The joie de vivre of Agnès
Varda biopic shows auteur was far more than grandmother of Nouvelle Vague
by Jake Roslin
You never forget your first French New Wave. Mine was Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Feminin, a random Fopp DVD multi-buy, possibly bought due to genre icon Jean-Pierre Léaud’s insouciant raised eyebrow, as he struggles to maintain his icy Parisian cool in the face of an undressing Chantal Goya across a symbol-heavy sleeve.
That inability of the genders to interact satisfactorily while maintaining a permanent air of studied, chain-smoking indifference seems to have been compulsory for French twenty-nothings in the sixty-somethings, or at least if you believe Godard. His contemporary and friend the Belgian-born film director Agnès Varda, however, had wider strings to her bow. Integrated but never subsumed into the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, Varda was the sole female auteur of the dense and prolonged movement which was the Nouvelle Vague, and arguably still resonates, since Godard ploughs his furrow to this day.
Varda sadly died on 29 March this year, at the age of 90 yet clearly still in the zenith of her life. A multi-faceted visual artist yet no dilettante, her general placement by film buffs on the periphery of the boys’ club of directors Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and the rest belies her legacy, captured just in time in her extraordinary autobiographical swansong Varda by Agnès, which showed at the Belmont earlier this semester and was released on DVD last week.
The New Wave cut up the studio system rule book: actors were made to improvise; cuts were made to jump; prolonged, brooding cityscapes; the ubiquitous Léaud’s eyebrows and shrugs conveying more than realms of explanatory dialogue. Finally and most remarkably, directors exposing the process of film making, blurring lines between reality and fiction (in Truffaut’s La Nuit Américane the director plays the director of the film within the film), ensuring we remember the politics (Godard’s Brechtian inter-titles). The destruction of the grammar of the Hollywood movie shocked audiences and re-established the cinema as vérité, the response as visceral. These were no escapist nights at the flicks.
Varda’s 1955 debut La Pointe Courte lays claim to being the first of the Wave. An existential study of broken marriage against an idiosyncratic fishing village in the south of France prefigured the general use of Paris as the movie’s central character. The film is odd and endearing, precisely because 27-year-old Agnès had no film school training. Working solely by instinct, filming as if she were writing a novel, she said, and out of financial necessity shooting entirely on location and sometimes with amateur actors, Varda’s actual academic background as both philosopher and photographer meant she defined many of the tropes of Nouvelle Vague several years before the men came along: Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge, Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups, and Godard’s A Bout de Souffle are only officially where this decade-long, if not century-defining, movement began.
Varda by Agnès is an autobiography. Varda, addressing a theatre audience in-between location inserts, is in control. Supremely comfortable with life and advanced age, with dishing the dirt on her old Nouvelle friends, with enthusing about the democratising new digital film technology, even with updating her Instagram account until days before her death, Varda is the extra granny you wish you’d had. Dressed in her inevitable purple and with her trademark two-tone bowl haircut, she explains how she travelled France for 18 months in the company of street artist JR, producing 2017’s Faces Places with little idea how the movie would turn out, simply filming the quirks of human nature as they found them in the rural nooks, crannies and especially beaches she had already explored with her camera for seven decades.
Despite weighing in at two hours, every moment is riveting. The sheer enthusiasm of Varda and her determination to make the life of her participants a playful artwork infects every frame. Describing her use of tracking shots in 1985’s Vagabond, the nonagenarian is tracked herself across a landscape. She tells of her masterpiece, 1962’s Cléo de 5 à 7. In this movie we follow in almost real-time a young woman walking through Paris to kill time while awaiting the result of a test for cancer. As may be expected, existentialism is present, yet that film too is full of joy and life.
In all her vast oeuvre (24 features, almost all as writer as well as director, numerous short films, photographic exhibitions and books) Varda never stopped experimenting, idiosyncratic while accessible, and being ever the feminist’s feminist, but without ramming it down the lens.
It doesn’t really matter where you start with the French New Wave. It doesn’t have to be Souffle, it doesn’t have to be Jules et Jim (though you’ll find both and many others in the more than adequate French section of the SDRL’s DVD collection). Like the narratives of the films themselves, there is no sequential journey to be taken through the movement, merely an ocean of perspectives on the Gallic human condition of the later 20th century, to be dipped into from time to time, to let wash over you. Indeed you could do worse than start with Varda by Agnès, because if this film does not engage you to delve deeper into a place and time with a very particular sense of being, and of which history may yet decide Agnes is the more important, not François or Jean-Luc, then probably nothing will.
Varda by Agnès was released on DVD on 4 November and is also available on the British Film Institute and other streaming platforms.