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Agnes Varda: The Feminist Maverick Filmmaker

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One of my favorite movies of all time is Agnes Varda’s “Vagabond”, a film about an 18-year old woman escaping the constraints of her 9 to 5 office job to wander the French landscape. She lives off of the goodwill of strangers and exalts in the freedom from responsibility by sleeping in dilapidated mansions and ditches. It is a substantive piece in director Varda’s superb library of films deconstructing the various societal narratives we absorb. From our infantile perceptions of happiness (“Le Bonheur”) to how anticipatory anxiety corrodes our humanity (“Cleo from 5 to 7”), Agnes Varda is the ultimate cinematic maverick and one of the first filmmakers to reject the support of major studios in order to make movies using her own personal vision.

Her 1955 debut “La Pointe Courte”, a series of communal and romantic vignettes in a Mediterranean fishing town was one of the earliest examples of “independent” film-making. The film was made by Varda’s own production company Cine-Tamaris and was funded by family inheritance and loans from friends. She primarily used non-actors as her cast, shot on-location, and retained complete script-writing and directorial control, conditions that were unheard of in 1950s France. “La Pointe Courte” itself is an achievement of hyper-realism, whereby Varda focused on capturing life as it happened, exploring the lives of fisherman, their families, and a couple dealing with the crisis of commitment, where the biggest source of conflict is a young man facing legal repercussions for fishing in an authorized zone.

Gender is not incendiary to Varda’s films, and is in fact often integral to her characters’role in her stories beyond just a particular conflict. In “Cleo from 5 to 7” Cleo, the pop singer protagonist, is often condescended to and treated in an infantile manner by her male lover and male songwriters, whilst being fascinated by the freedom held by a  woman taxi-driver, and her female friend’s joy in being painted naked.

Varda also made it a habit to showcase how how one’s gendered experience facilitated their decision making.  Francois, the protagonist of “Le Bonheur,” is a happily married carpenter with children who decides to have an affair with a postal worker as a means of accentuating his own happiness. He believes that by increasing his own happiness, he will in turn increase the happiness of his own family, which Varda suggests through the overly-sunny and bubbly aesthetic of the film, is a rather immature worldview to have. Francois putting his own particular brand of happiness as the core of his own family’s is indicative of the patriarchal narrative of the father’s worldview being the one to be diffused into the  family, though Varda emphasizes that this can have tragic consequences.

Like author Toni Morrison, Agnes Varda realized that gender filters people’s perceptions of reality and how they are meant to fit into it. Varda’s hyper-realistic directing and usage of non-professional actors (the family in “Le Bonheur was a legitimate family in real life) makes this notion all the more organic and truthful, ultimately putting her work in the “must-watch” category.

(featured image source Wikimedia Commons- Festival Internacional de Cine Guadalajara)

 

 

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