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Agnes Varda between Film, Photography, and Art

Agnes Varda between Film, Photography, and Art

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Agnes Varda between Film, Photography, and Art

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Oct 17, 2017


Agnès Varda is a prolific film director, photographer, and artist whose cinematic career spans more than six decades. Today she is best known as the innovative “mother” of the French New Wave film movement of the 1950s and '60s and for her multimedia art exhibitions. Varying her use of different media, she is a figure who defies easy categorization. In this extensively researched book, Rebecca J. DeRoo demonstrates how Varda draws upon the histories of art, photography, and film to complicate the overt narratives in her works and to advance contemporary cultural politics. Based on interviews with Varda and unparalleled access to Varda's archives, this interdisciplinary study constructs new frameworks for understanding one of the most versatile talents in twentieth and twenty-first century culture.
Lançado em:
Oct 17, 2017

Sobre o autor

Rebecca J. DeRoo is Associate Professor in the Department of Performing Arts and Visual Culture at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the author of The Museum Establishment and Contemporary Art, recipient of the 2007 Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies. She cocurated the retrospective Agnès Varda: (Self-)Portraits, Facts and Fiction at the George Eastman Museum (2016).

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  • Critics of the period praised the film for its creative camerawork and production outside the film industry, while understanding Varda as a perhaps naïve but radical director making a first film without knowing cinema or film criticism.

  • Varda also suggests the duplicitous aspect of the gilded, proper domestic life. The counternarrative silently undermines the golden quality of the final scene because Varda has portrayed the results of this type of unquestioning happiness.

  • Varda has asserted that the inspiration for the inno- vative structure of her film was William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, with its alter- nating stories taking place in the same geographic location but not intersecting.

  • When Emilie, François’s mistress, takes Thérèse’s place in the home, she is similarly represented by a sequence of shots of anonymous hands fulfilling chores that strikingly resemble those of the first wife.

  • How to describe Sabine Mamou? . . .She was a film editor.She agreed to play Mathieu’s mom.A mother and her son.Emilie and Martin.In retrospect, I see she was another me.

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Agnes Varda between Film, Photography, and Art - Rebecca J. DeRoo

Agnès Varda between Film, Photography, and Art

Agnès Varda between Film, Photography, and Art

Rebecca J. DeRoo


University of California Press, one of the most distinguished university presses in the United States, enriches lives around the world by advancing scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Its activities are supported by the UC Press Foundation and by philanthropic contributions from individuals and institutions. For more information, visit www.ucpress.edu.

University of California Press

Oakland, California

© 2018 by The Regents of the University of California

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: DeRoo, Rebecca J., author.

Title: Agnès Varda between film, photography, and art / Rebecca J. DeRoo.

Description: Oakland, California : University of California Press, [2018] | Includes bibliographical references and index. | Description based on print version record and CIP data provided by publisher; resource not viewed.

Identifiers: LCCN 2017007722 (print) | LCCN 2017011585 (ebook) | ISBN 9780520968202 (ebook) | ISBN 9780520279407 (cloth : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780520279414 (pbk. : alk. paper)

Subjects: LCSH: Varda, Agnès, 1928—Criticism and interpretation. | Women motion picture producers and directors--France--Criticism and interpretation.

Classification: LCC PN1998.3.V368 (ebook) | LCC PN1998.3.V368 D47 2017 (print) | DDC 791.43023/3092—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017007722

Manufactured in the United States of America

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For my parents



1. Reinterpreting Varda: The Mother of the New Wave Reframes Its Histories

2. Complicating Neorealism and the New Wave: La Pointe Courte

3. Filmic and Feminist Strategies: Questioning Ideals of Happiness in Le Bonheur

4. Reconsidering Contradictions: Feminist Politics and the Musical Genre in L’une chante, l’autre pas

5. The Limits of Documentary: Identity and Urban Transformation in Daguerréotypes

6. Melancholy and Merchandise: Documenting and Displaying Widowhood in L’île et elle

7. Varda Now: Autobiography, Memory, and Retrospective





Many wonderful people and institutions have helped me bring this book to fruition. I am deeply grateful to Agnès Varda, and her daughter Rosalie Varda, for so generously sharing time, ideas, collections, and the Ciné-Tamaris archives, making this project possible. I am indebted to Anita Benoliel, Cecilia Rose, Stéphanie Scanvic, and Julia Fabry for facilitating my research at Ciné-Tamaris and for their ever-warm welcome. The interpretations offered here are, of course, my own.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to my mentors, colleagues, and friends who offered scholarly sources and insights, read work in progress, and supported and encouraged me. They have strengthened this project in more ways than I can ever describe. My sincere thanks go to my editor Raina Polivka, the University of California Press staff, and the two anonymous manuscript reviewers for their rigorous and helpful readings. I am grateful for opportunities to present early versions of this work at conferences and lectures, and for stimulating discussions that have enriched this book.

