FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 48, November 1999

 


 

Mike Hakata

Agnes Varda

Questions at Twenty-Four Frames a Second

 


 

 

Alison Smith

_Agnes Varda_

Manchester University Press, 1998

ISBN: 0 7190 5061

213 pp.

 

Agnes Varda is an intellectual filmmaker. The opposite of this would be filmmakers such as Hawks and Scorsese who have professed, not necessarily an anti-intellectual stance, but either an ignorance of the theories or an unwillingness to involve themselves in the philosophical debates surrounding film. Agnes Varda is quite the opposite. Every frame, every scene, every sequence is aware of itself as such. The lens is always self-conscious and the scene is always self-reflective. Varda's films are always talking to themselves. 'Her films show a deep awareness of the signifying power of every element of the images of which they are made' (196).

 

Varda's work, meticulously analysed in Alison Smith's book, is preoccupied with one major issue: what can be expressed in film, and what is its essential nature?

 

But Varda poses a lot of questions in her work. Smith is alert to them all. That there are no simple answers to any of them is also intrinsic to Varda's work. So, the end result is a meditation on the limits of filmic language, or what could be better described here as the *mythographic*.

 

1. Godard par Varda

 

What interests Alison Smith is how Varda puts a film together. Each of her most significant works are dissected almost shot by shot. In doing so Smith is able to unravel the stylistic nuances and signatures of Varda's style. What is important is where she chooses to use the tracking shot or the close-up, and therefore why. Varda became a close friend and protege of Godard, and there are telling simliarities in their styles and approaches to filmmaking. In fact more telling than in the relation between Varda and Jacques Demy's films. Considering the fact that Varda is more often than not mentioned either as a footnote to Demy, or at least Demy's name comes up again and again beside any discussion of her films, it is quite interesting to realise that her closest filmic cousin was not Demy but Godard. It was Godard who took her under his wing when the _Cahiers_ group discovered her talent. It was Godard and Varda who would talk for hours about the nature of film and filmmaking. It is Godard and Varda who share so many intellectual concerns: the relation between film and 'high art', film and photography, film and politics. Many of Godard's concerns can be found in Varda, and visa-versa. But what is also certain is that they were both fiercely independent thinkers. Neither was ever caught in the other's shadow. And so it is fair that Smith's book never dwells on this relationship. Her book is about Varda, and exclusively about Varda. But I do believe it is of interest to look at the way each made use of certain cinematic styles to explore similar ideas.

 

2. Analogy

 

So many films can be read as self-referential text, a mirror that reflects its signs back onto itself. The cinema of Varda can be read as that which is always reading itself through the text(s) of other artforms. What interests Varda is how different film is from photography (and in so doing it becomes an exploration of photography); how different film is from art (and therefore becomes an exploration of art); how different it is from myth. The question that haunts Varda's work is: 'What is on the outside of the work?'. The fact that the presence of Varda herself is never far away from the piece is telling in this regard. She is always there, but on the outside looking in. The characters in the films that could be said to be representing her are generally outsiders. Outsiders to a community, and/or outsiders to themselves. Outsiders within the text, staring beyond the frame, outstaring the camera looking in.

 

3. Star Turn

 

Smith begins the book with a summary of Varda's cinematic styles. Her use of the 'inserted object', not dissimilar to the Russian montagists, in which what appear to be unconnected shots of objects are given significance within a sequence. A shot of a washing-line, of a melon, a fork. Rather than using this style as a didactic approach this is Varda's way of entering the discourse of film through the language of a dream. A surrealist method of exploring meaning through the multiplicity of meanings invested in the object. What Varda has called 'subjective documentary'.

 

Varda's use of objects that already come invested with meaning: the photograph, the postcard, the painting. All these objects are already connected with history, with time, with memory, with coded meanings that, in the context of a film, begin to vibrate, to oscillate, making the film itself a metaphor for what it depicts. The film becomes unsettled, no longer dependent on its own idiom and ways of representing. Suddenly film is analogous to something else. Other than itself. Speaking through another's idiom. The 'film-itself' is not a simple object for Varda. The fact that it can resemble other artforms and yet be nothing like any of them fascinates the filmmaker. It is like photography but is infused with the mechanics of time. Time is an illusion that film creates. An illusion created at twenty-four frames a second.

