Agnés Varda: Gleaning the Dispossessed

Chris Robé
Cléo from 5 to 7

It is the two divides -- between the rich and the poor, between publicity and the practices of everyday life -- that most concerns Agnés Varda.

After roughly 30 years of the corporate sector eviscerating unions into a disposable workforce of temps and part-time laborers, and the celebration of “free trade agreements” that are primarily subsidized by taxing low-income workers, the divide between the haves and have-nots has eroded into a chasm. According to the Survey of Consumer Finances, sponsored by the Federal Reserve Board, the top ten percent of US families own 71 percent of the nation’s wealth, whereas the bottom 40 percent own less than one percent.

On an international scope, the situation is worse. As multinationals gut and transpose First World factories and other production facilities into the “free trade zones” of the Third World where labor and human rights evaporate under the endless strain for profit, an economic neo-colonialism rears its head as the people of the Third World scramble, once again, for the scraps that have fallen from wealthy Westerners’ tables; this leaves the richest two percent of the world owning more than 50 percent of its wealth, according to a recent report by the World Institute for Development Economics Research.

Mass media, however, tells a rather different story. Smiling, stable middle-class families populate its sitcoms, countless game shows prey upon the euphoric desperation of the clinically underpaid who hope to reverse their fortunes with a spin of a wheel or the selection of a briefcase, and the news’ only in-depth coverage concerns sports and weather. An entertainment oligopoly has seized control. Six media conglomerations regulate the production, distribution, and exhibition of most commercial television, radio, and film networks. News, information, and insight have given way to an endless stream of publicity.

As John Berger has shown in Ways of Seeing: Based on the BBC Television Series , publicity is unconcerned with the present, with the way the world is. It instead appeals to our narcissistic desire for how we want to be. It suggests that any one of its commodities that endlessly rain upon us from print, television, film, and new media might hold the key to happiness.

In general, “publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy” since it assumes a world that is impervious to collective action and substantive change. By naturalizing social inequality, publicity asserts that happiness can only be purchased, not fought for, as it attempts to mask over and compensate for “all that is undemocratic within society”. It is these two divides -- between the rich and the poor, between publicity and the practices of everyday life -- that most concerns Agnés Varda.

The span of films comprising Criterion’s 4 by Agnés Varda can be seen, on one level, as tracking the gradual fragmentation of French society underneath the increasing commercial pressures brought about by modernization. La Pointe Courte (1954) concerns a local fishing village trying to maintain its fishing rights as various state agencies challenge its autonomy as an encumbrance to progress and its catch as detrimental to the general public’s health. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961) addresses how popular culture deadens the human in its development of a materialistic, superficial society. La Bonheur (1964) works from inside the cliché of the ideal family where (heterosexual) male polyamorous desires proliferate in a consumer culture where women are viewed as interchangeable and acquiescent. Finally, Vagabond (1985) tracks a female drifter’s unsuccessful attempt to shun the mores of bourgeois, consumer-driven culture that has produced a society of strangers.

The box-set begins with an autonomous fishing village, resisting the forces of modernization, and concludes with a sole drifter, bobbing like a piece of flotsam over a sea of alienated individuals who witness her slow demise. Communal unity has been supplanted with a concern for individual survival. Vagabond reveals what happens when individuals become unmoored from a sense of location that La Pointe Courte represents.

La Pointe Courte

This social awareness on Varda’s part separates her from her compatriots of the French New Wave: Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer, to name a few. Although she is often referred to as “the godmother of the New Wave”, her vision is more allied with the socially aware Left Bank filmmakers like Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Jean Rouch. Despite La Pointe Courte anticipating many of the stylistic techniques that would be adopted by New Wave directors, Varda shows too much concern with the people and places outside of her fictional world to be lumped together with directors like Truffaut and early Godard. This can be easily overlooked since all three directors employ location shooting.

