THE MOTHER OF THE NEW WAVE REFRAMES ITS HISTORIES
At the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Agnès Varda received the Palme d'honneur, a lifetime achievement award, which recognized her directorial career spanning more than six decades (fig. 1). The Palme d'honneur recognizes directors who have not previously won a Palme d'Or in competition at Cannes but whose work has had global impact. Past recipients include Woody Allen, Manoel de Oliveira, Clint Eastwood, and Bernardo Bertolucci. Varda is the first French and female director to receive this distinction. Indeed, she is one of the most important and prolific female and feminist filmmakers worldwide. Varda began her directorial career in 1950s Paris by founding her own production company and today also creates multimedia visual art exhibited globally. As this book will argue, working in dialogue with multiple aesthetic media and traditions has always been central to her practice.
This Palme d'honneur recognition occurred within the wider context of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, which was dubbed by critics the year of "women in the spotlight." Organized as a response to concerns about the under-representation of women at the festival and in the field of cinema more broadly, the festival was planned to highlight women's accomplishments. In many respects, Varda's award makes sense in this context. Yet little of her diverse career was acknowledged at the Cannes festival or during the presentation of the award at the closing ceremony. Actor Jane Birkin (who has starred in Varda's work) bestowed the award, and Varda gave an acceptance speech, evoking some of her most famous films. The festival used one film sequence to represent her career, from her 1961 fiction film Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7). It depicts a moment when the character of Cléo, a blonde pop star, reclines in her bed in a negligée, as she gazes provocatively at her male lover (fig. 2). In some ways, this selection makes sense — Cléo is Varda's most famous film — a critical and box office success in its day that continues to be screened, televised, and streamed in the present. Cléo screened in competition at Cannes in 1962 and was re-presented fifty years later under the rubric of Cannes Classics, attesting to its vibrancy and legacy. It is an iconic film, made at the height of the French New Wave movement of the 1950s and '60s, and was used by Cannes to invoke Varda's long-standing reputation as the innovative "mother of the New Wave."
The New Wave movement was one of the most celebrated film movements of the twentieth century. Critics and scholars typically view François Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) (1958) and Jean-Luc Godard's A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) (1959) as formally marking the beginning of the movement, with Varda's first film La Pointe Courte (1954) praised as an important precursor, anticipating the hallmarks of the movement. Critics from the Cahiers du cinéma, the journal most prominently associated with the movement, were articulating a platform that came to define the New Wave as a rebellion against the established tradition of cinéma de qualité (quality cinema) and the subordination of the individual director within the larger state-subsidized studio system. Cahiers critics cast the New Wave as a young generation of directors opposing big-budget studio productions and literary adaptations, instead favoring more economical, improvisational filmmaking, often shooting on location and experimenting with film form and genre. Cahiers critics praised directors for their personal experimentation with cinema and its languages, which was considered aesthetically radical but otherwise cast in largely formal, apolitical terms. This notion of individual expression via film form as on par with the other arts — articulated in both theory and practice — made the New Wave a central moment of canon formation in the history of modern cinema.
Cléo was made in 1961 at the height of the New Wave (which spanned from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s). The film portrays a female pop star awaiting the results of a biopsy, who, in crisis, breaks with expectations and roams the streets of Paris seeking solace with the individuals she encounters (presented as "chapters" of the film). Varda's playful, creative camera, which follows Cléo's trajectory through contemporary Paris, and her experiments with cinematic narration and editing were seen to exemplify hallmarks of the movement — the expression of the individual director and experimentation with film form. This has made Cléo an iconic New Wave film, and the sequence at Cannes recognizes and affirms this history.
Yet the choice of the sequence from Cléo illuminates another set of dynamics. In subsequent decades, as part of a broader reconsideration of the cultural politics of the New Wave, both the film and Varda herself have come to be interpreted as feminist. Scholars focus on the transformation of Cléo from passive, erotic object to active subject. For example, in the first half of the film, the camera and the gazes of other characters linger on Cléo's body, conveying her passivity as an object. In the film's second half, point-of-view shots represent her increasing agency as an active, seeing subject. Yet Cannes chose an earlier sequence, a moment of Cléo's objectification, without hinting at the character's, or the film's, feminist trajectory.
