Agnès Varda  

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"Agnès Varda was influenced by the philosophy of Gaston Bachelard, under whom she had once studied at the Sorbonne. "She was particularly interested in his theory of 'l'imagination des matières,' in which certain personality traits were found to correspond to concrete elements in a kind of psychoanalysis of the material world." This idea finds expression in La Pointe Courte as the characters' personality traits clash, shown through the opposition of objects such as wood and steel." --Sholem Stein

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Agnès Varda (30 May 1928 – 29 March 2019) was a Belgian-born French film director. Her films, photographs, and art installations focused on documentary realism, feminist issues, and social commentary with a distinctive experimental style.

Film historians have cited Varda's work as central to the development of the French New Wave; her employment of location shooting and non-professional actors were unconventional in the context of 1950s French cinema.

She is known for such films as La Pointe Courte (1955), Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Le Bonheur (1965), Black Panthers (1968), Vagabond (1985) and The Gleaners and I (2000).

Contents

Early life

Varda was born Arlette Varda on 30 May 1928 in Ixelles, Brussels, Belgium, the daughter of Christiane (née Pasquet) and Eugène Jean Varda, an engineer. Her mother was from Sète, France, and her father came from a family of Greek refugees from Asia Minor. She was the third of five children. When she was 18 Varda legally changed her name to Agnès. During World War II Varda lived on a boat in Sète with the rest of her family. Varda attended the Lycée Victor-Duruy and received a Bachelor's degree in literature and psychology from the Sorbonne. She described her relocation to Paris as a "truly excruciating" one that gave her "a frightful memory of my arrival in this grey, inhumane, sad city." She did not get along with her fellow students at the Sorbonne and described classes there as "stupid, antiquated, abstract, [and] scandalously unsuited for the lofty needs one had at that age."

Career as a still photographer

Varda intended to become a museum curator and studied art history at the École du Louvre, but decided to study photography at the Vaugirard school of photography instead.

Varda began her career as a still photographer before becoming one of the major voices of the Left Bank Cinema and the French New Wave. However, she maintained a fluid interrelationship between photographic and cinematic forms: "I take photographs or I make films. Or I put films in the photos, or photos in the films."

Varda discussed her beginning with the medium of still photography: "I started earning a living from photography straightaway, taking trivial photographs of families and weddings to make money. But I immediately wanted to make what I called 'compositions.' And it was with these that I had the impression I was doing something where I was asking questions with composition, form and meaning."

In 1951, her friend Jean Vilar opened the Théâtre National Populaire and hired Varda as its official photographer. Before accepting her position there, she worked as a stage photographer for the Theatre Festival of Avignon. She worked at the Théâtre National Populaire for ten years from 1951 to 1961, during which time her reputation grew and she eventually got photo-journalist jobs throughout Europe.

Varda's still photography sometimes inspired her subsequent motion pictures. She recounted: "When I made my first film, La Pointe Courte — without experience, without having been an assistant before, without having gone to film school — I took photographs of everything I wanted to film, photographs that are almost models for the shots. And I started making films with the sole experience of photography, that's to say, where to place the camera, at what distance, with which lens and what lights?" Furthermore, she recalled another example: "I made a film in 1982 called Ulysse, which is based on another photograph I took in 1954, one I'd made with the same bellows camera, and I started Ulysse with the words, "I used to see the image upside down." There's an image of a goat on the ground, like a fallen constellation, and that was the origin of the photograph. With those cameras, you'd frame the image upside down, so I saw Brassaï through the camera with his head at the bottom of the image."

Early film career

The beginning of her career pre-dates the start of the Nouvelle vague (French New Wave), but contains many elements specific to that movement. While working as a photographer, Varda became interested in making a film, although she stated that she knew little about the medium and had only seen around twenty films by the age of twenty-five. She later said that she wrote her first screenplay "just the way a person writes his first book. When I'd finished writing it, I thought to myself: 'I'd like to shoot that script,' and so some friends and I formed a cooperative to make it." She found the filmmaking process difficult because it did not allow the same freedom as writing a novel; however she said that her approach was instinctive and feminine. In an interview with The Believer, Varda stated that she wanted to make films that related to her time (in reference to La Pointe Courte), rather than focusing on traditions or classical standards.

