Saturday, May 28, 2016

Agnès Varda Documenting Herself

Agnes Varda’s documentary Glaneurs et la glaneuse starts off with an image of Varda’s cat, Zgougou. Rather than the film starting off regarding gleaning, Varda chooses to use a personal image. While introducing the subject of gleaning, Varda still includes Zgougou, filming him rubbing against the book she is reading from. Ending the introduction about gleaning, Varda shows Jules Breton's painting La Glaneuse. The next shot is a wide shot of Varda standing next to the painting, holding wheat and says “There is another woman gleaning in this film, that’s me”.  Next is a close-up of Varda staring at the camera and holds up her digital camera to her eye, talking about her love of digital hand-held cameras. Then Varda inserts shots of her being filmed with the digital camera, showing the viewers who the director behind the camera is. The beginning of the documentary gives the viewers the idea that the film is not just telling a story about gleaning and France’s hunger issues, but the documentary is also about Varda and her journey while filming. Kelley Conway says the introduction “serves to remind us of the extent to which the director’s domestic environment is closely interwoven with her professional pursuits” (Conway, 74).  Glaneurs et la glaneuse is the start of Varda immersing herself as a part of her documentaries, making them a self-portrait. In this paper, I will focus on the use of narration, editing, and Varda’s appearance in her documentaries to prove how Varda makes her documentaries not just personal from what she chooses to film, but how they are autobiographical, referring to Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, Agnès de ci de là Varda, and Les plages d'Agnès to give examples.

Besides Varda immerging herself with narration and asking her subjects questions, compared to just hearing the subject talk, Varda also physically integrates herself in the documentary. “The film also contains brief segments touching on a wide range of subjects that have little do with gleaning but that, taken together, provide a portrait of the filmmaker”, comments Conway on the documentary (Conway,73). In the documentary, Varda travels all throughout France to film her subjects, as well as filming her traveling. A few times, Varda films herself from the passenger’s seat mirror, capturing who is filming the documentary. We see her glean potatoes, souvenirs from Japan, a few pieces from people’s garbage on the street, and consignment shopping. Varda constantly reminds her viewers in the film how she is always “filming with one hand and my other hand gleaning”, self-reflecting her filming process of the documentary. We see Varda traveling by car, commenting on all the freight trucks she passes, how she loved them as a child, and jokes about trying to pass the trucks as if it is a game. Later on, she emphasizes on her hands trying to catch the trucks saying, “Again one hand filming, the other hand and trucks, I’d like to capture them”, reminding the viewers that she is capable of filming with one hand while her other hand is free to do something else. In one scene, Varda comes back home in the process of filming her documentary and shows the viewers her souvenirs from Japan, or what she has gleaned, “It’s what I have gleaned that tells where I’ve been”. As she is showing the things she has collected from Japan (Rembrandt postcards), she compares her documentary to Rembrandt’s painted self-portraits, “but it’s just the same in fact always a self-portrait”. Later on, Varda stumbles upon consignment shops while on the road called “Finds” and ironically found herself some wheat and a painting of gleaners, a scene that shows Varda as a gleaner. At one point, Varda is filming her subjects dancing and by accident forgot to turn off her camera and she taped her lens cap moving and decided to incorporate it moving, adding some music as if the lens cap is dancing as well. While video taping people bust open thrown out TVs, one of them reminded Varda of her TV while filming the documentary. She reflects back to when she first started the documentary showing her TV back then, her TV when it was the beginning of 2000, and her TV when she was ending her documentary. By Varda adding personal commentary, it makes Varda part of the documentary, she incorporates her own moments in the process of making this documentary, making herself a subject in Glaneurs et la glaneuse.

