Godard’s innovative and seminal film perfectly captures the essence of La Nouvelle Vague.
…because the original manic pixie dream girl was actually behind the camera. A photographer by training, Varda is associated with the Left Bank faction of the French New Wave that advocated a less cinema-centric approach to film. Often blending the line between narrative and documentary, her work displays a playful wit in dealing with female subjects and marginalized segments of society. Varda’s first film, "La Pointe Courte," is actually considered a major precursor to the French New Wave style, earning her the nickname as the “Grandmother” of the movement.
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At least at the beginning of her career, Varda was not as cinephilic as most of the other fanboys of the French New Wave. In fact, Varda claims to have only seen about 20 films before she made her own feature debut in 1954 with "La Pointe Courte." While directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard had intensely studied film to know what rules they wanted to break, much of the experimental quality to Varda’s first work comes from her relative lack of familiarity with the medium. Instead, Varda applied her background in photography, as well as her personal interest in art and literature, to develop her unique voice as a director. And while she certainly came to appreciate cinema as a unique art-form – Godard actually appears in her film "Cleo from 5 to 7," and she married Jacques Demy, another French New Wave director known for his take on the movie musical genre – her work often has a liberated, free-spirited element to it. For anyone who thinks that auteur theory too easily veers into pretentiousness – which certainly is not the most implausible claim – Varda’s work demonstrates how a filmmaker can express their own personal voice without a self-aware or grandiose status.
Throughout her career, Varda has worked both in documentary and narrative films. One of the signatures of her work is actually the playful combination of these forms. For instance, the idea for her first film grew out of an idea for a series of photographs in the village of La Pointe Courte. The film balances its existential examination of a relationship with a neo-realist look at the poverty in the village and the lives of ordinary people there. Similarly, her most famous film, "Cleo from 5 to 7," uses a (mostly) real-time storytelling device as it follows a fictional pop singer through the streets of Paris; the film also incorporates real news broadcasts and contemporary events to support the documentary-like “(wo)man in the street” feel to the work. One of her later films, "Vagabond," applies a documentary interview structure to a fictionalized story of a young vagrant girl’s time in a French village. While filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut famously proclaimed that cinema was life, and often seemed to live through their films, for Varda the line between objective fact and cinematic fact became an arbitrary distinction. Especially in her middle and later films, Varda often incorporated herself and her family into both documentary and narrative frameworks.
For better or worse (okay, probably worse), Varda often gets singled out as the lone woman filmmaker in the French New Wave. Partly, this is just a fact of history: women are still woefully underrepresented among major filmmakers today, and in the 1950’s and 1960’s there were literally only a handful of female directors in general. While it’s definitely reductive to view Varda simply as a feminist, her work often revolves around women characters and touches on some of the issues facing women in society. Whether dealing with her own pregnancy in the documentary "Diary of a Pregnant Woman," the title character in "Cleo from 5 to 7" or even the marital issues of both "La Pointe Courte" and "Le Bonheur," Varda often presents a female’s perspective both in front of and behind the camera. The famous critic Pauline Kael even commented that Varda was one of the rare instances where a woman director seemed to express a female voice; even if this is just viewed through her own personal expression as the director, it makes sense. Perhaps self-aware of her own status, Varda often plays with the traditional film roles of wife, mother, lover, etc.; in a series of films featuring the actress Jane Birkin, for example, she presents Birkin first as a documentary subject and second in the fictionalized role of older seductress – tempting Varda’s own son and featuring Birkin’s own daughters as her on-screen children. Varda’s version of on-screen feminism certainly acknowledges the complexity of social issues in the world at large, and also balances her offbeat sense of humor with a serious look at human interactions through the lens of gender.
Agnès Varda: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series)Buy now $25
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