Agnès Varda Had to Fight

The Intimate and the Collective

A deep dive into Agnès Varda’s cinematic archive. 


In 1970, Agnès Varda shot a feature-length movie for television in response to the 1967 coup that installed a right-wing military dictatorship in Greece. Among other things, she filmed a number of direct-to-camera addresses from Greek refugees—a writer, an economist, a student, a newspaper editor—who were living in exile in France. The movie would be a gesture of solidarity and a candid account of the lives of displaced people in Paris. She planned to call it Nausicaa, after the young woman in The Odyssey who helps Ulysses after he wakes up shipwrecked on a strange new shore.

The agency then responsible for French public television, the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (ORTF), never broadcast the movie, Varda told the writer Mireille Amiel in 1975, because “in 1970 France sold a lot of Mirage planes” to the Greek colonels. But a strange, fascinating cut survives. (It appeared with little notice on DVD as a supplement to an enormous Varda collection in 2012.) In that cut, Varda places the interviews between staged scenes about a young woman, played by France Dougnac, who agrees with her roommate to take in an older exiled Greek man. Varda called the heroine Agnès and invested her with aspects of her own life—art studies at the Louvre, memories of a Greek father, homesickness for a country she has never seen. The movie slows down around her, lingering over her reading, her museum visits, the doorknobs in her bedroom. Then, from time to time, it makes room for moments that drop the fictional pretense. About 20 minutes in, another exiled man turns to the camera, greets Varda—“Hello, Agnès! You’re finally shooting your film!”—and interviews her in a garden about her Greek heritage.

Nausicaa is one of the most mysterious products of Varda’s long career as a filmmaker, photographer, and installation artist. It never gets mentioned in her recently released movie Varda par Agnès, a feature-length self-portrait—clips from public talks and conversations, mischievous chats with the camera, and generous samples of her work—that she finished shortly before her death, at 90, last March. But it helps explain the sweeping variety of the films that do. Varda often seemed to mistrust the notion that a single cinematic style could capture the private lives of individual people on the one hand and the demands of collective life and political struggle on the other. “People have all tried to be simultaneously in love and on strike, but it doesn’t work,” she told the scholar Kelley Conway in 2012. “Either you’re inside a small circle that is too intimate, or you’re working with something collective and of general interest. Circles that never meet.”

Making such a stark distinction between the intimate and the collective did not mean, however, that Varda had to choose between them. Instead she laced them together. There are at least three movies in the surviving cut of Nausicaa: a call to arms (severe, burning with urgency) by refugees displaced by the coup, a coming-of-age story (digressive, melancholic) about a young woman in Paris, and an essay film (bittersweet, withdrawn) about Varda’s family history. As it goes on, the cut becomes an archive of the tones that ring across Varda’s body of work. One moment it sinks into a dreamy sadness. The next it stiffens its back, tensing its muscles, ready to fight.

Varda’s parents—a French mother and a Greek father—named her Arlette, she wrote in an encyclopedic 1994 book also titled Varda par Agnès, because “it seems that I was conceived in Arles.” (She says that a chief attraction there is the ruin of a Greek necropolis, “an ancient cemetery planted with cypresses.”) She was born in Belgium in 1928, the middle child of five. Shortly before the start of the Second World War, her family relocated to Sète, in the south of France. Her video memoir The Beaches of Agnès (2008) follows her from that wartime adolescence to her bohemian early years in Paris, where she studied fine arts and became a photographer for the National Theater Company under Jean Vilar.

Varda often insisted in interviews that she had seen only a handful of movies by the time she decided to make a feature film in 1954. It hardly mattered. She was already preoccupied with what she considered “the non-correspondence between the personal mode of thinking and the collective one,” she wrote in that 1994 book: “the I and the we” that “didn’t hear each other.” Her first film, La Pointe Courte, centered on a husband and wife from Paris who spend a seaside vacation in Sète going on walks and diagnosing their ruined marriage. Disaster swirls around them: A skeletal ship looms on the beach; a dead cat comes in with the driftwood.

