The Review/ Feature/
Agnès Varda: The Horror of Perfection
Exploring the dark side of the French film legend's gentle universe
Master filmmaker Agnès Varda passed away Thursday evening at the age of 90. The following piece was originally published on March 22, 2018, as part of TIFF’s retrospective Radical Empathy: The Films of Agnès Varda.
In The Gleaners and I (2000), the then 73-year-old Agnès Varda comments while combing her hair that old age is not her enemy, but her friend. Yet as she contemplates her own wrinkled hand through the lens of her digital camera, she strikes a darker tone. “This is my project: to film one hand with the other hand,” she says. “To enter into the horror of it. I am an animal.”
The starkness of Varda’s words contrasts greatly with the received wisdom that her films are serene, humanistic, and life-affirming. In an interview with Varda in Sight & Sound, Chris Darke used the word “lightness” to describe her style, but Varda disagreed: in her estimation, “lightness” tends to mean “don’t make things sad.” “Fluidity” is Varda’s own preferred term, the juxtaposition of images, words, and music to produce an emotional affect that flows tenderly and effortlessly, like water, or a gentle breeze. This is one of the reasons that her films so often feel warm and comforting — but while these qualities are certainly present in her work, she has also always strived to capture and reveal the sadness and sorrows of the human condition, the inherent horror of it, through the same subtle, ineffable approach.
Consider the conclusion of Vagabond (1985), which may be the most horrifying sequence Varda has ever filmed. (No spoilers ahead: the film opens with the protagonist’s dead body being pulled out of a ditch.) Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) is an arrogant young female drifter who never regrets nor apologizes, and in the film’s conclusion her defiance brings about her own downfall. After being exposed to chemicals while sleeping in a farmer’s field, Mona stumbles into a nearby village, where a sort of ritual is being held. Two men costumed as tree monsters “playfully” accost her, and the normally hard-bitten Mona reacts with utter terror. Covered in dirt and doused with wine, Mona flees to the nearby fields; dragging her feet and coughing painfully, she collapses into a ditch and lies with her petrified eyes open and staring, as if she were looking at her own death.
Yet if Vagabond is in many ways Varda’s most disturbing film, its harshness is mitigated by that fluidity which the filmmaker described to Darke, a way of seeing that understands how the seeming extremes of joy and horror are connected in human life. The bleakness of Mona’s end cannot erase the memories of the fleeting friendship she forges with the farm labourer Assoun (Yahiaoui Assouna), who touches her with his simplicity and kindness, or the delightful interlude where Mona, posing as a maid to gain access to a posh manor house, gets tipsy on cognac with the owner’s elderly aunt (Marthe Jarnias).
Both of the actors in these sequences are non-professionals, as is the young couple whom Varda chanced upon while making her film Documenteur (1981) in Los Angeles, and who provided that film with one of its most affecting sequences. While shooting a scene on the street, Varda came upon a nasty lovers’ quarrel between the two, who were quite likely drug addicts; always prepared for surprises, she panned her camera over to capture their confrontation. The argument is painful to watch: the man slaps the woman and degrades her, the woman cautiously tries to defend herself and fight back. But as this appalling scene continues, gentle piano music starts to play over top of it, overshadowing the offensive words and adding a layer of sadness, even tenderness, to an otherwise frightening scene. This is a marvellous example of Varda’s fluidity: by using music, she adds something new to the images, creating a flow of emotions that transcends the disturbing content while never allowing us to forget it.
Throughout her career, Varda has always looked life in the face, loved it for what it is, and accepted it wholeheartedly. In Jacquot de Nantes (1991), her tribute to her dying husband Jacques Demy, Varda intersperses her loving re-creation of Demy’s childhood with equally loving shots of her stricken husband in the present, depicting his pale face, thin hands and sad eyes so affectionately it is almost as if she is caressing Demy with her camera. Writing of Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961) — in which Corinne Marchand’s young pop singer anxiously awaits what she fears will be a fatal diagnosis from her doctor — the critic Gilberto Perez commented that by the end of the film, death holds no horror. Similarly, in Jacquot, Demy’s imminent death is no horror either: his decay is undoubtedly painful, but Varda finds a way to portray it with love and compassion. This is the larger dimension of Varda’s words from Gleaners: she enters into horror to find the beauty that still lies within it.
Indeed, the only unredeemable horror in Varda’s films is the kind of fake “perfection” which denies and flees from death, and from the acceptance of death. “Statuesque perfection leaves me unmoved,” says Jane Birkin in Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988), Varda’s fanciful portrait of the legendary singer, actress, and model. “What I like about a man or woman’s body is its flaws … I like the idea of time leaving its mark… perfection stinks.” It is almost as if Varda is speaking here rather than Birkin; it’s hardly surprising that the filmmaker once said that this film could just as well have been called Agnès V. par Jane B.
From her very first films, Varda railed against this rotten ideal of perfection. At the beginning of Cléo, the heroine’s deepest fear is to lose her beauty, the same beauty that, she complains, has turned her into nothing more than a “china doll” in the eyes of others; it is only once she removes her wig, symbolically rejecting the “perfection” incarnated in this mountainous nest of blonde ringlets, that she begins to see both her surroundings and her self more clearly. Beneath the self-consciously glossy images and pastoral beauty of Le Bonheur (1965) lies the horror of how the young husband can replicate the perfect life of his perfect little family with another submissive young woman, after his adultery drives his first wife to suicide.
Where perfection is rigid, Varda’s way of looking at life is fluid. The aged hands that were a source of horror in The Gleaners and I become a thing of joy later in the film, when Varda uses her fingers to lightheartedly “frame” passing trucks on the highway. (“[Do I do this] to retain things before they pass? No, just to play,” she says.) Varda captures people’s faces to reveal their wrinkles, their flaws and insecurities, their sadnesses and their joys, their intriguing imperfections. In Gleaners, Varda gleans a batch of heart-shaped potatoes from a field, takes them home, and later makes an installation out of them — a symbolic gesture of how one can extract love and beauty from misshapen, imperfect things.