Vagabond (1985)

Vagabond (1985) movie poster

director  Agnès Varda
viewed: 02/08/2017

Sandrine Bonnaire stars as Mona Bergeron, the titular “vagabond” of Agnès Varda’s haunting 1985 film. She’s not as mopish and repetitive as Herman Melville’s Bartleby, but she’s of a similar ilk, a modern individual disconnecting with society. She’s more of a rebel, too, but what cause she rebels against is never fully known.

I had forgotten that Mona is dead from the get-go. The first we see of her is her stiffened corpse in a rural ditch. She is reconstructed through the reminisces of those who met or simply saw her, glimpses imbued with each individual’s own world view. However, Varda shows us Mona beyond the perspectives of the pseudo-interviewees. We see her in glimpses presumably more accurate.

Maybe the Bartleby comparison is inherently flawed, because Mona is not simply withdrawn, in fact, she rouses to moments of great camaraderie, in particular with the old woman with whom she gets tipsy or the Tunisian farm worker with who betrays her friendship and really seems to hurt her.

More than anything, Mona is a woman, an individual, who has cut ties with the regular world and has taken to camping on her own in the wine region. She is wandering to find a place outside of the social norms. But she is also uncertain of what she wants and spurns a gift of land from a hippie farmer because she doesn’t really want to farm the land.

It’s ultimately tragic, and bizarre,as she stumbles into a pagan wine event dousing her in the dregs by costumed figures. She is also raped by a stranger just before her total dissolution.

Varda’s original French title Sans toit ni loi, which translates roughly as “With neither roof nor law” suggests Mona’s rebellion moreso than Vagabond. She’s a tragic figure, not entirely kind or appreciative, whose rejection of the world, a feminist rebellion, leaves her frozen to death in a ditch. She’s ultimately unknowable, but haunting and real.

The Beaches of Agnès

The Beaches of Agnès (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Agnès Varda
viewed: 03/22/10

It’s been a little over a year since I saw Agnès Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), which I had long planned to see, but in that year, and largely from inspiration of seeing that film, I have caught a few more of her earlier films and have grown to really like and appreciate her work.  Varda is perhaps most famous for being the lone female director who was associated with the French New Wave, in particular her films Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Le bonheur (1965).  But when I had read about The Beaches of Agnès, her autobiographical documentary, I was pretty excited to see it.

It’s hard not to think of this film without considering The Gleaners and I, because that film seems to have kicked off a renaissance of sorts for Varda, who fell in love with the light, mobile, digital camera that she used to make a documentary, freed from much of the production requirements of a big shoot and allowed to find this particular voice, this same voice with which she turns the camera upon herself.

The film opens with the first of many staged installation-like settings, on a beach with a multitude of various old mirrors set to reflect at angles and vantages.  This is one of her two large metaphors for the work of this film: she is reflecting upon herself, liking the mirrors, as she does personally, but also comparing the interior being of hers to that of a beach, being that her life has so long revolved around or near them.  She also spends time in many of these settings walking backwards.  For her, self-reflection or at least a dwelling upon the past is not a comfortable habit, but God knows she has the material for it.

She looks back to her childhood, born in Belgium, and raised in parts of France, partially during WWII, to her experience as an 18-year old, traveling to the south and taking a job repairing fishing nets.  It is after this that she studies photography and begins to develop her interest in the world of both still and moving images.  Her approach is largely chronological, light, humorous, flitting, full of play and puns and visual jokes.  In some ways, these two films (of hers that I have seen) have the most pronounced “voice”, literally too because she narrates them.

One has to wonder, now that Varda is 82 and has made films about both her life and the life of her late husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy, whether this is the end cap to her career, some final comment cinematically at least.  Her life is certainly interesting, from the provincal beginnings to the Cannes and other film festival awards, living briefly in California, marriage, children, social activism, and art.  She is a lovely character, fun and funny, someone that you’d love to spend an afternoon with.

Another thing that struck me was that how in Hollywood, only this very year, it was the first time that a woman was ever recognized by the establishment (the Oscars) as Best Director and how Varda (who was hardly the first important female filmmaker) started making films in the 1950’s and had won international acclaim by the 1960’s.  It’s truly shocking that women haven’t had more opportunities for recognition, even 50 years later, that such a trailblazer, who blazed a trail more out of happenstance than pure drive, would be still such an anomaly.

