Originally published in Berfrois, October 2020.
“Aging for me is not a condition, but a subject,” said Agnès Varda in her Norton Lectures at Harvard University in February 2018, shortly before her 90th birthday. The Oscars were to be announced soon; on the nomination list was her documentary Visages Villages (Faces Places), which was to be her second last film. But instead of the Oscar for the best documentary film, Varda received an “honorary Oscar” for her entire film career.
The International Film Festival Rotterdam, 1991. I find myself in the fully-packed lobby, waiting for the start of my next film. There is movement in the crowd: someone important is passing by. “Agnès Varda,” whispers my company. I think I reacted with an “ah”, the “ah” of “interesting, but not much more than that”. Varda’s name was known to me as the director of Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond), the fictional film featuring Sandrine Bonnaire, that had been an arthouse cinema favourite a couple of years earlier. The radical choice of the young vagabond for an absolute freedom came to me as somewhat uncanny, but I did not think much further about it back then. That Varda’s long film career had been one advocating for freedom, and for artistic freedom in particular, was something I would only learn much later.
During more than half a century, Agnès Varda (1928-2019) made more than forty films: long and short, fiction and documentary, and everything in between. Independent right from the start, she founded her own production company Ciné-Tamaris, which produced most of her films. Her first film, La Pointe Courte (1957) earned her a certain standing, be it only within the circle of fellow avant-garde filmmakers, but from her second film Cléo de 5 à 7 on, her films have been embraced by new generations of film enthusiasts. Just think of Sans toit ni loi (1986) or Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 2000). By the release of Visages Villages, she had become a cherished public figure, an image which she contributed actively to with her numerous lectures, masterclasses and media appearances. But it was her absence at the Oscar ceremony of 2018 that really brought here to the attention of the international press: copies of the cardboard Varda that represented her at the occasion are still being sold in online today.
Alexandra Schwarz, journalist at The New Yorker, reported on Varda’s second Norton lecture under a telling title: “Agnès Varda Is Still Going Places” – ‘still’, as ‘going places’ is not what you would necessarily expect of someone at such an advanced age. In the same vein, Schwarz notes her ‘gnomish’ stature, colourful tunic and iconic hairstyle. “Seen from the audience, she looked like a hip monk, or a button mushroom,” writes Schwarz and goes on about Varda’s irritated reaction to technical lapses in the presentation and to the chocolate pudding someone had given her as a present. The article leaves the reader with the impression of a charming old lady, who has little resemblance to the radical filmmaker that Varda certainly was.
Had Varda read the article in The New Yorker, she would have laughed aloud. In Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Angès, 2008), the documentary film she made when she turned eighty and realised that her days may be counted soon, she takes an obvious pleasure in playing the role of an old lady, “pleasantly plump and talkative, telling her life story,” as she states in the opening moments of the film. That old lady shares with the audience a lifelong, passionate resistance against taking things as given – starting with how it was to make films as a young woman in the male-dominated avant-garde film scene of the 50s and 60s. Although she was called the “grandmother of the French New Wave” from early on, she was never one of the guys, all men of course, in the group emerging around Cahiers de Cinéma, the most decisive film journal of that era. In Les plages d’Agnès, she displays those men with their eyes closed, and places herself in the middle, with her eyes wide open. Whatever that means.
The topic of eyes returns in Visages Villages. It is about Varda’s eyes as she has to undergo an eye operation, and the eyes of the multimedia artist JR, more than fifty years her younger, with whom she made the film. A pair of dark sunglasses is JR’s trademark, a pair he refuses to take off, despite Varda’s efforts. She brings up Godard, who certainly was one of the guys back then and with whom she had developed such a close friendship that he, the great Godard, took his iconic dark glasses off for her. But JR does not give in – until they travel to Lake Geneva together to visit Godard, who, attached to his privacy in his advanced age, now leads a hermit-like life in a village. They have taken the train from Paris, bringing a bag of croissants purchased from the bakery and now stand in front of his door. Varda knocks. They wait. She knocks once more: no answer. Visibly disappointed, she hangs the croissant bag on the door and walks away. The next scene finds her and JR sitting on a bench at the lakeside. Varda can’t handle the situation anymore: it is too much for her that her old friend refuses to receive her. That’s when JR understands that he needs to act. To console her, he takes his sunglasses off. The image turns blurry, as that is how Varda sees him with her bad eyes. “Beautiful,” she says.
It is a scene full of acceptance of the transience of life, and of aging.
Life as a fragile enterprise appears early in Varda’s oeuvre. In Cléo de 5 à 7, a young singer has just heard that she may die soon – may, as she is still waiting for the results of the lab tests. The film follows her from minute-to-minute during the two hours of waiting for the verdict: a chapter from the life of a young woman as she experiences a midsummer day in Paris. Restless, in a state of not-knowing, she wanders the streets. She meets her lover who does not care enough for for her, and a friend who does care, but simply lives her own life. Around half past six, shortly before the lab results will be there, Cléo strolls through Parc Montsouris in southern Paris. She meets a friendly stranger, who, he says, will take the train back to his military service that very evening, to fight in the Algerian War. The woman who feels marked by death and the man who will soon look death in the eye take the bus together to the hospital to find the doctor who is due to inform Cléo how long she has to live. But when they arrive, it turns out that the doctor has already left. So Cléo and the stranger leave the hospital, looking each other in the eye: they are still alive.
