The Constructed Nature of the French Female Director: On the Completeness of The Complete Films of Agnès Varda

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The Constructed Nature of the French Female Director: On the Completeness of <i>The Complete Films of Agnès Varda</i>

Long before social media compelled us to document every moment and excavate every corner of our lives, Agnès Varda relentlessly documented and excavated hers. The whole of Varda’s output—some 59 films, anywhere from six to 226 minutes long, a melange of caricatures and travelogues and odes and self-portraits (all self-portraits, really), some films pieces of other films, others mirrors of others, not to mention her countless pre-film introductions of post-film appendices, some films revisiting earlier films, some films revisiting people from her husband’s films, one film featuring Stephen Dorff, peak Dorff, for a powerful fleeting moment—reflects the fascinating detritus of her well-lived life. She was less an auteur than a self-styled “gleaner,” someone whose language comprised the things she utilized, the stuff she used that would otherwise go to waste. She spoke of a world of balanced proportions born from simple sympathy. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, as her 1977 narrative was titled—there’s a kind of harmony in that.

The Criterion Collection’s box set, The Complete Films of Agnès Varda, feels swept up in that search for harmony. It’s as comprehensive as “complete” can get by shedding the weight of anything unnecessary. In pleasantly monochrome packaging devoid of the whimsical clutter of Varda’s films, the box set presents a sense of balance, the generous notion of a life fully resolved between poles: youth and old age, lust and longevity, indulgence and its hangover, the beginning of life and the end of it, having one boy (Mathieu Demy) and having one girl (Rosalie Varda) and knowing their lives are a reflection of one’s own—Varda’s life feels complete through collecting her life’s work. That we think we have all of it to look back upon convinces us we know what lies outside of her frames. We’re willing to believe that if she’s lying to us about who she is, she’ll let us know. “I’ve always been interested in on-screen and off-screen and even what surrounds it—the life that surrounds the images,” she said in 2012 (quoted in Criterion’s accompanying book, followed by select photographs taken throughout her career). On-screen and off-screen, all that is and isn’t in frame: that’s pretty much everything. Agnès Varda has always been interested in everything.

Which makes pulling fat threads through Varda’s films a default way to approach the immense sprawl of her work, from La Pointe Courte, her 1955 debut, to 1975’s Daguerreotypes, made while pregnant with son Mathieu and while tethered to her nearby Parisian apartment’s power supply like an infant carrying an infant, to Mur Murs and Documenteur, two 1981 movies—one a documentary and another a docu-fiction hybrid, respectively, sharing shots and faces and Varda’s searching, sweetly melancholic mood—made while on her second sojourn to LA, temporarily separated from Jacques Demy and unmoored. It’s easy to trace these threads, to unintentionally lean into compartmentalizing her work, because she often traces these threads for us, not necessarily within her movies but between them. She’s obvious in many ways, but her obviousness usually belies an exceptional curiosity.

Sometimes it can get insufferable, like in Faces Places (2017), which begins as an adventure with co-director and muralist JR, before veering into sentimentality as JR treats her—he can’t help it, bless him—like Fun Grandma, then wrapping up with the sadder sentiment that if your oldest friends don’t let you down, death eventually will. Maybe it’s too easy to read sadness into Varda’s wistful diatribes. It’s misogynist, definitely. Sorry—anyone could have guessed that Jean-Luc Godard is and most likely always was a bad friend, and Varda expects as much, though is no less disappointed. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The Complete Films of Agnès Varda sorts her canon into 15 “programs,” organized cannily by all the faces and places for whom and for which she showed so much affection and celebrated so much inspiration throughout her life. The centerpiece of “Early Varda” is La Pointe Courte, shot when Varda was 26, mixing the goings-on of a small fishing village in southern France with a seemingly separate story about the dramatic breaking up of a metropolitan married couple—“Him” (Philippe Noiret) and “Her” (Silvia Monfort)—drawn back to where he grew up to get away from the city and sort out their shit. Varda identifies with He and Her as outsiders full of nostalgia and affection for country life, though she stylizes their rambling, philosophical conversations about the practicality of monogamy and the functionality of love in stark contrast to the naturalism of the inhabitants of the titular neighborhood, whose hardships easily outclass His and Hers. Varda isn’t chastising the couple so plainly, because it’s not their fault that a local kid died, just gently chiding them—she wants us to care about them, but also wants them to care about the people of the village too. The film ends on an aquatic jousting tournament; the village moves on and Her shares her ice cream cone with a little girl, the glow of tenuous reconciliation alive in Her eyes.

