Friday, September 14, 2012

Four Agnès Varda shorts, 1957-1968

In Ô Saisons, Ô Châteaux, Agnès Varda sets out to document and discourse upon the architecture of various Renaissance-era castles, but her playful sensibility and constant digressions make this anything but a conventional documentary. This is apparent right from the opening credits, which whimsically sync up the movements of a trio of gardeners with the jazzy score by André Hodeir, pairing sweeping rakes with brushed cymbals. The voiceover mostly recounts facts about the reigns of various French kings and the castles they built, the renovations that were added to them over the generations by subsequent rulers. Often, though, this narration is interrupted by excerpts from poems, since the narrator is easily distracted from the succession of kings and castles by the stories of the poets who wrote within these walls or served these kings, and Varda's camera frequently wanders off the beaten track into the surrounding woods and gardens to admire the cool orange light of an autumnal glade or the geometric maze of an elaborately laid out garden, still immaculately maintained by the gardeners who seem to excite much of Varda's visual interest. It's as though the film keeps subverting its royalist history with anecdotes about artists and laborers, taking the focus off the upper-class, the big names of history, to focus on ordinary people and obscure poets.

The images are idyllic and pretty, capturing the charm of rural France surrounding all the photogenic ruins of the past. The film was commissioned by the French Tourist Bureau, and those origins are apparent in the scenic imagery of the countryside and the informative narration, but Varda can't play it straight. The narration relates the facts but has a flippant tone that suggests it's all read with a sly, skeptical smile, and the constant digressions suggest that Varda's wide-ranging interests can't be contained by her ostensible subject.

She finds an old man painting the castles and for a while focuses on his charming, rough canvases more than the actual scenes he's painting. At the site where Joan of Arc gave her famous prophecy to the Dauphin, Varda's camera dramatically pans upward at a key moment in the voiceover, a visual punctuation to the narrative. Gardeners occasionally stroll through the frame, making gnomic comments about trees or architecture. Fashion models in glamorous gowns, carrying shopping bags full of expensive clothes, wander through the ancient grounds, evoking the fashionable, idle women who once inhabited these lavish palaces. It's sensual and eclectic more than factual, anything but a dry tourist guide to the region.

Du côté de la côte is a satirical, mocking documentary about tourist season on the French Riviera. Agnès Varda's examination of the coast, packed with tourists from all over, emphasizes the absurdity of it all, poking gentle fun at the trendiness and crowdedness of the region, the superficial qualities of tourism. A bright, colorful, lively short, it provides a vibrant overview of the charms of the Riviera, both its genuine beauty and its kitschy tourist trap nonsense, the real historical foundations sitting side by side with imported, readymade exoticism, buildings made up to look like Asian temples or Russian palaces, all coexisting along the same sun-swept coastline.

Varda finds plenty of delightful, silly, striking images in her tour along the coast. The narrator opens the film by saying that they're not going to focus on the natives — "we'll leave them to the ass and the ox," he says, as some old peasants stroll by with farm animals — but rather on the tourists, and the camera immediately begins panning across a line of sunbathers in tiny bathing suits, before pulling back to show a whole beach crowded full of reclining bodies, with hardly an inch left to move or walk around. Varda finds some photogenic sunburns, peeling skin, demarcation lines with lobster-red flesh above and pale white below. At one point, she holds a deadpan funny shot of a little boy staring intently at his middle-aged mother's butt crack as she lays on her stomach to sun-bathe.

Spliced-in images of Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot suggest that all these tourists are searching for glamour, trying to fulfill movie dreams of high-class luxury that are otherwise unattainable, acting like movie stars relaxing at the shore. Varda also subtly undercuts the touristic impulse and its superficial approach to the real, rich history of the region, which has hosted great names of art and culture throughout the centuries. Even museums are ripe for mockery: the narrator says that "Cro-Magnon man received homage," and Varda accompanies the words with an image of a dog rooting in a museum display of a skeleton, pushing the skull around with its nose. Ultimately, Varda finds the real essence of the Riviera in a deserted rocky island, an Eden, devoid of people except for a pair of naked sunbathers, quiet and truly blissful in comparison to the manufactured, commercialized bliss peddled all along the more populated areas of the tourist coast. The camera's sensuous gliding in this final section says it all, evoking the peace and tranquility of this natural beauty without all the people around to screw it up.