La Pointe Courte (1954)

Varda liked photography but was interested in moving into film. After spending a few days filming the small French fishing town of La Pointe Courte for a terminally ill friend who could no longer visit on his own, Varda decided to shoot a feature film of her own. Thus in 1954, Varda's first film, La Pointe Courte, about an unhappy couple working through their relationship in a small fishing town, was released. The film is a stylistic precursor to the French New Wave. At the time, Varda was influenced by the philosophy of Gaston Bachelard, under whom she had once studied at the Sorbonne. "She was particularly interested in his theory of 'l'imagination des matières,' in which certain personality traits were found to correspond to concrete elements in a kind of psychoanalysis of the material world." This idea finds expression in La Pointe Courte as the characters' personality traits clash, shown through the opposition of objects such as wood and steel. To further her interest in character abstraction, Varda used two professional actors, Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret, combined with the residents of La Pointe Courte, to provide a realistic element that lends itself to a documentary aesthetic inspired by neorealism. Varda continued to use this combination of fictional and documentary elements in her films.

It was edited by friend and fellow Left Bank filmmaker Alain Resnais, who was reluctant to work on the film because it was "so nearly the film he wanted to make himself" and its structure was very similar to his own Hiroshima mon amour (1959). While editing the film in Varda's apartment, Resnais kept annoying her by comparing the film to works by Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni and others that she was unfamiliar with "until I got so fed up with it all that I went along to the Cinémathèque to find out what he was talking about." Resnais and Varda remained lifelong friends, with Resnais stating that they had nothing in common "apart from cats."

The film was immediately praised by Cahiers du Cinéma. André Bazin called it "a miraculous film. In its existence and in its style" and François Truffaut called it "an experimental work, ambitious, honest and intelligent." Varda said that the film "hit like a cannonball because I was a young woman, since before that, in order to become a director you had to spend years as an assistant." However the film was a financial failure and Varda only made short films for the next seven years.

Varda is considered the grandmother and the mother of the French New Wave. La Pointe Courte is unofficially but widely considered to be the first film of the movement. It was the first of many films she made that focus on issues faced by ordinary people. Late in her life, she said that she was not interested in accounts of people in power; instead she was "much more interested in the rebels, the people who fight for their own life".

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961)

Following La Pointe Courte, Varda made several documentary short films; two were commissioned by the French tourist office. These shorts include one of Varda's favorites of her own works, L'opéra-mouffe, a film about the Rue Mouffetard street market which won Varda an award at the Brussels Experimental Film Festival in 1958.

Cléo from 5 to 7 follows a pop singer through two extraordinary hours in which she awaits the results of a recent biopsy. The film is superficially about a woman coming to terms with her mortality, which is a common auteurist trait for Varda. On a deeper level, Cléo from 5 to 7 confronts the traditionally objectified woman by giving Cléo her own vision. She cannot be constructed through the gaze of others, which is often represented through a motif of reflections and Cleo's ability to strip her body of "to-be-looked-at-ness" attributes (such as clothing or wigs). Stylistically, Cléo from 5 to 7 mixes documentary and fiction, as La Pointe Courte had. Although many believe that the ninety-minute film represents the diegetic action, which occurs between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., in real time, there is actually a half-hour difference.

Later career

In 1977, Varda founded her own production company, Cine-Tamaris, in order to have more control over shooting and editing.

In 2013, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held Varda's first American exhibition called "Agnes Varda in Californialand." The exhibition featured a sculptural installation, several photographs, and short films, and was inspired by time she spent in Los Angeles in the 1960s.

Vagabond (1985)

In 1985, Varda made Sans toit ni loi ("without roof nor law"; known in most English-speaking countries as Vagabond), a drama about the death of a young female drifter named Mona. The death is investigated by an unseen and unheard interviewer who focuses on the people who have last seen her. The story of Vagabond is told through nonlinear techniques, with the film being divided into forty-seven episodes, and each episode about Mona being told from a different person's perspective. Vagabond is considered to be one of Varda's greater feminist works because of how the film deals with the de-fetishization of the female body from the male perspective.

