Portrait of a Vagabond: An Appreciation of Agnes Varda
It's spring 1966 when I first meet Agnès Varda. Her film Le Bonheur, an Impressionist tableau of domestic bliss, has dazzled New York with tantalizing questions about infidelity, impermanence and the suggestion that everyone is replaceable. It succeeds in enraging me. Varda arrives in my kitchen, invited to dinner by Guy, the French photographer I live with, who worships her. She quickly takes over the cooking, politely dismisses Guy's portfolio, and we settle in for an awkward evening. I'm a white girl working on Black Journal, the first public affairs/documentary series "of, by and for Afro-Americans." I'm accustomed to awkward. Agnès is interested.
LL Diary entry:
Los Angeles, September 20, 1968: Deposited at Varda's editing room in a little courtyard reminiscent of Éclair labs in Paris. She's working on, of all things, a doc on the Black Panthers. I'm right at home. Frantic preparations to shoot a demonstration on Hollywood Blvd., but first we return to her home for family dinner. Jacques Demy is as gentle as Agnès is ferocious. Little Rosalie parodies a love scene with papa who mimes himself victim to her charms and we all struggle with the frozen purple Jell-O and green grape desert prepared by Monique, the Moroccan housekeeper with deep cleavage and thick eyeliner. She's been arrested twice for walking in Beverly Hills. It's Le Bonheur. ...Next we're running through the streets of Hollywood, me carrying lenses and Agnès darting through Black Panthers and demonstrators wearing her new red shoes and a red shawl. Strange camera, strange people, strange cops—but she's making a film. Bravo. I'm returned home, weary, admitting to Agnès that I'm happier free of Guy. She surprises me by saying,"Well—but what's the great bargain of freedom? Sometimes is much nicer to be not so free."
With Greek ancestry from her father, French from her mother, Varda was born in Belgium but spent her childhood in Sête, a small Mediterranean seaport in France. She left for Paris after the war to pursue classical studies at the Sorbonne, followed by a four-year degree in painting and sculpture, which she accomplished while simultaneously taking night classes in photography, earning still another diploma. Varda has always multi-tasked.
She might have become a museum curator if Jean Vilar hadn't recognized her gift and appointed her official photographer for his Théatre National Populaire. Two years into the job, Varda decided to direct her first film, having seen only five movies in her entire life. "But my head was full of movie images, from a camera viewpoint," she says.
Varda credits her editor, a young man willing to work for lunch money, with her education in film. But without doubt, Alain Resnais' most valuable gift to her was his willingness to cut her film, rather than transform it. In La Pointe Courte Varda originates the idea that a filmmaker must exercise as much freedom as a novelist—a premise that became central to the French New Wave.
In 1969 I move to Hollywood to be Varda's "assistante" on a low-budget feature called Lions Love. I'm housed in La Villa Princesse, her cozy converted garage/editing room/ guesthouse, next door to Shirley Clarke, a famous director who's come from New York to be in the movie. It doesn't escape me that Varda's dog's name is "Princesse." I'm literally in the doghouse.
LL Diary entry:
Hollywood, February 24, 1969 Agnès is determined to make "an American movie," since she's living in LA. She fills her frames with sunlight, turquoise swimming pools and banana leaves-a fake Hollywood jungle. Viva, Rado and Ragni all want to be movie stars. Shirley wants a deal. Black-and- white news footage of Bobby Kennedy's assassination plays behind all their scenes: one part sunny California, one part national tragedy, reduced to a tiny image in a box. I've learned to drive. Agnès has rented me a white Corvair convertible. I cook for the crew, keep track of the props and babysit the 35mm camera by living in the set. I've moved from the doghouse to the zoo.
Years later I asked Agnès "How come they let you do this film?" "Let me?" she hissed. "I never ask their permission. I ask their money... I was so strong in my positions and dedicated to my work. They would never dare to say ‘Well, it's okay...for a woman.' I never ask their favors. I was a filmmaker."
Despite her dedication, Varda had to wait seven years before a producer financed her second feature. In the interim, she makes a trio of short films: Ô Saisons, Ô Châteaux; L'Opéra-Mouffe; and Du Côté de la Côte, about which Godard writes in Cahiers du Cinéma: "In the French film industry, Agnès Varda's shorts shine like small, authentic jewels." L'Opéra-Mouffe is particularly precious to Varda. In it she contrasts the universe of a pregnant woman—a universe filled with hope—with the life of the slum in which she lives. Varda herself is pregnant during the shoot. Double-focus, the tension between a personal story and a social injustice, underlies many of Varda's films.
By the time Cléo from 5 to 7 gets made, Varda's daughter Rosalie is three years old. Baldung Grien's painting of Death stalking Beauty inspires Cléo's story, in which a young woman's beauty doesn't protect her from the threat of cancer. She wanders the streets of Paris from five to seven awaiting the results of her tests. "Many of the locations were close to home," Varda recalls. "Jacques would pass by and give me a kiss... I find it normal to be able to worry about Cléo's mortality at the same time that I feel so alive... Some people want fame, money and happiness. I have movies and love. What else?"