What made the film so startling when it first appeared in 1955 was Varda’s refusal to relegate Sète and its inhabitants to the background. Throughout the movie, she cuts back and forth between the couple’s stylized arguments and long nonfiction scenes of local fishermen and their families and friends exchanging gossip, answering a court summons, doing housework, and mourning an unexpected death. The drama becomes not only that the spouses keep falling further out of love but also that their self-absorption traps them in a different cinematic universe—airless, humorless, and rigidly organized—from the one in which Varda sketches the networks of kinship, labor, and solidarity among the people around them.

It was a structure Varda kept adapting. Some of the movies on which she lingers longest in Varda par Agnès center on fictionalized women who end up “drifting alone,” as the scholar Hannah Proctor has written, into the company of strangers, played by nonactors, who sometimes repel and sometimes attract them—the singer (Corinne Marchand) who spends Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962) walking through Paris in real time while she waits for life-changing medical results, the homeless teenager (Sandrine Bonnaire) who wields her slashing refusals against both predators and ostensible Good Samaritans as she cuts across the Languedoc countryside in Vagabond (1985), and the protagonist of Documenteur (1981), played by the film editor Sabine Mamou in her extraordinary sole acting role, who floats through California’s Venice Beach with her young son after a devastating breakup. Varda’s fictional films about marriage, like the scathing domestic drama La Bonheur (1965) and the disquieting science fiction fable Les Creatures (1966), tend to build up a stifled, claustrophobic energy. The ones revolving around isolated heroines, in contrast, feel struck by sunlight and chilled by wind.

In most of those movies, it can seem as though fiction has been put on the side of “the personal mode of thinking” and documentary reserved for setting individual lives in a collective pattern. Varda never put much stock in the two categories on which that dichotomy depended. (“What I’m trying to do—what I’ve been trying to do all along—is to bridge the border of these two genres, documentary and fiction,” she told Melissa Anderson in 2001.) But making a sketchy, provisional distinction between them gave her an excuse to swim between deep introspection and an energetic curiosity about other people within a single film.

Her fictional heroines became centers of gravity for excursions into cities and crowds. In some cases, what she called “subjective” compositions and montages give that role to the camera, which takes its cues from her roiling thoughts about pregnancy and motherhood as it circulates through Paris neighborhoods in films like L’Opéra-Mouffe (Diary of a Pregnant Woman, 1958) and Daguerréotypes (1974). (In Varda par Agnès she reminds her audience that she was pregnant with her daughter when she made the former film; she made the latter one, she points out in The Beaches of Agnès, not long after having her son.) The “project” behind all these movies, she wrote, was “to film passersby as if in a documentary but include those images in a fiction to make the spectators feel—by way of the unknown people filmed—the heroine’s emotions.”

It was less that Varda didn’t wonder about the emotions of the passersby than that she resisted invading their privacy or presuming access to their thoughts. Too many nonfiction films seemed “aggressive” to her, she told Amiel in a 1975 monologue that appears in T. Jefferson Kline’s book Agnès Varda: Interviews (2014). “It’s like they’re hunting down documentation.” One way to avoid such aggression, it seemed, was to indulge that interest about people from within the stretchy limits of a character’s body and mind. In Documenteur, Mamou’s protagonist and her son (played by Varda’s son with her husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy) move into a beach house full of bright, cold light and spend their days people watching. All of the beachgoers on whom the camera lingers—fishermen, tourists, a couple locked in a bitter argument—seem touched by her estrangement, her erotic longing, and her ambivalence about motherhood. Loneliness wafts off these sequences like steam.

Varda clearly took pride in Documenteur—she dwells on several scenes from it in Varda par Agnès—but she had largely moved away from its tone of muted anguish by the time she started making the first-person video essays that defined the last two decades of her career. These are warm, tender movies in which conversations with real people, like the scavengers at the center of The Gleaners and I (2000), rustle against digressions about history, art, and Varda’s biography. It was also during these years that she started a parallel career in the fine arts, and together the videos and her site-specific exhibitions built up a private universe around her playful public persona—a world full of cats, beaches, mirrors, colorful outfits, and sprouting heart-shaped potatoes.

Varda par Agnès, the last of the late essay films, hangs together better as a valedictory gift to her audience than as a guide to her earlier films. Its affectionate tone toward the rest of her career both gives it its power—it was Varda’s farewell to her fans, her friends, her life’s work—and softens movies that on their own often seem taut with fear, anger, and ambivalence.

