Beginning on April 17th, the works of French photographer and auteur, Agnès Varda, will be on show at the Shanghai Film Art Center. The installment is part of the 2012 Croisement Festival, whose aim is to strengthen the understanding of French culture in China. The exhibition, "The beaches of Agnès Varda in China, 1957 – 2012,” will feature cinema, photo and video installations. In addition, there will be a nightly screening of her films. She will introduce her latest film, the autobiographical Les plages d’ Agnès, in person on April 17th. A conversation with Chinese filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai will immediately follow the screening. The exhibition runs through April 22nd.
Varda was born Arlette Varda in Ixelles, Belgium, the daughter of a Greek engineer and a woman of French origins. Amidst the 1940 Battle of Belgium, Varda and her family escaped to Sète, France, where she spent her teenage years. After studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, she worked for the Théâtre National Populaire in Paris as the official photographer. She was increasingly interested in film, but not as a theatergoer. (She claims to have seen very few films before making her first in 1954.) She may have seen film as an extension of her training as a photographer.
Each Varda film tiptoes a line between documentary and fiction. Each setting is as important as each character; and each character is allowed to live the banal existence of reality. Varda realized, as a photographer might, that everyday, un-sensationalized life could be moving if captured in the right light.
Varda is often credited with being an important precursor to La Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave. This well-known film genre of youthful iconoclasm, however, was split down the middle by the Parisian river Seine. On one side is the famous clan of movie-crazed directors known to all cinema buffs: François Tuffant, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and the like. Across the river was a contingent dubbed The Left Bank, or Rive Gauche. This group, of which Varda is more closely associated, saw cinema as more fluid in the world of arts and literature. They viewed the “experimentalists” of the Right Bank, though not with vitriol, as being conformist and mainstream.
The Left Bank filmmakers had strong ties to the literary experiments of the nouveau roman style and often collaborated with the authors. Character and plot were less interesting as a focal point. Instead, individual points of view reigned supreme. (Characters were left to survive a subjective world, rather than creating a world as a platform for the characters to enliven.) A new approach to writing each novel or making each film was also essential.
Richard John Neupert, in his book A History of The French New Wave Cinema, refers to Varda’s filmmaking as “elegant realism.” Her first feature film, La Pointe Courte (1954), was a personal project. So much so that she established her own production company – more of a cooperative really, in that everyone involved in making the film was both financially and emotionally invested – to make it. As an outsider to the world of cinema, Varda was not afraid of bypassing long-held ideas of what a film should be. In the movie, a married couple, teetering on collapse and representing an alien high culture, meander through a small fishing village while acting out their personal neuroses: the husband, aloof and cool while fearing isolation, and the wife, nervous and guilty while almost willing her partner to stumble upon her previous affair.
The village, viewed more sympathetically and through an almost ethnographic lens, simultaneously undergoes its own plots: a child dies, a fisherman is jailed for lack of permits, and a young man arranges to be married. However, the two currents never join to coherence. The couple, problems seemingly unresolved, head to the train station. The village barely notices they were even present. No climax, no plot arc resolution, no reveal. La Pointe Courte exists as a film-length version of one of Varda’s photographs: a moment in time where the world and its characters coexist but do not necessarily intertwine.
Varda once described her second full-length film, Cléo de 5 à 7 (shown on April 20th), as “the portrait of a woman painted onto a documentary about Paris.” Indeed, the City of Lights has a constant presence, and the lingering shots of the streets and its meandering pedestrians capture it as if a filmic panegyric. Varda’s expertise is the way she avoids presenting the city as a series of postcards (describing Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris as a descendent of Cléo is not totally unjustifiable). Instead, the viewer is forced to spend time in Paris as if they had to physically walk from one scene to the next. The movie follows, second by second, a young Parisian pop singer from 5:00pm to 6:30pm (the title is a slight misnomer).