“I have two hands. One has a camera- the other one is acting, in a way… I like the idea that one hang would be always gleaning, the other one always filming...The hands are the tools of the gleaners, you know. Hands are the tool of the painter, the artist” (Meyer, 200), Varda responds when Andrea Meyer comments on how Glaneurs et la glaneuse is about Varda just as much as her subjects. Hands are the most essential object in Glaneurs et la glaneuse. From using one’s hands to glean to Varda using one hand to film with her hand-held camera, hands are very symbolic in the documentary. In the beginning of the documentary, Varda films her hands and says, “It’s not old age my enemy, it might even be old age, my friend but still my hair and my hands that keep telling me that the end is near”. As Varda is showing the camera the things she has collected from Japan, she comments on her aging hands “I mean this is my project, to film with one hand my other hand, to enter into the horror of it. I find it extraordinary” as well as comparing herself to an animal, “an animal I don’t know”. While accompanying gleaner Francois Wertheimer, the composer from one of Varda’s past film, Wertheimer passes up a clock with no hands. Varda decides to take the clock, “A clock without hands is my kind of thing, you don’t see time passing”, Varda says as she is filmed passing the clear clock. Thanks to hand-held digital cameras, Varda is able to film with one hand, while filming herself and her other hand).

Between the different cities Varda visits and the artists she talks with, viewers get a glimpse beyond that and sees a recollection of memories along the way in Agnès de ci de là Varda. The five-part documentary TV series is Varda’s travel diary, as she is “searching for fragments, moments, and people” (Varda says in the introduction of each episode), traveling to events she has been invited to in different countries. Besides the shots of Varda traveling, whether it be by plane, train, or car, or the hotels she stays in, and past the interactions with people Varda films, Varda also includes her memories in the documentary. Whether it’s something as simple as Varda recalling how her mother would put sugar on leftover bread while passing Brazil’s Sugarloaf Mountain or a more intimate moment regarding her late husband Jacques Demy, Varda recalls past moments as she is documenting new moments, “lacing together through association all these locations, and emotions, of her work” Emma Wilson says (Wilson, 62).

While at a museum in Brazil, an art installment by Gildo Meireles reminds Varda of another art piece of Magritte, along with other chairs in her life, like Eugene Ionesco’s piece that Varda photographed in the 1950’s, aka one of her first photographs. Then there is a clip of a couple of chairs on the beach, Varda sitting on one then she drags the chair up on a hill and then sits facing the ocean. With such a little moment like these, a simple art piece of a chair reminds Varda of other things that have occurred in her life as well as other artworks, as if she is showing her viewers her stream of consciousness. Most of Varda’s recollections involve her late husband or memories involving her past films, including Varda visiting the town of Sete where she filmed her first film La Pointe Courte.  Varda recollects some memories, like at the Civette Bridge and Palais Consulaire where she spent her teenage years, “I have memories here”, Varda says about these locations. Varda talks to some of the local people, one talks about how Varda came to Sete to interview people, asking him about his life and Varda using it in her film, as well as him acting in La Pointe Courte. He talks about how he plays the story of his father in the film, Varda showing some clips he is in, in addition to the jousting scene compared with a more recent clip of people jousting in Sete. Another film of Varda’s that she looks back on is Mur Murs. While visiting Nickerson Gardens in California, Varda films murals of the dead people killed by gangs. She comments about how she once filmed murals of dead people killed by gangs and how the style has evolved, going from murals to names written on walls. Varda interviews a woman whose late husband has been killed by gangs and is honored on one of the walls, this scene naturally fitting the style of Mur Murs, being an interview of someone that is involved with the mural.

The most touching moments Varda self-reflected in Agnès de ci de là Varda was in regards to her late husband. Varda films Jacques Demy’s 20th anniversary of his death/50th anniversary of his feature debut Lola in Nantes (where Demy grew up). Furthermore looking back on a trip they took to Brazil together, Varda inserting video clips Jacques took and photographs she took of their vacation. The most touching incorporation of Jacques was when Varda came across a piece by George Segal that reminded Varda of another piece by him that means a lot to her, Alice Listening to Her Poetry and Music. “ I didn’t know how to film my distress when Jacques died. So I wrapped myself in white like plaster and imitated Alice. I listened to music we both loved. Artists invent ways for us to express our emotions”, says Varda as she inserts a clip of her recreating the art piece. Personal moments like these give the viewers a greater sense of the director behind the camera, allowing us to see her traveling and the thoughts that come along the way. Agnès de ci de là Varda isn’t just about Varda traveling from city to city and talking with artists, Varda is making connections of what she is experiencing with her past, making the documentary a self-portrait as well. “Beguiled by these moments in the now, Varda is also very aware of the weight of the past”, says Fernando Croce, “Throughout, personal expression is found (and celebrated) in expected and surprising places” (Film Comment).