 

Film is like painting insofar as the 'scene' is always something happening within a frame. The elements that make the picture are a complex relationship of graphology and light. That the camera can pan or zoom or track breaks this frame and takes it out of the scene-of-painting, and makes it all the more complex.

 

Film is like myth. Creating its own mythology. It's gods are its stars. It is interesting to note that Varda made so many films in which the 'stars' were people from the communities in which the story takes place. Non-actors. What is the dynamic, then, when Varda uses real 'stars' such as Jane Birkin and Jacques Demy (those that have been very much involved in the creation of an image, either their own or someone else's)? The fact that there is talk of Varda re-making _Cleo a 5 de 7_ with Madonna in the lead role, extends this further.

 

Varda's films are preoccupied with identity. The identity they have themselves as films, and also the identity of the characters that play their roles within the stories, the identity of a community, and the way that community sheds light on the characters, and visa-versa.

 

4. Agnes par Varda

 

The truth is within the frame, but the edge of the frame is always broken.

How many mirrors in the films of Agnes Varda? What part does the mirror play? A frame within the frame. A frame that reflects that which is outside the frame. In _Jane B par Agnes V_ we see the filmmaker, for the first time in one of Varda's works, reflected outside of the 'natural' frame. She is outside, but drawn-in. Painted-in. The image is as rich as one can get in film. It reads as part of a body of work. To understand this image one needs to be aware of the body, of the history of Agnes Varda in film. That the works, seen in their entirety, could be re-named *Agnes par Varda*. The appearance of her in the mirror, standing behind Birkin should perhaps stand at the heart of this analysis. It says so many things. Too many things to be constrained by the frame of any review, any analysis, any film or book or photograph. The image of Varda in the mirror could be a photograph of Varda. The frame of the mirror could quite easily be the frame of a picture. But, once we see it as a photograph, then surely we could also read it as a picture frame, and within it a painting of Birkin, painted by Varda, with the painter included. At one point in the shot we see the camera. The appearance of the camera could easily be seen as the inclusion of the easel. The machinery with which to paint the picture featuring in the picture.

 

'It's as if I was going to film your self-portrait', she says to Jane Birkin. A portrait in motion. One in which its meanings are in constant flux.

 

'The mirror used is an old-fashioned one with a frame which could recall the frame of a painting or, alternatively, of the mirrors which appear in painting such as [Van Eyck's 'Arnolfini Marriage']' (135).

 

Varda appears as author, but also subject. Alison Smith points out that in many of her films this duality is present. Characters in her films often take the form of an outsider looking in. Distanced from the community in which they either belong (Daguerreotypes) or are strangers in a strange land (Documenter).

 

'So who is the author of the film? Well, Varda, of course; but the author exists within the text, somewhat more ambiguously, in the form of the narrator.' (126) The narrator is always Varda as someone who is not Varda. Varda is the invisible filmmaker, an overseer, listener. And yet it is her shadow that seems to fall across the frame.

 

That her presence is always ambiguous, always hinted at, but never defined, is essential to any reading of Varda's films. Central to her work is the question of the representation of women in film. In Varda this representation is always illusive. The gender-play in her films is always strategic. Many of her characters seem to have no character except for that which is projected on to them. Nowhere is this seen more than in _Sans Toit ni Loi_ (_Vagabonde_) where it is through everyone else's judgment that the central character is explored.

 

That it is our desires projected on to the character explored is also always there. In _Jane B par Agnes V_ we are brought closer to the crucial element in this dynamic. Is it Agnes Varda's desires of Jane Birkin that we are seeing? The question is never fully answered.

 

In Cleo the main character tries on a hat. In a complex image we watch her through a window, reflections from the outside world playing across her face, mirrors surrounding her. An image both portraying her narcissism but also the impossibility of framing her identity. She is splintered and at the same time egotistical. 'If one was conditioned to look for symbolism -- if, for example, one read the photograph as one would a Renaissance painting -- intimations of mortality appear in this one image'. (21)

 

5. Intellectual Montage

 

Identity is not simple for Varda.

