The Vital Life - Agnès Varda Retrospective
Agnès Varda, now eighty two, is a great vitalist but hardly a facile optimist. Her films are infused with the importance of life, but death frequently hovers over her work. In Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), at the beginning of the film a fortune teller implies that the central character might die, and indeed Cleo is waiting to find out the results for possible cancer. Vagabond (1985) opens on the body of what will become our leading character, as Varda offers various points of view from the people who met her in the closing period of her young life. There are also abrupt, brutal suicides in her films: Suzanne’s photographer partner in One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1976); the wife in Le Bonheur (1965).
Varda is also very astutely aware of the difficulties in living. In One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, after the partner’s suicide, the unmarried Suzanne moves back with her parents, with Varda wise to the demands of French rural life, and Suzanne’s attempt to bring up two bastard children on a farm when you have parents clearly disapproving. In one scene she’s been asked to stop clattering on the typewriter in the kitchen, and we see her shortly thereafter in the barn, freezing and typing away as she tries to do secretarial work from home. There are numerous scenes of hardship in Vagabond. Set in the south of France, around Nimes, the weather however is harshly horrible as the film was shot in the middle of winter; Mona’s arduous life never more evident that when we see Sandrine Bonnaire’s character waking up with snow all around her flimsy tent.
Yet there are few filmmakers whose films finally seem more life-affirming than Varda’s as she frequently rescues the positive from the negative. Jacquot de Nantes (1991) was a fulsome semi-fictional account of husband Jacques Demy’s early years, released only a year after his death from cancer, and a film on which he collaborated before he passed away: helping to decide which memories were those pertinent enough to remember him by. In a scene from Cleo from 5 to 7 someone tells a story about a man who was told he hadn’t long to live. His wife became so depressed that he got annoyed and upped and left. He started travelling, and did so for two years, returned to France and returned to health. He outlived his wife who died in an accident, and still would tell stories of his past adventures. The apparently despairing, whether concerning the dead or the seemingly dying, can be rescued affirmatively.
One reason why we insist on calling Varda a vitalist is that she understands the energy in things: the importance of encounters with living matter. Even the film on her late husband wants not to pay dutiful respect, but function as healthy resurrection: hence the fictional aspect. When Cleo says in Cleo from 5 to 7 that the streets of Paris should be named after living and not dead people, this is again the vital at work. Hence vitalism seems a more appropriate term than optimism to comprehend her oeuvre. Varda is interested not in happiness, no matter if it’s the title of one of her films – Le Bonheur – but in the capacity to live as fully as possible. One of the problems for many critics when Le Bonheur was released was that the ending seemed morally inexplicable. The central character has been having an affair, he tells his wife and the wife commits suicide. The film ends with the husband now sharing his life with the mistress and his children, as Varda proposes this seems the most appropriate choice available. It would be untrue to insist the film ends optimistically, but neither does it conclude with the pessimism we would expect from a story where the wife has killed herself and the kids are left without their biological mother.
One of the pressing questions in Varda’s films seems to be how should one live, and what are the options available. One Sings the Other Doesn’t may have been read by critics including Pauline Kael in The New Yorker and Jill Forbes in her book The Cinema in France as a naïve paean to burgeoning feminism, but that seems too easy. Kael reckoned “Varda’s lyricism is trivializing”, while Forbes thought “its optimism appears exaggerated”. Varda asks chiefly, though, what price is to be paid for the ending the film gives us, with the two leading characters, Suzanne and Pomme, their children, and various friends and lovers all gathered together at a country cottage. It should be remembered that Suzanne’s children, like the kids in Le Bonheur, have lost a parent to suicide, and there is a sense that freedom always comes at a price. Suzanne and Pomme have survived, but Susanne’s partner did not.
It is as though optimism and pessimism are irrelevant terms in Varda’s work; that what matters most is the capacity to infuse life with feeling, and acknowledge that existence cannot be anything but bittersweet.
Is this, finally, an observation many filmmakers refuse to offer, no matter if in verbal form it is of course a cliché? In cinematic form it can perhaps too easily lend itself to the uneven. Both Kael and Forbes talk about the tonal inconsistencies in Varda’s films. Kael mentions the “whimsical randomness in Varda’s approach”, Forbes of “the uncertainties of genre apparent” in for example One Sings, The Other Doesn’t. Stanley Kauffmann, meanwhile, in a New Republic review of Vagabond, mentions “that sometimes her liberation has been license for self-indulgence”. Many critics so admire Vagabond over most of her other films because of its consistency – its lack of bittersweetness. Forbes says it is the only Varda film “to achieve a tragic dimension,” while Stanley Kauffmann claims it the best “Varda film I know”.
