Catching up on my directors project: part one

Though I am only somewhat behind on my watching, I’m woefully behind on writing up my thoughts on the directors I’ve been exploring in my quest to greater familiarize myself with one filmmaker per month in 2012. Waaaaay back in April, I decided to focus part of the year on French New Wave directors, and of course Agnès Varda was at the top of my list. I’ve written several times about my adoration for her film Cléo from 5 to 7, but the rest of her filmography was still on my to-do list. To the Netflix I went!

Varda in The Gleaners and I

For no reason at all other than that it was streaming, I started with one of Varda’s later documentaries, 2000’s The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse). In it, Varda creates a meandering and entrancing exploration of bits of French society, including her own life, by discussing the concept of gleaning—taking from the leftovers, whether from a harvested field or a grocery store dumpster. The subject certainly matters enough in a contemporary Western society that wastes incredible amounts of food and other resources to provide content for an interesting and important film. What elevates this film beyond just being informative and thought-provoking is the presence of Varda herself. I know that many people dislike documentaries where the filmmaker inserts his- or herself in the proceedings, but I have never been bothered by them. After all, it seems more false to pretend that the filmmaker is not there. And when we are talking about the utterly charming and witty person who is Agnès Varda, having her around bests not having her around, hands down.

Another of Varda’s documentaries, the earlier work Daguerréotypes (1975), might have benefited a bit from having her personality be a greater part the mix. She is more observer than explorer in the film, which focuses on the neighborhood where she lived at the time (the Rue Daguerre, named for the inventor of the first commercially successful photo process—a neat coincidence for a photographer and filmmaker). Still, the stories of the shopkeepers on the street of Varda’s home eventually captivate on their own. Many of them have been running their shops—a bakery, a butcher’s, a parfumerie—for decades, and the rhythms of life are well-set. The patterns of the customers’ comings and goings become a bit hypnotic; I, at least, could have contentedly watched the action in the butcher shop for quite a while. This intimate system of commerce drives the formation of a community; while the film’s participants do discuss their personal lives and tell stories of how they met their spouses, all of that is intertwined with how the couples now run businesses together. Watching from the vantage point of 2012, and knowing how so many of these businesses no longer exist in the same way, out-performed by large companies, adds a layer of sadness to the proceedings. These are not people leading very big or exciting lives, but their lives work—their way of doing things works. And it will inevitably fade away.

Varda’s documentaries move the viewer because of their strong use of symbolism in everyday moments, and her narrative works show the same sensibilities. Her first full-length film, La Pointe Courte (1955), uses the backdrop of the daily workings of a small fishing village, juxtaposed with a long conversation between a couple teetering on the edge of either breaking up or recommitting to each other. Though the man is a native of the village, he has been away, and it’s visually clear that, though he’s welcome, he no longer quite fits in—certainly his companion does not, in her smart, dark suit walking in the wild grasses.

As better described in this great Criterion essay than I ever could, La Pointe Courte deserves the title as the first film of the French New Wave. Watching it, I felt I could truly understand why the films of the movement command such attention in a way I hadn’t before. The way the physical filmmaking techniques call attention to themselves while the “sets” are real locations; the way the emotional tone stays steady whether it’s a long dialogue scene or a glimpse of the sometimes wordless rhythm of working life; the structure that comes from instinct over storytelling rules—it was all here in Varda’s film, before any of the male filmmakers got to it.

Ten years later, and after Cléo from 5 to 7, Varda made her third feature film, the impressive and maddening Le bonheur. Though I know that I truly admired this film, I must admit that I have no actual idea how to talk about it or interpret its message. In a Parisian suburb, François and Thérèse raise their two tiny children. He works in the family carpentry shop; she’s a seamstress working out of their cute and tidy home. They are happy—until he meets someone else, another woman he could be happy with. But to François, this is not an either/or propostion; it’s not a real choice to be made. Aren’t two things that bring happiness better than one? Shouldn’t he now, simply, have twice the happiness?

One needn’t take even a second to realize that François’s way of thinking isn’t based on any sort of reality the rest of the world is living in. And though the fact that this won’t work is obvious, the way the aftermath of François’s delusion plays out can be interpreted in many ways. (I won’t describe the particulars of that aftermath here; “watch this film” is my advice.) Just before second-wave feminism would come along and women would fight for their equality, Varda made a film that captures the sort of preposterous nature of women having to define themselves by their relationship to a man. However one interprets the ending, it can’t be denied that the characters react as they do because their lives, in the amplified world of the film, with its brilliant color, are part of a system where men’s relationships to women are vastly different than women’s relationships to men.

I have yet to see a film by Varda that I wouldn’t recommend as worth watching. Her legacy seems to grow in small waves, and I hope that that continues until she is consistently championed as one of the true greats. My still-to-watch list includes one of her most famous narrative films, Vagabond, and her most recent, autobiographical documentary, The Beaches of Agnès. I can’t wait to see both of them, and to hopefully find some of the many shorts she’s made in her decades of impressive work, as well. I’d also just really, really like to have dinner with her—I’ll be in France in a few months, Ms. Varda, how about it?

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Other projects:


Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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