For generous funding of my project in its early stages, I thank the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Association of University Women. An American Philosophical Society Franklin Research Grant and Faculty Development Grant from Rochester Institute of Technology supported subsequent archival research. I am grateful for the RIT College of Liberal Arts Faculty Research Grant, Faculty Development Fund Grant, and Publication Cost Grant, which supported archival research, permissions, and reproductions for various components of the book’s extensive illustration program. The Paul and Francena Miller Fellowship supported a fruitful semester of research leave to bring the manuscript to completion.

The outstanding research librarians and interlibrary loan staff at Rochester Institute of Technology and Bryn Mawr College offered invaluable assistance in tracking down hard-to-obtain sources. For sharing their documentation and collections with me and assisting in my research endeavors, I thank the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, BNF Département des Estampes et de la Photographie, Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA), Bibliothèque du Film, Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, Archives Françaises du Film du CNC, Bibliothèque Forney, Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine, Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, and Institut National de l’Audiovisuel. These collections were critical to developing my interpretations of the connections between Varda’s work and histories of cinema, art, photography, and visual culture.

I honor pioneering critics and scholars and contemporary colleagues for establishing and ever expanding the literature on Varda’s oeuvre. In this project, I have sought to represent patterns in this literature and the range of scholarly interpretation, both past and present. When possible, I have used English translations of sources; I have used English film subtitles for consistency with occasional minor alterations. Other translations, unless indicated differently, are my own. I use Varda’s French film titles and English translations.

It was a delight to work with Jurij Meden, Curator of Film Exhibitions at the George Eastman Museum, in putting together the 2016 film retrospective Agnès Varda: (Self-) Portraits. Facts and Fiction. I warmly thank the College of Liberal Arts at Rochester Institute of Technology, the George Eastman Museum, and colleagues for undertaking this collaborative project.

Special thanks go to my chairs and colleagues in the Department of Performing Arts and Visual Culture and the Museum Studies Program, and to the deans of the College of Liberal Arts at RIT for their enthusiasm and collegial community. I thank my undergraduate and graduate mentors for their intellectual example and unflagging support.

I am so thankful for my husband and son, who have accompanied me with love throughout this project. I thank my extended family for their ever-present caring and kindness. I dedicate this book to my parents with love and gratitude.


Reinterpreting Varda


At the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Agnès Varda received the Palme d’honneur, a lifetime achievement award, which recognized her directorial career spanning more than six decades (fig. 1). The Palme d’honneur recognizes directors who have not previously won a Palme d’Or in competition at Cannes but whose work has had global impact. Past recipients include Woody Allen, Manoel de Oliveira, Clint Eastwood, and Bernardo Bertolucci. Varda is the first French and female director to receive this distinction. Indeed, she is one of the most important and prolific female and feminist filmmakers worldwide. Varda began her directorial career in 1950s Paris by founding her own production company and today also creates multimedia visual art exhibited globally. As this book will argue, working in dialogue with multiple aesthetic media and traditions has always been central to her practice.

Fig. 1. Agnès Varda receives the Palme d’honneur at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, accompanied by actor Jane Birkin, who presented the award, and Master of Ceremonies Lambert Wilson.

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images.