However rather than saying Vagabond is Varda’s best film, because it is the most tonally consistent, better to see it as in tandem with the rest of her work, but that it pushes further than any other into the problem of freedom. In this sense Mona has the greatest desire for uncompromising independence, but also the least resources for it: hence the tragic dimension.
It is this question of resources and resourcefulness in relation to freedom that is evident in many of Varda’s films, including documentaries like The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnes (2008). Varda has asked in much of her work what is the soul, spirit, and energy. In her first feature La Pointe Courte (1955), the faces and the bodies of the locals, like those in certain scenes in One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, carry the worn visages and fleshy heaviness of people who have lost their vitality, who haven’t, one might surmise, found the wherewithal necessary to live on their own terms, and yet Varda is too enquiring a filmmaker, too sensitive to the nuances of a person’s soul, to show it as simple, lazy absence. She appears to ask much more where it has been buried. In La Pointe Courte and One Sings, The Other Doesn’t such characters remain on the edge of the film, pensive reaction shots that hint at other lives, but don’t quite impact directly on the main characters in each film.
In Vagabond she gives those very faces a far more active presence. Many of those in the film are non-professionals, people from the region in which she is filming, playing characters that came into contact with Mona shortly before she died. Kauffmann insists that “Mona is a human being whose only reason to live is that she is alive and, with the bluntest animal instinct for survival, wants to remain alive”. We might wonder though whether she is also someone for whom that animal instinct hasn’t been imbued with enough spirit, and that the people she comes into contact with – some of whom are helpful, others sympathetic, many more intolerant or perplexed – have quite the emotional and spiritual possibilities to generate enough well being of their own and to share it with others: namely Mona.
There is a formal side to Varda’s work here linking up with the vitalism that we have taken as our theme. If we accept that vitality comes from our relationship with other living forms, how does the vital get removed from our life, or struggle to come into being? In Vagabond we know little of Mona’s past except that she spent some time working as a secretary. What chiefly interests the filmmaker is how does a life get drained of its possibility, just as in One Sings, The Other Doesn’t the film asks how does one imbue it with the self-same force? If the sum total of perspectives that is Vagabond cannot put Mona back together again, it asks whether these combined points of view not so much drove Mona to an early death but couldn’t sustain her life. However, just as we said that the small roles in La Pointe Courte and One Sings, The Other Doesn’t are given humanistic texture, so Varda has little interest in condemning the characters, in judging those who talk about Mona, for failing to save her from the cold winter. Indeed not all the scenes are strictly past tense reflections. In one, a character talks directly to the camera at Nimes railway station about Mona, only for us to realise Mona is actually still alive and in the station herself. Such formal inventiveness undermines easy readings.
But Varda has always been, in her own pragmatically existential way, a formalist. Cleo from 5 to 7 is a black and white film with a burst of colour at the beginning, as the tarot cards are being interpreted. Le Bonheur uses bold, active primary colours as if to refuse the tragedy the drama signals, no matter their subduing as summer turns to Autumn. La Pointe Courte anticipates Alain Resnais’ formal experimentation in Hiroshima, mon Amour, and was indeed edited by him. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t offers a season of mellow fruitfulness in the closing moments, as Varda captures as well as any film the sense of survival that accepts the necessity of loss – of time, of lovers, of parents. The Gleaners and I is an ad hoc digi- doc with Varda enthralled by the digital camera’s capacity to generate intimacy as she interviews numerous people who have found ways to survive and revitalize through contemporary forms of gleaning. Whether it is the chef who picks his own herbs, the former truck driver finding potatoes, or the young man who takes food past its sell-by-date out of dustbins and lives perfectly healthily off it, Varda searches out what is vital to our lives through the possibilities in new technology.
Not everyone survives in Varda’s films, of course, and her oeuvre is littered with corpses – Mona, the photographer, the cuckolded wife – but for Varda this is not especially where the pessimism would lie. It would reside much more surely in those who have never chanced their lives, who have never found vitality within it. Even the ‘tragic’ Mona, Vagabond makes clear, has touched numerous others, for it is, in the main, their reminiscences and recollections that become the very film we watch. Watching One Sings, The Other Doesn’t and Vagabond on a double-bill would indicate the full range of Varda’s hope, pity and despair, all vitally linked.