Jacquot de Nantes (1991)

In 1991, shortly after her husband Jacques Demy's death, Varda created the film Jacquot de Nantes, which is about his life and death. The film is structured at first as being a recreation of his early life, being obsessed with the various crafts used for filmmaking like animation and set design. But then Varda provides elements of documentary by inserting clips of Demy's films as well as footage of him dying. The film continues with Varda's common theme of accepting death, but at its heart it is considered to be Varda's tribute to her late husband and their work.

The Gleaners and I (2000)

Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse, or The Gleaners and I, is a documentary made in 2000 that focuses on Varda's interactions with gleaners (harvesters) who live in the French countryside, and also includes subjects who create art through recycled material, as well as an interview with psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche. The Gleaners and I is notable for its fragmented and free-form nature along with it being the first time Varda used digital cameras. This style of filmmaking is often interpreted as a statement that great things like art can still be created through scraps, yet modern economies encourage people to only use the finest product.

Faces Places (2017)

In 2017, Varda co-directed Faces Places with the artist JR. The film was screened out of competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival where it won the L'Œil d'or award. The film follows Varda and JR traveling around rural France, creating portraits of the people they come across. Varda was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for this film, making her the oldest person to be nominated for a competitive Oscar. Although the nomination was her first, Varda did not regard it as important, stating: "There is nothing to be proud of, but happy. Happy because we make films to love. We make films so that you love the film."

Style and influences

Many of Varda's films use protagonists that are marginalized or rejected members of society, and are documentary in nature. She made a short color film on the Black Panther Party (Black Panthers, not to be confused with the black and white film Huey!) after seeing their leader was arrested for killing a policeman. Their focus was on the demonstrations that people led in support of him and the Free Huey campaign.

Like many other French New Wave directors, Varda was likely influenced by auteur theory, creating her own signature style by using the camera "as a pen." Varda describes her method of filmmaking as "cinécriture" (cinematic writing or "writing on film"). The term was created by merging "cinema" and "writing" in French. Rather than separating the fundamental roles that contribute to a film (such as cinematographer, screenwriter, and director), Varda believed that all roles should be working together simultaneously to create a more cohesive film, and all elements of the film should contribute to its message. She claimed to make most of her discoveries while editing, seeking the opportunity to find images or dialogue that create a motif.

Because of her photographic background, still images are often significant in her films. Still images may serve symbolic or narrative purposes, and each element of them is important. There is sometimes conflict between still and moving images in her films, and she often mixed still images (snapshots) with moving images. Varda paid very close attention to detail and was highly conscious of the implications of each cinematic choice she makes. Elements of the film are rarely just functional, each element has its own implications, both on its own and that it lends to the entire film's message.

Many of her influences were artistic or literary, including Surrealism, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, and Nathalie Sarraute.

Involvement in the French New Wave

Because of her literary influences, and because her work predates the French New Wave, Varda's films belong more precisely to the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) cinema movement, along with Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Cayrol and Henri Colpi. Categorically, the Left Bank side of the New Wave movement embraced a more experimental style than the Cahiers du Cinema group; however, this distinction is ironic considering the New Wave itself was considered experimental in its treatment of traditional methodologies and subjects.

Left Bank Cinema was strongly tied to the nouveau roman movement in literature. The members of the group had in common a background in documentary filmmaking, a left wing political orientation, and a heightened interest in experimentation and the treatment of film as art. Varda and other Left Bank filmmakers crafted a mode of filmmaking that blends one of film's most socially motivated approaches, documentary, with one of its most formally experimental approaches, the avant-garde. Its members would often collaborate with each other. According to scholar Delphine Bénézet, Varda resisted the "norms of representation and diktats of production."

