Documenteur is one of the great French filmmaker and artist Agnès Varda’s least-known films, but it is also one of her best and most moving pieces of work—a true hidden treasure in a filmography already rich with gems.
Varda’s impact on cinema is immeasurable. Her debut film, La Pointe Courte, heralded the beginning of the French New Wave; Cléo From 5 to 7 and Vagabond pioneered alternative representations of women that challenged a patriarchal gaze and her documentaries captured subjects as intimate as the inhabitants of her own street (Daguerréotypes), and as politically significant as the Black Panther party in the United States (Black Panthers). Documenteur, however, finds Varda exploring different territory: that of personal emotional truth-telling. The film’s title (a play on documentaire,the French word for documentary, and menteur, meaning liar) announces both film’s inability to capture a documentary-like reality while simultaneously asserting its irrespective truth. In this way, Documenteur can be considered an archive of Varda’s innermost emotions. Its subtitle, “An Emotion Picture”, hints at what it to come: perhaps Varda’s most vulnerable and melancholic film.
Documenteur was filmed in California in the early 1980s. Varda had previously spent time in Los Angeles in the 1960s with her husband, director Jacques Demy, where she filmed the documentary shorts Uncle Yanco and Black Panthers, and the meta-cinematic Lions Love (…And Lies)—all films infused with the energy of political activism and youth counterculture. While Varda’s return to the United States in the early ‘80s saw her return to these themes, the two films she made during her second stay were characterised with prominent explorations of ‘outsiderness’. The first of these, Mur Murs, is a documentary about the murals of Los Angeles and the people who created them, a marvellous homage to the importance of art in empowering marginalised communities.
In the second film, Documenteur, fiction and documentary came closer together than ever. While ultimately a fictional film, Varda’s small-scale tale of a woman, Emilie, living in a foreign city with her young son, Martin, in the wake of a separation is intimately tied to her own life. Upon her return to California, Varda was separated from Demy, raising their son Matheiu as a single parent. The people on screen are Sabine Mamou, Varda’s editor for Mur Murs, and Varda’s son, Mathieu Demy—epitomising the film’s autobiographical drive.
Documenteur disregards traditional plot structures and takes to capturing a moment in Emilie’s (or, by extension, Varda’s) life. Her interior life is externalised through the images Varda writes with. She is recently separated from her partner, Tom, and works as a secretary at a film company who are producing a fictionalised Mur Murs. Varda grapples directly with the almost diaristic nature of the film: in one scene, Emilie is asked to narrate a section of Mur Murs after the intended assistant does not show up. When a producer plays the recorded lines back to her, it is not Mamou’s, but Varda’s voice we hear, asking us simply: “art imitates life, or life imitates art?” “Is that my voice?” Emilie asks in disbelief. “You never recognise your own voice”, the producer replies. As Emilie tries to find a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar city, Mamou’s performance remains beautifully understated and as open as the film itself, complemented by Mathieu Demy’s charming and honest presence.
If Mur Murs was about documenting those living on the margins, Documenteur sees Varda, with Mamou’s Emilie as her surrogate, finding herself as one of those artists living a marginal and alienated existence; her status as a single mother and a ‘foreigner’ enshrining her position as an outsider in the so-called ‘city of dreams’. Emilie’s emotions, past and present, find expression in the murals of Los Angeles painted onto brick walls: her feelings of detachment are a lone astronaut, her loneliness dark blocks of colour, her loss a family portrait painfully similar to a now-dated photograph of her own.
While so many popular films that deal with breakups approach them through retrospective in order to linger in nostalgia, Varda’s film hangs in the uncomfortable period of aftermath. All too often, it is woman whose image inside a man’s mind is an elusive object of desire. Yet Varda’s film shows a woman in the absence of her lover. We don’t learn why Emilie and Tom separated; only that, as Emilie tearfully explains to a friend over the phone, “ever since we came to America, it just hasn’t worked out”. What matters is the absence, the pieces all scattered. Emilie’s thoughts are scattered, just like her possessions, which are divided between different houses of her friends in LA. Her separation from Tom and from her home has thrown her into limbo, into a kind of liminality. She lives in uncertainty, at the edge of a chapter in her life.
The poetic narration threaded through Documenteur is both simple and fragmented. Words become puzzle pieces, strung together and spoken into silence as though rummaging about for some kind of meaning. But Emilie exists in a state of fluctuation. The beach, at which she gazes through the window while sitting in front of her typewriter, is a place of flux and impermanence. Meanings are not static: the symbolic connotations of some words are replaced, and some lose all signification. Varda shows us that constructs of language and space are not designed to accommodate a separated, single woman. Emilie is sliced in half by walls, distorted by mirrors, separated from others by windowpanes. Newly alone and in an unfamiliar city, she is caught trying to restructure her sense of meaning, to carve out a new space for herself.
Memories of Emilie’s past with Tom puncture the present, their intimate tenderness giving us access into her most private recollections without warning. Her loneliness is palpable; there is pain in her eyes when she thinks no one is looking. The notes of the slow, lone piano score echo as though being played to an empty concert hall.
The film, however, does not drown in its melancholy. Emilie loses things, but she finds things as well. Halfway through Documenteur, Emilie and Martin find a battered table which they roll out of the garbage together, and later a couch which Emilie cleans up with soap and water in the unit courtyard under a grey sky. Emilie is consoled and helped by Tina, another single mother living in LA. She plays on the beach with Martin, learning to smile and laugh again, to accept the transience of things.
There is unity to be found amongst the experiences of those living on the margins; a point at which the film overlaps thematically with Mur Murs. After all, even if intended to be entirely subjective, a woman’s personal frequently becomes political, and Varda is aware of this. Continuing her life-long interest in the intersection of the personal and the universal, Varda locates emotions not only in Emilie, but in the strangers around her, as though she could have made a similar film about the struggles of any individual whose face her camera lingers on in passing.
The beautiful body of work Agnès Varda left us defies conventional categorisation. As many of Varda’s films did before (and many would do after), Documenteur gives a woman the opportunity to inhabit a subjective space where her emotions are taken seriously, where they form and shape the very fabric of the film. In this instance, that woman happens to be Varda herself.
by Alex Williams
Alex is studying screen studies and gender studies at the University of Melbourne. She loves arthouse and world cinema, and hopes to one day be a professional film writer and/or teach film. You can follow her on twitter and letterboxd @xhaixe.
Categories: Women Film-makers