Varda makes movies with the passion and freedom of an artist alone in her loft, in complete control of her materials. Particularly in her documentaries, she pulls together bits and pieces, disparate visual fragments and musical swatches that reveal how she, as well as her subjects, "see" the world. Returning from a trip to ICAIC, the Cuban Institute of Cinema in 1963, she created Salut Les Cubains from among 4,000 black and white stills she shot. The film sings and dances with the humor, warmth and exuberance of the early days of Castro's revolution, winning prizes and winning Varda her place in Cuba's heart.
If, as I suspect, Varda's independence alienated money people, isn't it the very trait for which Godard, Resnais and Truffaut, her male counterparts, were rewarded? Nevertheless, her struggle sharpened her producing skills, and Varda became a virtuoso budget-cruncher, probably squeezing a second film from the short ends of her primary budget. Couplets like Murs Murs and Documenteur, L'Une Chante, L'Autre Pas and Quelques Femmes Bulles and, most recently, The Gleaners and I and Two Years Later, keep her constantly creating, not waiting. Her crew is willing to follow her anywhere (I am proof of this). It was only when I directed my first feature film, 15 years after Lions Love, that I realized how phenomenal Varda was.
Documenteur is one of my favorites among her films. In this intense, quiet drama Varda's editor, Sabine, and her son, Mathieu Démy, play the two principal roles. It was the early '80s and Varda herself felt exiled, raising her child alone in Los Angeles: "I made this film as if sadness was a place across which one walks."
Then Vagabond took my breath away.
On the phone with her in 1985, I tease, "It's the sad bookend to Le Bonheur." She shoots back, "This is not sadness, ma cherie; this is despair." Her voice is frozen, and I instantly picture the ditch where Mona dies. In Mona, Varda created a young woman she describes as "the incarnation of the great NO!" A feral female I've never seen before either in film or literature: refusing the basic tools of civilization, refusing to be seductive or seduced, refusing responsibility or continuity, totally unprepared for tenderness. Mona is an unforgettable heroine, a walking affront to society. Where can Varda possibly go from there?
That was 17 years and at least 12 films ago.
I have no way to imagine or describe the 38-year-long "trip" Varda shared with director Jacques Démy. His death in October 1990, far from ending their unique voyage, launched her on a path that ended in three wonderfully different films celebrating his life and work: Jacquot de Nantes, Les Demoiselles Ont Eu 25 Ans and L'Univers de Jacques Demy-each one a labor of love that may well have continued their precious conversation.
In 1994, Éditions Cahiers du Cinéma published Varda par Agnès, an auto-exposé of an artist's soul. The book has 285 pages splashed with rare photographs and double-spreads devoted to handwritten script notes; a lifetime of literature, painting, music and fantasy. I realize it's a Varda film to hold in my hands.
In 2001, The Gleaners and I delights audiences and wins every major film critics award worldwide. "Filming, especially a documentary, is gleaning," Varda wrote about Gleaners. "Foraging, rummaging, scavenging, things without owners, clocks without hands; myself, I am just as much a gleaner...Filming Gleaners confirmed my idea that documentaries are a discipline that teaches modesty."
Lynne Littman remained in Los Angeles and won an Academy Award for her documentary Number Our Days. She directed Testament and the Peabody Award-winning Having Our Say.
Agnès Varda: Select Filmography
- La Pointe Courte (1954)
- Ô Saisons, Ô Châteaux (1957)
- L'Opéra-Mouffe (1958)
- Du Côté de la Côte (1958)
- Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961)
- Salut les Cubains (1963)
- Le Bonheur (1964)
- Les Enfants du Musée (1964)
- Elsa la Rose (1964)
- Les Creatures (1966)
- Uncle Yanco (1967)
- Black Panthers (1968)
- Lions Love (...And Lies) (1969)
- Nausicaa (1970)
- Daguerréotypes (1975)
- Réponse de Femmes (1975)
- Plaisir d'Amour en Iran (1976)
- L.Une Chante, L'Autre Pas (1976)
- Quelques Femmes Bulls (1977)
- Mur Murs (Mural Murals) (1980)
- Documenteur (1981)
- Ulysse (1982)
- Une Minute Pour Une Image (1982)
- Les Dites Caryatides (1984)
- 7P., cuis., s. de b (1984)
- Vagabond (1985)
- Jane B. Par Agnes V. (1987)
- Kung Fu Master (1987)
- Jacquot De Nantes (Jacquot) (1990)
- Les Demoiselles Ont Eu 25 Ans (1992)
- Les Cent et Une Nuits (1994)
- L'Universe de Jacques Demy (1995)
- Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) (2000)
- The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002)