Varda restricts the fictional film from escaping reality by locking it into real time. The main character, Cléo, makes her way through the city both pursuing and avoiding appointments while waiting for a potentially disastrous medical diagnosis, melodrama via anticipation. She meanders through city blocks and emotions. She acts out childishly, self-obsesses and flickers between hairstyles.
Not unlike La Pointe Courte, the secondary-characters have the most interesting personalities. It even glances towards contemporary reality television: You tune-in to see the central provocateur run amok, but, as the credits roll, realize that they would be jejune and insipid if not for the colorful characters surrounding them. It is cinéma vérité with flourishes of color from The New Wave and an artful prescience.
Two more recent films will also be screened as part of the event: Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (April 18th), and her latest, Les plages d’ Agnès (April 17th). The former is more of a traditional documentary. Varda follows a variety of gleaners, from people who have traditionally scavenged newly harvested fields to urbanites who dumpster dive. In her 70s at the time of filming, Varda retains her artistic playfulness (seen through the delight she takes using a new handheld digital camera) while employing her experience to draw out the meditative ideals of the film. She becomes a gleaner herself by just documenting her subjects. Now in her 80s, the autobiographical Les plages d’ Agnès is possibly her last. She cannot quite shake the realization of Les glaneurs et la glaneuse as she sifts through her own memories and creates a self-portrait that embraces a lifetime of aesthetics and creativity.
While certainly heralded by film-buffs world-over, Varda does not reach the same level of notoriety and appreciation as some of the Right Bank, Cahiers du cinéma directors (notably Godard and Truffant). It is curious why. Her first film not only predated the movement by a good four years, but she was also the only female in a starkly men-only club. She has all the makings of a feminist icon: intelligent, creative and on the vanguard; quirky, cute and donning the same hairstyle for six decades and counting; sociopolitical, arty and short; ageless, modest and fearless. Her female characters from the middle of the 20th century are as knowingly defined as any (male or female) in the past decade: sharp, flippant, serpentine, sexy and filled with any number of competing emotions. Varda also oozes just as much cinematic nostalgia as one of your Scorcese’s; she just never played by the rules, so she has no need to codify them.
This particular retrospective also acts as a nice end cap for Varda’s foreign work. In 1957, she was invited by the Chinese Government for a two-month excursion to photograph the country. She was the first female foreign photographer to be allowed on an official visit. This is the final leg of her China tour (and at 83, perhaps her last visit to the country) after stops in Beijing and Wuhan.
Location: Shanghai Film Art Center: 160 Xinhua Lu, near Panyu Lu
Films are shown in French with Chinese subtitles, but Varda will take questions in English.
Tuesday 17 April:
4:00pm – 6:00pm : L’une chante, l’autre pas
6:00pm – 6:30pm : Introduction by Agnès Varda
6:30pm – 8:20pm : Les plages d’ Agnès, followed by a conversation between Agnès Varda and Wang Xiaoshuai
Wednesday 18 April:
4:30pm – 6:15pm : Sans toit ni loi
6:30pm – 7:00pm : Conversation with Agnès Varda
7:00pm – 8:30pm : Les glaneurs et la glaneuse
Thursday 19 April:
5:30pm – 7:30pm : Jacquot de Nantes
7:30pm : Conversation with Agnès Varda
Friday 20 April:
7:00pm – 8:30pm : Cléo de 5 à 7
Saturday 21 April:
2:00pm – 3:45pm : Varda tous courts/dvd 1
3:45pm – 5:30pm : Varda tous courts/dvd 2
7:00pm – 8:20pm : Le Bonheur
Sunday 22 April:
2:00pm – 3:10pm : Varda tous courts/dvd 3
3:30pm – 5:10pm : Les Cent et Une nuits
Blue Card: RMB 10 per screening. Buy four get one free.
4 by Agnès Varda: criterion link
Agnès Varda biography (European Graduate School)
“Parts and Labor” by Jeanette Samyn
A History of the French New Wave Cinema (amazon) by Richard Neupert
Roger Ebert reviews Les glaneurs et la glaneuse and Les plages d’ Agnès
WORDS: MICHAEL ARDAIOLO