In fact, the selection of the sequence at Cannes reinforces gendered notions of creativity often associated with the New Wave, underscored in Geneviève Sellier's revisionist study, Masculine Singular: The French New Wave. (Varda is the only female director associated with the movement.) Sellier explains that the audacity of masculine New Wave directors was often associated with the depiction of "modern," scandalously sexual and objectified representations of female characters that were seen to challenge normative roles for women as wives and mothers. Yet Cannes selected a sequence that seems to naturalize this gender dynamic of the movement without overtly acknowledging it. Perhaps this is because the blonde starlet is also part of Cannes' identity. Vanessa Schwartz and others have demonstrated the importance of paparazzi and press photographs of actresses such as Brigitte Bardot in the 1950s and 1960s in marketing French film and the festival. Photographs and footage from the 1962 festival depict the star of Cléo, Corinne Marchand, from the moment of her arrival at the local train station, and feature her and other actresses strolling and posing on the beach. The selection of the Cléo sequence at the festival rehearses often unacknowledged notions of the New Wave and Cannes' priorities.
In the publicity leading up to the 2015 Cannes festival, the organizers described their decision to honor Varda that year: "Her work and her life are infused with the spirit of freedom, the art of driving back boundaries, a fierce determination and a conviction that brooks no obstacles. ... Simply put, Varda seems capable of accomplishing everything she wants." Marking the year of "women in the spotlight," their comments portray Varda in a triumphant manner, as a free, motivated individual who overcomes obstacles — but this celebratory characterization obscures the many challenges Varda faced — and worked to make visible. Unlike the typical acceptance speech, in which the awardee thanks those who have contributed to his or her success, Varda's remarks expressed gratitude for a "palme of resistance and endurance," and acknowledged "all the inventive and courageous directors who aren't in the spotlight." Whereas the festival attempts to gloss over obstacles with the prize and its narrative, Varda makes them visible with her statement.
The Palme d'honneur is in itself somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, it distinguishes filmmakers of unrivaled accomplishment, but on the other it recognizes figures whose work has never before been considered most worthy of the juries' recognition in competition. It demonstrates the problems with retrospective canonization; it does not explore why Varda has not been recognized previously in Cannes' Palme d'Or competition, but claims association with her success by recognizing her influence. Moreover, the Palme d'honneur given in the year of "women in the spotlight" and the appellation "mother of the New Wave" recognize her importance, albeit in terms that are gender dependent and that identify her outside the norm. Even though she made her first feature film just a few years before Godard and Truffaut and was only a few years older, the title "mother" suggests she is connected to the movement yet also out of synch.
In contrast, this book sees as revelatory the contradictions and tensions that persistently surround critical reception of Varda and her work. It makes visible the disciplinary lenses applied to her work and examines the unspoken social or critical assumptions that inform these perspectives. Varda's own statement of "resistance and endurance" in her Cannes acceptance speech suggests the dynamics surfaced in this study. But Varda hasn't always been so direct in articulating her position. Rather, as this book shows, across her career Varda inserted politics and social commentary covertly, by orchestrating a range of tacit visual references that are not explicitly acknowledged in her films' narratives. Thus, this book is not about Cléo as a New Wave film, which has been the subject of many interesting studies. Rather, I aim to bring to light alternative, but no less important, characteristics of her oeuvre.
Historically, critics were baffled by Varda making a feature-length film and embarking on a directorial career without cinematic experience or training. Unlike many of her New Wave colleagues, she did not write as a critic or openly participate in the theoretical debates of the period. Although she is sometimes viewed as part of the Left Bank (the more political arm of the New Wave movement), she has often been cast at the fringes of the critical and directorial culture associated with the Cahiers du cinéma. I demonstrate that through her work she participated in this context in many ways that have not been acknowledged, and that her films' dialogues with a variety of visual traditions and media further complicate these narratives.
