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Chester Higgins / The New York Times

April 8, 2019

YANDAVA | Equality and Film: An Ode to Agnès Varda

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When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sharon Olds first began to submit her work to literary magazines in the ’70s, she received a response stating, “This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies’ Home Journal. The true subjects of poetry are . . . male subjects, not your children.” This was not by any means a unique stance at the time; indeed, these sorts of statements highlight precisely why representation of women’s stories and voices in art is so important.

One of my favorite woman’s voices in cinema is Agnès Varda, who passed away recently at the age of 90. In The Beaches of Agnès (2008), the late French autobiographical essay in which she reminisces about her life experiences, Varda revisits places that were meaningful to her and celebrates her 80th birthday. She recalls her participation in the feminist movement: “I tried to be a joyful feminist but I was very angry.”

Nevertheless, much of Varda’s work does come across as joyful — the kind of joy known by someone who lived life fully and unabashedly, finding poetry in the small things. Though dubbed the “grandmother of the French New Wave,” Varda’s work is much more accessible than that of contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, or even her husband, Jacques Demy. Theory, along with the technical and intellectual demands of cinema, was always secondary to its emotional resonances — “films always originate in emotions.”

Varda was also unique in that she had very little background in film when she first started making movies. At university, she studied art history and photography and began her career as a still photographer, taking pictures in Paris as an official photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire. “My influences were painting, books, and life,” she once stated in an interview. Her first film, La Pointe Courte (1954), made at age 26 and set in her small coastal hometown of Séte, contained many elements that would mark her filmography as a whole: Empathy and curiosity about the daily lives of ordinary people, her own personal experience and a willingness to let the film wander where it would, rather than to confine it to a clear narrative structure.

In Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), we follow a Parisian pop singer, Cléo, as she meets friends, takes a walk in the park and generally distracts herself before seeing a doctor to get the results of her biopsy. Despite the hustle and bustle of the city life around her, Cléo can only see indications of her own anguished mental state and the terror of her impending death. Here, Varda establishes herself as a master of New Wave techniques, weaving together the richness of her settings and all the little things that make up daily life with human emotion, connection and rich inner experience, demonstrating women’s experiences as human experience.

At the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, Varda joined several other women to protest gender inequality. But how many of the women watching, or even the women who were up there with her, knew just how much she’d expanded the portrayal of women beyond the narrow Hollywood conception of them as young and beautiful?

Le Bonheur (1965), Varda’s third feature film, is a shocking and ironic take on the style of male directors at the time, depicting a world in which women are disposable and easily interchangeable. Understandably, this caused a lot of controversy and anger from those who derided the film as anti-feminist and wanted Varda to criticize the patriarchy more overtly. However, I’d say that this is arguably the best aspect of her work — she makes you, the viewer, do the work, transforming cinema from a passive experience of simply receiving images and sounds to one of active engagement and critical thinking. In her own words, “Women have to make jokes about themselves, laugh about themselves, because they have nothing to lose.”

This “nothing to lose” attitude informs every aspect of her work and shows the richness,  unabashedness and the complexity of feeling with which she lived her life. Perhaps she sums this up best in a 2001 interview in which she stated, “Sometimes, even with a film I really love, I cannot tell the story precisely. Sometimes I cannot even tell what happened chronologically. But I’ll have flashes of some things. Sometimes it looks almost like a still. What I know, what I remember is the emotion I felt. I know I loved a film because I remember feeling good in the film or feeling odd when I came out, either in tears or touched or mad.”

Ramya Yandava is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ry86@cornell.edu. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Tuesdays  this semester.