Agnès Varda | Subjects
| Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style
Films: Du côté de la côte | Cléo de 5 à 7
| Le Bonheur | Ulysse
| Sans toit ni loi / Vagabond
| Jacquot de Nantes | L'Univers de Jacques Demy / The World of Jacques Demy
| Agnès parle de "Bonheur"
| Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse / The Gleaners and I | Deux ans après / Two Years Later
| Le Lion volatil | Ydessa, les ours et etc. / Ydessa, the Bears and etc.
| Les Plages d'Agnès / The Beaches of Agnès
Classic Film and Television Home Page | Color in the Arts
Agnès Varda is a French filmmaker who has been making movies since the 1950's.
She is the subject of the scholarly books:
- Agnès Varda (1998) by Alison Smith.
- Agnès Varda (2015) by Kelley Conway.
- Agnès Varda Unlimited: Image, Music, Media (2015) essay collection edited by Marie-Claire Barnet.
Agnès Varda: Subjects
- Mothers of grown people interviewed by Varda (Ulysse,
Ydessa, les ours et etc., The Beaches of Agnès)
- Successful women living alone, in big homes (singer: Cléo de 5 à 7,
artist: Ydessa, les ours et etc.)
- Pop singers (heroine and composer: Cléo de 5 à 7,
rap: The Gleaners and I, rap: Two Years Later,
Jim Morrison: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Young women in danger of death, attracted to a refined young man in uniform (Cléo de 5 à 7,
Le Lion volatil, Queen Astrid: The Beaches of Agnès)
Locales and Settings:
- Personal memorabilia (Demy's memorabilia and papers: The World of Jacques Demy,
The Gleaners and I, Two Years Later,
photos of monument and catacombs: Le Lion volatil, The Beaches of Agnès,
archivist of Varda-Demy family papers: Daguerre-Beach)
- Still lifes (Demy's memorabilia and papers: The World of Jacques Demy,
Varda's souvenirs of Japan: The Gleaners and I, Two Years Later)
- Markets and arcades (market: Du côté de la côte,
hit a bag in front of long arcade: The World of Jacques Demy,
market with arcade: The Gleaners and I, market: Two Years Later)
- Clothes-lines (wash: La Pointe-courte, movie posters: Agnès parle de "Bonheur")
- Festivals (Carnival: Du côté de la côte,
Fair: The World of Jacques Demy, marathon run: Two Years Later)
- Circuits of cities (trip through Paris: Cléo de 5 à 7, marathon run: Two Years Later,
trip re-enacted on motorcycle: Cleo's Real Path Through Paris)
- Cafes with tables and umbrellas (Du côté de la côte, spinning umbrella: Le Bonheur)
- Kitchens (La Pointe-courte, small kitchen at home: Le Bonheur, chef: The Gleaners and I,
artist's with photos on floor: Ydessa, les ours et etc.,
The Beaches of Agnès)
- Large machines, usually benevolent (Fair machines: The World of Jacques Demy,
potato sorter, oyster machines: The Gleaners and I,
trapeze, art installations, cart with projector: The Beaches of Agnès,
trapeze: Around Trapeze Artists,
- Graves (Riviera cemetery: Du côté de la côte, The World of Jacques Demy,
catacombs: Le Lion volatil, The Beaches of Agnès)
- Recreations of traditional lifestyles (fishermen: La Pointe-courte,
buildings: Du côté de la côte, Republican Guard procession: Cléo de 5 à 7,
family photos: Ydessa, les ours et etc.,
Queen Astrid: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Salvaging and recycling (Documenteur, The Gleaners and I, Two Years Later)
- Alcoholism and social decay (Vagabond, The Gleaners and I, Two Years Later)
- Children propagandized to evil (children playing war: Ydessa, les ours et etc.,
Vichy songs for children: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Trees (old trees, palms, tree series: Du côté de la côte, Paulownia: Cléo de 5 à 7,
Plane tree: Vagabond)
- Fields of plants (Vagabond, The Gleaners and I)
- Agricultural science (grapes, Plane tree: Vagabond, food production: The Gleaners and I)
- Fungi as images of decay (Plane tree: Vagabond, roof rot: The Gleaners and I)
- Parks and gardens (Du côté de la côte, Parc Montsouris: Cléo de 5 à 7)
- Public benches (parc benches: Du côté de la côte, Parc Montsouris: Cléo de 5 à 7,
bus terminal: Vagabond, photographers' benches for children: Ydessa, les ours et etc.)
- The coast and ocean (La Pointe-courte, Du côté de la côte, Ulysse, The Gleaners and I,
beach photos: Ydessa, les ours et etc.,
The Beaches of Agnès, Around Trapeze Artists)
- Fountains, faucets or waterfalls (waterfall in park: Cléo de 5 à 7, pump: Vagabond,
water faucet in countryside: The Gleaners and I)
- Cats (white cat on old tree: Du côté de la côte,
The Gleaners and I, Two Years Later, cat and lion statue: Le Lion volatil)
Artifice and nature:
- Films about filmmakers (herself: Agnès parle de "Bonheur",
Jacques Demy's youth dramatized: Jacquot de Nantes,
Jacques Demy: The World of Jacques Demy,
film history on 100th anniversary of cinema: Les cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma,
chronographs of Étienne-Jules Marey at museum: The Gleaners and I,
herself: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Cinema buildings (abandoned cinema: Du côté de la côte, Paris cinema: Cléo de 5 à 7)
- Parallel strips of film (three color positive strips for restoration: Agnès parle de "Bonheur",
house made of film strips: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Art world related to photos or film (teddy bear photos exhibition: Ydessa, les ours et etc.,
Varda installations: The Beaches of Agnès)
Filming near home:
- Children's toys (dolls in pink dresses: Du côté de la côte,
girl's doll: Le Bonheur,
doll: Two Years Later,
teddy bears: Ydessa, les ours et etc.,
model train collection: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Artificial bears (people in bear suits at Carnival: Du côté de la côte,
teddy bear photos: Ydessa, les ours et etc.)
