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Agnès Varda: The Beach on the Pavement

The French director and her refusal of the master narrative
by Bonnie Johnson
September 5th, 2019

“And look, it’s not that I don’t know about the world, the disgusting world — the news on television, the news in the papers, the messages of hate, the separations between religions and between countries, the horrible experiences of migrants all over the world. But I don’t want to add another layer of drama, another layer of terrifying life. I really wish to be on the side of a daydream, of utopia. I want to be on the side of the question: Could art help people? Could cinema help people think about their lives?”

—Varda interviewed in the LA Times, 2017

The first Agnès Varda film I ever saw was 1985’s Vagabond.  When I did, I experienced that selfish feeling our favorite works of art can give us: that somehow its maker had created it especially for me. I had never connected with movies the way I did with books; when exploring the film canon, it was hard to find my way around intransigent hordes of male auteurs. I had barely begun my conscious effort to locate the archives of women-made classics when I stumbled upon Vagabond at my then-thriving neighborhood video store. Suddenly, here was a director, and an unusually wise one, not posturing for anyone, but holding an unstinting, comradely gaze.

I delved deeper into movies; eventually I began to frequent a film-geek site. A photo of Vagabond’s protagonist Mona became my avatar there: a shot of the incomparable Sandrine Bonnaire chomping grimly on an apple she holds in grimy fingerless gloves, with the highway habitat stretched out behind her. Where hitchhikers are concerned, she shares less with Barbara Loden’s escaped housewife in Wanda than the Alaska-bound lesbians who steal Five Easy Pieces: moving because it beats staying still. When Sal and Dean hit the road, did anyone ask what was wrong with them? Behind the camera, Varda watches not in judgment, but in fascination. Time and again, I watched her approach her subjects as collaborators in the acts of creating and living in an often-indifferent society.

I am always struck by Varda’s refusal, even in interviews and commentaries, of set conclusions and master narratives. She envisioned her characters as individuals with the capacity to think, choose and surprise, people whose life stories she didn’t presume to know. She liked to refer to her process as cinécriture, or writing with film: using her directorial, photographic and editorial choices to tell stories, while treating chance as her writing partner.

Like other figures from Varda’s repertoire, many of the people Vagabond’s Mona encounters on her wanderings are non-actors: the soulful migrant vineyard worker with whom she shacks up; the philosopher-turned-goat farmer who tries to convert her to farm life; the near-blind elderly woman with whom she gets drunk and garrulous; the teenage squatters panhandling at a train station while commuters try to ignore them. When Mona stumbles into the mayhem of a vintner town’s bizarre annual ritual, it’s because Varda had just stumbled into it, too. As men dressed in foliage violently dunk passersby into tubs of wine, we marvel along with Varda at the tradition’s medieval brutality, and she lets the scene mark a turn in her story. It’s one instance of the director welcoming the world, with an open mind and a running camera.

Varda’s artistic commitment to the drama of everyday work, in particular, showed up in her first feature. La pointe courte juxtaposes the story of a quietly faltering couple with the daily labors of the fishing village where the film shot. Formally beautiful and stylistically unprecedented, it marked the beginning of the French New Wave in 1955. In 1962, Varda unleashed the landmark Cleo from 5 to 7. Perhaps the best starting point in her oeuvre for the casual viewer, Cleo follows a fated singer in real time through Paris’ unconcerned streets. Her newspaper vendors are just that—newspaper vendors, absorbed in their own private hustles.

Varda shifted somewhat from the vérité aesthetic in 1965’s Le bonheur, borrowing some of the candy-colored palette from husband Jacques Demy’s hit, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  Varda’s central character passes blithely back and forth between his tender home life and a new petite amie, eventually confiding in his steadfast wife about the latter. In this picture though, the attendant dose of camp serves an insidious function.  Maybe only Hitchcock could imbue a beautiful day with pervasive dread, but Varda comes close with her breezy closing shots of familiar domestic routines. In Cherbourg, the stock village characters do what we’d expect of them, cheerfully reinforcing our sense of familiar roles and fait accompli, producing an oppressive ennui. In Le bonheur, far from singing recitatives, the small-town leads move along with such unaffected quotidian simplicity that we can’t even be sure we’re witnessing a conflict for most of the film. In the end, we realize that this unassuming work has laid out an elemental mystery; our interpretations reflect our own beliefs and fears about sex, love and family. What does it mean to be happy? Varda refined this refracted ambiguity in later films like Vagabond.

The cinécriture ethic is on fullest display in her documentary repertoire. In 1975, Varda filmed her Parisian neighbors as Daguerréotypes; they lived and worked on Rue Daguerre (it’s now become a pedestrian street). Their shops sell endearingly French things like baguettes, cologne and accordion lessons, while there’s also a butcher, a tailor, a beauty salon, a clock repair shop, a dry cleaner, a driving school and a tiny Arab-run grocery. When a magic show comes to the nearest café and the shopkeepers all attend, Varda begins to splice footage of their work with that of the magician, revealing their daily tasks as tricks that deserve drum-rolls and applause.

