by Dena Santoro
Because, for people of my generation, film will always be surrounded by a sort of aura, defensive and not easily penetrable.
~ Colette, “Passages et Portraits,” 1935, Colette at the Movies
The French writer Colette has long been at the top of my list of most admired artists, not only for her prolific writing but for her courageous choices as a novelist, film critic, screenwriter, actress, and music hall dancer. Colette lived a largely unapologetic life on her own terms and changed the face of the academy. Plus, she loved cats and wrote about the seasons and nature with a farmer’s alacrity.
Somewhere amid all that, perhaps unwittingly, Colette anticipated French cinema’s New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague), though she did not live to see it. In the 1950s and ‘60s, La Nouvelle Vague grew in response to the French film industry that Colette portrayed in her essays from World War I through the 1930s. In Colette’s view, the business was already moribund; as she said, “I am only now beginning to study . . . what a cinematic vocation might be, its true essence, its goal and its reward when this goal and this reward become differentiated from rapacity.”
By the 1950s, the game had become codified; enter Agnès Varda, who offered a fresh take on Colette’s “true essence” and became part of the revolution that changed French filmmaking.
In May 2015, Agnès Varda became the first woman to receive the honorary Palme d’Or at the 68th annual Cannes International Film Festival (ironically, in the midst of women being banned from wearing flats on the red carpet). Varda—screenwriter, director, actress, editor, photographer, and professor—is still creating at age 86.
When Varda turned 40 in 1968, she had already made five features and eight documentary films. But as the sole female director of the New Wave, variously credited as its mother and grandmother, Varda earns a spot among the Other Bloomers and Shakers through longevity and dedication to her work. It was not until she neared 60 that accolades and awards finally began to pour in, and they haven’t stopped since.
Her Mnemonic vision—revisiting the halls of her memory for inspiration—is that of a poet, one who drinks rosemary tea in order to cultivate the Muse, as she discussed in an interview in The Believer. (Incidentally, rosemary was the choice of the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare as the herb of memory. Modern science is just catching up on this notion.)
“La Pointe Courte” (1954), Varda’s first film—shot in black and white and crafted on a shoestring budget—is as fine a place as any to start.
Available through the Criterion Collection (Hulu), the film portrays two discrete stories. Based on the structure of William Faulkner’s novel The Wild Palms, it depicts a couple negotiating the very private emotional parameters of their changing relationship while visiting the man’s hometown, a fishing village. The villagers’ realities—poverty, bureaucracy, aging, illness, despair—are rough currency, yet Varda depicts them facing ills with a gallows humor that subtly reframes the lovers’ somewhat effete plight.
In a May 1956 interview, Varda said about the film, “I had no idea what cinema was when I wrote it.” She chose her location based upon personal familiarity; about the local people and their blunt realities, she said, “You don’t capture attention with normalcy . . . I think the mechanism of shock triggers a more acute sensitivity.”
“La Pointe Courte” was a labor of love, made for a tenth of what was considered a reasonable budget, employing sweat equity and patience. While admired, it didn’t suddenly lead to more film work. Varda was finally offered a job documenting castles, which she reluctantly accepted. But this too had a silver lining, eventually leading her on a dual path between narrative feature film and documentary.
An early example of Varda’s clear documentary style is “Du côté de la côte” (1958), a glorious glimpse of the French Riviera (available on YouTube via Classic Movies Library). At first glimpse it seems a puff piece, but it reveals itself as a colorful, poetic, yet slyly humorous political examination of the moneyed elites that recreated the south of France as an iconic summertime destination in the span of a century. Darragh O’Donoghue perfectly describes the film’s subtle closing sequence in this Senses of Cinema critique: “A film that is structured by montages of discrete motifs—beaches, ruins, trees, markets, parasols, hotels—closes with images of gates locking us out. Where the traditional travelogue invites the prospective tourist to step through the screen from the urban everyday into festival fantasy, “Du côté de la côte” reminds us of the barrier between viewer, screen and the seductive paradise, and insists on the political reality elided by the tourist and celebrity industries.”
Several of Varda’s documentary films are available for viewing via the Documentary Alliance.
In a fascinating 2009 Ciné-Fils magazine online interview with Varda, the German filmmaker Felix von Boehm discusses the influence of poetry and Surrealism on her work. Varda’s 2008 film “Les Plages de Agnès” (“The Beaches of Agnès”) portrays the true story of an elderly woman who only remembers poems, and has lost her memory. “I try to find ways in reality that lead to the others, to dreams and landscapes of the soul, like misery, for example, that everyone knows,” Varda explains. “Even though everybody suffers differently, you can think yourself in their position. It’s all about these transitions from one impression to the other. This also stems from Surrealism. You glide from one impression to the other.” Varda’s work is clearly shaped by key principles of Surrealism, zigzagging from and keeping faith and chance in mind.
Varda’s films were influenced as well by her long partnership and marriage of 28 years to fellow New Wave director Jacques Demy (who died in 1990). Varda completed “Jacquot de Nantes,” a film about Demy’s childhood, in 1991.
The Varda multiverse of 22 features, 20 documentaries, television programs, artwork installations, photographs, writing, criticism, and interviews are deeply inspiring. They offer insightful portraits of a France that is rapidly disappearing, discreet albums of lives lived with little fanfare, and exceptional testaments to the power of memory.
Dena Santoro is a writer and editor who lives in NYC. She can be found on Facebook and at http://zhsquared.com/.
Homepage image courtesy Penn Arts & Sciences