- Artificial flowers (series of flowers, on bed as art: Two Years Later,
young magician makes flower: Le Lion volatil,
little girls and flowers: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Animal statues (lion: Le Lion volatil, dog: Ydessa, les ours et etc.)
- Tiny "houses" (cabin built for kids: Le Bonheur, house of film: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Cities where Varda lived (La Pointe-courte, The Beaches of Agnès)
- Her neighborhood in Paris (Parc Montsouris: Cléo de 5 à 7,
Daguerréotypes, Ulysse, The Beaches of Agnès, Daguerre-Beach)
- Her house (The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès)
Agnès Varda: Structure and Story Telling
- Theme and variations, showing the range of a subject's material and imagery
(Du côté de la côte, colored pencils: Ulysse, movie posters: Agnès parle de "Bonheur",
buckets and waterproof clothes in oyster episode: The Gleaners and I,
prize statues, buttons: Two Years Later,
teddy bear photos, benches, wagons, hair ribbons, sports uniforms: Ydessa, les ours et etc.,
artificial flowers, brooms: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Two narrators, giving alternate views (Du côté de la côte, Salut les cubains,
Agnès parle de "Bonheur")
- Characters who reappear, giving their development over time (Vagabond, Two Years Later)
- Two alternating stories (fishermen and couple: La Pointe-courte,
acrobats and producer: Around Trapeze Artists)
- Speeded-up action (synopsis of previous film: Two Years Later,
motorcycle trip: Cleo's Real Path Through Paris,
picking up ping pong balls: Daguerre-Beach)
Agnès Varda: Visual Style
Repeating Units and Recursion:
Composition and Geometry:
- Repeating units (umbrellas and tables at end: Du côté de la côte,
books in bookstore: Ulysse,
arched huts in vine field, big and small tree in opening shot, hills, wallpaper patterns, many shots: Vagabond,
rails and posts in Harrison Ford scene, whirligig components: The World of Jacques Demy,
movie posters, clothes lines: Agnès parle de "Bonheur",
Varda gleaning and gleaner painting, potatoes, cabbages in field, chronographs: The Gleaners and I,
framed photos, Jeff Koons puppy sculptures, swinging lights: Ydessa, les ours et etc.)
- Recursive structures (bridge and power lines, nested doors and spirals: Vagabond,
puppet stage: Jacquot de Nantes)
Color, often brilliant:
- Strong vertical lines (contrasted with triangles, recursive shot of bridge, recursive doors at Lydie's: Vagabond,
behind interviewees, rails and posts in Harrison Ford scene: The World of Jacques Demy,
hanging movie posters: Agnès parle de "Bonheur",
fences, buildings, truck, silos: The Gleaners and I,
flowers and pier posts, front doors of Varda's home: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Triangles and cones in compositions (conical hats: Du côté de la côte,
roofs, staircases, van and car front ends, stacked white sacks, bench at bus terminal, triangle with circle on back of jacket: Vagabond,
Guignol theater: Jacquot de Nantes,
woman reading letter, Anouk Aimée, Harrison Ford, slanting tree trunk: The World of Jacques Demy,
silos with conical roofs, causeway to oyster island: The Gleaners and I)
- Rectangles (still life with music box and papers and photos and drawings: The World of Jacques Demy,
potato truck, Japan souvenirs, Jules Breton painting with rug and railing, oyster bucket: The Gleaners and I)
- Trapezoids (known as trapeziums in Britain) (dumping potatoes, man and oyster containers: The Gleaners and I)
- Characters in bright clothes, which often echo background colors
(tourists in swim wear: Du côté de la côte,
kids at end: Ulysse,
sailors and girlfriends in white-blue-red against walls in same colors: The World of Jacques Demy,
men in potato harvest in blue clothes in front of blue trucks, man in gray sweater in front of gray silos: The Gleaners and I,
girls on beach with flowers: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Painted or splashed color (splashed wine: Vagabond, graffiti: Agnès parle de "Bonheur")
- Staircases outdoors (garden, tomb: Du côté de la côte, Paris: Cléo de 5 à 7,
Fair: The World of Jacques Demy,
outside judge's courtroom: The Gleaners and I, museum: Two Years Later)
- Walls outdoors (many shots: Vagabond, sailors and girlfriends: The World of Jacques Demy,
The Gleaners and I, painted ad: Two Years Later, front doors of Varda's home: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Wallpaper inside (Vagabond) related (tablecloth in titles: Cléo de 5 à 7)
- Gates (gardens: Du côté de la côte, homes, church: Le Bonheur, Catholic Aid Canteen: Two Years Later)
- Bridges (La Pointe-courte, river footbridge: Le Bonheur,
Vagabond, Two Years Later, The Beaches of Agnès)
Text and Pictures:
- Street scenes reflected in shop windows (Du côté de la côte, Cléo de 5 à 7)
related (in train window: Two Years Later)
- Mirror sequences (in cafe: Cléo de 5 à 7,
people filmed in rear view mirror of car: Two Years Later,
hall of mirrors in TV interview: Ydessa, les ours et etc.,
surrealistically on beach: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Writing or text on images (Eden signs, British signs: Du côté de la côte,
text on movie posters: Agnès parle de "Bonheur",
magazine story, homemade book, drawings in letters: Two Years Later,
two captions of photos: Ydessa, les ours et etc.)
- Tarot cards (Cléo de 5 à 7, Le Lion volatil)
One can see the influence of Agnès Varda on a film like Chacun cherche son chat /
When the Cat's Away (Cédric Klapisch, 1996). This film is partly fiction,
partly documentary, depicting a Parisian neighborhood in detail, as in Varda's
Cléo de 5 à 7. There are a number of mirror reflections
in shop windows, as in that Varda movie. And it has the beautiful,
neon colors of such Varda films as Le Bonheur.