Continuing in a similar vein in 1980 Los Angeles, Mur murs explored the city’s myriad murals. The camera equitably feasts on commercial and abstract art, religious and show business icons writ larger than life, photorealistic landscapes and the enduring wall covered in names of the dead at Nickerson Gardens in Watts. We meet radical artist Judy Baca and the legendary ASCO performance art group, but also the man whose job is to maintain the Farmer John slaughterhouse mural in Vernon. Varda once again weaves the unlikeliest of artifacts into the fabric of a contemplative film, constructing a context that bids even Angelenos to view our visual culture through new eyes.

Her choices are less eclectic than they are ecumenical; her embrace makes space for what she finds as she goes. A different director, even a documentary filmmaker, would take a more tendentious tack, deciding in advance that one thing or another stands in for the subject’s whole: they might have foregone the magic show to present local labor as drudgery, rather than seize on the moment of magic as a chance to reveal deeper significance. Or she could have focused on gang-related murals to create an outsider’s picture of Watts’ desperation, instead of letting them stay in their own local ecology of enterprise, protest, and cosmic imagination.

In the years leading up to Vagabond, Varda probed themes of freedom and risk with a run of dramatic and documentary features, shorts, and photo series. In this stretch, she covered revolutionary Cuba, the Black Panthers in Oakland, a staged LA love-in, and her experiences in the women’s movement. In 1981’s Documenteur, Varda’s editor plays a single mother navigating housing, career and her own body, subject matter which had received sparse cinematic treatment outside of Chantal Akerman’s landmark Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. We share the view of Venice Beach from Varda’s protagonist’s desk, the camera catching whatever happens to pass the lens, creating an effect almost opposite that of Vagabond’s near-constant motion. Finally, in 1985, we encounter Mona hoofing it, thumb out, pitching her tent and fixing her boots. There are three kinds of road movie: the flight, the quest and the ramble.  The pure rambles are rare, but Vagabond is one. In French, the title is Sans toit ni loi, meaning “without roof or law,” indicating a possible trade-off. Yet even in Mona’s death, Varda lets Bonnaire’s face look undaunted. 

Vagabond would echo through the rest of Varda’s catalog. In 2000, Varda responded to emergent technology with The Gleaners and I, using compact digital cameras to follow the pickers, foragers and Dumspter-divers who sort through and gather what others leave behind. In French the film is titled Les glaneurs et la glaneuse: Varda sees her own work as gleaning bits of places and vignettes, assembling them in collage. She gets to know her fellow collectors, some of whom eat their spoils to survive. Others make Rodia-style art, or live by scavenging to minimize waste. Intimate documentaries can give us the sense of seeing too much, uneasily wondering if we intrude; in Varda’s films, her manifest respect and unreserved interest put her subjects at ease to share. Maybe the difference between a voyeur and a gleaner is that the gleaner treasures what she finds, and handles it accordingly. To promote The Gleaners and I, Varda roamed museums in a potato suit. It was an homage to the renegade harvesters she followed for the film. An installation displayed her photos of heart-shaped spuds and other mutant tubers she pulled from their haul.

One of the most wonderful things about Varda and her camera was the way she circled back, again and again, to previous sites and subjects of her films. Among others, she maintained bonds with the fishermen of La pointe courte, in 2008 performing an anniversary tribute to honor their part in the film. She captured the scene in The Beaches of Agnès, and mutual gratitude hangs in the salt air. Around Demy’s 1990 death from AIDS, Varda not only filmed his childhood memories; she also returned to Rochefort with the cast of a film Demy shot there, making The Young Girls Turn 25 to honor The Young Girls of Rochefort. Through her returns, Varda gave these stories rich new layers. The reciprocal vulnerability between the artist and her subjects extends to viewers when, at the end of Faces Places, we see our bowl cut-rocking cat lady auteur weep in disappointment when Godard isn’t home to receive the pastries she brought him. When has a visionary drawn us in this close?

When the video store closed, I bought up a handful of movies, including the copy of Vagabond.  I’ve always been surprised to see others describe it as “bleak,” or as a cautionary tale, but Varda lets us respond to Mona’s decline in individual ways. If I had listened the times people warned me away from backpacking alone, bedding down in dubious places, or ingesting things of unknown provenance, I would have missed many of my happiest moments. Sometimes preserving self-respect has meant trading in jobs with bosses and paychecks for labor others might find demeaning. I’ve had heaps of privilege and plenty of luck, but still been assaulted, robbed, jailed, horribly ill and, on occasion, afraid for my life. The people Mona meets have their say about her once she’s moved on, but above all, her freedom unnerves them. I think Varda understood this intuitively, and as always, left us to answer: What must a hero be? A soldier, a martyr, a virtuous mother? Or is it heroic just to be?

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