An extensive Varda retrospective hosted earlier this winter by Film at Lincoln Center in New York City—more or less everything but the surviving cut of Nausicaa—helped fill in the story of those movies. It can be a thrill to move from the serene pace and elegiac mood of Varda par Agnès to the rumbling energy of the earlier films it excerpts. Mur Murs (1980), a dazzling cross-section of Los Angeles by way of its murals, reverberates with musical numbers, dance scenes, and startling juxtapositions: fragments of an anticapitalist mural driven past a bank; slaughterhouse workers sharpening their knives under a mural called “pig paradise.” Black Panthers (1968), a half-hour-long document of a Free Huey rally in Oakland, California, starts with a concert: a flurry of loving, attentive shots that single out listeners, dancers, and swaying children in the grass. The narrator waits almost two minutes to deliver her first line, “This is no picnic.”

The polemical force of these films could make it difficult to get them shown. Varda submitted Black Panthers to the ORTF in October 1968, she remembered in a 1971 interview, but the agency had a tense exchange with her over editing the narration—she said they thought it was “perhaps just a little violent”—and never aired the movie. (It showed in theaters a year later in a double bill with her 1969 feature Lions Love (…and Lies).) After the debacle over Nausicaa in 1970, she argued with yet another set of television producers over the nudity in her seven-minute “ciné-tract” Women Reply (1975), in which three generations of women give wry, piercing retorts to reductive questions about femininity.

In her musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), she channeled that short’s energy into a sprawling fictional celebration of solidarity among women, following two heroines through an important decade for her own feminism. Midway through the movie, the two reunite at a protest on behalf of a 16-year-old girl put on trial for getting an abortion. It was based on a 1972 demonstration in Bobigny that Varda attended when she was eight months pregnant. “I remember we were being pushed against the barriers,” she told the critic Giovanni Marchini Camia in 2017. “I was with Delphine Seyrig and she said, ‘Give birth! We’ll make the front page!’ I laughed so much.”

Varda’s films simmered with anger about the state of French society well into the 1980s: She started researching Vagabond in response to news stories about impoverished drifters freezing to death in the winter. But around the start of the decade, the terrain for that anger seemed to shift away from collective struggle and toward the struggles of individual women for freedom, happiness, or survival. At first, she told Conway, she wanted to spend the first half of what became Vagabond following a “dropout boy,” have him meet a young woman on the road, and leave him behind tocontinue on with her only.” Then, she said, “I decided it would be just a girl.”

She spent the fall and winter between 1984 and 1985 traveling around farms, night shelters, abandoned houses, and train stations in the rural South of France. In her writing from the 1990s she remembered talking to “the homeless, drifters [and] runaways” as well as to the people they sometimes met on the road: “rail workers, tree-cutters, shepherds, bricklayers, gas station attendants.” A number of nonactors play themselves in Vagabond—in one scene a Tunisian agricultural worker, in another a former philosophy student who took up farming with his family after participating in the protests of May ’68. From time to time, some of them give direct-to-camera testimonies about Mona, the movie’s fictional itinerant heroine.

Sandrine Bonnaire hurled herself into that part, finding ways to show Mona’s humor, resourcefulness, energy, intelligence, trauma, and contempt in sparse dialogue and with little recourse to a backstory. Before the shoot, Conway reveals in her excellent 2015 monograph on Varda’s career, Varda wrote herself a note: “What is needed is more spectacle or image or the unexpected and less story, psychology.” “Spectacle” is an odd word for the radically quotidian movie she ended up making, which follows Mona from encounter to encounter with exhausted, wired energy. But the other side of Vagabond’s terseness is the range and intensity of its sensory texture—crunching, frozen earth; shuddering cold; the crisp, hard quality that Varda and her cinematographer, Patrick Blossier, gave the film’s natural light. Varda begins the movie with the discovery of the heroine’s frozen corpse and stages the rest of the film as a single flashback. It’s she who reads the narration that introduces Mona from across a beach. “I wonder whether the people who knew her as a child still think about her,” she says. “I don’t know much about her myself. But to me, she seemed to have come from the sea.”

