The Enduring Images of Agnès Varda
by Lily Ekimian
illustration by Enxhi Mandija
In a little coffee shop off Belmont Street, a young couple broke up. I know this because I happened to be sitting at one of the long communal tables with them, drinking a cappuccino and catching up on reading. To me this was just another day, but not to the teary-eyed girl and the quiet boy across from her. I carried on drinking my coffee; what else is one to do? This feeling of being an outsider witnessing such vignettes of life is what it is like to watch an Agnès Varda film.
In Cléo from 5 to 7, a very similar scene unfolds. Cléo is an emerging French pop singer, crippled by vanity, who thinks she is dying of cancer. The film follows her in real-time as she awaits her diagnosis, and minute by minute we watch as she explores her newfound interest in the life that takes place around her. A couple breaks up in a café, a street performer swallows a frog, another pierces his arm, and men discuss Algeria over lunch; it is the small things that take centre stage in Varda’s films.
In Vagabond, a rebellious young woman, Mona, travels around France to be free and homeless. The movie begins, however, from the end, with Mona lying dead in a ditch. The last few weeks of her life are told through documentary-style anecdotes from the people who met her and how they remember her. Some women are inspired by Mona and envy her freedom; one man says she scares him. We see snippets of Mona’s life not through what she would view as significant, but rather through what stuck in the minds of others.
But capturing life is only one part of what makes Varda such an important filmmaker. She has said of herself that she is not a reporter; she is an artist. Varda is 90 years old now, and has released a film as recently as 2017. Throughout a career spanning over sixty years, she has never lost sight of what makes cinema so powerful: images. When one thinks back on her films, one sees the flowers in Le Bonheur, Cléo on the swing in her apartment, the roller skaters of Venice Beach in Mur Murs, and the stop signs in Vagabond. It should come as no surprise that Varda was indeed a photographer before becoming a filmmaker. She has said: “I take photographs or I make films. Or I put films in the photos, or photos in the films.” Her short film Salut les Cubains best shows this blend, as it is a film comprised almost entirely of photos. But this is not the only way she plays with still life and movement: sometimes she has people dancing in her photos, other times people pose in her films.
It is an unfortunate truth that in listing the great directors of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda’s name is often left out. Varda was every bit as central to the movement as filmmakers such as Godard or Truffaut, or even her late husband, Jacques Demy. Nevertheless, her work has endured, and just last year, 62 years after the release of her first film, she won an Academy Honorary Award.
Throughout this month a few of Varda’s films will be shown at the Belmont Filmhouse, including Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Le Bonheur (1965), One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), Vagabond (1985) and her most recent documentary, Faces Places (2017).