- Women's hats (different kinds of summer hats, hat with radiating spokes: Du côté de la côte,
different kinds of summer hats, hat shop, hat with radiating spokes: Cléo de 5 à 7)
- Wigs (heroine: Cléo de 5 à 7, woman singer in green wig: Two Years Later)
- Dresses with dots or polka dots (Du côté de la côte, Cléo de 5 à 7,
- Sunglasses (tourists: Du côté de la côte, Godard: Cléo de 5 à 7,
Vilar wearing glasses like mustache: The Beaches of Agnès)
- Sports uniforms (marathon runners: Two Years Later, team photos: Ydessa, les ours et etc.)
- Motorcyclists, elaborately dressed (motorcyclist photo: Ydessa, les ours et etc.,
Chris Marker: The Beaches of Agnès)
Du côté de la côte
Du côté de la côte (1958) is a half-hour documentary about the
French Riviera. It is one of Agnès Varda's finest works.
Du côté de la côte anticipates The Gleaners and I. Both are
documentaries in glowing color. Both show life in modern-day France.
Both show vegetation. Both show scenes of the sea and coast areas.
Most importantly, both contain catalogues of similar items, that provide little mini-documentaries
about the visual appearance and variety of one topic, like a theme and variations.
These recall the "Platonic forms" of philosophy, showing how the idea of a "bucket", say,
is realized in many different real-life buckets, with all their varied forms and colors.
Such "themes and variations" also recall "classes and instances" in the computer software concept of
Subject Matter leading to Cléo de 5 à 7
Du côté de la côte includes many subjects, that will soon show up in
Cléo de 5 à 7:
- Women's hats. Both films give a tour of different kinds of women's
summer hats. Both include a hat with radiating spokes: my favorite.
- Women in dresses with dots or polka dots.
- Buildings in anachronistic historic styles in Du côté de la côte will be
followed by the traditional pageantry of the Republican Guard marching through
Paris in Cléo de 5 à 7.
- Street scenes reflected in shop windows.
- The old trees of Du côté de la côte will be echoed by the
Paulownia trees of Paris in Cléo de 5 à 7.
- Guard rails made up of driftwood and antler design in Du côté de la côte,
return in the Parc Montsouris in Cléo de 5 à 7.
- An abandoned cinema in Du côté de la côte,
is followed by a trip to a modern one in Cléo de 5 à 7.
- Tourists wearing sunglasses in Du côté de la côte,
are echoed by Godard's sunglasses in the film-within-the-film in Cléo de 5 à 7.
- Parks and gardens.
- Park benches.
Repeating Structures in Composition
The finale shows Agnès Varda's fondness, for building compositions out of
repeated elements. First we see numerous umbrellas, of similar shapes,
and a few repeating colors. Then the last shot includes
repeating tables, also of a few colors.
Earlier, one of the cleverest shots, is when the branching inflorescence of
an Agave plant, is echoed by branches of a power line.
Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7)
Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961). The title is a bit naughty.
In turn of the century France, sophisticated Parisians
who were carrying on torrid affairs would make appointments with
each other from five to seven PM, to pursue their romance. Such
trysts were so standard that they became known as "cinq à
sept"s, from the French words for "5 to 7". Unfortunately,
poor Cléo here is not getting anything like this. Her time
is being spent sweating out the results of her medical tests,
not finding romance.
Cléo is a pop singer, and we see her meeting with a composer.
Later, both The Gleaners and I and its sequel Two Years Later
will include rap singers, in segments that are essentially
The patterned tablecloth on which the cards are spread in the opening, resembles
a bit the elaborate wallpaper elsewhere in Varda.
Cléo de 5 à 7 is as much a documentary about Paris, as
Du côté de la côte was about the Riviera. The DVD has an extra film, showing
the path through Paris taken by the characters.
Le Bonheur / Happiness
Le Bonheur (1965) (Happiness) is a very disturbing film about domestic
life. Even before it ends in tragedy, it is extremely creepy and
gut wrenching. Watching it is unpleasant, and definitely not recommended.
It is not that the film is poorly made - it is very well
done. Rather, it is just plain difficult to watch. This is all
unfortunate, become some of the scenes show an outstanding sense
of color and visual style. If one can ignore the creepy plot,
and just watch the photography, some of the scenes are quite impressive.
The Working Class in the Arts
The protagonist and his wife both have professions that might be characterized as
"working class people who are artistically creative": he is a carpenter,
she is a neighborhood dressmaker. These both can be seen as relating to filmmaking
professions such as set design and costume design - although no such link is
made explicitly in the movie. There is also a representative of Varda's
own profession in the film: a photographer. He shoots weddings, another daily life,
working man level of involvement in the arts.
One of the film's most light-hearted moments has the carpenter making a tiny "house",
which will be a toy cabin for children. This anticipates the tiny "house of film" in
The Beaches of Agnès. Another tiny construction in Le Bonheur:
the small "shack" with netting used to guard the sleeping kid in the opening woods scene.
Gardening is also shown, anticipating on a small scale The Gleaners and I.
The emphasis on people's small yards in the city, anticipates the Brussels yard in
The Beaches of Agnès.
There are several "flat wall" shots, showing walls painted in glowing, brilliant color.
Other favorite Varda architectural motifs such as gates and a bridge make appearances.
The gates are both outside homes, and a church.
Cafe tables with umbrellas recall Du côté de la côte. In Le Bonheur,
one of the umbrellas is set spinning.
Ulysse (1982) is a short film, re-uniting Agnès Varda with the subjects or models of a
staged photograph she took in 1954. Ulysse anticipates the "cast reunion"
short films Varda would eventually film as DVD extras for works like Cléo de 5 à 7
and Le Bonheur, in which she would interview cast members of those movies
decades after they were made.
Ulysse also anticipates the autobiographical The Beaches of Agnès.
Ulysse shows a diverse selection of related photographs, giving a mini-retrospective
of Varda's photo work of the time, just like sections of The Beaches of Agnès.
These photos are the most interesting aspect of Ulysse.
Also like The Beaches of Agnès and Ydessa, les ours et etc., in Ulysse
Varda interviews the mother of one of the grown, adult subjects of the documentary.