In her essay “A Woman’s Truth,” included in Criterion’s set, Ginnette Vincendeau describes La Pointe Courte’s “duality,” its “quasi-ethnographic depiction of the villagers” in comparison to the couple’s surrealist “solemn conversations,” and how that dynamic “works as a thread throughout her entire career.”

From the beginning, Varda signalled something new, though even critical acclaim in the late ’50s failed to vaunt her past her male peers. Along with Alain Resnais, the editor of La Pointe Courte, and Chris Marker, she came to represent the Left Bank branch of the French New Wave, less of a self-distinction than an alternative to the Right Bank work of Godard and Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. Vincendeau writes:

“It wasn’t truly until feminist critics, beginning with Sandy Flitterman-Lewis and her 1990 book To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema expertly inserted gender into the analysis of Varda’s work that she was put properly on the film-history map, and particularly that of the New Wave. Many other studies followed, and Varda is now regarded as the paradigmatic French female director.”

Vincendeau goes on to describe how the Young Turks, given their platform in Cahiers du cinema, dismissed Varda from the onset, not least of all because of her gender. They chocked up much of La Pointe Courte’s magnanimous structure—”her gaze at the central couple is equally split between the woman and the man, and her portrait of the villagers puts at least as much weight on the labor performed by women as it does on that of the fishermen”—to Resnais’ editing, at best erasing Varda from her own work, and at worst yanking her burgeoning, pioneering influence on the medium out from under her.

Which may be why the disappointment Varda expresses near the end of Faces Places, when she’s stood up by Godard—who knows what really happened there, though myths resolve the situation enough in our imaginations—is less about being pissed at a shitty friend, and more about having her vision for filmmaking, and for life for that matter—all the things she’s made and the work she’s done—disrespected as coldly then as it had been 60 years before. It’s a despairing thing to realize that time has, from Varda’s perspective, done nothing to Godard.

In Michael Koresky’s program notes to each disc, he writes early on in describing Varda’s final film, Varda by Agnès:

“Varda tells the audience, early in the film, that there are three essential properties to her art-making that remain constant from the conception of a work to its exhibition: inspiration, creation, and sharing. It’s the last of those—the sharing with her audience—that we are most grateful for.”

Filmmaking, for Varda, is an act of empathy, but not in any Christian sense. To collect, to glean, is to take some responsibility for something, however small: to give it a purpose, a destiny. To do anything less is to waste. To not care.

Paradigmatically: The French female director is preoccupied with “caring” as compared to the films of her more clinical—more academic and masculine—fellow directors. But in reality, Varda’s feminism resulted directly from the need to give women a voice. “While the early films of Truffaut, Chabrol, and Godard fetishize women as objects of desire (however charmingly),” Vincendeau writes, “Varda sought to render the subjectivity and materialism of their lives.” Vincendeau can’t help but add to the box set’s equation for completeness: “She illuminated not only the continuum between young and old, beautiful and plain, rich and poor, but also the constructed nature of femininity.”

Varda allows for countless constructions of femininity as much as she spends a lifetime constructing her own. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t doesn’t prescribe to any particular truth in what “feminism” should or shouldn’t be, other than being feminist through capturing the arc of two very different lives, that of Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) and Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), in a way that foregrounds their ever-changing experiences within the context of quotidian expectations. In the film she is “taking women’s struggles seriously,” as Vincendeau writes, during a time when French society, dominated by men, rarely deigned to discover what those struggles even were. It’s a political film as openly as it’s a musical, a melodrama as unabashedly as it is a somber character study, mutating and adapting as it needs to, as Varda needs to, in grasping the lives of its characters.