When I saw Varda at the film festival in Rotterdam thirty years ago, she was there to present Jacquot de Nantes, a biographical film about Jacques Demy, the love of her life and celebrated creator of world-famous musicals such as Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Ladies of Rochefort) and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). In Jacquot de Nantes, Varda combines fragments from Demy’s films with enacted scenes from his childhood as a dreamy boy from the working class, who, against all odds, succeeds in getting a place at the film academy in Paris. Between the episodes, she places close-up fragments of the terminally ill Demy, who would die at just fifty-nine, soon after finishing the film. She lets the camera wander slowly over his wrinkled skin and grey hair, as if to hold him close for just a little while longer, while at the same time acknowledging the passing of time. Varda repeats the same procedure in Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, now filming her own wrinkled skin and greying hair. Already in her 70s, she turned to using a small, handhold video camera. The light equipment allowed her to do her own camera work, while staying in the picture. In this way, she quite naturally comes close to the people she meets on camera. In this manner, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse once again deals with the subject of aging.
Les glaneurs et la glaneuse is the first of four films in which Varda herself figures prominently, as the narrator, and as her own subject. In Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, she portrays people who ‘glean’, or collect what others consider waste. She meets with potato farmers who explain to her the strict laws of the potato business: only symmetrical potatoes with a certain diameter are accepted for sale. The remaining lot is left to rot in the fields – a thankful gift for people from the margins of society, as well as for critics of consumer society, eager to practice what they preach. She also meets both kinds of people at Parisian food markets, where plenty of edible items are left behind after closing time. From food waste, Varda then continues to look up collectors of others abandoned things, and she declares her love for heart-shaped potatoes. Some years later, she is to use potatoes for her first spatial installation, Patautopia, consisting of 4,500 kilograms of potatoes and three film screens on which she projects images of rotting heart-shaped potatoes. Already in Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, she shows the aging of potatoes in rapid motion – voilà, yet another link with aging. That makes the film not only a critique of society, but also a subtle protest against the very idea that old stands for useless, be it people or things.
“How you look at things makes them beautiful,” says Varda in her TEDx Talk. Varda’s revaluation of old things certainly rang a bell with many people, as shown in Deux ans après (Two Years Later), the film in which Varda recaps the topic of Les glaneurs et la glaneuse. She goes through her fan mail containing many personal accounts of the love of collecting and tales of living with junk. She selects a few letters to trace their senders, who enthusiastically explain to her camera how they find it extremely important to rescue things from oblivion.
A protest against the way society looks down at the elderly and shows contempt for old age became the leitmotifs of Varda’s next films. Characteristic of her cinécriture, her cinematographic handwriting, she presents the topic with tact and subtlety. The political aspect has always been there in her films. In the 70s, as an activist for the right to abortion, she made the musical L’une chante l’autre pas as maybe her most explicitly political film. In her earlier fictional film Le bonheur (Happiness), she shows an idyllic small family – with a gentle irony that was not really understood in those heavily politicised years. Similarly unnoticed went the deeper meaning begind Lions Love (…and Lies), her half-documentary, half-fiction about the transience of fame and stardom.
It is 1969. Agnès Varda and Susan Sontag are guests on the American TV programme Camera Three. Varda, who has lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years, is not unknown to the American audience, and Sontag is first and foremost Sontag, the celebrated and feared essayist of Notes on Camp and Against Interpretation. Varda has just released Lions Love, and Sontag, who briefly flirted with a career in filmmaking, has just finished her first film. They are interviewed by the Newsweek journalist Jack Kroll, who explains in a rather disparaging tone that Varda’s film is just portraying some freaks and marginal folks. Sontag protests on the side of Varda: the young wannabe Hollywood stars in Lions Love are perhaps not mainstream citizens, but Varda shows them as real people with everyday worries, as opposed to fantastical characters from Hollywood films. Sontag is genuinely agitated and Kroll finds himself in the uncomfortable position of trying to not quite give in, while keeping a safe distance from the liberated imagery of the French cineaste. Varda herself follows the heated exchange of words with a mixture of embarrassment and amusement.
Whoever keeps distance from freedom, lives in a different reality than Varda. It is tempting to perceive her associative and quasi-improvised way of filming as an attempt to rediscover that freedom time and again – a freedom she generously shares with others. In her ultimate film essay about making films, Varda par Agnès, she explains that sharing, partage, is one of her three pillars as a filmmaker, next to creativity and inspiration. The three are interdependent: creativity stands for freedom and trying out something ever new. That requires inspiration, and her inspiration is found in encountering others. That encounter happens not only once in reality, but also again on film. In her interviews, she repeatedly says: “The cinema is my home.”
Varda has the talent to find access to people with an ease that shows her endless curiosity and open attitude. If anything, a genuine interest in others characterises her way of filming. That interest is obvious in Visages Villages, where she travels with JR through France to take pictures of people who normally remain out of the spotlight. They travel in a mobile photo studio, where they then print huge photos of the people they meet. Faithful to JR’s way of working – he is primarily known as a kind of graffiti photographer – they paste the gigantic black and white images on house fronts, containers, oil tankers, and other surfaces. They make the invisible visible. The old widow in the abandoned miner’s village sheds tears when she sees her own picture on the wall of her house, and a group of factory workers have a hearty laughter at seeing their collective photo, on which they together move as if in a wave. An alternative stardom it is, passing like all fame. Passing like life.