Agnès Varda and cats

Ernest Chan Chi Wah (Film Critic)

Praised as the “Mother of the French New Wave,” or “Grandmother of French New Wave,” Agnès Varda is only 2 years older than Jean Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol. She is the same age as Jacques Rivette and is even younger than Alain Resnasis and Eric Rohmer. Her feature length debut La Pointe Courte in 1954 perhaps explains the high regard for Varda – it was made five years ahead of Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), which has been known as the forerunner of French New Wave. At the time, the majority of the New Wave directors was still making shorts or documentaries.  

Varda has been making both documentaries and dramas, or more precisely a mix of both.  The interweaving of two stylistics had been apparent already in La Pointe Courte.When Varda made her first directorial debut, she was the still photographer for Théâtre National Populaire without any experience of film-making whatsoever. Driven by her enthusiasm, the film was completed as an independent production funded by her friends and relatives. The cross-fading sequence of the male and female leads in the film predated that of Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966) by 12 years.  Alain Resnais was the editor of Varda's debut, and the literary soliloquy and distancing effects in the film were later incorporated into his own works.

As in L'une chante, l'autre pas (One Sings, The Other Doesn't, 1976), the exploration of feminine identities and perspectives has always been a central theme in Varda's works, whereas the notion of time, memory and death are also recurrent. Besides, cat has been a distinctive element throughout. Cats were seen everywhere in her debut La Pointe Courte and became both the witness and symbol of the male-female relationships. When Varda talked about her good friend Chris Marker In Les plages d'Agnès(The Beaches of Agnès, 2008), it was his catoonish surrogate, a Guillaume-en-Egypte with orange fur that appeared on screen. The production house Ciné-Tamaris, funded at the time of the making of La pointe courte, alsohas Varda's own cat Zgougou appearing on its emblem. In her short film Le lion volatil (The Vanishing Lion, 2003), the lion statue on Place of Denfert-Rochereau was replaced with Zgougou since the cat symbolized calmness and the looming change. With shells and paper flowers, she created the video installation work Le Tombeau de Zgougou (The Tomb of Zgougou, 2006) when her beloved cat passed away.

Suspecting that she might have cancer, the worry-stricken singer Cleo in Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962) went to a fortuneteller. As she drew the Death card and the fortuneteller subsequently refused to read her palm, a cat was there, watching her sobbing from behind. There were cats everywhere in her apartment, and even the rubber hot water bottle was cat-shaped. When Cleo's lover came to see her, he asked the housekeeper, “How are my cats?” - referring to both Cleo and the cats she raised. When the men were discussing paintings in the restaurant scene, one of them suggested that Miro depicted women like cows while another said the owls by Picasso were like women. The lover might have noticed Cleo's cat-like attire, yet he could not decipher her longings and anxieties within. 

Varda conceived Cléo de 5 à 7 as 13 chapters, with titles indicating the time and characters. It recounted the 2 hours in which Cleo waited for the doctor's examination report. There were numerous footage taken on Parisian streets and jump cuts showing the heroine walking down the stairs. Jean Luc Godard, Anna Karina and Michel Legrand also appeared, endowing the film with an air of the New Wave.  Apart from cats, the images of mirrors and glasses were also symbolic in the film. Cleo needed to reaffirm her own existence by constantly checking her appearance in the mirror, while the breaking of mirror recalled her fear of death.  Godard and his newlywed wife Karina acted the mime interlude Les Fiancés du Pont MacDonald. Very much like Cleo, Godard played the part of a man wearing sunglasseswho encountered nothing but grim occurrences of misfortune and death. It was until Cleo met Antoine, who came home from the battlefield of Algeria on vacation, at Parc Montsouris that they could have a lively chat. Cleo finally found a way out of the darkness that loomed her mind, like Godard taking off the dark glasses.

Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985) opens with a scene that the heroine lay dead in wilderness. It is too cruel a world for any cats. The heroine could only find the traces of cats in an old woman’s photo albums or on her neighbor’s TV screen. Documentary work Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners & I, 2000) starts with a close-up of Varda's beloved cat Zgougou, which sat besides her as she looked up an encyclopedia for the entries of glaneur and glaneuse.  The film then unfolds with musings on Millet's famous painting Les Glaneuses, which depicts the people bending to pick up wheat crumbs left on the ground after harvest. With her camera, Varda visited modern gleaners such as those who collected crop residue from farmlands and those who picked up supermarket leftovers. There were homeless people as well as ordinary citizens who opposed squander and consumerism. Varda had joined the gleaners in picking up what others disposed as well. She found a heart-shaped potato in refuse vegetables and a clock without hands from a heap of garbage. She took the clock home and then entitled it a new life by placing a pair of porcelain cats in front of it. She also saw herself as a rag picker of images, who recorded how people found useful, interesting and even precious things in what others regard as useless.