“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is...” - Marcel Proust
To be honest, this has been a difficult post to put together. The watching and rewatching, the research, and the outlining have all been simultaneously joyous and filled with grief. I am of course only one of many in mourning the passing of our beloved Agnes Varda: the art/film world and those closer to her work have expressed Varda’s influence much greater than I (I have added links at bottom of page for a few particularly meaningful articles) but what I can say is that the world is certainly less since March 29th.
For the past few weeks I have been at a loss for words, staring at a blank page, trying to formulate some kind of something. Should I write some kind of generalized obituary? Should I not mention it and just continue writing about her within the context of the French New Wave? Honestly, pretty much anything at this point, especially given my own context, seems trite or seems to belittle or undermine the massive importance of this giant of cinema.
Admittedly, I am still fairly new to Agnes Varda. I was introduced to her work when I watched La Point Courte for the first time in 2014, but in that time I have been humbled by the deep and meaningful connection I have found with her work and consequently with her as an artist. Her work has spoken to me. It continues to speak to me. It teaches me. It challenges me. It pushes me: aesthetically, philosophically, socially, politically, etc. And perhaps there is difficulty in putting words to the importance of her work because there are so many reasons why she is important to so many different people. In the end, it was of course because of her. Sheila Heti explains:
I don’t know, but it always made me feel good that she was in the world, making her work; a model of freedom and resourcefulness and just a kind of pure pleasure in artmaking, and a deep looseness and facility with her craft. I loved knowing she was working and making films; I always looked forward to seeing them. I was happy she was in the world. She gave you the feeling that the greatest artists do, that unearned feeling of intimacy with them: she is mine…
Following Heti and Proust, I am thankful for Varda because of how she sees, for how she shows her seeing. Through experiencing her art, I feel as if I have beheld the the world through her eyes: I have seen her and as a consequence I have seen how she sees. A result of her unshakable artistic integrity, regardless of one’s viewing her early short documentaries, her fiction films, her California films, or her late self-reflexive documentaries, every frame speaks to this unique perspective, her way of viewing and framing the world.
“In my films I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don’t want to show things, but to give people the desire to see.”
This was intentionally part of her plan to “invent“ a new cinema. The language about ‘seeing’ is also very intentional and relevantly mirrors the language of early film theorists—e.g. Dziga Vertov with his ‘kino-eye‘ and the destruction of the ‘conscious eye’ by the surrealists. However, instead of committing Dali and Bunuel’s violent, surrealist act, Varda takes upon herself the charge of inventing a formal, aesthetic, and political cinema that creates, affirms, and reveals rather than destroys.
While experiencing a Varda film one cannot escape the feeling that she actually enjoys the act of seeing. Her entirely unpretentious, genuine curiosity about people and the world they inhabit is evident in the very fabric of her films. Sometimes referred to as the godmother of the French New Wave (despite her insistence against the association), she is known for low-cost productions that shoot on location and are focused on the real world. At the formal level, one finds her whole oeuvre to express this unique type of blurring documentary and fiction. This was never an accident for Varda: she specifically desired to play with the origins of cinema—”I really try for a Lumiere/Melies cinema”. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis explains:
The dialectic posed at the beginning of cinema’s history and questioned by Varda herself—Lumiere’s ‘documents’ of everyday life and Melies’s magical creation of the fantastic—was reformulated by the New Wave in order to explore its false dichotomy between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ into an understanding of all cinematic practice as discursive.
This seems to me, exactly the dichotomy which represents her specific way of seeing the world: reality coupled with fantasy. She lived in the real world, with real people, involved in real issues, yet she perceptively saw the world as malleable. It is not static, it can be toyed with, developed, and changed. She showed in Documenteur (itself a play on words—documentary and lie) that she can depict something real, with an actor, in scripted and real-life, non-contrived situations. In La Point-Courte she showed a formal/structural dichotomy expressing documentary (the small town in Sete) and fiction (the young couple working through their relationship troubles). In The Beaches of Agnes she takes real memories from her past and recreates them to revisit and literally remake those experiences. Thus, it is her self-reflexive cinema that is indicative of her view of a world fixed and malleable. This malleability is an aesthetic one, one seemingly not founded in, or even interested in ontology, but practical and existential, requiring a subject to act and create.