This Palme d’honneur recognition occurred within the wider context of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, which was dubbed by critics the year of women in the spotlight.¹ Organized as a response to concerns about the under-representation of women at the festival and in the field of cinema more broadly, the festival was planned to highlight women’s accomplishments. In many respects, Varda’s award makes sense in this context. Yet little of her diverse career was acknowledged at the Cannes festival or during the presentation of the award at the closing ceremony. Actor Jane Birkin (who has starred in Varda’s work) bestowed the award, and Varda gave an acceptance speech, evoking some of her most famous films. The festival used one film sequence to represent her career, from her 1961 fiction film Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7). It depicts a moment when the character of Cléo, a blonde pop star, reclines in her bed in a negligée, as she gazes provocatively at her male lover (fig. 2). In some ways, this selection makes sense—Cléo is Varda’s most famous film—a critical and box office success in its day that continues to be screened, televised, and streamed in the present. Cléo screened in competition at Cannes in 1962 and was re-presented fifty years later under the rubric of Cannes Classics, attesting to its vibrancy and legacy. It is an iconic film, made at the height of the French New Wave movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and was used by Cannes to invoke Varda’s long-standing reputation as the innovative mother of the New Wave.²

Fig. 2. Cléo (Corinne Marchand) gazes at her lover in Cléo de 5 à 7 .

Photograph by Liliane de Kermadec, © Ciné-Tamaris, 1962.

The New Wave movement was one of the most celebrated film movements of the twentieth century.³ Critics and scholars typically view François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) (1958) and Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) (1959) as formally marking the beginning of the movement, with Varda’s first film La Pointe Courte (1954) praised as an important precursor, anticipating the hallmarks of the movement. Critics from the Cahiers du cinéma, the journal most prominently associated with the movement, were articulating a platform that came to define the New Wave as a rebellion against the established tradition of cinéma de qualité (quality cinema) and the subordination of the individual director within the larger state-subsidized studio system. Cahiers critics cast the New Wave as a young generation of directors opposing big-budget studio productions and literary adaptations, instead favoring more economical, improvisational filmmaking, often shooting on location and experimenting with film form and genre. Cahiers critics praised directors for their personal experimentation with cinema and its languages, which was considered aesthetically radical but otherwise cast in largely formal, apolitical terms.⁴ This notion of individual expression via film form as on par with the other arts—articulated in both theory and practice—made the New Wave a central moment of canon formation in the history of modern cinema.⁵

Cléo was made in 1961 at the height of the New Wave (which spanned from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s). The film portrays a female pop star awaiting the results of a biopsy, who, in crisis, breaks with expectations and roams the streets of Paris seeking solace with the individuals she encounters (presented as chapters of the film).⁶ Varda’s playful, creative camera, which follows Cléo’s trajectory through contemporary Paris, and her experiments with cinematic narration and editing were seen to exemplify hallmarks of the movement—the expression of the individual director and experimentation with film form. This has made Cléo an iconic New Wave film, and the sequence at Cannes recognizes and affirms this history.

Yet the choice of the sequence from Cléo illuminates another set of dynamics. In subsequent decades, as part of a broader reconsideration of the cultural politics of the New Wave, both the film and Varda herself have come to be interpreted as feminist. Scholars focus on the transformation of Cléo from passive, erotic object to active subject. For example, in the first half of the film, the camera and the gazes of other characters linger on Cléo’s body, conveying her passivity as an object. In the film’s second half, point-of-view shots represent her increasing agency as an active, seeing subject.⁷ Yet Cannes chose an earlier sequence, a moment of Cléo’s objectification, without hinting at the character’s, or the film’s, feminist trajectory.

In fact, the selection of the sequence at Cannes reinforces gendered notions of creativity often associated with the New Wave, underscored in Geneviève Sellier’s revisionist study, Masculine Singular: The French New Wave.⁸ (Varda is the only female director associated with the movement.) Sellier explains that the audacity of masculine New Wave directors was often associated with the depiction of modern, scandalously sexual and objectified representations of female characters that were seen to challenge normative roles for women as wives and mothers. Yet Cannes selected a sequence that seems to naturalize this gender dynamic of the movement without overtly acknowledging it. Perhaps this is because the blonde starlet is also part of Cannes’ identity. Vanessa Schwartz and others have demonstrated the importance of paparazzi and press photographs of actresses such as Brigitte Bardot in the 1950s and 1960s in marketing French film and the festival. Photographs and footage from the 1962 festival depict the star of Cléo, Corinne Marchand, from the moment of her arrival at the local train station, and feature her and other actresses strolling and posing on the beach. The selection of the Cléo sequence at the festival rehearses often unacknowledged notions of the New Wave and Cannes’ priorities.

