Document remembers the vulnerable tenor of Varda’s oeuvre—and the five films that it is best embodied by.
The legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda once said of art that it ought to “ring a bell in your own life. You should get involved. I don’t want people to say it’s great, I want people to say, ‘It is for me.’” What made Varda, who died in Paris on March 29 at the age of 90, such a beloved auteur was not only the caliber of original work that she created, but her proclivity for using it to reveal herself. Treating the audience with intimacy, trusting them with the intimate knowledge of what it felt like to be her, she pursued filmmaking as catharsis.
Radical, too, was her reclamation of a subjective point of view, particularly as a woman in a male dominated field. From medieval witch hunts to modern day mansplaining and #MeToo, the branding of women’s knowledge as untrustworthy has extended itself across centuries and disciplines. By turning the camera on herself, Varda proclaimed that her politics, her history, her sexuality, her joy, and her anger, were all legitimate. As feminist Carol Hanisch would say, the personal is political (as well as profoundly generative), and consequently, Varda’s vulnerability was perhaps her greatest asset.
With groundbreaking narrative features La Pointe Courte and Cléo de 5 a 7—watershed moments in the development of modern cinema—Varda earned cinephiles’ respect, but with her autobiographical works, she earned their love. Through revealing herself on-screen, Varda also revealed to audiences what they might not have known about themselves, transgressing the distance between artist and consumer, and as such, between art and life. To her, they were always one and the same.
The Beaches of Agnes (2008)
In this memoir, Varda wanders the beaches that outlined her life in a documentary charting her childhood, coming of age, and development as an artist. Beginning in Belgium, then moving to Sète in France at the onset of World War II, the film travels up of the Seine to Paris, to the shores of Los Angeles, and to the beaches of Noirmoutier, where she spent time with her husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy. What makes this documentary subversive is how Varda re-stages her childhood; starting with old found photographs, and then casting younger actors to recreate the scenes in the background while she narrates, Varda creates artistic tableaux that literally put her in the position of watching her life go by. Often, their mise-en-scène evoke works from art history—which Varda studied in university—again underpinning the fundamental unity of art and lived experience. The film also acts as a reconciliation of Varda’s marginalized position in cinema’s history, by pulling her from the periphery and into the center of the story.
At face value, this film might not seem autobiographical, but the story of its genesis is a fascinating compote of fact and fiction. Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, this meditative feature follows a young mother from France who has recently separated from her partner and is raising their child alone, in a foreign country, while working for a production company. The irony is that Documenteur is a twin to Varda’s L.A. documentary Murs Murs, and the production company that her protagonist works for in the film is putting together the real documentary. Furthermore, she cast Sabine Mamou, who edited Murs Murs, in the role of the mother, a character based loosely on Varda’s own circumstances during this era, when she was separated from Demy and living alone in California with their son. Though it plays like a beautiful narrative feature, the story cloaked beneath its surface reveals the turmoil that she had truly been experiencing. It is a documentary, dressed up as fiction, about motherhood, loneliness, and trying to find hope.
Quelques Veuves de Noirmoutier (2005)
In 1990, Varda’s husband Jacques Demy died from complications due to HIV/AIDS. In this documentary, she explores the fissures of loss through interviews with women, young and old, who have been widowed, all from the island of Noirmoutier where she and Jacques had a second home since 1962. “Apart from their social status that inspires respect, we have not often studied how women live their widowhood,” she explained. “They are often—I would say almost always—defined by their relationship to the dead, who was their husband.” At the end of the film, Varda quietly joins the women on the beach, taking her place among the widows. What is poignant about this film is the intersection of the self (Varda) and the experience of others (the widows of Noirmoutiers). The filmmaker seems to ask: how do we learn about ourselves through communing with others?
The Gleaners and I (2000)
Varda flexes her art historical penchant with an investigation of gleaning, the French tradition of collecting leftover food from farmers’ fields after the harvest (and as in the Jean François Millet painting, Les Glaneuses). She interviews modern-day foragers in the countryside and in the city, speaking about poverty and consumer culture, but also about what it means to ‘glean’—to look at what others may overlook, to search patiently, and to find. The film begins as a work about gleaners, but bursts into a meditation on the act of making a film and on Varda’s creative process: namely, how she endeavours to rethink the act of looking in and of itself. In the book Gendered Frames, Embodied Cameras, scholar Cybelle H. McFadden writes about Varda’s decision to “record her body as material of the film in the same way that she captures her interviewees” as not wanting to display herself, but rather to enter into the film and thus be more equal to her other subjects.
Since the early 1950s, Agnès Varda lived on Rue Daguerre in Paris, in a house that she had painted pink with a rainbow garage-style door. She was a famous neighbourhood fixture and in 1976, she turned her camera on the community, painting a portrait of them as an extension of herself. In Daguerreotypes, she tenderly profiles the baker, the butcher, the perfumer, the tailor, and all of the local faces that coloured her experience of the ‘everyday.’ It’s a touching portrait of Paris in the mid-to-late 1970s and tells us a lot about the individual merchants who might otherwise be anonymously erased from history. It also tells us about Varda, about how she cared about “ordinary” people’s stories, and how beloved she was in the 14ème Arrondissement for so many years.