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 | Visages villages / Faces Places

Classic Film and Television Home Page | Color in the Arts

Agnès Varda

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: Subjects

Characters: Objects: Locales and Settings: Society: Nature: Cinema: Artifice and nature: Filming near home:

Agnès Varda: Structure and Story Telling

Story structure:

Agnès Varda: Visual Style

Repeating Units and Recursion: Composition and Geometry: Color, often brilliant: Architecture: Reflection: Text and Pictures: Costumes: 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.

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 Object-Oriented Programming.

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:

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 music videos.

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.

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.

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 around them.

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 terrifying scenes.

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 detail.

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.

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, space, Lydie.

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 pattern.


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 center stage.

Later, in Two Years Later, Varda will include a woman singer at a festival in a spectacularly colored green wig.

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 camera movement.

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 their subject.

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" shot.

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, coordinated colors.

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.

Still Life

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 and souvenirs.

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:

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 through advertisements.


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, creatively arranged.

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.

Repeating Elements

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 Marey museum.

Still Life

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: We also have that Varda favorite artificial flowers, used to make art objects.


Some favorite kinds of Varda architecture return, often seen briefly:

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.

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.

The Photos

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.

Large Machines

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 Doors

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

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.

Visages villages / Faces Places

Visages villages (2017) (Faces Places) is a feature-length documentary co-directed with the artist JR.

Faces Places has a large number of Varda traditions, in subjects, storytelling and visual style. This is documented in the lists at the start of this article. Please do a search for "Faces Places" to highlight these connections.


I confess I'm not too interested in JR's art-work. It seems like another gimmicky stunt from the art world, without substance. Admittedly it is inoffensive. On the plus side, JR comes across as a nice person who treats his photographic subjects respectfully. And he and Varda are both willing to photograph people from out-of-the-way places and social classes.

JR and Varda go into small towns and photograph people in Faces Places. This recalls the work of pioneer filmmakers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon in the early 1900's North of England. See the compilation Electric Edwardians.

In The Gleaners and I Varda is compared to paintings of gleaners. In Faces Places people are regularly compared to their photos.


SPOILERS. The ride through the Louvre recreates a famous scene in Godard's Band of Outsiders (1964). Similarly, the motorcyclist in Cleo's Real Path Through Paris recreates the path in Varda's own Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961). In both original films people are on foot; in both recreations a vehicle is used (a motorcycle, a wheelchair).

The close-up shot of a goat with white hair over its eye seems to be borrowed from Varda's earlier Les 3 boutons. Both films have a woman discussing statistics about a goat dairy farm, in terms of the number of cheeses the farms put out.

The Linked Short Films: Letters, Music, Cabin

Like The Beaches of Agnès, Faces Places comes with a number or short films that are closely linked to the feature: Letters, Music, Cabin. I enjoyed all of these.

Adding shorts as "extras" on DVDs works out fine. I am concerned over the long run though, as technology changes. Will these three little films always be available, in any medium that shows Faces Places? Would it have been more prudent to incorporate these into Faces Places, or added them at the end as an appendix? They are very closely linked to Faces Places, and always belong with it.

The pebbles on the ground in Cabin recall the potatoes on the ground in The Gleaners and I. Both are example of the repeating units in Varda's films.