In the publicity leading up to the 2015 Cannes festival, the organizers described their decision to honor Varda that year: Her work and her life are infused with the spirit of freedom, the art of driving back boundaries, a fierce determination and a conviction that brooks no obstacles. . . . Simply put, Varda seems capable of accomplishing everything she wants.⁹ Marking the year of women in the spotlight, their comments portray Varda in a triumphant manner, as a free, motivated individual who overcomes obstacles—but this celebratory characterization obscures the many challenges Varda faced—and worked to make visible. Unlike the typical acceptance speech, in which the awardee thanks those who have contributed to his or her success, Varda’s remarks expressed gratitude for a "palme of resistance and endurance, and acknowledged all the inventive and courageous directors who aren’t in the spotlight."¹⁰ Whereas the festival attempts to gloss over obstacles with the prize and its narrative, Varda makes them visible with her statement.

The Palme d’honneur is in itself somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, it distinguishes filmmakers of unrivaled accomplishment, but on the other it recognizes figures whose work has never before been considered most worthy of the juries’ recognition in competition. It demonstrates the problems with retrospective canonization; it does not explore why Varda has not been recognized previously in Cannes’ Palme d’Or competition, but claims association with her success by recognizing her influence. Moreover, the Palme d’honneur given in the year of women in the spotlight and the appellation mother of the New Wave recognize her importance, albeit in terms that are gender dependent and that identify her outside the norm. Even though she made her first feature film just a few years before Godard and Truffaut and was only a few years older,¹¹ the title mother suggests she is connected to the movement yet also out of synch.

In contrast, this book sees as revelatory the contradictions and tensions that persistently surround critical reception of Varda and her work. It makes visible the disciplinary lenses applied to her work and examines the unspoken social or critical assumptions that inform these perspectives. Varda’s own statement of resistance and endurance in her Cannes acceptance speech suggests the dynamics surfaced in this study. But Varda hasn’t always been so direct in articulating her position. Rather, as this book shows, across her career Varda inserted politics and social commentary covertly, by orchestrating a range of tacit visual references that are not explicitly acknowledged in her films’ narratives. Thus, this book is not about Cléo as a New Wave film, which has been the subject of many interesting studies. Rather, I aim to bring to light alternative, but no less important, characteristics of her oeuvre.

Historically, critics were baffled by Varda making a feature-length film and embarking on a directorial career without cinematic experience or training. Unlike many of her New Wave colleagues, she did not write as a critic or openly participate in the theoretical debates of the period. Although she is sometimes viewed as part of the Left Bank (the more political arm of the New Wave movement), she has often been cast at the fringes of the critical and directorial culture associated with the Cahiers du cinéma.¹² I demonstrate that through her work she participated in this context in many ways that have not been acknowledged, and that her films’ dialogues with a variety of visual traditions and media further complicate these narratives.

In recent years, Varda has been producing autobiographical film and artwork, and in 2012, she released a comprehensive DVD box set. Thus, audiences today are familiar with her earlier work in photography and her training in art history as well as her cinematic work and contemporary multimedia art.¹³ As a result, there is a flourishing interest in exploring her career.¹⁴ Yet more work is needed to understand her engagement with a range of aesthetic traditions and the politics this raises, which I argue is a core characteristic of her oeuvre that reframes some of the central narratives of modern cinema.¹⁵ In fact many of the contradictions of her career stem from trying to fit Varda into conventional film categories and canons. Her distinctive way of working didn’t fully fit historical critical narratives that viewed the New Wave in depoliticized terms of personal experimentation with film form; by examining these aspects of her work, I rethink and reframe some of these well-established narratives.

Proceeding chronologically, from the beginning of Varda’s career in the 1950s to the present, this book focuses on moments where Varda’s invocation of different artistic traditions within film opens onto complex commentary on broader aesthetic, theoretical, feminist, and political discussions.¹⁶ I reinterpret some of her best-known films, but also focus attention on other less familiar works that merit further consideration. I reassess individual works with the goal of interrogating Varda’s visual dialogues to reconstruct the cultural politics of the periods in which they were made. This process of reading new strands of meaning across Varda’s oeuvre relies on a richly interdisciplinary approach. The result is a new cultural history of Varda and her work that makes clear how she actively engaged and subtly broadened some of the most advanced aesthetic and political discourse of her day.

Many of Varda’s sophisticated commentaries on controversial issues of her time have receded from view in the biographical frameworks in which her work often has been considered. The range of her engagement in her work with cinema, art history, photography, and visual culture has not been fully recognized.¹⁷ This decontextualization of Varda’s work has been compounded by the frequent emphasis on her exceptionality within her fields of practice.¹⁸ In contrast, I view Varda’s work as a projection of cultural history that illuminates multiple disciplines, including art history, cinema studies, visual culture, and modern French history.

