At the Wellington Film Society: short films from the doyenne of the French New Wave.
Agnès Varda’s films are disarming because they are at once playful and philosophical without the two strands frustrating the other. Following on from screenings of The Beaches of Agnès and Cléo 5 to 7 at the New Zealand International Film Festival, the Film Society have programmed a collection of her shorts where these two elements are in full voice. Even if some of Varda’s political films have dated, her love of her characters and her idiosyncratic approach to filming ‘reality’ remains as compelling as her best feature-length work.
The first programme was split into her “travel” work and her “counterculture” work. Varda was extremely well travelled, and having trained as a photographer, she’s got an eye for a specific image being able to convey a particular meaning. Her tourist films juxtapose whimsical elements with their picturesque locations. Her love of architecture is obvious (as is her love of cats). O Seasons, O Châteaux (1957) examines some of the Loire Valley’s castle with jazz, models, and day-glo pastel work; Pleasure of Love in Iran (1976) equates the exquisite minarets in Iran with sexual pleasure; and Coasting Along the Coast (1958) is a collection of postcard memories to her friend Chris Marker (a bit like Marker’s later, wondrous film Sans Soleil). The last film in this collection works the best: it’s funny, charming, and traps some wonderful ideas.
The “counterculture” films are slightly less interesting in that they are explicitly of their time. The best was Uncle Yanco (1967), where she catches up with an old relative in California—her uncle being a Greek/French émigré who hangs with a bunch of hippies on a boat. Her uncle is a compelling figure, and Varda’s film manages to mix the personal with a document of the time. Black Panthers (1968) captures the Black Panther movement at the time its leader, Huey Newton, was being tried for murder. Some excellent footage was captured despite feeling a little anachronistic (not in terms of its content, but in terms of its approach) and the footage of one of the 20th century’s most intriguing figures is worth the watch alone. Women Respond (1975), while laudable in its themes, certainly feels of its time, despite its subject matter still being relevant. Perhaps it’s the essentialising of “all women” in the narration which mitigates her point, but there is a classic juxtaposition involving the women and the “misogynistic” men. The six films form an eclectic bunch of themes and styles, but the signature ‘Varda approach’ is a key unifying factor, and provides a key bridge from her winning personality to her seminal oeuvre.
* * *
The following week, the Film Society’s jaunt through the rarely seen but blazingly important world of Agnès Varda continued with her ‘Parisian’ short films. While many in this second programme are not as idiosyncratically endearing as some of her best work (though, there is of course her adoration of cats), there are some brilliant and philosophically rigorous moments throughout.
The So-Called Caryatids (1984) looks at Paris’s ubiquitous female nude sculptures. Juxtaposed with these are verses from Charles Baudelaire, the famous French poet who is renowned for his depictions of Paris’s streets, and music by Offenbach and Rameau. The film confirms Varda’s multi-disciplinary approach to film (she was trained as a photographer which might explain why she doesn’t just stick to film) where music, art, photography, verse, and literature all coalesce. Opera-Mouffe (1958) is a tender description of Paris’s streets and its people—and Varda’s renowned empathy is evident simply through her camera’s focus on faces.
Elsa the Rose (1965) was the programme’s highlight. The documentary recounted renowned French poet Louis Aragon’s love for his wife, French/Russian novelist Elsa Triolet. Aragon’s staccato poetry matched the sweet (but still hard-edged) love-story, and the chance to see two of France’s 20th century’s literary icons appear so human was marvelous. The Volatile Lion (2003) was a whimsical tale of love and loss, while You’ve Got Beautiful Stairs, You Know… (1986) was a brief tribute to the renowned Cinématèque Française, the cinematic archive which was so influential for Varda and her contemporary filmmakers.
The short film from Cléo 5 to 7, Les Fiancés de Pont MacDonald (1961), starring Jean-Luc Godard as a Buster Keaton like fop and Anna Karina, was a pleasant diversion from the more serious material on display. The final film, Seven Rooms, Kitchen and a Bath (1984), was about an angsty teenager yearning to escape the tyranny of her father. In many ways, this film laid the groundwork for the restlessness of her feature Vagabond. Her short films are so eclectic that it’s easy to see why her later digressive documentaries were such triumphs, and Varda’s ability to tell moving and affecting stories regardless of the films’ lengths confirm her as one of cinema’s great visionaries.
* * *
Agnès Varda’s good friend and co-film revolutionary, Chris Marker, is himself the director of one of the most astonishing pieces of cinema: La Jetée, a film composed of static, two-dimensional photographs. The stills replicate memory, because for Marker our memories are only played back to us in two-dimensions. These images are inherently unreliable, but they are the best we’ve got. This treatment of the static image appears to be the philosophical underpinning of the three wonderful short films that closed the Film Society’s third and final programme.
Ydessa, the Bears and etc (2004) looks at the art exhibit/installation The Living and the Artificial, by Canadian artist Ydessa Hendeles. Involved is an ocean of photographs, and each photograph has at least one teddy bear in it. Varda films the exhibit in Munich, and captures the artist, her Holocaust-surviving mother, visitors and curators of the exhibit, and of course, Varda herself. The photographs capture something which came together at that exact moment (obviously), but Varda’s film explores her subjects, her and our reaction to that ‘moment’, removed from when that photo was taken. The photographs are a death shroud, long-lost people living their long-lost lives. The installation’s focus on the teddy bears becomes the lasting image of the photo too, by their sheer weight of numbers—one looks for the teddy bears in the photo to the point where the people, their faces, and their locales become unimportant. Varda’s typical digressive (and subtly political) narrative works wonders; she manages to use the ‘small’ to comment on the very large.
Ulysse (1982) revisits Varda’s 1954 photo of a naked man, a naked boy, and a goat. The three elements of the photograph work together like the Sphinx’s riddle (the three stages of life), and the image itself is a haunting juxtaposition. However, that was then. Varda’s marvelous film deconstructs this image by revisiting it 28 years later. She shows the man’s discomfort at making the photo, the way the boy was ‘constructed’ by Varda (he had to be carried to the photograph as he was unable to walk; the photograph evokes a completely different memory for the boy’s mother because of this), the fact the boy has no memory of the photograph in the first place, a painting of the ‘same image’ which captures the same moment in a completely different way, or that no-one was speaking for the goat (she also gets neighbourhood kids to ‘interpret’ the image). Varda highlights the inherent frailty of the image, and critiques this so-called objective document of history. She also juxtaposes this concern with the news of the day, the so-called facts from the day she took this photograph. The so-called objectivity of the news is swiftly demolished by this simple photograph she once took on a deserted, rocky beach.
The final film, Salut les Cubains (1963), turns her photographs of post-revolutionary Cuba into a riotous celebration, and despite the philosophical concerns of the first two films, she also celebrates the power the image has of capturing life. She’s not afraid to highlight the subjectivity in making the film (it’s narrated by her and Michel Piccoli), and the subjectivity in where she placed the camera and put it together. Sure, people and places she has captured through her images are inherently frail, potentially untruthful, if not dead, but they’re also paradoxically, potent, real and fiercely alive.