Equivocal, competing tones tend to gather around the beaches that fill Varda’s movies. “The beach is a place of inspiration,” she tells the camera as she walks along one in Varda par Agnès. But it could just as often be a place of grief. After her husband Jacques Demy’s death in 1990, her films and installations often dwelled on Noirmoutier, the island where the couple had a beach house. In The Widows of Noirmoutier, an installation from her 2006 solo show at the Fondation Cartier, she arranged video interviews with 14 of the island’s bereaved women—testimonies of loneliness and grief—in a grid around a wider screen that showed the women gathered by a table on a beach.

In the last years of her life, Varda spoke with helpless despair about the cruel deaths of migrants at sea. “Even as I enjoy this gentle seascape,” she says from a beachfront director’s chair late in Varda par Agnès, “I know the world is full of war, violence, suffering, and wandering.” That line sets off a frenetic montage of unspecified protest videos, combat footage, glimpses of anonymous war victims, and images of a crowded boat capsizing during a voyage. It’s a discomfiting moment, as if those nameless people had been conscripted into a shorthand summary of all the agony the movie can’t assimilate. The scene ends with a shot of waves crashing on an empty shore. “We think about it,” Varda says in the voice-over, “and then we forget. That’s how we live.”

I was puzzling over that line when I came across a passage in Conway’s book about Varda’s original proposal for The Gleaners and I. She had named a section of that text, Conway points out, after Jacques Dutronc’s 1966 pop single “Et Moi, et Moi, et Moi,” a sneering, curdled satire in which a bourgeois Parisian narrator insistently invites and then suppresses a contrast between his petty life and the lives of distant, sweepingly generalized populations elsewhere in the world: China, South America, the Soviet Union, Vietnam. “I think of them, and then I forget,” he keeps singing. “C’est la vie, c’est la vie.” When Varda rewrites the callous “That’s life” as the gentler “That’s how we live” in Varda par Agnès, the tone of the scene sinks into a kind of melancholy resignation.

That choice was out of character. Varda usually made a point of militating against complacency. In a 1969 television segment, the Newsweek critic Jack Kroll asked her and Susan Sontag about the role of apocalypse in the films they had just finished. “There is a smell of disaster,” Varda answered. “There’s no way to just be light and say ‘let’s make a comedy about Hollywood.’” It can be hard to remember, in the afterglow of her prolific later years, how much censorship she had to resist and how hard a time she had getting her movies funded. “With each film I have to fight like a tiger,” she told the critic Barbara Quandt in a 1986 interview. “Oh, I’m a perfect cultural gadget, they have me in all libraries and cinémathèques. I’ll be unforgotten. But they don’t want me to make films.”

Perhaps she ended up caring less about reconciling “the personal mode of thinking and the collective one” than about finding a style expansive enough to accommodate everything that interested, angered, repelled, saddened, delighted, or moved her. She clearly loved filming people. The films snap into a kind of alert, quivering attention at the sight of an interesting, irrepressible gesture or pose—the young girl wrapping her arm around a police barricade at the Bobingy protest in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, for example, or the elderly shopkeeper with darting eyes in Daguerréotypes who, according to her husband, comes under a mysterious, nonverbal “tendency” to drift off into the night every evening at 6.

Part of the power of Varda’s work comes from the way these isolated, fleetingly glimpsed people seem to mingle with one another across cuts. In a 1982 interview, she raved about Love Tapes, the vast archive of three-minute-long testimonies about love—from museumgoers, UCLA students, imprisoned New Yorkers, Staten Island teenagers—that the video artist Wendy Clarke started compiling in 1977. (“It was incredible,” Varda said about one of those monologues, by a middle-aged woman who spent much of her tape remarking how long the three minutes felt. “I had the feeling I was actually touching the very fabric of time in which this woman was stuck.”) When she made The Widows of Noirmoutier, it was as if she wanted to give her subjects a similar opportunity to communicate with a public from within their respective privacies. Most of the interviews were done one-on-one, she remembers in Varda par Agnès. Each of the fourteen chairs in the installation site—one for each video—came with a pair of headphones hooked up to a single testimonial. You could only listen to one at a time. But what Varda stresses in Varda par Agnès is that the audience members had to sit close together and look at the same grid of images even as they listened to different tracks; only a group could see and hear the entire piece at once. “It made the experience both intimate and collective,” she says.

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