Each chapter focuses on one of Varda’s works and questions its familiar interpretations as well as standard assumptions about Varda that have been drawn from these works. I analyze visual references in the films, connecting them to wider cultural politics of the time. In the process, I explain how earlier interpretations of her oeuvre sometimes reiterate the very expectations of the field that Varda sought to challenge. Yet in revising conventional and historical understandings of Varda and her place, I take the misreadings and misunderstandings of Varda as essential to understanding the reception history of her work because they reveal the critical, institutional, and social assumptions of the period and field.

I approach Varda as constructing a complex and subversive artistic dialogue that drew art of the past into the present so as to mediate and elucidate a broad range of controversial social and political concerns. Thus, this book is not a traditional director study. Rather, it is an attempt to understand the histories that have produced a figure such as Varda, reconciling the multiple images of her as a filmmaker that have emerged over time, and interrogating those perceptions and their sources in order to comprehend more fully both Varda and the varied contexts in which she has worked.

In the twenty-first century, Varda’s multimedia artwork has received considerable attention.¹⁹ For example, her 2006 multimedia art installation L’île et elle occupied the entire Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris. Varda’s expansive exhibition combined film, photography, objects, and interactive environments to explore her relationship with the island of Noirmoutier, where she regularly vacationed with her late husband, Jacques Demy. The complex and evocative installation explored diverse themes including the commercialization of this once quaint community, Varda’s own memories of her husband and marriage, and her more recent experience of widowhood. While I analyze her multimedia installation in chapter 6, this book is decidedly different in its interests: I attend to how her films reference other aesthetic media in both direct and more nuanced ways. My study analyzes how Varda’s multimedia investments significantly predated her current multimedia artwork. Varda’s art exhibition in the twenty-first century has been represented as though it is a departure or evolution from her earlier work, whereas I believe that she has worked across her career within multimedia dialogues, even if she wasn’t as actively engaged in multimedia production.

A central argument of this book is that Varda draws on a range of visual references in her films—evoking photography, cinema, art, and visual culture. Varda trained in art history at the Ecole du Louvre, and studied photography and practiced as a photographer before turning to film in the 1950s. Her cinematic work reveals a rich knowledge of these traditions; dialogue among them is a core characteristic that unites her diverse work across the long trajectory of her prolific career.

In her recently released DVD compilation of her films, she describes the progression of her career in terms of the three lives of Agnès, calling herself photographer, filmmaker, and visual artist. This chronology narrates a largely sequential identity—her practice in photography in the late 1940s and ’50s before becoming immersed in cinema in the 1950s and ’60s, and her visual art practice in the twenty-first century. Yet, as I argue in the pages that follow, her work always moved between these various modes of artistic thought.

In revealing Varda’s cinematic engagement with a range of aesthetic traditions, I open up her works’ complex artistic strategies and contributions to contemporary cultural politics. I undertake this task not with the aim of reconstituting the canon of her work or that of New Wave film more broadly. My focus is instead on providing a series of close readings that draw out how Varda has consistently merged aesthetics and politics in ways that are complex, innovative, and under-recognized.

With the global waning of celluloid film projected in theaters, and film appearing across a variety of platforms and media from digital incarnations to the art museum as well as visual artists working in film, video, and moving image work, there is a proliferation of interest in intermediality in the fields of cinema studies and art history.²⁰ Varda’s work presaged this concern, perhaps explaining why these dimensions of her practice can be seen now, when they were overlooked historically. I propose that Varda shows us how to pursue intermediality without losing sight of the rich distinctiveness of artistic media, traditions, and experience.²¹ Varda doesn’t collapse film, photography, and objects; rather, she films them, restages them, and otherwise portrays one medium within another to underscore their differences. She puts diverse media and conventions into dialogue to comment on them, with an understanding of their various histories and properties. She shows us what they can (and cannot) capture; she lets their conventions and histories shape her representation of her subjects and the expectations of her audiences even as she plays with or subverts those conventions.²² This study contributes to a broader movement to explore these important and productive sites of intersection between cinema studies and art history that invigorate and mutually strengthen these fields.²³

For example,

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