Empathy need not be emotional; it can be politically ideal. Varda’s films contextualize empathy in materialist terms: accessibility, subjectivity, function, matter, plenty. “I never made a film about the bourgeoisie, about rich people, about nobility,” she said at the end of her life. That she took a portrait of Che Guevara and that her documentary Black Panthers (1970) so carefully observes the social programs at the heart of the radical organization is only a small indication of the Marxism that naturally found root in her auteurism. In California, on the same trip that bore Black Panthers, she made Lions Love (1969) and Uncle Yanco (1968), both glimpses of counterculture as it overtakes that which it dopily struggled against—the former a formless drama surrounding three actors involved in a loosely defined thruple renting a bungalow in LA (played by Viva, an Andy Warhol starlet, and James Rado and Gerome Ragni, co-creators of Hair) and the latter a lovely, beaming short about a Varda family relative, the aforementioned Uncle Yanco, who’s cultivated a small community of Bay Area hippies to call his own. And in each, Varda places herself: In Lions Love, Shirley Clarke plays the young indie filmmaker unwilling to bend to Hollywood consumerism (Varda was inspired by her time in LA while Hollywood courted her husband and, to a lesser extent, her) and in Uncle Yanco she films herself and her uncle as they get to know each other, the line between what happened and what was contrived doused in awkward good intentions.

Those good intentions never become too awkward, thankfully. Instead, in the mid-to-late-’80s Varda’s empathy grew into a profoundly dramatic power, the most incisive portrait of the failure of social order and the success of her sympathetic eye in 1985’s Vagabond. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Mona, a young drifter obsessed with the visceral sensation of “freedom,” sacrificing her health and inevitably her life to satisfy that overwhelmingly vague lack of attachment. The key to Varda’s involvement lies in her lack of judgment, as she laces the tale of woe with the talking head accounts of non-actors reminiscing about this woman, beautiful and beguiling and smelling like garbage, only days after her demise. Mona’s death, which is established at the beginning of the film, her fate a matter of procedural unraveling, isn’t romanticized. Only mourned. As Varda asks people about their brief and belligerent experiences when encountering Mona, Varda never grows weary of Mona’s worldview. Varda explicates it until it ends; she values it until it’s gone. “A man finds as many problems as I do… What is difficult is to make free cinema,” she said in 1962. She’s talking about money as much as consequences.

In interviews and TV appearances included with the box set, Jane Birkin remembers that she reached out to Agnès Varda after seeing Vagabond, enchanted by the director’s empathy, and wrote her a letter so illegible Varda had to reach out just to know what the letter actually said. So began a lifelong friendship between Varda and the multivalent muse, crystallized in the two films they made together, Jane B. and Kung-Fu Master!, both from 1988. In the first, a biopic of sorts, Varda helps Birkin imagine Birkin’s life through contrivance, conjuring up fake movies in which Birkin can act out her actor’s fantasies, attempting to give the subject authority over the subject’s truth. In Kung-Fu Master!, Varda fulfills the ideas Birkin presents in Jane B. par Agnès V., casting her own son Mathieu as a pre-teen who has a romantic relationship with Birkin’s middle-aged mother. The plot is brazen, and Varda, in Jane B., expresses her reluctance with casting her son in Kung-Fu Master!. But she did. And her son goes on to have a fruitful career as an actor.