In recent years, Varda has been producing autobiographical film and artwork, and in 2012, she released a comprehensive DVD box set. Thus, audiences today are familiar with her earlier work in photography and her training in art history as well as her cinematic work and contemporary multimedia art. As a result, there is a flourishing interest in exploring her career. Yet more work is needed to understand her engagement with a range of aesthetic traditions and the politics this raises, which I argue is a core characteristic of her oeuvre that reframes some of the central narratives of modern cinema. In fact many of the contradictions of her career stem from trying to fit Varda into conventional film categories and canons. Her distinctive way of working didn't fully fit historical critical narratives that viewed the New Wave in depoliticized terms of personal experimentation with film form; by examining these aspects of her work, I rethink and reframe some of these well-established narratives.
Proceeding chronologically, from the beginning of Varda's career in the 1950s to the present, this book focuses on moments where Varda's invocation of different artistic traditions within film opens onto complex commentary on broader aesthetic, theoretical, feminist, and political discussions. I reinterpret some of her best-known films, but also focus attention on other less familiar works that merit further consideration. I reassess individual works with the goal of interrogating Varda's visual dialogues to reconstruct the cultural politics of the periods in which they were made. This process of reading new strands of meaning across Varda's oeuvre relies on a richly interdisciplinary approach. The result is a new cultural history of Varda and her work that makes clear how she actively engaged and subtly broadened some of the most advanced aesthetic and political discourse of her day.
Many of Varda's sophisticated commentaries on controversial issues of her time have receded from view in the biographical frameworks in which her work often has been considered. The range of her engagement in her work with cinema, art history, photography, and visual culture has not been fully recognized. This decontextualization of Varda's work has been compounded by the frequent emphasis on her exceptionality within her fields of practice. In contrast, I view Varda's work as a projection of cultural history that illuminates multiple disciplines, including art history, cinema studies, visual culture, and modern French history.
Each chapter focuses on one of Varda's works and questions its familiar interpretations as well as standard assumptions about Varda that have been drawn from these works. I analyze visual references in the films, connecting them to wider cultural politics of the time. In the process, I explain how earlier interpretations of her oeuvre sometimes reiterate the very expectations of the field that Varda sought to challenge. Yet in revising conventional and historical understandings of Varda and her place, I take the misreadings and misunderstandings of Varda as essential to understanding the reception history of her work because they reveal the critical, institutional, and social assumptions of the period and field.
I approach Varda as constructing a complex and subversive artistic dialogue that drew art of the past into the present so as to mediate and elucidate a broad range of controversial social and political concerns. Thus, this book is not a traditional director study. Rather, it is an attempt to understand the histories that have produced a figure such as Varda, reconciling the multiple images of her as a filmmaker that have emerged over time, and interrogating those perceptions and their sources in order to comprehend more fully both Varda and the varied contexts in which she has worked.
In the twenty-first century, Varda's multimedia artwork has received considerable attention. For example, her 2006 multimedia art installation L'île et elle occupied the entire Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris. Varda's expansive exhibition combined film, photography, objects, and interactive environments to explore her relationship with the island of Noirmoutier, where she regularly vacationed with her late husband, Jacques Demy. The complex and evocative installation explored diverse themes including the commercialization of this once quaint community, Varda's own memories of her husband and marriage, and her more recent experience of widowhood. While I analyze her multimedia installation in chapter 6, this book is decidedly different in its interests: I attend to how her films reference other aesthetic media in both direct and more nuanced ways. My study analyzes how Varda's multimedia investments significantly predated her current multimedia artwork. Varda's art exhibition in the twenty-first century has been represented as though it is a departure or evolution from her earlier work, whereas I believe that she has worked across her career within multimedia dialogues, even if she wasn't as actively engaged in multimedia production.
A central argument of this book is that Varda draws on a range of visual references in her films — evoking photography, cinema, art, and visual culture. Varda trained in art history at the Ecole du Louvre, and studied photography and practiced as a photographer before turning to film in the 1950s. Her cinematic work reveals a rich knowledge of these traditions; dialogue among them is a core characteristic that unites her diverse work across the long trajectory of her prolific career.
In her recently released DVD compilation of her films, she describes the progression of her career in terms of the "three lives of Agnès," calling herself "photographer, filmmaker, and visual artist." This chronology narrates a largely sequential identity — her practice in photography in the late 1940s and '50s before becoming immersed in cinema in the 1950s and '60s, and her visual art practice in the twenty-first century. Yet, as I argue in the pages that follow, her work always moved between these various modes of artistic thought.