Yet when one recalls the loving portraits of Paris offered in the beginning of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and throughout Godard’s Breathless (1959), one is highly aware of how the city is being sculpted to each director’s selective vision where low-angle shots gawk at the Eiffel Tower and jump-cuts indicate a city of jazz and light. But, most of all, Paris serves as a backdrop to each film’s protagonist and narrative. For Varda, on the other hand, the location becomes a character unto itself, often pushing against the film’s narrative to such an extent that its central characters are often abandoned by the camera to instead focus on some incidental detail or conversation that normally would be ignored. The location speaks for itself.

It is not coincidental that Varda’s first film does not take place in Paris at all but in the southern fishing village of La Pointe Courte. Varda chose the location since she intimately knew its people after having spent 15 years visiting them. La Pointe Courte holds two interrelated narratives: the struggles of a fishing village and the story of an unnamed man (Philippe Noiret) and a woman (Silvia Monfort) from Paris who are vacationing in the town to decide if their relationship has come to an end. The two narratives possess distinct styles: the fishing narrative is shot neo-realistically with non-actors while the relationship narrative is shot formalistically with actors in awkward poses and lines read in a flat tone.

The film can be read as a critique of the modern with the unnamed couple representing the deadened bourgeois values of the city that have intruded upon the much more interesting dynamics of the village. The couple speaks frequently but doesn’t often say anything significant. As one villager observes, “They speak too much to be happy.”

The couple’s existential meaninglessness bleakly contrasts against the vivaciousness of the village. Even the most seemingly insignificant action of the villagers is imbued with meaning. For example, Varda focuses on a woman’s hands pulling clothespins from a line. We watch the rhythm of her hands remove pin by pin, creating their own silent dance to this often overlooked domestic chore.

It is this attention to detail, to these singular flashes of humanity, that best define Varda’s filmmaking style and mark her refusal to succumb to the nihilism that her narratives might at times imply. [In this regard, she comes closest to Chris Marker who also has an uncanny ability to unpack the secret history of objects and images -- see The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004)]. According to Varda, the world is not devoid of meaning and hope. Instead, it is an inadequacy on the perceiver’s part to look closely and comb the significance from the everyday.

This lack of vision is precisely what dooms the couple in La Pointe Courte, who are so wrapped up in their turgid relationship that they are unable to notice the people and location around them. The camera’s frequent panning away from them to incidental details like the grass blowing in the wind or the sea lapping against the piers reveals how life itself is passing them by.

But despite the couple’s eventual departure from La Pointe Courte, the film suggests that modernization itself is here to stay. As they are rowed away by one of the local residents, a train trestle dominates the frame, emphasized as a locomotive loudly passes overhead, ripping through the bay’s silence. Modernization has already installed itself on the edges of the town, where its presence will increasingly encroach upon the ways and lives of the villagers. Although Varda attempts to undercut this image by focusing upon the village’s band in the final frame, indicating that some folkways will persist in the face of modernity’s assault, the scene can’t erase the afterimage of a small boat bobbing in the water under the dark shadows of a locomotive’s wheels.

Varda’s second film, Cléo from 5 to 7 explores the other side of the equation by entering into consumerism itself. It tracks the life of a minor pop singer through the streets of Paris as she waits to hear her diagnosis if she has cancer. At first glance, the film seems to be an indictment against Cléo (Corinne Marchand) and the superficial materialism of her world. We watch her stare into a mirror and recite to herself, “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m more alive than the others.” But if we pay close attention, we notice her forced smiled that reveals the lurking anxieties and human misgivings that her perfect skin cannot entirely conceal.

We quickly learn that Cléo’s repression of her true feelings has little to do with her own vanity and more to do with the ways in which other people objectify her into a superficial being. When she tells her boyfriend that she is feeling sick, he trivializes it by claiming, “Your beauty is your heath”, which in many encapsulates the way in which she is treated by men in general as they cat-call and whistle at her any time she enters the street. Her alienation is visually reinforced by the way in which her gaping, white apartment entombs her body in its deafening spaciousness. Only after removing her wig and escaping the orbit of music industry personnel is Cléo able to break through her image in order to connect with others.

