Monday, April 29, 2019

Agnès from 26 to 41: Deceased Artiste Agnès Varda (part 1 of two)

Incorrectly dubbed “the godmother of the French New Wave” and (one she particularly disliked in later years) “the grandmother of the French New Wave,” Agnès Varda wasn’t an inspiration for la nouvelle vague, she was a functioning member of the movement, in “the Left Bank group” with Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. Her films existed in dialogue with the works of the other filmmakers, but she was one of them, rather than a remote “mother” figure.

Her own thoughts about her connection to the group can be found in the book Agnès Varda: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2014): “I was in the wave of the New Wave…. The baton was passed on in that way with some common tendencies, like making low-budget films with characters walking through the streets of Paris.” [pp. 116-17]

Her status as the only woman filmmaker in the group distinguished her, but what one is most struck by when seeing her films in a row is that they fell into two distinct categories: the documentaries, which had an optimistic, playful air, and her fiction features, which were downbeat and very honest about the emotional toll of loneliness and falling in and (more devastatingly) out of love.

She shared with the other New Wave filmmakers a knowledge of, and a passion for, the other art forms (she became a cinephile only after she made her first feature). Her background as a photographer informed her films, to the degree that one is still startled by the compositions and the way in which she favored both arresting montages that moved the pilot forward and leisurely traveling shots that provided atmosphere and indicated the duration of her characters’ journeys.
Varda’s fiction filmography was quite unique among the New Wave because her films belonged to different genres (and approaches to drama). She only made films when she wanted to — she was a working photographer throughout most of her life, and so made movies solely when she had a new story to tell.

One of the ways in which Varda was a pioneering figure is that she was the first to make a fiction feature (Resnais, Marker, Rivette, and Rohmer had already made their first shorts). La Pointe Courte, made in 1954, is most certainly the work of a talented photographer, as its narrative is primarily conveyed by the images.

It’s a hybrid work. One strand of the film overlaps with the work of the Italian Neo-realists — which Varda swore she never encountered until her editor on the film, Alain Resnais, pointed out the similarity of her work to films by Visconti, Rossellini, and Antonioni. This strand follows the daily lives of fishermen who catch shellfish in a lagoon that has been declared off-limits by the government (because its fish might be poisoned). These segments of the film are precise and documentary-like, and are the first time that Varda demonstrated one of her trademarks — finding amazing faces with which to tell her story.

The other strand concerns a woman (Silvia Monfort) who visits the small seaside town to tell her lover (an incredibly young and thin Philippe Noiret) that she wants to break up with him. These segments are the opposite of the neo-realist fishermen scenes and are instead filled with beautiful compositions — Varda was first and foremost a photographer until the Sixties — and some overripe dialogue (“We’ve lost the youth of our love.”).

Said Varda about this strand in the film: “I didn’t make it easy for the spectator to identify with them in a ‘warm’ way. Thus the coldness is the distance that I wanted between them and the audience. And one senses the photography since when one feels distance he becomes a voyeur and one looks at the image itself.” [ibid, p. 62.]

The scenes featuring the lovers are truly fascinating, in that they have the same tone as later parodies of Bergman – except, of course, for the fact that the classic Bergman visual style (and Antonioni’s equally “alienated” visuals) had not been forged in ’54 when Varda made La Pointe Courte. Bergman had already started his stylization with Summer Interlude (1951), Summer with Monika (1953) and Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) but was still rooted in more conventional modes of melodrama. 

Varda even uses the famous “two faces as one” diptych composition (with one subject turned to the side, as the other looks straight ahead) that became a signature shot in Bergman’s Persona (1966). Varda wasn’t quoting other films here, so she most surely was quoting photography (she was a working photographer at the time she made the film) and classical art (she studied at the School of the Louvre for four years).

The photographic quality of the visuals and the extremely melodramatic dialogue in Pointe makes for the kind of mannered filmmaking that is now drubbed by oh-so-hip film theorists, critics, and fans, but Varda’s sincerity is what “sells” the film, as uneven and schizophrenic as it is. She is clearly not kidding, and the experimentation she undertook led to the unforgettable visuals in her finest films.

Eight years later, Varda’s second feature, Cleo from 5 to 7, was released. Cleo is a work of assured brilliance that remains one of her best-known films. While its visuals mark it as a “Sixties movie,” the assured direction, soundtrack, and storytelling make it a timeless work that looks backward to French and American dramas of the Thirties and Forties but also ahead to the low-key character studies made by independent filmmakers in the years to follow.