We can pull at other threads: Varda grew up with a bourgeois education steeped in art and relative privilege, a background which informed her cultural voraciousness. It’s in her nature to collect—learning is collecting—and allusions inhibit solar systems strung like constellations through her filmography. In Gleaners & I, Varda gushes about the “freedom” of digital film. She can “film” as much as she wants, as artfully easily as her aging hands allow, without worrying about film stock running out or the immobility of equipment. The closer to death she gets, the more she’s impelled to construct herself, her whole life, from the media she collects and repurposes—the stuff she saves from purposelessness. Varda never denies her privilege, but when she films the huge mold stain in her apartment—the same apartment on Rue Daguerre she’s inhabited for decades—so advanced her ceiling is crumbling, one wonders why her privilege hasn’t gotten that fixed. (Context supplies some explanation: Ten years since the death of partner Jacques Demy, and the shadow of her loss still creeps into perplexing life problems like that, which she films playfully, her joke about its landscape-like qualities a thin gauze covering her depression.) Her films are never far from her own narrative.

Prudes: Check your inhibitions at the door for One Hundred and One Nights (1995), because Varda directs her son in full early 20s horndog mode, snapping a condom and boning down with hot-to-trot Julie Gayet, representing mid-’90s movie culture at its smuggest. Mathieu Demy plays the Tarantino type, a metaphorical asshole in that he’s a ceaselessly sucking vacuum of film trivia and culture, inhaling everything until everything is reference. All is mediated culture, an allusion of an allusion. But that’s not a bad thing! Isn’t that what every filmmaker does? Making movies to glean reality from other perspectives, searching through shadows of shadows of shadows for the substance of truth?

Halfway through Agnès Varda’s sophomore feature, Cléo from 5 to 7, the titular Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a pop singer awaiting the potentially devastating results of some sort of medical test (“cancer,” as all synopses assert, though the mystery of the ailment helps the future loom all the darker), looks directly into the camera, weeping as she sings a song during an otherwise typical practice session. It’s a revelatory moment: Varda addresses her audience directly through her character addressing her audience directly, all while on the precipice of total dissolution. Cléo, a beautiful, burgeoning celebrity, seems to understand that she may be empty without her looks, just as she rails against the forces that put her in such an untenable position. In other words, realizing in that moment of melodrama, of the heightened emotion she knows all too well is the stuff of marketably patronizing pop music, that her attractiveness may be soon over, she’s driven to tears, unable to reconcile her talent with her face, or her fragility with her livelihood, leaving it to the audience to decide whether we must care or not. We must, right? If not, Varda wonders, then why not?

Shot (practically) in real time, Cléo from 5 to 7 waits along with our character as she waits for life-changing news, floating from coffee shop to home to park to wherever, not doing much of anything with the life she has, the life she may find out she’s losing soon enough. She watches a silent film featuring cameos by Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina (also included in Criterion’s set), meets a soldier on leave from the Algerian front (Antoine Bourseiller) who confesses he believes people are dying for nothing, drives past a murder scene and senses that the universe maybe has misdirected her bad luck towards another soul. It was out of her control all along, or so it could seem.

Digesting The Complete Films of Agnès Varda requires constant, willing diversion. There are her films about her husband, Jacques Demy, both fictional and documentary, which share headspace with her films about domesticity and fidelity—La bonheur (1965), say, or the short L’opéra-mouffe (1958)—and contrast with her colorful, commissioned tourism films, lavishly photographing and also taunting such iconic locales as the French Riviera (1958’s Du côté de la côte) and the Loire Valley’s medieval castles (Ô saisons, ô châteaux the same year), using bourgeois resources to her individual artistic ends—ends which a box set like this can’t help but gesture towards. There are films previously unavailable, like the once-banned TV movie Nausicaa from 1970, and there are bounties of supplemental materials Varda created herself, arranged accordingly and available together. There are talk show appearances, museum exhibits, documentaries about documentaries, a whole realm of public life shared with Hollywood stars and era-defining intellectuals. Agnès Varda left behind so much, some of it contradictory but the grand majority of it delightful and joyous and enriching and broad-minded and benevolent—just wonderfully, harmoniously good. Criterion’s set honors that, and if it comes off like a hagiography (as Criterion can’t help but “come off” like, popular canonizers they are) then it has something to do with the curator in her, the gleaner who tried to collect the un-collectable.

Find the boxset on Criterion’s website.

Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.