See the landscapes in other souls

Lee Wai Yi (director of v-artivist)

Remark: Last year, Ying E Chi organised a programme which showcased the works of Ogawa Shinsuke (小川紳介), while the Indie Focus for this year is Agnès Varda. I am really glad about this as both of them are filmmakers whom I admire. I had written a long article about Shinsuke last year and I was invited by Ying E Chi to write a short introduction of Varda this year. However, the brevity of this article demands omission on some important background issues, including the political, economical and cultural atmosphere of the 1960s and 70s, as well as a brief account of Leftist ideals and vision of realist arts. Audience are encouraged to refer to the old articles on Shinsuke team from last year. The present article would like to limit itself to a brief introduction for Varda and her films.

Aspects of Reality

Many regard Varda as the “grandmother of French New Wave,” which she does not decline. Yet, she has raised in different occasions that she doesn't belong to any group or school.

Generally speaking, French cinema had seen numerous innovations of film language from 1958 to the 1970s, which questioned and broke through narrative conventions of mainstream commercial cinema. This period is loosely called New Wave. Historians of cinema tend to differentiate the films made in the period as two major groups. One is the Nouvelle Vague group that revolved around Bazin's Cahiers du Cinema, with prominent figures such as Truffuat and Godard. The other is often called the Groupe Rive Gauche, referring to a group of leftist intellectuals who lived on the Left Bank of Seine, with prominent figures like Chris Marker, Alain Resnasis, woman writer Duras and Agnès Varda, etc.

The “official time” for the French New Wave began with 1958, yet Varda's debut La Pointe Courte dated back in 1954.  In her recent work, the autobiographical Les plages d'Agnès (The Beaches of Agnes, 2008), we see collaboration between two groups of New Wave. These two groups sometimes worked together, without partisanism.  In fact, both groups share common ground in opposing the staleness and vulgarity of mainstream commercial cinema. Moreover, each director has his or her signatury style that escapes simplified classifications. With her emphasis on marginality and individuality, Varda's reluctance to accept any such classifications is only natural.
If we are to split hair, the issue that two sections of New Wave disagree upon is the question of “relationship of cinema and reality.” Roughly speaking, the Novalle Vague group consider cinema as the asymptotes of reality. They tend to see the work as the expression of the directors' authorial stylistics and the cinema as poetic expression of reality.  The Rive Gauche group emphasises the creative potential of one's subjective conception in shaping the real world. They also emphasise what has been known as “distancing effect,” which disengages the audience's indulgence in the fictive world. For want of a better world in reality, they are more willing to break the division between fiction and reality. When making films, they do not rule out direct intervention with reality. Some “members” of the group had seen difficulties in screening and funding because of such approach. 

In a 1956 interview, Varda talked of the tension between subjective and objective realities, and its relationship with arts, “Things change, you know. It corresponds to a two-part movement. One part is the conceptualizing and ordering the world, and the other is accepting the world as it is. Those two things together shape the visual arts.”

Thus we see the boundaries between fiction and reality are being broken constantly in Varda's films. There are substantial peformative elements in documentaries, and yet, the fake performance takes on a sense of authenticity because of the author's sincerity. In documenting "the others,” she would frankly remind you that the narrator Varda is living her own values in the film. At the same time, she likes to re-visit the same locations, cast or the people she once filmed. You would see Cleo the beauty has become an old woman with heavy make-up, and the 17-year-old Mona now a mature, beautiful woman in her 30s. The aged actors and actresses would re-access their roles and performances years after. The short film Ulysse (1986) further questions the “reality” of memory and images, Ulysse has really taught me, whatever images do is just representation. It tells nothing. It is the people who are speaking, the people who look at it and explain it” (Varda, 1988). Life flows, and so does “reality.” No living person or role could be congealed like a consumerable product at the present.

“Failing” types

Varda is concerned with people who are deemed “failed” by the mainstream and institution.

There is this completely dispossessed homeless woman Mona in Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1988) showcased this year. She has forsaken everything imposed on her by the mainstream society and chosen to roam freely. She would not change nor bath and has a stench about her. Varda's similar concerns are found in Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners & I, 2000), which focuses on those who glean and collect scraps for a living and whose sense of self are not bound with consumption. Varda has also concerns for woman’s right of abortion, racial emancipation movement in the U.S, three-person marriage in sexual emancipation movement - subjects which are not featured in this showcase. Such reflect-from-the-margin approach of film-making presents a type, or an artistic image, that carries profound significance and underling problems embedded in social structure.

A female subject of her own

The notion of masculinity and femininity (as artificial constructs and thus changeable gender stereotypes) has been one of the central concerns of Varda. Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1961) is about the worry-stricken two hours of an emergent beautiful singer, who suspects herself of having cancer.  The film was produced as if it is a documentary with its narrative unfolding in quasi real-time manner. It follows the female protagonist without sentimentalism. It investigates how a woman, in moments of needy introspection of life's meaning, no longer asserts her identity as an object of gaze and desire and instead struggles to grasp the relationship between the world and herself through active observation and comprehension of the world.  Apart from Cléo de 5 à 7, many of  Varda's short films share the same theme, revealing how inequality between men and women is caused by the society's cultural imagination of both genders, or unveiling the prominence of female subordination in social life. I think the most radical and political treatment of this theme could be found in the cruelly calm renditions of Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985), L'une chante, l'autre pas (One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, 1977) and Le bonheur (Happiness, 1965). Unfortunately the audience will have to miss the later two.

Warmth in cruelness, is it "Happiness”?

Breaking the boundaries between reality and fiction, dissuading people from escapist indulgence with illusions, breaking the mainstream false images of happiness, unveiling the oppression of the marginalised, and forcing us to reflect on the meaning of life... All these modernist discontents might portray a cruel, grim dystopia in the hands of many artists. And yet, one finds in Varda's films a sense of warmth despite their grave and stern depictions of the world. They are warm, not out of sentimentalism, but more a social and structural perspective and a world vision in confronting the serious question, “How man could live in happiness?” Granny is not giving you a lecture though, it is more like an invitation: “Come! Let's have a journey to see the landscape in other souls.”