Her masterstroke with Cleo is the way in which the title character (played by Corinne Marchand) is sketched. As the film begins, she is a self-absorbed pop singer whose life is subsidized by a sugar daddy character we (and she) see only briefly. By the midpoint of the film, though, we sympathize with her as she awaits the results of a test for cancer.

She is radiantly pretty and incredibly spoiled, but Varda’s camera assumes her POV as the film moves on — in quiet, beautifully shot scenes where she wanders the streets and cafes of Paris — thus softening our perspective on the character. Varda noted: “From the looked-at subject she becomes the looking subject.” [ibid, p.73] “… the entire dynamics of the film centers on the moment this woman refuses to be this cliché, on the moment when she no longer wants to be looked at, but wants instead to look at others and becomes the looking subject.” [p. xiii]

Her bonding with a nerdy soldier (Antoine Bourseiller) waiting to go to the Algerian War makes her fully sympathetic, as he, too, is facing possible death and has no control over the situation. And the way she eventually learns of the test result is so arbitrary and tossed off by the doctor that one definitely gets the feeling of chance ruling all our lives.

The sequence that links Cleo decisively to the other debut features of the New Wave is the moment when Cleo watches a silent comedy with a friend. The cast of the film-within-a-film includes Jean-Luc Godard, his muse Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine, and Jean-Claude Brialy.

Varda’s next feature was the equally tightly scripted Le Bonheur (1965), a devastating depiction of a thoroughly “ideal” family. The visuals are superb, but even more impressive is the economy of Varda’s storytelling and the beautiful way she delivers each character’s perspective.

The film integrates visual experimentation into the story of a happy family. Francois, a young husband-father (Jean-Claude Drouot) travels to another city for work and falls in love there. He believes his happiness has been doubled, but we know that his newfound formula for bliss will harm one of the women he loves (never mind his two kids). His girlfriend in the other town (Marie-France Boyer) is aware that he’s married, but when his wife learns about the other woman things are changed forever, and the “perfect family” is transformed (but looks and behaves pretty much the same — one of Varda’s more brilliant strokes).

While this tale is being told, Varda utilizes a palette of primary colors, fading to these colors in between scenes. She also uses the same graceful camerawork that was in her first two features, with the camera pirouetting around the characters.

Varda was thus experimenting visually as Godard was at the same time, but in the service of telling a very linear story. What does the story mean? Those who look to connect the lives of artists to their work could relate the film's plot to the fact that Jacques Demy, Varda’s husband, was bisexual, and thus Le Bonheur can be seen as a covert allegory about sharing one’s lover and the inevitable heartache that must occur. (In her 2008 film The Beach of Agnès, she revealed that the split between the two around the turn of the Eighties occurred because Demy left her for a man.)

Le Bonheur brings up issues about the Varda-Demy union. First is the unspoken fact that Varda’s output was more consistently top-notch. After The Pied Piper (1972), Demy lost his footing and recovered it only once with the uneven but absorbing Une Chambre en Ville (1982). The films that are not available in the U.S. on disc are indeed remarkably disappointing, from A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973) to the dismal Orpheus update titled Parking (1985) and Three Seats for the 26th (1988). (I made a point to see each rarity when they played at a complete Demy-fest at the Film Forum a few years back, and the effect is that of a very sad and a very steep downslide in quality.)

The other factor relates to the tone of their work. As can be easily seen, Varda placed melancholy and loneliness at the forefront in her films, while Demy’s upbeat, beautifully designed masterworks of the Sixties have an underpinning of great sadness that lurks behind even the happiest of veneers. For instance, his happiest-ever musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), has a jarring subplot in which a murderer is on the loose in the town. Varda’s best films are, by comparison, “smaller than life,” with sadness placed front and center. There is thus a greater sense of illusory fantasy in Demy’s films and a reservoir of true emotion in Varda’s.

Those who prefer looking at an artist’s work on its own, without connections to the author’s life, will see in Le Bonheur a knowing comment on the “free love” concept (which hadn’t reached its peak “summer of love” visibility yet but had indeed been a part of the “beat” lifestyle for several years before the film). It also is a way of bringing attention to the lives of supporting characters in a drama – although Francois feels certain that his having two loves makes everyone happy, we are constantly aware that there are other people who will be affected by his decision (and the wife, whose seamstress business is run from the family apartment, is a supporting character who is seminal to the plot but gets less screen time than the lover).