For me, The Gleaners and I is still a preferred film, in that its play and discovery are so fresh, and while not like jazz in the literal sense, it is also freeform and flowing and clever.  The Beaches of Agnès also has great charm and character, though much the same character as the other film.  The subject matter is both more singular and more expansive, heart-warming, largely, but less “new”.  And I have renewed my vows to watch more of her films this year.

Le bonheur

Le bonheur (1965) movie poster

(1965) dir. Agnès Varda
viewed: 06/15/09

Le bonheur is another really interesting film from the great Agnès Varda, the lone woman affiliated with the French New Wave.  As I’ve mentioned in past comments, I’d first seen her film Vagabond (1985) back in film school, but for some reason didn’t get around to really exploring her work until last year.  But after watching Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and The Gleaners and I (2000), her unique style and vision and her very singular films are beginning to make her a bit of a favorite.

It’s not that Le bonheur seems a masterpiece, or even that I feel like it’s fully yet sunken in, but rather it’s the way she uses the camera, the way she “sees” things, frames them, both visually and within the narrative that is strange, striking, and hard to catergorize.  It’s easy to suggest a Feminist stance virtually for any female director whose work was by the happenstance of her gender pioneering.  And it’s not to say that the film doesn’t potentially have a distinct Feminist reading perhaps even deeply within it.  But it’s something that arises to an extent, though not in a pedantic or unambiguous way.

The film opens on a pastoral scene, a young family, man, woman, toddler and baby, picnicking in the gloriously colorful summer woods.  It’s almost a standing cliche of an image, but the film whose title translates as “Happiness” lends one to both drink in the visual beauty and the image of familial bliss.  But also, there is a concern that this image, as genuine as it is portrayed and as beautiful as it is, is doomed at some point.

Color is so alive in the film that it’s amazing.  Varda “fades out” scenes to bright hues of blue, green, yellow, red, pink, violet, and then the scenes are alive with natural colors and also the painted hues of bright primary colors as well as the colors throughout the clothing of the characters.  I was reminded of the way that Jean-Luc Godard used colors in Made in U.S.A. (1966), but in his film it felt much more random and pop-arty.  In Le bonheur, there is a grand logic and an elegance to the utilization, not that I understand it as a “code” but as something, much like the music, Mozart, that comments upon the story and pervades and creates the mood or tone.

The story follows the young couple in their simple, beautiful lives.  The husband is a carpenter, a traditional, non-modern job, and the wife is a seamstress, taking jobs of sewing wedding dresses.  Their small home is lovely, their life is almost something from a past era, pre-modern, simple, happy, and idealized.  Until the husband starts an affair with another woman, though he sees the affair as potentially something outside of the traditional family unit, something that could work and be good and expand their lives.  And ultimately, he tells his wife about the affair, hoping for acceptance.

It’s one of those kinds of films which you could discuss and discuss because the meanings are open and even some of the events are mildly questionable.  And what is the ending, with more muted autumnal colors?  Just a part of the passage of time, the seasonal change?

At times, especially at first, I was thinking how much I would recommend this film to people because of the beautiful aesthetic and the charming world.  But as the story darkened, the mood changed and it’s more complex and not necessarily so cheerful.  And that is not to say that I wouldn’t recommend it, because it’s quite amazing, really, just complex and vaguely or potentially tragic.

Varda is a fascinating director, with a unique eye, capable of making the camera “see” the way that she sees.  And the feeling, this film, a femine voice, so different an experience, fresh, vivid, and beautiful.

Cleo from 5 to 7

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. Agnès Varda
viewed: 03/16/09

After watching Agnès Varda’s interesting 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, I decided that it was time to catch up and watch more of her films.  Interestingly enough, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley is currently doing a series on her as well throughout the month.  Although I have the best intentions of catching something there, I already had Cleo from 5 to 7 at home by the time that I’d seen that.

Varda is associated with the French New Wave, the only female filmmaker among them.  But, as I have actually been exploring the French New Wave more of late, that categorization is more one of time and familiarity and novelty in approaching cinema, rather than any particularly specific style.

Cleo from 5 to 7 is a nice example of the New Wave in that sense, with Varda’s very curious eye scanning the world, seeing Paris, seeing character, in a very specific and different way.  Since it’s been years since I saw her tragic masterpiece, Vagabond (1984), I can’t say how much it has in common with that film, but I did find it interesting, the way that Varda uses her camera as an eye, as her eye, as she does in The Gleaners and I, even shooting scenes of passing motorists from the backseat of a taxi.  She is looking at the city, at the people, constantly, never passive.

