme. Landier is an academic, an expert in a fungus that kills plane trees, and she explains to Mona as they drive through the countryside of Montpellier that this fungus arrived with American GIs when they left weapons in packing crates during World War II. The infection lasts years and will soon take over all the trees.

Mona asks, “Do you heal them?” and Mme. Landier says, “No, I study them.”

This is the distance between Mme. Landier and Mona. Mme. Landier can only study Mona—she can’t begin to imagine how she might help heal her or even simply drive her to safety, but perhaps most critically, she can’t relate to her. Class separates the women. Mme. Landier believes she has earned her own autonomy, not realizing yet that it has only been granted to her for a brief window of time and can be taken away at any moment. But Mona understands that her shot at freedom must be stolen at every moment—both from all of the people who believe she was born undeserving of it and the society that is unwilling to protect her from them.

One of the few times we see Mona’s body relax in the film is when she is in Mme. Landier’s car. Out of necessity, Mona has had to be on guard with almost everyone she’s met on the road. And finally with Mme. Landier, who is so curious about her but isn’t about to take anything from her like the many men along the way want to, Mona can relax and almost trust. She drinks champagne; she gets fed. But there’s a very powerful, terrible moment when Mme. Landier, during a stop on their journey, gets out of the car to speak with her young male colleague while Mona waits in the car for her. Mme. Landier tells him about the young hitchhiker she’s picked up and asks him if he wants to take a look at her, encouraging him to go peer through the car window at Mona. Mme. Landier is so much more allied with her young male colleague than she is with what it means to be vulnerable as a young drifter that it doesn’t occur to her that by sending him to gawk at Mona through the window she’s just burst the fragile and precious bubble of safety she’s momentarily created for Mona in her car. It’s all just a game to Mme. Landier, a funny story.

Throughout all of the scenes with Mme. Landier, she’s puzzled by her own feelings of discomfort that Mona’s presence stirs in her. She knows in her gut that she has a connection to this young woman but is simultaneously incapable of recognizing it. In the moment of her electrocution, she sees what she could not see before: that she was unable to see what was right in front of her—that her wish to see herself as different from Mona was a denial of the reality of marginalized experience. Looking at Vagabond now, I realize that when I was twenty-four I was relating to it the way Mme. Landier relates to Mona. In denial. Now I find myself, like Mme. Landier, experiencing fragments of images from my past moving like shock waves through me. But thanks to age and, once again, to Agnès Varda—who probably got through to me the first time in ways I have yet to understand—I can now see.

Kirsten Johnson is a filmmaker and a cinematographer. Her film Cameraperson—named by the New York Times as one of the top ten films of 2016 and shortlisted for an Academy Award—is now playing on the Criterion Channel. Her latest film, Dick Johnson Is Dead, won the Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

Anna Rose Holmer on The Gleaners and I (2000)

The Gleaners and I was the first Agnès Varda film I ever saw. Even though she founded the French New Wave, I have an almost inverted way of understanding her body of work because this late-career documentary was my entry point. When I had the joy of discovering her fiction work, I found that same blend of hyper-choreographed movement, surrealism, and verité, and understood that those elements have been present in her film language from the very start of her career. I first watched Gleaners while living in Cuba, studying nonfiction filmmaking but coming to it from a background in photography. I thought of myself as an image maker and hoped for a career as a camerawoman. But encountering Varda allowed me to imagine a future for myself as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, for the first time. Her films presume that a human is holding the camera, and the way she moves effortlessly across identities—as an artist, filmmaker, photographer, collagist—is awe-inspiring. Varda rejects the hard line between fiction and nonfiction, and I love that.

The moment in Gleaners that I want to talk about is the penultimate scene, which serves as a kind of summation of the film’s themes. The sequence begins with a tracking shot from a car that’s only a few seconds long but reminds me of the film language from Cléo from 5 to 7 when Cléo wanders around Paris. In both movies, we find our protagonist in a sea of bodies, reflected in the motion of the city that surrounds them. This small stylization gives this scene in Gleaners a feeling we are headed toward a destination. Varda zeroes in on a man picking through discarded lettuce after the market has closed. Small in the frame and seen from a distance, the man’s image challenges our idea of a central subject right away. Varda’s voice-over directs our attention to him. Portrayed as a wanderer and carrying an oversized bag, the man resembles a character in another one of Varda’s iconic films—Mona in Vagabond.

The Gleaners and I begins as an essay film that explores the semi-lost art of gleaning, an act of scavenging fields for crops after they’ve been harvested. In the process of making the film, Varda discovers a world of people who take what others would define as discarded materials—fragments of food, metal, images—and repurpose them for their own needs. She gives us portraits of these gleaners, pickers, and scavengers, some who salvage out of necessity and others who do it simply for the joy of the experience. But this scene in the market is the first time we witness someone besides Varda eating as they gather, enjoying the fruits of their labor in the moment. Through her narration, she starts to tell us her observations of this man over many days. We focus closely on his hands as he explains the nutritional value of the parsley he’s picked up off the sidewalk. Varda mirrors this spark of fascination she feels, enraptured by the knowledge he’s bestowing on her, by finally framing him in close-up.

She continues to narrate the story of how she builds trust with her subject over time. She explains that sometimes she films without recording sound, a point that demonstrates she values her relationship with him over obtaining perfect footage. In the film’s press notes that I dug up, Varda said she was “always coming back to the gleaners, trying to win their confidence, listen to them, converse with them rather than interview them.” That’s central to her philosophy—she seeks an equal exchange and resists putting herself in a position of power.

As the scene progresses, Varda passes the baton by giving this man the power of the voice-over to tell his own story. He begins talking about his routine and his commute, and it’s in this space that we start to understand his true nature. We see long-lens shots of him selling newspapers outside a metro station. He’s a man who would easily be overlooked if it were not for the direct point of view of Varda’s camera. We feel the inherent violence of the city around him, and then we’re brought into his first-person psychology in a way that’s very beautiful. Finally, toward the end of the sequence, we arrive at his apartment building, where he tells us his neighbors are mostly immigrants from Senegal and Mali, and every night he teaches them to read and write in French for free. And it’s upon this revelation that Varda’s voice returns, and the sequence starts to playfully shift back and forth between his narration and hers. She says that meeting this man was what surprised her the most in the process of making Gleaners. The sequence ends with a shot of his hands, an echo of a close-up of Varda’s own wrinkled hands that appears earlier in the film. Hands are a consistent obsession in her filmography, and whenever they appear in her work I read them as a kind of self-portraiture, her way of alluding to herself.

I love the gentleness of this ending. It’s a very small, almost mundane revelation that Varda transforms into something profound. This man is not gleaning out of poverty or necessity in the way she had been framing those things; he’s made a choice to glean because that affords him the possibility to give his time to his neighbors. Varda has always been a political filmmaker. In this sequence, by focusing on a man who rejects status in order to embrace generosity, she’s asking about the dignity of human life and why our society prioritizes certain choices over others.

Wrapped up in this one moment are a number of different exchanges: the one that’s happening between Varda and her subject, the encounter between the immigrant students and their neighbor-teacher, and the confrontation between filmmaker and audience. And in each of these exchanges she’s urging us to value dignity over profit, human connection over bottom line. Her vision of progress requires immense creativity; for Varda, gleaners are all artists. They reject the status quo by redefining the refuse of capitalism. In this small portrait, she shows us what it may take to free ourselves of commodification so that we can celebrate the world’s true abundance.

Anna Rose Holmer is a filmmaker. Her debut feature, The Fits (2015), is now playing on the Criterion Channel.

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