Yet the film does not simply oppose the superficial commercial world with that of freedom and nature, represented by Cléo’s rendezvous with Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) in a park where she suddenly connects with him. It also reveals how popular culture can at times unexpectedly seize hold of and encapsulate our most repressed emotions and thoughts.

We witness this when Cléo’s two songwriters approach her with new material. In the midst of a superficial repertoire, they suggest a song named, “Cry of Love”. Its plaintive melody and minimal lyrics of decay (“Beauty wasted/ Cold and naked/ How can my body dream/ Without you/ Without you”) resonate with her alienation. As she sings, the camera shifts from a shot of the songwriters and Cléo to a singular close-up of Cléo against a black background. The visuals reveal how the song seizes hold, removing her from her environment and into herself. She begins to cry as the song swells with strings.

It is the most moving moment of the entire film. Cléo dramatically confronts her mortality, entirely alone yet paradoxically through the work of another. Despite her refusal to sing the song again due to its hidden painful truths, its melody recurrently surfaces throughout the rest of the film, suggesting its profound affect by imprinting itself into her psyche. The scene reveals the potentials of popular culture to not only give expression to our most repressed emotions, but more importantly to create such an intimate connection between producer and consumer that the very duality itself collapses. The problem isn’t with popular culture itself, the film seems to imply, but with the way in which capitalism delimits its range into the most reductive and trivial forms.

Le Bonheur

“Your beauty is your health” also well summarizes Varda’s next film, Le Bonheur (1964), which is a descent into the warped, heterosexual male fantasy of polyamorous relationships. The film is shot in bright primary colors, suggesting the superficial bliss and sense of perfection that glazes over the film’s husband, Francois (Jean-Claude Drouot), his wife, Thérèse (Claire Drouot), and their two ideal children, who, according to an accompanying essay by Amy Taubin for this box-set, “never whine, almost never cry, and have the peculiar gift of falling instantly asleep anytime their parents want to make love -- which is often.”

Francois, however, soon discovers his mutual passion for Émile (Marie-France Boyer), a cute post-office worker who ostensibly seeks his expertise in assembling shelves conveniently located directly above her bed. Francois, in typical sexist fashion, can’t decide which woman he prefers. He, therefore, declares to Thérèse during a picnic his mutual love for Émile, which he assures her won’t change anything. After readily acquiescing to his desires, as she has done throughout the entire film, by readily removing her dress for yet another bout of sex, Thérèse quickly sneaks off as Francois lays in a post-coital slumber to drown herself in a nearby pond.

Lucky for Francois, he has a spare woman in waiting with Émile, who is conveniently Thérèse’s same dress size so that she can quickly blend into the family’s matching wardrobe. The brute reality of Francois’ indifferent traffic in women is made glaringly apparent in a montage of close-ups of Émile’s hands doing chores: feeding the baby, ironing the clothes, watering the plants, massaging beauty cream, and so on. Her identity is eclipsed by her role as a domestic servant: fornicating, cleaning, feeding, and beautifying according to the pull of Francois’ desires.

Both Émile and Thérèse summon all the superficial elements of Cléo without possessing any of her substance; this makes Le Bonheur one of Varda’s less interesting films since it abandons the psychic subtlety and nuanced observation that defines most of her oeuvre for a sledgehammer approach that shatters through the heterosexual, male-centered publicity images of happiness. She enters the ad itself to gut and expose its toxic entrails. As she states in one of the film’s extras, “In a world of prefabricated images of happiness, it’s interesting to take apart the clichés.” True enough. But after taking them apart, one would like to glean the hidden lives and desires that they efface as Cléo from 5 to 7 and La Pointe Courte both show.

The final film of the set, Vagabond (1985), in many ways stands as Varda’s most nuanced. It mixes actors with local residents to offer a cross-section of French society. The film employs an interview format to trace the recollections of various people who came into contact with a female drifter, Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), who is found dead at its beginning. The interviews and flashbacks that comprise the film, however, teach us more about how the interviewees project their own desires and anxieties upon Mona than anything about Mona herself. She haunts the film like a specter, her indefinable presence and unpredictable movements posing an accusing silence at the calcified, materialistic, bourgeois beliefs of the people she encounters.