Also, through the first hour or more, the film is also fascinated with mirrors and mirrored surfaces.  As Cléo strolls the busy downtown of Paris, through the neighborhoods and shops and cafes, the reflective surfaces are ever-present, reflecting all of the things in the world, but quite specifically Cléo, who is trying to come to terms with her potentially terminal illness.  There seems to be a statement of sorts about gender, about women in particular.  Cléo and her assistant both are extremely superstitious.  The film begins with Cléo having her fortune read by Tarot cards.  I don’t know exactly what to make of the superstition stuff, but it’s there quite prevalently.

The film transpires in a sort of “real time”, with “chapters” signifying the passage of time, from scene to scene, which infuses the film with a constantly moving energy.  Some of the images are strange, accidental, happenstance.  Some are like visions, though really captured from the streets of Paris: a man swallowing live frogs and another man piercing his arm with a needle.  The streets of Paris are a side-show, a vivid world of fashion, men, ever-changing roads, parks.  It’s a litany, in a sense, which also gives the feeling of an internal view.  Is it Cléo’s?  Or is it the camera’s?  Either way, it’s utterly Varda’s eye, Varda’s aesthetic and curiously playful gaze at the world.

There is a lot going on, as I have alluded to.  More perhaps, than a quick note on the film could hope to capture.  It’s ultimately a film about life, though Cléo is constantly fearing her own death.  She is surrounded by life and a fascinating world, and in the end, does she manage to realize it all?  It’s an interesting film, feminist, not lacking in political perspectives, but much more focused on identity, the self, the world, and life.  Quite beautiful in its way.


The Gleaners and I

The Gleaners and I (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Agnès Varda
viewed: 01/16/09

Long ago, 2000 or 2001, I noted this film when it came out and placed it in my queue of films to remember to see.  It’s a documentary by notable French filmmaker Agnès Varda, who is perhaps best known for her brutal, amazing film Vagabond (1985) about a young woman who roams homelessly and in utter disconnect across the country.  I’d actually seen Vagabond in film school and had been interested in Varda since.  Why it took me this long or why I suddenly popped it to the top of my list are more the vagueries of randomness and life.

The Gleaners and I is a remarkable film in a number of ways.  Varda, armed with a light digital video camera, is freed to explore the world largely unencumbered, able to film and view and commentate in a new fashion, one which she embraces whole-heartedly.

Inspired by a painting by Jean-François Millet, “The Gleaners”, and the culture of gleaning, which begins with the subjects of Millet’s painting, people stooping over, gleaning from the earth the leftovers of a harvest.  In the times of the portraiture, this was done for subsistance, to live on the fallen leftovers, the abandoned food.  And Varda begins her investigation into the still-existing culture of gleaning, the people who glean tomatos that the huge machines have failed to capture, grapes, and potatos.  And this also delves into the cultural sensibility that resides in this.

In the past, farmers allowed gleaning.  It is, as one of Varda’s legal experts affirms, a legal practice dating back centuries.  But times have changed.  In some of the apple tree orchards the farmers have set more rigorous rules about gleaning, the distance back from the pickers that the gleaners can pick from.  And the potato farmers, who have strict rules about the size and shape of marketable potatos wind up dumping tons of potatos from each harvest because they have been rejected.  The film touches upon the irony of the great bounties of wasted food against the starving stragglers who glean from these piles.

But Varda’s film is not out-and-out polemic.  She is as much of the film as the rest, shaping the rhetoric and the ideas, riffing along in an almost jazzy fashion, thriving in her joy and freedom to film and think.  She becomes drawn to particular images, most specifically the heart-shaped potatos that are invariably rejected by the farmers, but have great charm and character as objects.  She also makes a lot of her own “gleaning” of images, the way she uses the camera to capture this world of things.

And gleaning for food translates back into the cities, where the poor glean from the markets, the garbagecans, the dumpsters, for wasted food for the poor.  But food is not the only thing gleaned.  Much as Varda gleans her images, she focuses on a number of artists and/or collectors of trash, abandoned objects, and the ways that in is inflected in their lives and approach to life.

The film is quite joyous, despite the poverty, despite the political aspects.  It’s a surprising and enjoyable film, with Varda playing with the imagery as much as playing with the ideas.  She is drawn to the beauty of the abandoned things, of trash, of mold on her ceiling.  She captures with her hand the large trucks on the road that she likes, physically demonstrating the gleaning of her own.  The film touches on much, much about life and the connections through the past, toward a world globalized, yet still marginalizing.  It’s an unusual, quite striking film, which I am recommending to many friends.