Ulysse includes some of Varda's visual style approaches:
Despite such interesting visual touches, and the sometimes good resurrected photos,
Ulysse seems like a minor work. The models tracked down years later have little to say
about the photo, or working with Varda, or much of anything else. In fact, they have
trouble remembering the photo. I've read reviews of Ulysse that suggest there is something
philosophically profound about this, treating memory and art. Unfortunately,
in my judgement this is reading too much into simple memory lapses.
- A container of colored pencils on an editor's desk shows the
variations found in a type of object, in this case the colored pencil.
As often in such Varda variations, there is a diversity of colors and shapes.
- The books in the book store are some of Varda's repeated objects.
- The kids near the end are in bright colored clothes.
Sans toit ni loi / Vagabond
Sans toit ni loi / Vagabond (1985) is a fiction film, about
a woman who wanders tramp-like through the South of France. The
film has ties to other Agnès Varda works. The film recalls Cléo
de 5 à 7: both are films about a woman in crisis, who
wanders through an area of France (Paris in Cléo de
5 à 7, the countryside around Nîmes here), while
contemplating the problems in her life. Both films are full of
shots of mirrors, which tend to be far more cloudy and less reflective
in this later work. The film also looks forward to The Gleaners
and I, in its documentary like look at life and agriculture
in the countryside. Varda is deeply interested in the science
and engineering involved with agriculture and food production
in both films. The scientist character here, Prof. Landrier, is
one of the most realistic and detailed looks at a scientist in
recent fictional films.
Links to Neorealism
Agnès Varda has links to Neorealism. Like the Neorealists, she often
shows the lives of non-wealthy people, including their work activities.
She also includes much about science, technology and industry,
also like the Neorealists. While the people in Varda's film are
financially of modest means, they tend not to be "typical"
or "ordinary". Instead, their positions in society,
jobs, and personal technical skills tend to be highly individualized.
Links to Robert Bresson
Sans toit ni loi also recalls Robert Bresson's
Au hasard, Balthazar (1966):
Varda's work is more systematically feminist than Bresson's, although Bresson
has his feminist moments, too.
- Both films are structured around a central
character; both protagonists keep encountering a series of other
people in the backgrounds on the films, whose developing stories
we also follow.
- Both films are set in the French countryside,
and offer a great diversity of different kinds of country life
- Both films focus relentlessly on human corruption,
failings and cruelty, offering a dark picture of tragedy due to
dreadful human weaknesses and moral failings.
Bresson's donkey hero is more purely innocent than Varda's human wanderer,
who has a full share of faults of her own. Sans toit ni loi / Vagabond
has shots of goats, just as Bresson's film was full of sheep and the donkey.
The goats here, and the farmers who raise them, form an image
of decency in Varda's film that is an alternative to the corruption
Alcohol, Alcoholism, Plants, Agriculture and Fungi
Like The Gleaners and I, this film is full of shots of
fields. Varda gets compositional mileage out of the rows of plants
in the fields, which often stretch in straight lines through the
frame. The plants themselves are prominently featured, especially
grape vines (Vitis) and plane trees (Plantanus).
The care of these two plants forms a major part of the plot of
the film. The Gleaners and I also focuses on food plants,
plants that are of positive benefit to humanity. By contrast,
much of Sans toit ni loi / Vagabond looks at grapes and
wine making. The heroine and most of the people she meets are
obsessed with smoking, wine, alcohol and drugs. As the goat farmer
she meets warns, the road people here are on a terrible downward
spiral leading to alcoholism. This is a look at a very dark industry,
that of wine production, and Varda shows alcohol's hellish consequences
for humanity. The wine festival that concludes the film leads
directly to the heroine's death. It has a nightmarish quality.
The telephone booth attack at the wine festival here recalls the
attack on Tippi Hedren in the phone booth in Alfred Hitchcock's
The Birds (1963). Varda's finale is one of cinema's most
Later, in The Gleaners and I, Varda will interview a man
whose life has been ruined by alcoholism. This will occur shortly
before the segment of her film on the wine country. That film's
sequel, Two Years Later, will extend and deepen this examination.
Both films include looks at fungi, treated as an image of sinister
decay. In Sans toit ni loi / Vagabond, this is the fungus
that attacks the plane trees; in The Gleaners and I, it
is the dry rot that is attacking Varda's house.
Varda is full of interest in the local buildings here, especially
those associated with agriculture.
While The Gleaners and I takes place in a lush harvest
season, and features bright colors, this film is set in winter.
Varda adjusts her palette to concentrate on hues that have a lot
of white mixed in with them. This gives a consistently white,
pale and winter like aspect to the color harmonies of this film.
As usual with Varda, the colors are planned out to the smallest
Walls and Color
The film shows Varda's interest in walls. These walls tend to
be brilliantly colored, colors which greatly contribute to the
color schemes of the shots as a whole. The walls also tend to
be textured. Outdoor walls can be full of ribbing, or topped with
ornamentation. One can feel their rich surface texture. Indoor
walls tend to be covered here with elaborate wall papers, also
contributing color, form and texture to the shots. Sternberg
and his disciple Mizoguchi also frequently
employed rich wall patterns in their films, but unlike Varda,
they only rarely had a chance to work in color.
Varda often shoots walls straight on, so that the wall is parallel
to the plane of the shot.
This film is full of lateral tracking shots along the
walls, which tend to move from right to left here. Varda also
includes pans that resemble lateral tracks - she is quite willing
to settle for a simpler-to-set-up panning shot, if it keeps almost
parallel to a wall, and resembles a lateral track.
Varda's compositions often contrast triangles, with strong verticals
and horizontals. The triangles are lying flat on their longest
side, with diagonal lines rising up to a peak above. The first
shot of the film has some triangular mounds in it. Throughout
the film, such triangles are formed by:
and by other structures as well. Such triangles and their diagonal
lines are almost always contrasted in the frame by a series of
strong verticals and horizontals. Often times, the triangles are
in one region of the frame, the verticals and horizontals in another.
There is even a triangle combined with a circle on the back of
a man's leather jacket.