Varda as a feminist filmmaker

Varda's work is often considered feminist because of her use of female protagonists and her creation of a female cinematic voice. Varda has been quoted as stating, "I'm not at all a theoretician of feminism, I did all that—my photos, my craft, my film, my life—on my terms, my own terms, and not to do it like a man." Although she was not actively involved in any strict agendas of the feminist movement, Varda often focused on women's issues thematically and never tried to change her craft to make it more conventional or masculine.

Historically, Varda is seen as the New Wave's mother. Film critic Delphine Bénézet has argued for Varda's importance as "au feminin singulier," a woman of singularity and of the utmost importance in film history. Varda embraced her femininity with distinct boldness.

Filmography

Feature films

Year Original title English title Credits
1955 La Pointe Courte Director, Writer
1962 Cléo de 5 à 7 Cléo from 5 to 7 Director, Writer
1965 Le Bonheur Happiness Director, Writer
1966 Les Créatures The Creatures Director, Writer
1967 Loin du Vietnam Far from Vietnam Co-Director
1969 Lions Love Lions Love Director, Writer, Producer
1975 Daguerréotypes Director, Writer
1977 L'Une chante, l'autre pas One Sings, the Other Doesn't Director, Writer
1981 Mur murs Mural Murals Director, Writer
1981 Documenteur Documenteur Director, Writer
1985 Sans toit ni loi Vagabond Director, Writer, Editor
1988 Jane B. par Agnes V Jane B. by Agnes V. Director, Writer, Editor
1987 Le petit amour Kung Fu Master Director, Writer
1991 Jacquot de Nantes Jacquot Director, Writer
1993 Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans The Young Girls Turn 25 Director, Writer
1994 Les Cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma A Hundred and One Nights Director, Writer
1995 L'univers de Jacques Demy The World of Jacques Demy Director, Writer
2000 Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse The Gleaners and I Director, Writer, Producer, Editor
2002 Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse... deux ans après The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later Director, Editor
2004 Cinévardaphoto Cinévardaphoto Director, Writer
2006 Quelques veuves de Noirmoutier Some Widows of Noirmoutier Director, Writer
2008 Les plages d'Agnès The Beaches of Agnès Director, Writer, Producer
2017 Visages Villages Faces Places Director
2019 Varda par Agnès Varda by Agnès Director

Short films

Year Original title English title Credits
1958 L'opéra-mouffe Diary of a Pregnant Woman Director, Writer
1958 La cocotte d'azur - Director, Writer
1958 Du côté de la côte Along the Coast Director, Writer
1958 Ô saisons, ô châteaux - Director, Writer
1961 Les fiancés du pont MacDonald ou (Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires) - Director, Writer
1963 Salut les cubains - Director, Star
1965 Elsa la rose - Director, Writer
1967 Oncle Yanco Uncle Yanco Director, Writer, Star
1968 Black Panthers Black Panthers Director
1968 Huey Director
1975 Réponse de femmes: Notre corps, notre sexe Women Reply Director, Writer, Star
1976 Plaisir d'amour en Iran - Director, Writer
1984 Les dites cariatides The So-Called Caryatids Director, Writer, Star
1984 7p. cuis., s. de b., ... à saisir - Director, Writer
1986 T'as de beaux escaliers, tu sais You've Got Beautiful Stairs, You Know Director, Writer
1982 Ulysse Ulysse Director, Writer, Star
2003 Le lion volatil - Director, Writer
2004 Ydessa, les ours et etc. Ydessa, the Bears and etc. Director, Writer
2004 Der Viennale '04-Trailer Venice International Film Festival 2004 - Trailer Director, Writer, Star
2005 Les dites cariatides bis - Director, Writer
2005 Cléo de 5 à 7: souvenirs et anecdotes Cléo from 5 to 7: Remembrances and Anecdotes Director
2015 Les 3 Boutons The Three Buttons Director, Writer

Television work

Year Original title English title Credits
1970 Nausicaa (TV movie) - Writer, Director
1983 Une minute pour une image (TV series Documentary) - Director
2010 P.O.V., episode 3, season 23, "The Beaches of Agnes" - Director, Writer, Producer, Cinematographer
2011 Agnès de ci de là Varda, 5 episodes (TV series documentary) - Director, Writer, Star




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Agnès Varda" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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