The Gleaners & I
Deep within the bohemian labyrinth of Paris’s Left Bank is an unobtrusive doorway that opens onto a narrow, leafy courtyard decorated with various objets the owner has collected during a half-century’s worth of filmmaking. Since the late Fifties, the rue Daguerre has been home and atelier to Agnès Varda, the place where she and husband Jacques Demy (who died in 1990) raised a family and produced their films. Varda stopped making fictional features in 1994 and has since branched out in a multitude of directions: producing digital-video documentary essays such as the much-loved The Gleaners & I (00), as well as moving effortlessly into the art world with installations like L’Ile et Elle (06). Her production company Ciné-Tamaris, “Varda Central” since her first feature, La Pointe Courte (54), now occupies premises on both sides of the street, including a former hardware store within which one may glimpse the frighteningly energetic septuagenarian at her editing console and where one can also buy some of the most coveted DVDs on the market.
British manufacturers use the term “vanilla releasing” for a DVD that contains a film and nothing in the way of extras (you might get chapter menus if you ask nicely). On the DVD editions of films by Demy and herself that Ciné-Tamaris has been releasing since 2002, Varda opts instead for the “Rossini steak” approach. Each film is accompanied with a veritable feast of extras that she dubs boni. These may take the form of unreleased features, such as Deux ans après (02), the follow-up to The Gleaners in which Varda catches up with some of the people she met while making the earlier film. Or after-the-fact location reports in which she returns to the places where the films were shot to compare the images of the past with those of the present, including her New Wave classic Cléo de 5 à 7 (61) and the documentary portrait of her home patch, Daguerréotypes (75). That’s not to mention the handsome booklets, archival curios, interviews, and jeux d’esprits that make these DVDs incomparable treasure troves. In short, Varda has taken to the format with gusto and made it her own.
7 P., cuis., s. de b.
It’s worth remembering that during her 40-year career Varda has made only 13 long-form fiction films and more than twice that number of documentaries, essay films, and shorts. The sheer variety and number of short and medium-length works that Varda has produced over the past five years, either for DVD or installation, are now set in the context of her career with last year’s French release of Varda Tous Courts, which gathers together all 16 of her shorts. Ranging from three to 43 minutes in length and dating from 1957 to 2003, the majority are grouped thematically— “Tourism,” “Paris,” and “Protest,” etc. Also included are the “essay” 7 P., cuis., s. de b. (84) and Cinevardaphoto (04), itself a compilation of three separate works concerning photography: Ydessa, the Bears, and etc… (04), Ulysse (82), and Salut les cubains (62-3). Varda’s first job was as a photographer, and she’s an engagingly acute commentator on the form (boni include 14 mini-films in which she talks about other photographers’ work).
The short is often dismissed as a minor genre, the runt of the cinematic litter. But the pleasure of those collected here lies in their liberty of styles and forms. (Only four have characters and plot, including Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald (61), a five-minute silent-film spoof starring Godard and Anna Karina that originally appeared in Cléo.) French critic Alain Bergala insists on the term “essay” to describe these works less in the slightly forbidding literary sense than in terms of the French verb essayer—“to attempt,” “to try.” Varda, too, makes it clear in an interview included on the disc why the form suits her: “The short film is really a completely free form of filmic writing; the pleasure of shooting to express oneself. What’s important to me is the capacity to move quickly between the moment of desire to make a film and its realization.”
Les Dites Cariatides
In the early days of her career, the short was a well-funded form that was much in demand—all the New Wavers cut tyro teeth on them—and one of its most vital genres was the art documentary. Tous Courts is imbued with this legacy throughout. Varda has maintained her fascination and facility for using cinema to respond to and assimilate the other arts: painting and photography, sculpture and architecture, poetry and the prose of her own commentaries—each constantly criss-crosses and combines in the texture of these films. With Les Dites Cariatides (The So-called Caryatids, 84), Varda took a TV commission and turned it into an encounter between poetry and sculpture; the verse of the mute Baudelaire serenades the silent stone women who serve as columns on many Paris buildings. An earlier piece for television, Elsa la Rose (65), delivers a charming historic portrait of the poet and novelist Louis Aragon and his independently minded wife and muse Elsa Triolet. Gradually, what builds up across the films is something akin to an autobiography of Varda herself through her cultural tastes and ideological parti pris (Cuba and West Coast hippie communes in the Sixties, feminist agitation in the Seventies).
From the start, Varda had the eye and the voice necessary for the film essay. Sometimes it’s only the eye that counts. Black Panthers (68), for example, is pure on-the-spot reportage from a pro–Huey Newton rally filmed with a 16mm camera borrowed from Berkeley activists. Or the post–Pointe Courte monochrome experimentalism of L’Opéra-Mouffe (58), described as “a notebook filmed by a pregnant woman.” Both give a sense of the variety of Varda’s styles. Most of the films had theatrical lives supporting features. One of the most intriguing pairings saw Du côté de la côte (58) accompanying the Paris opening of Hiroshima, mon amour in June 1959. In Varda’s hands, a commission from the French Tourism Office for a film about the Riviera (her 1957 short Ô Saisons, ô châteaux was a playful tour of châteaux in the Loire valley) becomes a search for the vestiges of Eden among the beaches and hotels of the Côte d’Azur. Ironic and lyrical, shot in postcard-bright Eastmancolor, it ends with a beautiful little film-poem imagining earth before the Fall. And Varda employs the same style of tracking shots as Resnais does in Hiroshima—those disembodied expressions of curiosity in questing motion that work so well with voiceover commentaries. Alongside Resnais’s stark monochrome, Du côté de la côte must have made for a striking contrast.
From Montaigne to Marker, the essay form places the first-person upfront and makes subjectivity both its subject and object. And one of the virtues of this collection is the way it tracks the development of Varda’s own style of first-person filmmaking. If Godard and Marker are the New Wave contemporaries she most resembles in their shared hunger for formal exploration, she also differs from them in significant ways. Less Olympian than Godard and far less retiring than Marker, Varda bustles forth as both approachable and direct in her work—confident, amusing, with just a touch of melancholy. It’s this persona that allows us to engage with her interest in other people—neighbors, friends, and former colleagues—not just in other people’s work. On one hand, it’s a filmmaking strategy, a way of getting people to open up—or not. Ulysse, about the people in a photograph she took in 1954, is an example of how this approach contains its own traps. On the other hand, it can provide a way into mass subjectivity, as in Ydessa, the Bears, and etc…, a portrait of curator Ydessa Hendeles’s extraordinary collection of teddy bear photographs that Varda fashions into a meditation on the historical memory of the Holocaust. These two meditations on photography illustrate the strengths of Varda as a documentarian. The former is a sharp semiological analysis of a single image, but it’s the film’s emotional pulse and its sense of the little bit of death in every photograph that focus its insights. The latter has Varda taking more of a backseat role, carefully controlling the potential cute factor of the photographs in question to deliver a fascinating arts documentary with a fine balance of analysis, imagination, and narrative.
Somebody, somewhere—in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Tehran—knows someone who loves cinema, who maybe owns a little digital camera and wants desperately to make films. I can think of no better gift to give them than this wonderful primer, a kind of portrait of the artist in her own words and work. It’ll also help disabuse them of any notion that “real” cinema is only the illustration of a three-act screenplay. Present it with these words: “It’s all here.”