We dedicated the Secret Movie Saturday program this month (March 2020) to commemorate the Mother of French New Wave, Agnès Varda (1928-2019). Among several other awards and nominations, Varda had received the Palme d’Or honor at the Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, an Academy Honorary Award, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. How her films influence us is beyond words. Here are some personal thoughts on some of her notable works:
Visages, villages (2017)
Normally I’m not a fan of documentaries but goddamn this movie is so beautiful I cried many, many times. What did I deserve to see a friendship formed between a 88 year old extremely passionate filmmaker and a 33 year old extroverted artist?
The cinematography is fantastic, the music is visceral, and here are some favorite parts from the movie:
1. JR saying “I’m 33 year old, but for you, I’d like to say you’ve had 88 springs”
2. The Guy installation that was washed away by the unforgiving sea just in one night
3. The stevedores’ wives installation
4. The scene in Louvre where JR pushes Agnès’ wheelchair in such an infantile manner
5. The heart-wrenching scene where they traveled to meet Godard but Godard refused to open his door and left Agnés crying
6. The final credit of the movie “A movie by AV and JR. AV for Agnès Varda and JR for JR”
Mona is a vagabond and her fleeting existence affects people that she meets during the journey. Some love her, some hate her, but the similarity is that she’s memorable due to her nonchalance and charm. These memories are told verbally in interviews by the police investigating her death, interspersed with her actual meeting with them prior to her decease. Slowly, it’s revealed that she becomes a vagabond as a form of resistance towards the system. She used to work for bosses, but now, she doesn’t want to. Later on when money is tighter and she has no choice, she starts to work again.
To me, this serves as an irony that we are so deeply embedded in the system that our resistance only means being forced to follow it even further. The social critique (if intended) is there but I found it hard to sympathize with Mona because she’s smug and entitled for a living*. Also, the ending is too disturbing. I don’t think I can sleep tonight.
Is this supposed to make me reflect that apparently I’m still one of those capitalists who think people have to succumb to the system in order to afford basic living?
Le Bonheur (1965)
Yellow represents Therese, blue represents Emilie. This is a story about a stereotypically happy family: Francois is a carpenter while Therese is a dressmaker while also the homemaker. They live happily as husband and wife with two kids. Soon, fate twists Francois with Emilie, a beautiful postal worker whom he falls in love with. But Francois still loves Therese and doesn’t want to part with her. He later convinces her to accept his affair, much to his despair.
I don’t know what to opine from this movie. Some reviews say this is Varda’s revenge against the patriarchy by painting le bonheur (happiness) for women as subscribing to the feminine stereotypes: blonde, beautiful, loves wearing dresses, does feminine jobs, serves their man happily, not complaining when the man cheats… the list goes on. The characters are one dimensional, perhaps intentional.
I concur with above descriptions, nonetheless I doubt that most audience who are unfamiliar with Varda’s feminism understand her sarcasm. This is why I can’t give a definite rating. Le Bonheur is still a beautiful movie, though, with its pastel tone and spectacels of nature. Still a must see.
Les Plages d’Agnès (2008)
“Were you a movie buff?”
“I’d only seen 10 movies by age 25.”
Agnes Varda may be known as the Mother of the French New Wave, but beyond that, she is an artist, a mother, a friend, and overall, a wholesome human being. In this autobiography, she released parts of herself, unfiltered. I loved her honesty, her vulnerability, her compassion as shown in this documentary. This woman loves Jacques so much that it physically ached me whenever she spoke about him. I love you, Agnes. Reading the description of the movie, I thought to myself, “Wow how narcissistic” but then again this documentary isn’t about Agnes but more of her passion to art and her pure sensitivity as a human being. But even if it were a narcissistic documentary, hey, after all it’s the Agnes Varda. She could make a 24 hour movie about herself talking and I’d just watch it, for all I know.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
We follow a slice of life of Cleo, a famous singer, at the first day of summer that year, the longest day in a year. She is waiting a doctor test result that evening and she is worried that she might have cancer. In 1.5 hours of Cleo’s life, this waiting period has changed her life. Under pressure, she starts to see her surrounding differently; she is being superstitious, she is annoyed by her lover, she despises her musician friends, she feels as if strangers are looking at her funny. These are the longest hours of her life.
(Also, in 1.5 hours she’s able to go places. I was partially inspired to make the Jakartan version of this movie, but while waiting for 1.5 hours the woman is trapped in a traffic jam at Kuningan instead.)
La Pointe-Courte (1955)
Agnes Varda confessed somewhere that she wasn’t a film buff when she was young. Perhaps, she added, she had only seen 10 movies by the time she was 25.
Today it’s my turn to be 25 and I watched this debut of her. Sadly, this is not the tenth movie I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Life’s good. Thank you, Agnes.
Jakarta Cinema Club