- roofs of buildings in the background of shots
- staircases leading on diagonal lines down from buildings
- the sloping front ends of vans and cars
- triangularly stacked mountains of white sacks
- a triangularly shaped bench at the bus terminal
Recursion in Composition
Some complex shots in the film have a recursive quality. When
we see a long shot of the heroine standing on a bridge, there
are a series of vertical/straight line combinations, each nested
inside the other. The outermost one consists of the bridge and
a pole on the left of the screen. Within this, in the lower right
corner of the screen, is a nested series of power lines. Each
one is framed within the bigger one wrapped around it. They are
all nested within each other list a series of Russian dolls. Such
a recursive effect is dazzling on the screen. The lower left corner
has a series of contrasting triangles, created by buildings. These
form a visually fascinating contrast, creating a balance on the
screen between two kinds of visual shapes.
Another recursively composed shot: the view of the elderly Lydie,
through a series of doors. The shot is full of furniture with
spiraling borders: a most unusual and complex shape. The dark
spirals in the wood are near green door frames. One combination
of green door frame with wooden spirals close inside in turn contains
another green door frame with wooden spirals within it. The effect
is complex and dazzling: green, spiral, space, green, spiral,
Repeating Structures in Composition
Even when the frame is not recursively composed, Varda likes to
include repeated structures and objects within the frame. If there
is one arched hut in the vine field, there will be at least two.
It there is one hill or tree in a shot, there might be a second
one. The opening shot contrast a big tree with a little tree beside
it. Such a change of scale is frequently seen in Varda's repeating
structures and objects. They tend to be of all different sizes.
This is different from Robert Mulligan,
a director who also likes repeating architectural elements; Mulligan's
all tend to be of the same size. The repeating patterns in Varda's
wallpapers also add to this effect. Frequently there are just
not two or three repeating objects in a frame; there might be
dozens, which Varda has grouped into some interesting geometric
Sans toit ni loi / Vagabond (1985) was shot in the middle
of the 1980's era of MTV, punk-inspired fashion. Like Richard Tuggle's
Out of Bounds (1986), it forms a record of the fashions
that were popular among young people of the era. Both films have
a glamorous but slightly menacing man in black leather pants.
Varda also includes the Mohawk-inspired hair styles for men, and
painted leather jackets. This side of the film is especially featured
in the bus terminal sequence. The boyfriend at the chateau also
wears the skinny tie and brightly colored sports jacket that were
big at the time.
Cléo de 5 à 7 was full of
the female fashions of the era, including a trip to a hat shop.
Here it is the spectacular men's clothes of the 80's that get
Later, in Two Years Later, Varda will include
a woman singer at a festival in a spectacularly colored green
Jacquot de Nantes
Jacquot de Nantes (1991) is Agnès Varda's tribute to her late
husband, Jacques Demy. It tells the story of Demy's childhood
and youth, and how he grew up to be a filmmaker.
The shots of the Guignol theater are some of Varda's classic triangles:
the bright red theater has a step-wise triangular roof. These
are linked to both the green nature backgrounds Varda likes, and
The inside of the theater's puppet stage in the "Donkey Skin"
puppet show, is a recursively composed perspective. Varda tracks
out on this, showing repeated columns nested inside each other.
L'Univers de Jacques Demy / The World of Jacques Demy
Agnès Varda also made a documentary about Demy, L'Univers de Jacques Demy
(The World of Jacques Demy) (1995). It combines
interviews with Demy's film collaborators, archival behind the
scenes footage of the making of Demy's movies, and rich clips
from Demy's films. The work is delightful. It is one of Varda's
most informative documentaries, and anticipates The Gleaners
and I to come. Both star Varda as narrator; both involve travel
to various locations, and both interview a lot of colorful and
interesting people, to explore every possible, varied aspect of
Many guests are color-coordinated with their backgrounds: a Varda
tradition. Nino Castelnuovo (who can still sing his role in
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg!) is in a dark red shirt that exactly
matches the woodwork behind him. This segment also has ordinary
people singing the music to this film. Later, in The Gleaners
and I, the family picking grapes will sing as they work.
The film opens with a woman reading an open letter in memory of
Demy. She forms a pink triangle, with her blonde hair forming
the apex of the triangle, and matching her pink outfit. Soon,
Anouk Aimée will form a black triangle, with her black
hair extended by her black suit. These colorful triangles are
a Varda specialty: triangles whose base is horizontal, with two
sides sloping towards a peak above. Both women contrast with Varda
herself, who will soon enter the film in green. Later on Harrison
Ford will be seen in long shot, in which a large wooden rail fence
forms a triangle, while other rails and posts make up the repeated
elements Varda likes in her compositions.
Composition: Curves and Straight Lines
Behind Aimée, a couch forms a hooked curve. So does the
chair behind producer Mag Bodard. Other guests in the film will
be on couches with wavy-lined backs.
The strong vertical and horizontal lines Varda likes are behind
many of the interviewees, formed by tables, shelves (the horizontals)
or doors, windows (the verticals). The verticals are sometimes
linked to bright color schemes, such as red-and-green, or the
red-and-blue behind Varda when she talks about Hollywood calling.
The red-and-blue windows composition also includes a slanting,
slim tree trunk, which makes more triangles.
The Fair: Composition
Agnès Varda pulls out all the stops at the Fair, in a virtuoso sequence.
The Fair is the sort of "unusual place full of large-scale
machines and technology", that we will later see in the agricultural
operations in The Gleaners and I.
The arched, hooked curve lines we have seen before in chair backs,
are now echoed by a whirligig structure, we see in both the opening
and closing shots of the sequence. There are many arched lines
around a central "head": a Varda "repeating structure"
The staircase we see in the opening and closing shots looks a
bit like the staircase outside the judge's courtroom in The
Gleaners and I. Both giant, public staircases have an "official"
look, which contrasts greatly in tone with the fairground machines.
A shot shows sailors and their girlfriends, in white, blue and
red, against blue, red and white walls near a fairground entrance.
These are a typical Varda "wall shot", filled with glowing,
A man tries to hit a bag, in front of a long arcade. These are
like the outdoor market sequences in The Gleaners and I,
which also feature long arcades.
