I have been in love with film since I was a little girl, and having also been a feminist for as long as I can remember, I was infatuated with the women I saw on the screen. From Shirley Temple to Audrey Hepburn, a number of breathtaking faces and vulnerably powerful spirits have become characters in my own life, their essence guiding, questioning, inspiring me like loving ancestors I never met. And yet, it wasn’t until I ran into Agnès Varda through her 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I that I fell in love with a woman who works behind the camera.
In truth, Agnès inhabits both spaces. She is absent from the screen in her fiction films, but we follow her peregrinations in her documentaries. In Gleaners, Agnès lets the camera pan very close to her wrinkled hands, to the white roots of her usually dark brown hair. In her 2008 autobiographical documentary The Beaches of Agnès, she brings the camera equally close to the face and hair of her beloved husband, fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy, who is dying of AIDS at the time. She lingers on a lesion, then continues her exploration of the adored aging skin of the soon-to-be-dead father of her two children.
Through the years film has revealed the body in many incarnations—eroticized, raped, slashed, at times in contagious ecstasy. And yet, how often do we see something as natural as cellulite? We see it in the mirror often enough, but as far as film is concerned it is an anomaly, as are aging faces that allow the camera to almost kiss their wrinkles, to brush against whitening, thinning hair as Agnès so lyrically does.
Born in Brussels in 1928 to a Greek father and a French mother, Agnès spent the war years in the fishing town of Pointe Courte, where she returned to make her first feature. Hoping to tell the stories of the fishing families she’d grown up with, Agnès decided to cast them to play themselves. She had studied photography and had seen no more than a dozen films when she decided to make Pointe Courte with a tiny budget, which she covered through a small inheritance she’d received and the money her mother made through selling some of her possessions to help her.
Due to a shortfall of funding, Agnès shot the film without sound and then back in Paris found people to dub the work. In spite of her struggles, her film was embraced by the intellectual film community and screened at Cannes. The French New Wave, which also sought to make realistic, character-focused films with small budgets, was still a few years away. In film history, Agnès, although only 28 when the film came out, is seen as the New Wave’s ancestor and grandmother.
Agnès, who has her own production company ciné-tamaris, was also the only woman who participated in the movement, which boasted Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais and her husband Jacques, among others. Not only was Agnès the sole female voice in this movement, she has always advocated for women to join her, to learn the craft of filmmaking, pick up our cameras and tell stories that need to be told. Through her films and her political activism, Agnès has spent her life trying to give us, her fellow women, a voice.
In Beaches she explains that she has come to realize that the only way to forward the feminist movement is to work as a community, and yet, she knows our journey together is not a simple, rose-scented one. She recognizes that there is also rage in feminism and she took that rage and created Mona, the drifter character in her 1985 film, Vagabond. Mona walks through the French winter, carrying a tent in her backpack and refusing to follow any of the rules she grew up with, from showering and washing her clothes to being thankful for the help of strangers. Angry, unconcerned with others and bewitching, Mona, whose frozen corpse is found at the beginning of the film, makes it impossible for us not to attach ourselves to her, though we know we’ll be wounded as she freezes to death at the end.
Like Mona, Cleo from Cleo from 5 to 7, keeps us thinking about death as we join her through her Parisian wanderings. The film starts with a tarot reading that presages Cleo’s death and throughout the rest of the film, we watch the self-absorbed, beautiful singer Cleo really see the world for the first time as she learns that her departure from it is imminent.
The world Cleo sees is the world of Agnès: cats that scurry, curl, watch us. Screens split by walls and doorframes that remind us of our fragmented experience, an experience that reflects itself right back to us through the mirrors we encounter everywhere in Agnès’s films. We see the world but it stares back at us. We see the world but what we see is a reflection of something else, of people walking by wall-length mirrors, lost to us and perhaps to themselves. What Cleo and Agnès’s many characters (including herself) seem to see in the mirrors that populate Agnès’s films is a questioning of our essence and our purpose, but also a call to action. A call to open our eyes and our mouths and to tell the stories we need to share before life slips away like someone walking by a mirror unaware of their own reflection.
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