Saturday, July 31, 2010

Agnès Varda - Gleaner of Everyday Life

All film buffs know the French Nouvelle Vague (or New Wave) of course—even more casual enthusiasts are familiar with the works of Goddard, Truffaut, Demy et al.  But there is one of the New Wave who’s still with us, tho she isn’t as well known by the public at large.  That relative obscurity is a shame—at least—because her works are as filled with high artistry & inspiration as those of her more famous colleagues.  That filmmaker is Agnès Varda.

Eberle & I have been on an Agnès Varda spree of late—a whirlwind of beautiful & inspired films.  Actually, until a few months ago, neither of us had seen any of Varda’s films except for Sans toit ni loiVagabond as it’s called in the States or Without Roof or Law (a literal translation) in other English speaking countries.  We both saw the film at Vinegar Hill Theater in Charlottesville, VA; I recall that I found the film beautifully made & powerful—but so powerful as to be harrowing.  Eberle says quite straightforwardly that Vagabond changed her life.  I found it quite interesting that when we saw Varda’s 2008 cinematic autobiography, Les plages d'Agnès (in English, The Beaches of Agnes), she talks about how Sans toit ni loi was born out of rage—rage at the marginalized & oppressed condition of women (it’s telling that Varda discusses the film against a filmed backdrop of women’s rights protests), but also about her marginalization as almost the only woman, along with Marguerite Duras, within French cinema. 

There is no question that Sans toit ni loi is a great film, but it may not be the best introduction to Varda’s work—at least in my opinion (Eberle might disagree with me on this).  During our recent Varda watching spree, we’ve seen La Pointe-Courte (Varda’s debut film in 1955), L'opéra-mouffe (The Diary of a Pregnant Woman, 1958), Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7 from 1962), Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners & I, 2002) & Les plages d'Agnès.  In these films we were struck by Varda’s focus on the ordinary objects & appurtenances of everyday life—her eye for detail—& a focus that can morph readily from surreality to candid realism.  Varda’s films also celebrate process, whether following the real time movement of a woman awaiting a possibly serious diagnosis in Cléo de 5 à 7 or her detailing the process of gleaning in Les glaneurs et la glaneuse—in case you don’t know, gleaning is picking up what is left over after a harvest.  & despite her treatment of serious themes, her films are always inviting to watch.

Agnès Varda began her artistic career as a photographer, & you can see this background in the composition of her shots—many stills from her films would be art photographs in their own right.  She combines this with a thorough feminist vision & a fierce love of life combined with a keen sense of social justice.  I’ve added four clips from her films—I know that’s a lot, but I’ve selected short ones (& sorry—the definition on the Vagabond clip isn’t so great.)  The clips should give at least some sense of these characteristics.

Some of Ms Varda’s 47 films are available on DVD.  The Criterion Collection has issued a must have set called 4 by Agnès Varda (La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur, Vagabond), & The Beaches of Agnes, The Gleaners & I & Vagabond also are available.  All of these except for Le bonheur are also current NetFlix selections.

Hope you find the clips intriguing, & please do check out the marvelous films of Agnès Varda.


  1. We had quite an extensive collection of foreign film on video at one time, but sadly, the inconvenience of digging out videos and the quality of the film as compared to dvd, resulted in those videos sitting in a trunk and never being viewed. I don't believe we have them anymore - we had "Cleo de 5 a 7" and it is one of the misbegotten, I'm afraid, so I'm still unfamiliar with Varda's work. (We make promises to replace them on dvd, but that falls by the wayside too.) If we ever sign up for the equivalent of Netflix, I'll seek these out again. "Vagabond" is one I would see in the video stores all the time, and never bought. C'est dommage!


  2. I was so thrilled to see this post. Agnes Varda is a big inspiration to me and Vagabond is one of my all-time favorite films. After watching the Gleaners some years ago, I sent off an email to Cine Tamaris, expressing my appreciation. Much to my surprise, it was not ten minutes later that I received a reply from Agnes Varda herself. She said she was editing the notes for the DVD edition of the Gleaners when she received my email. It was exactly the kind of casual response one might expect from her.

  3. I'm headed straight for Netflix. Thanks for the wonderful review, John. Hope you and E are enjoying your Saturday!

  4. Intriguing. I'd like to say I'll get around to familiarising myself with Varda's work but, time is always a factor, isn't it? You have whetted my appetite, all the same. Thanks.

  5. Never heard of Varda. Will have to check out her work. Great post.

  6. Hi Kat, Christine, Willow, Martin & Raquelle

    Kat: I think there's a chance that a good video store would have any of the ones that are now available thru NetFlix--Cleo from 5 to 7 is a masterpiece, but the Gleaners & I is also a good intro to her work.

    Christine: That is so cool, & so much what I'd expect. I've been trying to convince Eberle that she should contact Agnes Varda, & I mentioned your comment in support of that!

    Willow: Enjoy!

    Martin: Hope you have a chance to see some of her films.

    Raquelle: So glad you stopped by for this, & thanks for tweeting it! I think you'll really like her films.

  7. Ought to watch more films! I'll pass a link to this on to some I know who are more into them than I.

  8. I am unfamiliar with Varda's work. I'll have to check in out at NetFlix. Thanks for the review.

  9. Fascinating, John. I'm strongly motivated to deepen my passing acquaintance with Agnès Varda's work. Thank you for yet another gentle boot in the right direction!

  10. Hi Dominic, Lizzy & Dick

    Dominic: Thanks for passing it along.

    Lizzy: Hope you enjoy her films--Cleo from 5 to 7, La Pointe-Courte or The Gleaners & I are all good films to begin with.

    Dick: You are most welcome!

  11. You got me started thinking about Agnes Varda again and what it is exactly that I appreciate about her films. I was trying to somehow distill it into a word or two. The word that kept coming to me was 'subtle.'

    Many American films hit you over the head with what you're supposed to think. You can pick up the early hints in a film that a character that you might be tempted to like is actually a 'bad guy.' We also expect a certain kind of closure from American films. Everything must be wrapped up within those two hours, the lesson has been learned, justice has been served, and everything is as it should be. It's a gratifying fix like fast food.

    Agnes Varda doesn't do that, which is not to say that she's not trying to lead the audience to some degree; it's just much more subtle. She lets you reach the conclusion on your own, and she trusts you to have the intellect to do it. In Vagabond, she presents a character that we should dislike, a character who is critically flawed, who squanders opportunities, and who doesn't reciprocate the kindness that is payed her. She is not the prostitute with a heart of gold who valiantly saves troubled youth, as we might see in an American film. It's hard to find anything likable about her, yet somehow Varda manages to make you feel empathy for the young woman. It's subtle - and it's miraculous.

  12. Thank you for recommending her movies. I see what you mean about attention to detail - like that brief but intense focus on the fish writhing and twitching after they've been netted; or that disorienting descent down the staircase, where you notice all the cracks and shadows, and sometimes the camera seems to get uncomfortably close to the woman.

  13. Hi Christine & HKatz

    Christine: Very good points. In a way, the Mona Bergeron character in Vagabond is comparable to Cleo in Cleo from 5 to 7--there are ways in which Cleo is portrayed, especially in the first half of the film, that might make her seem unsympathetic, but we do feel drawn to her despite her apparent selfishness & self-absorption. I found it interesting that varda later said the Cleo character in the first half was defined by how others saw her, & that as she literally moves outward in the second half she is re-defining herself.

    HKatz: Yes, the clips give some sense of that. Hope you have a chance to see her films.


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