Agnès Varda, like Fritz Lang, likes still lifes
of objects. Varda tends to pile flat, rectangular objects on each
other: papers, photos, drawings. This gives a two-dimensional
quality to the compositions. A memorable still life near the opening
combines this with a flat, rectangular music box. This shallow
box is just a little thicker than the rest of the flat papers
on which it is sitting.
The still lifes here are of Demy's memorabilia and papers. Those
in The Gleaners and I to come will be of Varda's own papers
Agnès parle de "Bonheur"
Agnès parle de "Bonheur" (Agnès speaks on "Bonheur") (1998) is a short piece that Agnès Varda
filmed, to introduce Le Bonheur for a television screening on the French-German
TV channel Arte.
Like Du côté de la côte, Agnès parle de "Bonheur" has two narrators:
a little boy who speaks German, and Varda herself. Unlike the two earlier narrators,
both Varda and the boy appear on camera.
Agnès parle de "Bonheur" has a striking opening, showing numerous movie posters
for Varda films, hanging from cords that resemble clothes-lines. This recalls the wash
on clothes-lines in La Pointe-courte.
It also shows a number of Varda themes:
- Repeating units: here we have numerous identical shaped posters, plus
a number of similar clothes-lines.
- Strong verticals: The sides of the hanging posters make countless vertical lines.
- Personal memorabilia: the posters are souvenirs of events in Varda's life.
- Theme and variations: The posters show the range of material and imagery
that is included in French movie posters.
- Writing: Each poster has a name on it.
Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I)
In principle, everyone knows about farms. In practice, most modern
people in industrialized countries have little first hand experience
with farms. Varda takes her camera to many actual farming locations.
It is fascinating to see what a potato or cabbage farm actually
looks like - it is subtly different from what one might expect.
The commercial oyster beds Varda displays are also visually fascinating.
Recently, the News Hour with Jim Lehrer went to the Land
of Lakes dairy processing facility in Central California for a
report (2001). The huge plant looked utterly unlike anything I
might have imagined, and the report is a mini-classic at showing
a world we have never seen. One also recalls Lawrence G. Blochman's
Recipe for Homicide (1952), a mystery novel with a background
of industrial food processing. This is a whole invisible world.
Varda is on to something different and important here.
The water faucet in the middle of nowhere in the countryside recalls
the pump in Sans toit ni loi / Vagabond.
Varda's film hits on a mix that was once widely used in photojournalism.
Magazines such as Life featured gifted contemporary artists,
interesting social trends, ordinary folks doing unusual but constructive
things, back stage looks at commercial institutions (such as food
processing or restaurants), all presented to the public in gorgeous
photographs. Life was informational, showing interesting
parts of the world that were not quite news. Life did not
feature advice (such as how to improve your marriage, protect
your health, or make appealing meals), it was not oriented to
celebrity gossip, and its non-news aspect tended to keep it distinct
from news coverage. Varda, by accident or design, has almost exactly
recreated this old format. The public used to be fascinated by
Life, and its imitators such as Look. Such "general
information" magazines have lost their central place in public
esteem today, and little has really come to take their place.
The media tends instead to offer celebrities, politics (often
very right wing), financial news or advice. A whole dimension
has been lost.
In 1960, ordinary Americans learned about artists
in Life. They would read profiles of abstract expressionists
or Pop artists, and see color photos of their works. These photos
would be in Life, which went into a large percentage of
ordinary American homes. It is unclear that anything like this
is happening today. Artists have become invisible in America.
A standard mechanism that used to present them has broken down.
Society is poorer today for this change. Ordinary people were
more integrated into what might be called culture. Many Americans
today tend to be plugged into political propaganda such as Fox
News or right wing talk radio. This is a long way down from Life.
Another key aspect of Life. As far as I can tell, people
read Life without being prompted to buy it through advertising.
Similarly, American kids bought 100 million comic books per month,
during their peak of popularity in the 1950's, without any prompting
from advertising at all. Today, in the new millennium, Americans
seem almost entirely oriented toward interfacing with the world
The Gleaners and I shows Varda's personal sense of color.
Scenes show the bright, brilliant colors that are today called
neon. Varda is unafraid to mix several bright colors. The vibrating
color harmonies that are produced can be spectacular. The other
filmmaker that one associates with neon colors is Storm De Hirsch:
see, for example, her Peyote Queen (1965). Like Varda,
Hirsch was an independent woman filmmaker who pursued a non-standard
vision through her works.
The people interviewed by Varda tend to wear clothes that match
the backgrounds. If someone is in a field full of yellow, they
wear a bright yellow sweatshirt. The two men after the potato
harvest who talk about the return of gleaning wear blue clothes,
matching the blue trucks behind them. The man in front of the
gray silos wears a gray sweater. Not only does its color match,
but its texture recalls the ribbed silos behind him. The silos
have conical roofs, that recall Varda's love of triangles. These
triangles are contrasted Varda-style with the horizontal line
running between the silos, and their vertical sides. And of course
there are two silos: Varda loves repeating structures.
Varda often constructs her scenes through strong vertical lines.
Such lines are found outdoors in fences, building and trucks.
These lines tend to bound regions of glowing color. At the base
of the image tend to be horizontal regions, parts of the ground,
grass and sidewalks.
Varda is fascinated by the brilliant red potato sorting machinery.
This is full of repeating lines. The potatoes pour through. The
Gleaners and I is full of motion. It celebrates life, and
is more dynamic than the frozen winter footage of Sans toit
ni loi / Vagabond. When the first truck dumps the potatoes,
we see a composition that includes both the rectangles of the
truck, and three matching trapezoids: the mound of potatoes below
the truck, a trapezoidal structure on the top of the truck, and
a car in the upper right corner. The three trapezoids, the strong
rectangles formed by the rest of the truck, and motion of the
potatoes form a striking composition. Once again, Varda shoots
dead on, building up a 2D image out of strong geometric regions,
Composition in the Oyster Episode
The causeway to the oyster island forms a giant triangle, but
one whose sides curve in towards the base. Towards the right,
there is a mound forming a second, smaller triangle: a Varda echoing.
