“In my films, I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don’t want to show things, but to give people the desire to see.” So says French film director Agnès Varda, considered one of the forerunners of the French New Wave. Although talents such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais are credited with inaugurating the New Wave, it was Varda’s first film, La Pointe Courte (1954), preceding their breakthrough films by about five years, that actually spearheaded the movement.

Varda began by studying literature at the Sorbonne, art history at the Ecole du Louvre, and was a successful photojournalist and official photographer for the Théatre National Populaire before venturing into filmmaking.

La Pointe Courte, which was edited by Resnais, is about a troubled couple living in a small fishing village. Varda balances a highly stylized, almost literary portrayal of the couple with a rawer documentary-like treatment of the inhabitants of the village. With its low-budget, on-location shooting, use of nonprofessional actors, and self-reflexive emphasis on film form, La Pointe Courte already displayed the stylistic traits that would come to characterize the New Wave.

Varda has likened filmmaking to an artisanal process, akin to weaving cloth or sewing a garment by hand, and has referred to her creative modus operandi as “cinécriture,” a form of “cinematic writing” in which editing rhythms and camera work are comparable to choice of words and sentence structure in the work of a writer. Her subject matter has always arisen out of her own preoccupations and experiences, and in 1977 she formed her own production company to insure the integrity of her vision.

Varda’s themes have been consistent throughout her career and include the passage of time, memory, representation of place, people in the context of their communities, and the process of filmmaking itself. An unabashed feminist, she has frequently explored the cinematic representation of women.

Her second feature, Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961), follows a beautiful café singer for one afternoon as she awaits the results of a medical test which will tell her whether or not she has cancer. Cleo at first appears shallow and frivolous, given to uttering phrases like “as long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive” and “trying things on intoxicates me.” The film follows her through a shopping spree in a hat boutique, a cab ride with a friend, a rehearsal, an encounter with her suave but detached lover and a chance meeting with a soldier in a park which opens the possibility for a genuine connection with another person. More concerned with setting a mood than a strong narrative, the film elapses in something close to real time, and Varda’s eye for composition is evident in her lyrical and celebratory images of Paris.

In addition to her feature work, Varda has made many documentaries, including Salut les Cubains (1963), utilizing more than a thousand still photos she took on a trip through Cuba, and Murs Murs (1980), a meditation on the outdoor murals of Los Angeles and “who paints them, who pays for them, who looks at them, and how this city, which is the film capital of the world, reveals itself by its whispering walls.” Jacquot de Nantes (1990) is a loving tribute to the childhood experiences of her late husband, the director Jacques Demy, and Daguerreotypes (1975) is a portrait of the denizens of the Rue Daguerre in Paris, where Varda has lived for more than 40 years.

But Vagabond (1985) is Varda’s dark masterpiece, an almost clinically dispassionate account of Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), a young female drifter who has chosen to wander the French countryside at the onset of winter. The film begins with the discovery of Mona’s body in a ditch, where she succumbed to hypothermia after inadvertently becoming caught up in an archaic village harvest ritual where she was soaked with wine dregs. Varda’s own voice intones, “She had died a natural death without leaving a trace.”

But she did leave an impression on those she encountered in the months before her death, and the film flashes back to her interactions with a former philosopher-turned-goat farmer and his wife, a Tunisian vineyard worker, a junkyard dealer and a biology professor. Mona herself provides very little information about her motivations, except to say that she once worked as a secretary and took to wandering because “champagne on the road is better.”

Many scenes depict others describing their reactions to Mona — which ends up telling us more about them than Mona, for Mona defies explanation. Dirty, unkempt, smelly, ill-tempered and always on the move, Mona is the antithesis of femininity. Like Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, whose mantra was “I would prefer not to,” Mona opts out of any form of social contract, preferring a life of drifting on the margins.

Of her most recent work, which will be shown this weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre, Varda has said, “I wanted to glean images as one jots down travel notes.” For The Gleaners and I (2000), Varda crisscrossed France to investigate the lives of those who live off the excess waste of consumer culture. Partly a rumination on art history, part travelogue and part self-portrait, Varda’s film gives a voice to those who would otherwise remain invisible.

If there is one quality that can be said to characterize Varda’s work, it is her nonjudgmental objectivity. Her films, open-ended as they are, don’t seek to provide easy answers, but to provoke endless questions.

Deborah Hochberg writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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