Les plages d'Agnès cannot be explained without using the words self-reflective or self-portrait. Varda describes her film to David Warwick as, “I see it as an Unidentified Flying Object, because it doesn’t belong to documentary really, even though I speak about real people, and it’s not a fiction film because it’s my life...It’s a film that comes out of me. As a cinematic object, that’s the way I see it” (Warwick,195). In a sense with the Glaneurs et la glaneuse and Agnès de ci de là Varda being travel diaries of Varda’s, Les plages d'Agnès, Emma Jackson says, Varda has gone one step further in her relationship with portraiture and looking, turning the camera more directly on herself” (Jackson, 126). Les plages d'Agnès is solely reflective and straightforward about Varda’s life. Within the nearly two hour film, the viewers learn about Varda’s life, from when she was a child and through her career, we learn her past and inspiration of her work. The film starts with Varda on the beach saying, “I’m playing the role of a little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative. Telling her life story. And yet it’s others I’m interested in, others I like to film...It’s time to talk about myself I thought...If we opened me up, we’d find beaches”, Varda uses location as a narrative tool to tell her story in this film. Varda tells us about her life through the beaches of her life and how they have influenced her work and the memories she has there. Varda and her film crew sets up mirrors on the beach, reflecting the ocean, her crew, and herself. Symbolically, these mirrors are reflective just like this film.

In its entirety, Les plages d'Agnès is a collage of Varda’s collective memory for the past 80 years. In the film, Varda uses clips from past films and personal videos, old photographs, and reenactments of her memories. Varda films herself walking backwards as the film is going back into her past memories. Varda’s childhood is very prominent in Les plages d'Agnès, though in the film Varda directly states directly that she is not nostalgic for her childhood along with, “Everyone says childhood is a foundation. I don’t feel a strong link to my childhood. It’s not a reference in my thought processes, it’s not an inspiration. Well I don’t know”. The North Sea is where the first beach Varda grew with, along with the start of the film. Varda shows old photographs of her and her siblings on the beach “I’d love to see a girl in a stripe suit and another in the one with the big straps”, Varda says pointing to her sister and herself. Varda then has children replay these childhood beach photographs, “I don’t know what it means to recreate a scene like this”, says Varda. Varda incorporates seashells and flowers in her reenactment of her beach days and connects them with her tombstone she made for her cat Zgougou, that is covered with seashells and flowers; Varda inserts a clip of the tombstone being decorated. This is just the beginning of Varda’s reenactments. From acrobats performing on the beach since Varda daydreamed about joining the circus, posing with the acrobats as if she is one of them, to her young years playing at the quay in Sete, Varda is recreating memories.

Location plays an important role in Les plages d'Agnès. Besides the beaches in Varda’s life, she also focuses on the quay in Sete, the river in Paris, and her courtyard in Paris that has many memories. After filming reenactments of Varda’s childhood memories on the quay, Varda transitions her life from Sete to Paris traveling by boat, inserting the last scene from La Pointe Courte of a family leaving to Paris on boat, then switches to herself sailing into Paris. Varda reflects what it was like living in Paris during the occupation and how she hung on the riverbank missing Sete’s harbor, inserting a clip from a script she wrote about a young girl having her art books stolen while at Seine. Also, Varda shares many memories of her life regarding her courtyard that she once shared with her late husband Jacques Demy and where they raised their two kids. In 1951, Varda moved to her house in Paris with a torn down courtyard, an alley between a framing workshop and grocery store. Varda rebuilt a set to resemble the state of the courtyard when she first moved in. She shows us photographs of her and her family living there and one of her and Jacques before he passed. Varda recreates a scene when she had to get coal to heat up her place, wearing the same winter outfit with a screen behind her reflecting an image of her courtyard. Her courtyard also served as a set for Jane Birkin and Laura Betti, her baker neighbor helped with the film, Varda then shows a clip of him in her film Daguerréotypes, her 1976 documentary about her neighbors. Varda recreates a scene of her younger self writing the dialogue for La Pointe Courte in her courtyard, along with mentioning that they lost a shot from La Pointe Courte and Alain Resnais filmed the missing shot in Varda’s courtyard. Not only does Varda shows her viewers the beaches of her life, but also the other places that holds memories.