Aside from the curves, these are both Varda triangles, with their
base a horizontal line near the bottom of the screen.
We soon see a man with a series of trapezoidal containers behind
him, which apparently contain oysters.
And a little later in the oyster sequence, a man in a yellow overall
stands in front of some truck-like machinery, who cab forms a
series of strong diagonal lines in parallel behind him. This is
balanced against some horizontals, plus a cylinder of machinery
on the left.
Much of the oyster episode involves "themes and variations".
We see every sort of bucket used to carry the oysters: rectangular,
cylindrical, truncated conical pairs, and all sorts of colors
and material. And with different shaped slots out of which water
runs. It is a sort of essay on all the different shaped buckets
in the world. Similarly, the people wear every sort of different
rubberized clothing, from overalls to slickers and boots. There
is also a surreal shot of rubber gloves standing up on a shelf,
which shows the variety of gloves available. And we see the lines
of the oyster beds from many angles, perspectives and distances.
Varda loves to provide this sort of varied detail.
Varda is into her echoing effects. A striking shot has Varda as
a gleaner on the left, imitating Jules Breton's painting of a
gleaner on the right. Varda is smaller than the painting, so the
familiar change of scale in Varda's repeating objects is present.
The two rectangles of the painting and the rug in front of which
Varda stands make interestingly arranged rectangles on the screen.
A wrought iron railing below adds a third rectangle to the composition.
The fields full of potatoes also make striking compositions. The
potatoes are some of Varda's "repeating objects". Here
they occur in great quantities, by the hundreds. Varda likes to
make images of such objects arranged into complex patterns.
The judge standing in the field is also in the midst of dozens
of repeating plants. The visual repetition of the plants recalls
the wall paper patterns loved by Varda in Sans toit ni loi
/ Vagabond. His red law book will echo the tomatoes. Varda
has a beautiful shot, showing the judge in front of the cabbages.
Once again, Varda shoots head on, and different regions make rectangles
on the screen. The tall plants where the judge is standing make
one rectangle; the cabbages in front make a second rectangle.
Varda pans down, towards the cabbages. Such pans down toward a
forward region also occur in Sans toit ni loi / Vagabond.
The chronographs, pictures created by Étienne-Jules Marey
that show dozens of images of a person or animal in motion, taken
in time sequence, are ancestors to Varda's repeating elements.
Varda includes some fascinating examples, during her trip to the
Varda makes beautiful still lifes of her souvenirs of Japan. These
include both rectangles and circular elements. They launch a series
of episodes on art. The fungus is compared to the style of various
artists, and we see "found object" and "junk" artists and their environments.
Deux ans après / Two Years Later
Varda made an hour-long follow-up to The Gleaners and I,
Two Years Later (2002). Both films are available on the
same DVD. Varda's film was a hit in France, and Two Years After
documents some of its impact.
In Two Years Later, we meet many of the participants from
the first film, and learn more about them. The effect is somewhat
like Vagabond. In Vagabond, the characters appear
and disappear, throughout the movie. We often see a little bit
about a person, and then learn more about them later. The exposition
proceeds by a strange web-work effect, with later sections expanding
on earlier ones. It also helps to see Vagabond twice or
more: one gets more out of the early scenes with the characters,
if we know some of their background that only gets filled in later.
This film also briefly recalls Jacquot de Nantes: it has
clips of one of Demy's childhood animated films (very charming
in color) and of a salvaging section of Varda's Documenteur,
proving that Varda's interest in the subject of gleaning dates
back over 20 years.
Some of the objects mix images and text, a Varda favorite:
There are series of objects, showing their variety in form:
- The magazine story - and the narration calls attention to it containing both text and photos,
although this is perhaps an index of its prestige, rather than a commentary on a Varda interest in "text+pictures".
- The handmade book, a really unusual object.
- The letter with a drawing of a winged horse.
- The letter with a caption and a train picture.
We also have that Varda favorite artificial flowers, used to make art objects.
- The prizes Varda has won. The narration calls attention to their many shapes.
- The buttons.
Some favorite kinds of Varda architecture return, often seen briefly:
- An outdoor staircase, at the museum.
- A gate, at the Catholic Aid Canteen.
The Marathon Race
The marathon race recalls the public festivals in other Varda films,
with huge crowds, food and public backing by the city authorities.
The sports uniforms make a Varda series of objects, showing their variety in form,
with several different kinds of sports wear shown. They also anticipate the varied sports team
uniforms in the photos in Ydessa, les ours et etc..
The runners move along a circuit through Paris streets. This recalls the heroine's journey
through Paris in Cléo de 5 à 7, also along a well-defined route.
Varda has photographers stationed at points along the way, showing different locales in the circuit.
Le Lion volatil
Le Lion volatil (2003) ("The volatile lion" or "the changeable lion") is a short.
It is one of the few fiction films Varda has made in recent years.
It does have a non-fiction component too, with information about a real Paris monument.
Le Lion volatil has a clairvoyant heroine, who has mystical visions.
Normally I would resist such paranormal nonsense. But Varda is careful to link such visions
with other traditions, especially Surrealism, dreams and the imagination itself.
This links the clairvoyance to other sorts of concepts that have real-life validity.
It suggests that clairvoyance in the film, is simply a story-telling metaphor for dreams and the imagination.
The groups of photos of the monument, and the similar material about the catacombs,
is in Varda's tradition of collecting such souvenirs.
Links to Cléo de 5 à 7
Le Lion volatil has links with Cléo de 5 à 7:
These have similarity to the real life saga of Queen Astrid of the Belgians, whose tale is recounted
in The Beaches of Agnès. Astrid too was in danger of death; Astrid also romanced a handsome young man
in a uniform, her husband.
- Both are set in contemporary Paris, with a documentary-like look at real locations.
- Cléo de 5 à 7 has as its motif "Death and the Maiden".
Le Lion volatil literalizes this, with its young heroine encountering a man with seemingly magical properties.
The heroine eventually refuses to kiss him;
one wonders if the kiss might be fatal, like the painting of Death clutching the maiden.
The young man might be Death himself - or he might be a resurrected human (his name is Lazarus).