 

The greatest fiction is that of the frame which tries to encompass a reality. The reality of a place, of a woman within that place.

 

Of the point-of-view of the observer: is the observer a part of the place or alien to it? Can the observer be trusted to tell the story?

 

In Varda's work the observer (filmmaker) is always cold and detached. There is, in a sense, a fear of implication in the image.

 

This is at the base of the intellectual approach to film. The strategies for telling stories are not bound by the rules of the 'invisible style' championed by Hollywood. This style is based on what could be called the three-axis rule. That a scene should be shot with these parameters: first the establishing shot which gives us a sense of place and of dramatic space; then mid-shot which gives us the characters; then close-ups which reveal the drama. The invisible style is first about revelation and second about concealment.

 

Revealing the drama at the same time as concealing the dynamic that brought us there. Editing is a very important element here. To edit between shots in such a way that the edits become 'invisible', otherwise known as 'continuity cutting'. Varda, coming from a long line of European filmmakers, dating back to such theorists as Kuleshov, Pudovkin, and Eisenstein go completely against this. Montage from a European perspective means a totally different thing from the Hollywood perspective.

 

Montage from a European perspective is all about creating a mythography -- something close to psychoanalysis and politics. The moving image is a political image. The moving image is a psychoanalytic image.

 

6. The Mythographic

 

By zoning-in, by picking out certain details from a scene, details that are not necessarily in context, Varda forces the viewer to make connections that are at base psychological. The world has been inverted. It is no longer a world of the given, external structure and meaning. Suddenly the meanings come from the connections between objects, rather than from the objects themselves. The sequence of shots,

 

'correspond to much more visceral reactions, and a more precise, though non-cinematic, connection would be with the Surrealist approach to the object-trouvaille. According to Andre Breton's description in _L'Amour Fou_, the objet trouve may be a powerful catalyst which crystallises the unconscious or semi-conscious preoccupations of the finder.' (28)

 

Smith mentions myth in regards to Varda, highlighting _Ulysse_ as an example. The film explores a photograph. A naked man, a naked boy, and a dead goat on a beach. The photograph itself seems to have mythological connotations although what they are is not certain. The very title of the film, which is also the name of the boy, has obvious resonances. The film explores the photograph through the memories of the people that were involved in its production. Memory plays a strong part. Or, lack of memory, as the participants cannot place the picture.

 

But Smith doesn't go much further. Perhaps because, at the point where Varda's films break from their framing as simply film -- to encompass myth, photography, and art -- Varda herself becomes uncertain. This uncertainty is the foundation of all of Varda's work. In exploring the boundaries of an artform from within that artform is the point at which she has to admit to some basic metaphysical truths. Beyond the frame, beyond speech, is silence. Varda caught in the mirror, like a painting, watched by her subject, Birkin, as she 'paints' Birkin's portrait. A portrait of who? Birkin or Varda? Jane B par Agnes V. This is the question that seems to run through all of Agnes Varda's work: Where is Varda? What is Varda? Documenter, photographer, painter, filmmaker? Certainly always aware of the abyss created by creation. The spaces between the frames. That which is outside of the frame. Between each frame on a reel of film is a space. Photographic meaning reproduced at twenty-four frames a second.

 

Ultimately, in _Agnes Varda_ Alison Smith explores the filmmaker's primary concern: to understand the subject one must always be outside it. To be outside it, though, is to be an alien to its idiom. To watch Varda's films is to become a tourist like so many of her characters. Smith's book is a detailed exploration of the concepts thrown up by the filmmaker's work. Our understanding of Varda by the end is in many ways quite elliptical. This is not a fault of the author, this is what one finds in Agnes Varda. There is very little solid ground in her work -- these films are rich with questioning, and in this regard Smith does them justice. However, Varda, in the context of the history of French filmmaking, is less defined. Her place next to the nouvelle vague filmmakers, next to feminist filmmakers, next to avant-garde filmmakers, is hazy. But her place as a powerful interpreter of the medium is firmly set.

 

Redstar Films, London, England

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Mike Hakata, 'Agnes Varda: Questions at Twenty-Four Frames a Second',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 48, November 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n48hakata>.

 

  

 

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