To make the film even more complicated on a dramatic level, Varda took the unusual step of casting a real couple – Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot and their kids as the family in the movie. This is discussed in the supplements on the French DVD release of the film. Jean-Claude was a professional actor, best known for a French action TV series titled “Thierry la Fronde.” He happily notes in a present-day interview with Varda (conducted in 2006) that he has been married to Claire for 42 years. He says that “paradoxically, the film has invited us to succeed as a couple and family.” He also notes that his character was indeed “selfish” about his own desire.

Claire was a non-professional who was cast by Varda to create an air of verisimilitude. She notes that her personal reaction to the plot was “I just [hoped] it wouldn’t happen to me!” The startling ending of the film, where the husband’s mistress is now his wife and she participates in an idyllic picnic with Francois and the children, was discussed by Varda in interviews. Most viewers take the scene in which the wife is found drowned to mean that she committed suicide because of her husband’s newfound love. Varda, in fact, left open the fact that she might have died by accident. Boyer says that she thinks “[the wife] just fell in,” but Claire Drouot, who played the role, responds quickly, “I don’t!”

Varda's next feature, Les Creatures (1966), is a fascinating work and yet doesn't quite gel for me, so it will factor into future discussions of her work and not this one. It does, however, illustrate the point about Varda's features being unalike Les Creatures is a sci-fi scenario that was, as she once noted, the one film she made that had major French stars in it (Deneuve and Piccoli —the latter also starred in her equally adventurous but uneven One Hundred and One Nights) and was her biggest flop at the box office.

Varda and Demy both made features in L.A. in the late Sixties while both were there to discuss making studio-backed films. Demy did indeed get a contract — his Model Shop (1969) is a sorta-sequel to Lola that has some wonderful views of L.A. at the time it was made. Varda went her own way and did an independent feature funded by producer Max Raab.

The resulting film, Lion’s Love (1969), is one of her most curious creations, a time capsule of the period it was made in that it is filled to capacity with ideas and statements about art in the movie capital of the U.S. Varda’s own, stalled conferences with studio execs are presented as problems endured by legendary underground filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who plays a variation on herself (but enduring Agnès’ real-life problems).

I’ve written about the film twice and so I will include here my summation of Lion’s Love in a review of the Eclipse box of Varda’s California films, as it appeared on the Disc Dish website.

The centerpiece of the box is the wonderfully messy fiction film Lions Love (… and Lies) (1969). Feeling inspired by the times, Varda made a Warhol-esque (or, more accurately, a Morrissey-esque) improvised feature. The resulting time capsule is by turns abrasive and brilliant.

The plot, such as it is, involves a menage a trois between three hippies, played by the co-librettists and lyricists of Hair, Jerry Ragni and Jim Rado, and Warhol superstar Viva. They are visited by underground filmmaker Shirley Clarke (playing herself), who is in L.A. to make a deal with a major studio to shoot her first mainstream movie.

It is never expressly stated onscreen, but the most intriguing aspect of the picture is that Varda let loose three NYC chatterboxes in sunny, laidback L.A. The above-mentioned “plot” is nowhere as interesting as the film’s many tangents, which include a number of car trips in which we get an eye-catching view of L.A. in 1968 — thus linking Lions Love to Model Shop (1969), the contemporaneous film by Varda’s husband Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) that also gives the viewer a terrific driving tour of Southern California.

Movie buffs in particular will be fascinated by the Hollywood car-tour sequence narrated by film historian Carlos Clarens, which includes an amazing exploration of the posters and stills available in Larry Edmunds Bookshop.

The most valuable segment of the film, though, is one that was not anticipated while the film was initially conceived: our three loquacious protagonists wind up glued to their TV, watching the news coverage of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the ensuing TV tributes to Kennedy, and his televised funeral. Given the way that celebrity deaths are now covered in the era of 24/7 news networks, it’s chillingly prescient to hear Viva say at one point that our “national pastime is televised death.”

To be continued…

As a finale for this part of the entry, I give you a video posted just the other by Varda’s production company, Cine-Tamaris, a compilation of Agnes dancing (yes, there will be disco!):

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