- The heroine in both films has a romance with a young, gentle-acting man in a uniform.
- Both films show Tarot cards and readings from them. Tarot cards mix text and images: always a favorite Varda strategy.
Lions and Cats
I love the final image. My old cat Harry would have loved doing this: he always wanted to be at a high vantage point,
surveying and monitoring everything. This would have been a dream come true for him. Both the comic and surreal punch
of this image reflects the way it embodies the desires of typical cats.
Ydessa, les ours et etc. / Ydessa, the Bears and etc.
Ydessa, les ours et etc. (2004) (Ydessa, the Bears and etc.) is a 44 minute documentary about
Toronto, Canada curator-artist Ydessa Hendeles and her exhibit Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) (2002).
The exhibit largely consists of hundreds of pre-1945 photographs of people with their teddy bears.
Ydessa Hendeles is best known as a curator, famed for promoting contemporary Canadian art through innovative
exhibitions and curatorial techniques, including the use of multi-media.
Links to Du côté de la côte
The teddy bears have links to Varda's early documentary Du côté de la côte:
A photo of a motorcyclist turns up near the end, elaborately dressed in a complex leather coat.
This anticipates the image of Chris Marker as a biker in The Beaches of Agnès.
- Du côté de la côte shows children's toys: a series of dolls in pink dresses. More children's toys return in
The Beaches of Agnès.
- Du côté de la côte shows people in bear costumes, for Carnival celebrations. These "artificial bears"
anticipate the teddy bears in Ydessa, les ours et etc..
- Du côté de la côte has a number of statues and life-size figurines in its Carnival sequence; such statues also
play a role in the exhibition Partners.
- Many photos show the beach, an image shown in Du côté de la côte and many other Varda films.
The photos recall the early films of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, who were based in Northern England in the early 1900's.
Like Mitchell and Kenyon, the photos show ordinary people in everyday life. The group photos of classes and sports teams
especially recall Mitchell and Kenyon, who regularly documented such groups in their movies.
However, the films I've seen by Mitchell and Kenyon tend to show the working class, the masses,
whereas many of the people in the Partners photos look more middle class.
The photos are fascinating, as raw material documenting countless persons.
Unfortunately, they are presented without historical informations such as date, country, names or professions
of their subjects. This could have made the project and film more informative.
Such a refusal to add detailed captions and verbal information is reportedly a common feature of
Ydessa Hendeles exhibitions.
The film Ydessa, les ours et etc. often shows the photos grouped into series.
It is unclear whether they were grouped this way in the exhibition Partners, or whether
Varda organized them this way for her film. These series serve as Varda variations on a subject,
such as benches, wagons, hair ribbons, sports uniforms, as well as the kinds of teddy bear photos themselves.
Training Children in War
Towards the end, the film shows a number of sinister ways in which children are trained in war.
A disturbing series of photos shows children playing war games. And we see teddy bears especially constructed
to give young soldiers the delusion that they are safe in combat. These recall the similar teddy bear
carried by the soldier in the World War I film Wings (William Wellman, 1927).
The Beaches of Agnès will also show children being trained in social evil.
It recreates school kids trained to sing songs in praise of the Vichy regime
during the Nazi Occupation of France.
Ydessa Hendeles' parents were Holocaust survivors. Both the exhibit Partners and the film
suggest the the exhibit is offering implicit commentary on the Holocaust. Unfortunately,
I cannot see that this well-meant exhibit actually offers any concrete insights into the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is a very important subject, and it is great to encourage people to think about it.
Beyond this, however, it is unclear what insight into the Holocaust this exhibit offers.
Les Plages d'Agnès / The Beaches of Agnès
Les Plages d'Agnès (2008) (The Beaches of Agnès) is a feature-length, autobiographical film.
Just as L'Univers de Jacques Demy surveyed Demy's life and mixed in clips of Demy's films, so does
The Beaches of Agnès perform a similar survey for Varda herself. However, The Beaches of Agnès
is less systematic than the earlier film, and less clear in its exposition. It is more a free form rhapsody
about Varda's life and work, than the sort of educational commentary contained in L'Univers de Jacques Demy.
Metaphors and Constructions
The Beaches of Agnès is full of metaphors about life, film and thought. Earlier Varda documentaries
like Du côté de la côte or The Gleaners and I mainly explored the real world. They were interested
in real objects, places and people, and showing them on-screen. By contrast, much of The Beaches of Agnès
consists of constructs, that represent some idea or metaphor about life. These constructs are created by Varda -
they are not something pre-existing in the real world.
Varda has long been a still photographer and filmmaker. But in the 2000's, she launched a third career as an artist.
She has been making installations for art shows. Many of these installations turn up in The Beaches of Agnès.
The last one, "a house made of film", contains the sort of "construction serving as a metaphor" that runs through
The Beaches of Agnès.
The beaches of the title are one kind of metaphorical construction that runs through the film. We see beaches with mirrors,
beaches with trapeze artists, beaches with artificial flowers, beaches where whirling skaters represent thoughts.
Another running motif through the film are the places where Varda has lived.
Both the art installations and the trapeze are examples of the large, benevolent machines Varda favors.
So is the hand-cart with the projector, pushed through the streets showing movie footage.
The Little Girls and the Artifiical Flowers
This is a small "theme and variations", showing the kinds of artificial flowers there are.
(Varda also had the magic young man create an artificial flower in Le Lion volatil.)
A shot of the flowers lined up, has the flowers and pier posts behind make a series of verticals.
Meanwhile, one girl's striped bathing suit makes a series of horizontals, as does the one line of the pier behind.
A shot soon after has one red flower, which echoes the red of her striped bathing suit.
The front doors of Varda's home are painted in the strong verticals that Varda often features in her compositions.
These also use brilliant colors.
The brooms at the end are beautiful. They form a familiar Varda motif: a look at the visual variety of a kind of object.
Such series in Varda usually explores all the different shapes and colors in which a category of objects comes.
The brooms in The Beaches of Agnès are especially rich in their bright varied color. Varda also has them tilted
so that their lines form interesting compositions.