Another important segment in Les plages d'Agnès is Varda’s time revisiting Sete. Viewers learn what influenced Varda to create her first film, La Pointe Courte, while Varda goes back in time to her Sete memories. Varda states when she was a teenager living there, she didn’t remember the swimming, but the nets and fishing while Varda inserts clips of the locals from La Pointe Courte. A young actress pretends to be young Varda taking photographs of the fisherman, inserting the photographs she took when younger. Varda says that she listened to her neighbors’ stories and wanted to make a film out of them. She filmed test shots, Sizou and Pierre stood in for the couple and before editing was done, Pierre died of cancer. For Les plages d'Agnès, Pierre’s two children pushed a cart around town that was showing the test footage on a screen, his children never seeing photos of him in motion. Also during Varda’s time in Sete, she interviewed men who were just young children in the film, all grown up now. Just like in the film, jousting is a big event in town, Varda shows videos of jousters from 1954 and 2007. The jousters gave Varda her own plaque on a wall and a mini shield and lance, “this whole mise en scene is simply my way of expressing gratitude to the pointus who adopted me”, says Varda. Varda’s whole chapter on Pointe Courte is a good example of what Les plages d'Agnès is about. The viewers learn how Varda was fascinated by the fishing inspiring her to make La Pointe Courte, a reenactment of her taking photographs when she was younger, inserts of the photos she took and clips from her film, along with Varda filming her current visit to Sete.

What is consistent in Agnes Varda’s films Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, Agnès de ci de là Varda, and Les plages d'Agnès is that the director is present. In Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, Varda travels all through France capturing gleaners on her hand-held digital camera, inserting scenes of Varda gleaning herself. In Agnès de ci de là Varda, Varda films her travels from city to city, interacting with artists, while subtly showing her viewers an inside look of her life and her past, whereas Les plages d'Agnès exclusively focuses on herself, reflecting on the beaches that have impacted her life. After seeing these three films, one cannot help but feel as if they are now friends with Varda, as if they have sat down with Varda and talked about her past and influences. “Cinema is my home” declares Varda in Les plages d'Agnès and with these three films, Varda shows her viewers a self-portrait using cinema. With Varda narrating all three films, inserting clips from past films or personal videos and photographs, along with Varda appearing in front of the camera, it is apparent that Varda’s recent documentaries are also autobiographies of the director. In front of the viewers’ eyes, we learn that Varda is worried about her aging hands in Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, how she mourned the death of her late Jacques Demy in Agnès de ci de là Varda, and the little things that inspired Varda to film her first feature in Les plages d'Agnès. Through cinema, Varda has been able to express herself, her experiences, and interests; Conway notes that Varda “has deliberately cultivated a down to earth persona through the years of quietly observant self-portraiture and sympathetic identification with marginal figures, while placing herself resolutely in the center of that work with the narcissism of an irrepressible artist who must express herself or die” (Conway, 111). Agnès Varda’s films are her ultimate self-portrait.

{The following essay was a final paper of mine for school}


Conway, Kelley. Agnès Varda. University of Illinois. 2015. Print.

Croce, Fernando F. "Review: Agnès Varda: From Here to There". Film Comment. 03 June 2014. Web.

Jackson, Emma. “The Eyes of Agnès Varda: Portraiture, Cinécriture and the Filmic Ethnographic Eye”. Feminist Review 96 (2010): 122–126. Web.

Meyer, Andrea. “Gleaning the Passion of Agnes Varda”. Agnès Varda: Interviews. Ed. T. Jefferson Kline. University Press of Mississippi, 2014. 198–202. Print.

Warwick, David. “The Beaches of Agnes: An Interview” Agnès Varda: Interviews. Ed. T. Jefferson Kline. University Press of Mississippi, 2014. 193–197. Print.
Wilson, Emma. "Mortal Flesh: Agnès Varda De Ci De Là." Forum For Modern Language Studies 50.1 (2014): 57-68. Web.

No comments:

Post a Comment