Agnès From '54 to '01

French director Agnès Varda's iconoclastic oeuvre displays a feminist intelligence across six decades

Despite a body of work that now spans almost half a century, director Agnès Varda has never fit comfortably into the French film industry. Although generally considered to be the only female member of the French New Wave, she completed her first feature, La pointe-courte, several years before colleagues Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Demy (who became her husband) were able to do so. Only in the Sixties, in the wake of the New Wave's liberating influence, did she seem to find a place.

Even then, Varda's uniqueness--particularly her feminist perspective and her interest in using documentaries and shorts as experiments--was obvious. Unlike many of the New Wave auteurs, she wasn't a film critic or even much of a cinephile. Her interest in filmmaking sprang out of a background in photography rather than hours spent at the fabled Cinémathèque Française or the offices of Cahiers du cinéma. In 1964 she even composed a half-hour film, "Salut les Cubains," out of 1,500 stills she had taken on a trip to Cuba. Over the past 30 years, her oeuvre seems to have scattered, especially since financial and personal difficulties have often kept her from making fictional features. Nevertheless, as Walker Art Center's current eight-film Varda retro makes clear, the director has managed to create one international splash in each of five decades: Cléo From 5 to 7 in the Sixties; One Sings, the Other Doesn't in the Seventies; Vagabond in the Eighties; Jacquot in the Nineties; and, recently, The Gleaners and I, which generated excitement on last year's festival circuit.

Varda's oeuvre is so eclectic that it's difficult to single out any one film as offering the best point of entry for newcomers. The director herself implicitly suggests that The Gleaners and I--which introduces the concept of gleaning (foraging fields for post-harvest leftovers) as a metaphor for Varda's own DIY aesthetic--might serve as an introduction to her ethos. (Alas, the Walker's screening--on February 23 at 7:00 p.m.--is scheduled to conclude its series.) In any case, Gleaners, shot on digital video with a minuscule crew, is an appealingly homemade work. Speaking with a wit reminiscent of fellow documentarian Chris Marker, Varda travels around France interviewing present-day gleaners and their urban counterparts, who rummage through dumpsters and trash cans rather than the countryside. As a portrait of this varied bunch (often celebrated in French culture, in forms ranging from 19th-century painting to hip-hop songs), the film is fascinating. The gleaners defy easy stereotyping. Not surprisingly, many are homeless or impoverished people who can survive only by finding free food. But others are middle-class, anti-consumerist anarchists or artists looking for collage material. One is a gourmet chef who picks wild herbs for use in his $100 dinners.

Home movie: Director Agnès Varda on the road
Home movie: Director Agnès Varda on the road

Focusing entirely on the gleaners might have been a wise decision, since the "and I" portion of The Gleaners and I is more problematic. Aiming for the eclectic range of Marker's film and video essays, Varda throws in a host of issues that crossed her mind while making it: reflections on the prehistory of cinema, the exciting possibilities of new video technology (including the wonderful image of her lens cap "dancing" before her camera), and her own mortality. Unfortunately, Varda never quite integrates such introspection with her interest in the gleaners' lives. Instead of fitting into a larger package, these asides feel gratuitous at best and self-indulgent at worst. Additionally, the filmmaker sets up false parallels between gleaning and her shopping excursions. Buying souvenirs in Japan and searching for leftover potatoes are hardly the same thing.

Varda's most underrated film is Le bonheur (which screened at the Walker last Saturday, but is readily available on video), undoubtedly because it can easily be misinterpreted as an ode to the très français pleasures of picnicking, fine wine, and adultery, rather than a critique of them. Handsome carpenter François (Jean-Claude Drouot) leads a seemingly idyllic existence with his equally attractive wife Thérèse and their two children (played by Drouot's real-life family--a documentary touch in an otherwise ultra-stylized film). François is living the French Dream, complete with a mistress on the side, and he couldn't be happier. Cinematographer Jean Rabier's landscape compositions draw from impressionist painting, while his blazing palette--complete with fades to red and blue--nearly outdoes the colorful excess of Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Flowers bloom in the background of almost every scene.

Le bonheur has often been taken for a mash note to its protagonist's complacency, but Varda's style offers some clues as to her real agenda. In her book The Cinema in France, the generally perceptive feminist critic Jill Forbes calls it "an [ideologically] unforgivable film," adding the aesthetic complaint that "it is filmed in an idiom that sets one's teeth on edge." But that's precisely the point. The pastoral setting, the bright colors, and the wall-to-wall Mozart are so relentlessly and hyperbolically cheerful that the film comes to resemble a feature-length douche commercial. Inevitably, a crack appears in this façade, as François's affair ends badly. Nevertheless, his happiness continues. Beneath its sunny surface, Le bonheur delivers a scathing attack on male self-absorption and stupidity, and on the reduction of women to interchangeable objects. (The finale--a replay of the opening scene's picnic, with another woman in Thérèse's place--could hardly make the latter point clearer.) Family values and le bonheur march on, heedless of the individuals who are trampled under foot.

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