Elsa la rose is Agnès Varda's affectionate chronicle of the love between the writers Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet. The couple had met in 1928 and married in 1939, and they were old and contented when Varda filmed them together in 1965 — five years, as it turned out, before Elsa's death. It's a very sweet film, a tribute to a love that had lasted a long time and been immortalized in many of Aragon's poems. In striking black-and-white cinematography, Varda captures the couple at their home, talking about their lives together and their shared memories. Varda weaves in Aragon's poetry as well, narrated by Michel Piccoli, to bring together these images of enduring love with the art that had so often arisen from that lifelong partnership.

Varda's loving portrait of these two aging writers includes an interesting examination of the relationship between life and art. Elsa discusses how she feels about being the subject of so many poems, what she thinks about so many people reading her husband's descriptions of her youth and beauty, so that in many readers' minds she is forever frozen at the age of 20, young and pretty. Varda keeps cutting back and forth from images of the writers the way they look now and images of them from old, faded photographs, their pasts and their youths jutting up against the present as they tell their stories.

In 1968, Agnès Varda traveled to California to make a documentary about the Black Panther Party, focusing especially on a rally to free Huey P. Newton, who'd been arrested for killing a policeman. In the resulting film, called simply Black Panthers, Varda and her crew interview the Panthers and their supporters at the rally and surrounding events, trying to present a portrait of the group's ideas and politics. Most eloquent and interesting is Eldridge Cleaver's wife, Kathleen, a high-ranking communications officer in the party, who speaks to Varda's crew about the importance of embracing black ideals of beauty rather than trying to straighten one's hair or lighten one's skin in deference to white ideals of beauty. Varda seems especially fascinated by the seeming gender equality within the party, the opportunity for women to take on important roles in this political struggle, though a jailhouse interview with Newton himself reveals some strange remnants of old attitudes, as he says that women have "duties" within the party and then hastens to add that he doesn't mean sexual duties.

Interestingly, though Varda is obviously sympathetic to the Black Panther cause and the radical politics of the movement in general, the film maintains some skepticism regarding the way in which the drive to free Newton seems to skirt around the issue of whether or not he actually did what he's accused of. The film crew asks many of the rally attendees some pointed questions about Newton's guilt or innocence, about what kind of defense is being mounted to prove his innocence, and the narration points out that no one seems to care, that whether or not he actually killed someone or not seems to be immaterial. His prosecution is considered solely in political terms, with no attention paid to the facts of the case, and it's to Varda's credit that she doesn't just accept this at face value but continually questions it within the film.

The film's coda recounts the verdict that Newton was found guilty of manslaughter, but given a lighter sentence than expected as a compromise between those who wanted him freed and those who wanted him to get the death penalty — a compromise that satisfies no one, the voiceover points out. Varda then describes how two angry policemen responded to the verdict by shooting out the windows of a Black Panther headquarters, shooting the photographs of the party's leaders in the windows of the office. This is an expression, the voiceover says, of "the magical act of killing the image, usually attributed to so-called primitive and non-white people," a strange irony in which these enraged white policemen enact a superstitious, almost voodoo-like ritual as a symbolic revenge, a symbol of their hate and anger. That's a fascinating analysis, one that, typically of Varda, gravitates towards the symbolic power of images and the importance of the image in defining politics. Thus her images of the shattered glass windows and the photos riddled with bullets are crucially important as reminders of the systemic violence and atmosphere of hate which surrounded the Panthers and created the necessity for their struggle in the first place.

1 comment:

danyulengelke said...

Great post!

We're linking to your article for Agnes Varda Friday at

Keep up the good work!