Vagabond also summarizes and extends many of the themes of the three other films. Varda hones in on the sexism that contaminates all of French society. For example, she exposes a male mechanic’s gender hypocrisy. During his interview, he accuses Mona of being “a guy-chaser”. However, in a flashback, we see him pulling up his pants, emerging from her tent, revealing the reverse to be true. Mona is recurrently abused by men throughout the film as one ex-boyfriend refers to her as nothing more than “a good piece of ass” and another man rapes her in the woods. Rather than assisting her, men pounce upon Mona’s vulnerable position, realizing that she lacks the socio-economic status to challenge their unquestioned authority that their gender bestows upon them.

The film also addresses the great disparity in wealth between social strata. Mona encounters Madame Landier (Macha Méril), who is a professor specializing in agronomy. Despite Mona’s poverty and stench, Landier becomes fascinated with her, treating Mona in a detached, clinical way, just another case study like the diseased trees she routinely investigates.

At one moment, Landier sneaks out champagne and finger food from a conference she is attending. The excess of food and drink that sits on the dashboard of her car bitterly contrasts the poverty of Mona’s tattered clothes and disheveled hair. The threshold between Mona and the conference is only a few meters away, yet the ideological distance is impregnable, emphasized by Landier stating, “You realize I can’t take you in.” Mona nonchalantly responds, “I hate crowds,” as if she had a choice in the matter. But despite Mona’s dismissal of the situation, her words can’t efface the ways in which she and Landier both remain complicit in reinforcing such social divides.

Yet the film, like Cléo from 5 to 7, refuses to rely on any easy dualities. Despite disparities in wealth, we do see genuine connections occurring between classes in the most unexpected moments. In one scene, Mona, impersonating a maid, encounters a wealthy old woman, Tante Lydie (Marthe Jarnias). Although Lydie epitomizes the nearly bygone era of aristocratic wealth with her bloated seven room chalet overflowing with dusty relics, she connects with Mona as they drink brandy and discuss the general duplicity of men. The laughter between them bridges social and generational divides as they simply become two women enjoying each other’s company. The construction of class temporarily disintegrates under the caress of a shared moment.

But the life Mona has chosen is unsustainable in capitalist world where even its most disenfranchised members adopt its materialistic axioms in order to hustle a few francs in its train stations and impose a protestant work ethic where bosses are always needed. In her attempt to drop out, Mona has been unexpectedly integrated back in. As one of the film’s interviewees observes, “By proving she’s useless, she helps a system she rejects.”

Far from the rural fishing village of La Pointe Courte, we have come to the isolated wanderings of Mona as material culture has increasingly torn asunder older practices of communal life. But instead of yearning for times that no longer exist, Varda stakes out her camera in the uncertainties of the present to transcribe the ephemeral points of contact between people and their daily practices that circumvent the dehumanizing forces of late capitalism, perhaps best represented in her filmic essay The Gleaners and I (2000), not included in this box-set.

Criterion has done an excellent job in offering the first box-set of one of the most undervalued filmmakers of the later 20th century. The documentaries that accompany each film have been crafted by Varda herself. In place of needless factual details, Varda uses each documentary to further probe issues of memory, place, and identity that have always concerned her.

Furthermore, the extras include three short films -- L’opéra Mouffe (1958), Du côté de la côte (1958), and Les fiancés de pont Macdonald (1961) -- that track the development of Varda’s filmmaking between her first and second features. This is one of the few box-sets where the extras do not seem supplemental but actual works in their own right. 4 by Agnés Varda serves as a testament to the value of taking the time to glean those dispossessed moments and details that define one’s daily life, since it is only by entering into them that we might discover our own humanity and, possibly, happiness.

Agnés Varda

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