It has been argued that Cleo From 5 to 7 itself is a film about seeing. More specifically, it is about the journey of seeing—from solipsism to humanism. Through the use of mirrors, glasses, pov shots, etc. the viewer is constantly reminded of the act of seeing in its many forms. When Cleo goes to the cinema and watches the Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald—the short film starring Varda’s real friends and collaborators Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina—she watches a film about subjective perspective: wearing dark sunglasses colors how Godard sees the world—literally and figuratively. This subject oriented idea of perspective includes work. It includes action. Not only that, but the desire to act. Cleo’s difficulty at the beginning of the film is not simply that she doesn’t see, it is that she has no desire to see—and thus she lives as cliche. It is only once she sings—itself the artistic gift that is the locus of her ‘cliche’—that the film fractures and breaks free from the ‘reality’ of the film. Immediately following this, she removes her wig and dons dark sunglasses, initiating her into an anonymity freeing her to look outward. To see others.
As many have pointed out, the feminist implications of such a move are radical, particularly for a successful film of its time. Varda herself explained Cleo to be
about a woman facing a great fear, and that fear makes her think about herself. She discovers that she is a little doll, manipulated by men, a little girl who makes no decisions, who sees herself only through other people’s eyes. And in that hour and a half she starts to relate differently.
This journey of seeing thus functions in both internal and external ways: self-awareness to interrogate personal identity as well as in relation to others. Negotiating one’s private world—a search for identity—with the social world are of course relevant to everyone, but specifically for feminist film theory, Varda’s enabling Cleo to invert ‘the look’ has been particularly noteworthy. As Flitterman-Lewis notes, “From an alluring female goddess, objectified in the eyes of men…to a reflective individual with a healthy curiosity…Cleo has made the journey from object to subject of vision.“
Francois Truffaut spoke of an cinematic auteur as someone who was building a wall. The wall being comprised of a multitude of bricks, i.e. films, which regardless of degrees of quality or lasting power, they represent the voice of the auteur. And certainly, despite the fact that she make many different kinds of films over a period of over sixty years, Varda’s voice is consistent and clear. She stands as one of cinema’s pure auteurs: one whose entire body of work represented the specificities of cinematic art. She was deeply aware of the uniqueness of cinema, of the ability and affect that ‘writing‘ with a combination of images and sounds had upon viewers. This ‘writing‘ activity is what she referred to as ‘cinecriture’, or the specific type of activity that is cinema creation. Reminiscent of Astruc’s writing on the camera-stylo and Truffaut’s auteur theory, this idea is steeped in the time and context she lived in. And it is with this specific idea in mind that she sought to reinvent the cinematic medium.
I have fought so much since I started, since La Point-Courte, for something that comes from emotion, from visual emotion, sound emotion, feeling, and finding a shape for that, and a shape which has to do with cinema and nothing else.
It is in the beauty of Varda’s malleable vision that her art is able to provoke such cinematic emotion. Whether it be the haunting critique of patriarchal social dynamics in Le Bonheur; her documenting the social significance and impact of murals for Californians in Mur Murs; her ‘love letters‘ to cinema—One Hundred and One Nights—and her partner Jacques Demy—Jacquot de Nantes—; or her tribute to rural France in Faces Places, her ability to reveal the unseen and reframe the seen are indicative of both her cinematic mastery and her emotional literacy.
At risk of overdosing on sentiment: we unfortunately have to live in the real world where Agnes Varda has passed away, but we can continue to learn from her vision of a malleable world by continuing to live with her art. Her art remains. And so we can strive to ‘remake’ this reality. In doing so, this brilliant woman—this deity of the cinema, this inspiring, charming, and endearing Belgian woman—remains, showing us what it means to look and teaching us how to see.
Links to Agnes Varda tributes: