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The Criterion Collection’s set “4 by Agnès Varda” is almost like a collection of cinematic poetry, with some of Varda’s most notable works—La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7), Le Bonheur, and Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi). Four might seem too few, given Varda’s immense influence on cinema. But somehow, four feels appropriate here.
There are four horsemen of the apocalypse; fear of the number is common in East Asian nations where “four” sounds like the word for death; and in Tarot, The Emperor is the fourth Major Arcana card, a symbol of ultimate masculinity—all perfect omens for Varda to defy. If all this talk of omens sounds a bit superstitious, it just means that some of Varda’s character Cléo must be rubbing off on me. Varda, as a female filmmaker in a male-dominated realm takes all these symbols and turns them back against the observer. She made what many consider the first film of the French New Wave, and recently became the oldest Academy Award nominee in history; she also sports an iconic two-toned bowl cut, and gives off such intense warmth that you can’t help but want to talk to her for hours. This warmth transfers to her subjects, whom she presents without judgment, despite their flaws. In her work, she creates compelling portraits of all facets of humanity, and it is often as if their gaze is returning yours, like one of those paintings whose eyes follow you— daring you to reconsider any preconceptions you might have had about the people whose stories she tells.
In the opening sequence of Cléo from 5 to 7 (the first film by Varda I ever watched, and her most well-known), tarot cards supposedly predict Cléo’s imminent death: the film’s title refers to the hours she waits hear the results of her test for cancer. Vagabond, too, begins with death, this time the discovery of the body of the protagonist, Mona. Of course, things aren’t always as dark as they seem— each of Varda’s films is, put most simply, truly about life, and her work deeply interested in capturing real human bodies and souls with her camera. Varda began her career as a photographer and documentarian, which is immediately evident; even her narrative films blend vérité and stylistic flourish, showing a mastery of depicting humanity, and demonstrating empathy and compassion even to the most unlikeable subjects. Her recent documentary with artist JR, Faces Places (Visages Villages), shows the pair creating and mounting massive portrait-murals of the people they come along in small towns, and this work is an even more literal version of the way her films are already creating their own blown-up portraits of ordinary people onscreen. The people are rural villagers, dockworkers, and young children, and all are worthy of having their faces immortalized.
The camera, as it looks at its subjects, is always engaging in a very conscious process of looking, prompting the observer to reflect on the nature of their own gaze; these portraits are not just for passive viewing. In Vagabond, the story of a young drifter named Mona who is found dead is told in quasi-documentary fashion, with interviews with the characters who encountered Mona interspersed with scenes of her before she died. The characters speak directly at the camera as they talk about Mona, trying to understand her, and we contrast this sympathetic view to the sometimes cruel way the world treats her. Men on the beach ogle Mona and comment on her body as she emerges from the sea after a swim; shortly afterward turn their gaze to postcards of naked women. Later, another man chases after Mona in the woods, saying: “I’ve been watching you a while.” But again, there is an awareness of this male gaze, and a refusal to let the subjects be immobilized under it: Mona resists giving an easy explanation for her actions or her life on the road, choosing to live “outside”—both in the open air and beyond the norms of society.
The landscapes and communities are as much characters in these films as the individual people are. La Pointe Courte, Varda’s first film, is as much a portrait of the Sète neighborhood and its inhabitants, and Varda’s own relationship to this area where she lived in her adolescence, as it is of the central husband and wife; the vibrant color palette of Le Bonheur gives the film almost the look of a painting, though of course a painting that moves and speaks. The husband and wife are played by a real married couple, and the children by their real children, and the close-ups feel intensely intimate but never exploitative or intrusive. Autobiographical touches are presented without any traces of narcissism or self-glorification. When Varda herself appears onscreen (like in Faces Places), lends her voice to the narration (Vagabond), or photographs places meaningful to her, it is always in service of broadening our perspective. We get to see the world through Varda’s eyes, but not only through hers: we see her in and through her characters, who look into the camera or who seem to talk back to the spectator, as if both aware of their role in a film, but not letting any narrative conventions dictate the way they live.
When we watch Cléo, one of Varda’s most arresting and flawed characters, we get to see what she sees, and the film becomes a record of the female experience. Her journey is a meandering one, as she people-watches, listens to the radio, sings melodies with her musician friends, and, most significantly, waits to find out whether or not she has cancer; but this film shows us just what it means to think you’re dying, but what it means to be a woman in this world, under constant scrutiny and preoccupation regarding image and appearance. Varda frequently and masterfully turns the gaze back at the voyeur, at men who objectify women, or women who scrutinize themselves, as we watch the protagonist Cléo watching her own reflection. “I always think everyone is looking at me, but I only look at myself,” says Cléo, rejecting the primacy of the male gaze, and guiding the camera and the spectator inward to her psyche. The mirrors that appear everywhere from cafes to apartments are further proof that we, too, are implicated in Cléo’s considerations of her appearance or all the death-related symbols she comes across. The boundary between real life and life on film is never clear, though perhaps it never needs to be. In one scene, Cléo watches a comedy film that shows a woman dying, and the parallels she sees are as much a reflection of her situation as they are of her dark, pessimistic outlook. If cinema is truly a mirror of reality, then we must see something reflected back at us as we look into the mirror; we think we’re looking at others, but we’re also looking at ourselves, and interrogating the way we look.
Like the enormous figure murals of French villagers pasted onto buildings, or the cardboard cutout of herself that Varda has taken to sending around in her place, these cinematic portraits force you to notice them, and then notice yourself noticing them. As those tarot cards are placed in a row by the fortune teller, it feels something like the stars aligning for the viewer, as if every prior decision had been leading you to watch one of Varda’s films at that very moment. Even if you don’t believe in fortune or fate, there’s no denying that there’s something mystical about the experience of seeing all the layers of this feminist filmmaker’s art come together. Watching one of Varda’s films has left me marked, if not by omens of death, then by all of the life that she has captured onscreen—there’s always new ways to look and much more to see, and the rest of Varda’s filmography is a good place to start.
You can view 4 by Agnès Varda on Criterion here.
By Katie Duggan
Katie Duggan is studying English at Princeton University. She has lived in New Jersey her whole life so far, and has a love-hate relationship with both the Garden State and the film Garden State. She loves musicals and coming-of-age stories, and her favorite movies include Rushmore, Harold and Maude, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. You can follow her on Instagram @katdug_ or on Twitter @realkatieduggan.
Categories: Women Film-makers