Dr. Anna Ulrikke Andersen (Harvard University) is an architectural historian and filmmaker. (Film Study Center Harvard Fellow 2018/2019.)
A couple of years ago, when I was working on my PhD in architecture, I purchased TOUT(e) VARDA: L’intégrale Agnès Varda (2012). Initially interested in watching a few of Varda’s more iconic films, like Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Vagabond (1985) and The Gleaners and I (2000), Amazon lured me in with glossy photographs of a nicely designed box.
This large – and expensive – box not only offered a bit of Varda, but held ‘it all’: 20 feature length and 16 shorts on 22 DVDs, supplemented by items such as postcards, booklets, small items and strips of film. Soon after, I became obsessed, and as my research into architecture continued, Varda, her work and her films, stayed with me.
When Varda died on March 29, she left behind a playful, vibrant and radical oeuvre of films and installations. Her importance within the French New Wave cannot be overlooked, nor her positions as a feminist filmmaker, if not the female, feminist filmmaker. (Bénézet, 2014) Not afraid to experiment, test and try, scholars such as Timothy Corrigan and Laura Rascaroli have awarded her a pivotal role within the genre of the essay film, as her films travels through landscapes, ideas and identities. (Corrigan, 2001; Rascaroli, 2009) And she did so by allowing herself into the frame.
«I’m not behind the camera. I’m in it,» Varda claimed (2014), as she, again and again, would allow herself into the films she was making: either as an actor (Lions Love (…and Lies), 1969), or by choosing locations close to her home (Daguerréotypes, 1976), or even by defining her films as self-portraits (The Beaches of Agnès, 2008).
The Gleaners and I (2000), is no exception. The film revolves around the somewhat forgotten activity of gleaning, as Varda traces its history and searches for gleaners in contemporary culture. Through her film, she looks for people who pick things up from the ground, and by doing so, the film opens up a wide range of questions about gender, class and the environmental concerns of consumer culture. Varda herself becomes a gleaner in the film, either portrayed carrying grains, or with a close up of one her hands picking up potatoes, while the other hand holds the recording camcorder. In the film, she is simultaneously the object and subject at hand.
Varda picks up a camcorder and films her own hand: an ageing hand that reminds her that the end is near. With her camera and the film-making she produces with it, she gleans and gathers scattered material from around her. As Corrigan puts it: «The Gleaners and I is ultimately a moving sketch that gathers souvenirs of a self, extended through a disembodied hand, fractured through rapidly passing and dying images, and left to drift into the world of others» (2011).
Varda’s tendency to enter her films as subject-maker and subject-matter, and to be both the object of the film and the subject who makes the film, is described by Kate Ince as an act of feminism. Varda’s gleaning involves picking up her camera, potatoes or references to artists, thinkers and filmmakers before her, and she is doing so on, behind and in the camera, taking different positions. The consequence, according to Ince, is that Varda’s films resists femininity as a cultural construct (Ince, 2013).
«The Gleaners and I, then, offers plentiful evidence that for Varda, female subjectivity is always “lived”, that is, embodied and actively animated, even when it remains a viewed object» (ibid). To Ince, Varda’s location behind the camera and in it, addresses this in poignant way. In The Gleaner’s and I (2000), the light-weight camcorder allows her to pick it up and film her own hand: one hand on the camera, the other framed by that very same camera. I see Varda’s body as engulfing the camera, literally, but also figuratively as she allows her own experiences to affect the subject matter of the film.
In Varda’s use of her own body she awards space for the first person pronoun I. Being a woman filmmaker visibly present in her own films, she draws attention to women and their experiences at large (ibid). And Varda’s filmic I takes place. Daguerréotypes (1976), for instance, is based around her home, investigating the windows of the street where she lives, Rue Daguerre in Paris. Having just given birth to her son Mathieu, Varda could not venture far from home when she was commissioned to make a film for German TV. Fatigued from lack of sleep and her child requiring her attention, she also wanted to stay at home to enjoy her new baby. ‘So I told myself that I was a good example of women’s creativity – always a bit stuck and suffocated by home and motherhood. So, I wondered what could come of these constraints. Could I manage to restart my creativity from within these limitations?’ (Varda in Ariel, 2015)
Varda’s limitation took the physical form of a long electric cord for her camera connected to a power source in her home. The chord provided electricity, making her filmmaking possible, but its length determined how far she could venture, so defining her limits to her neighbourhood (ibid). Varda framed the shop windows of the many shops on the street, providing various services and products. She went beyond these windows and into the buildings behind, creating portraits of the people inside. Creating a series of daguerreotypes from Rue Daguerre, the early history of photography lurks as an undercurrent, bringing together the figurative with the literal. Similarly, this film remained determined by her very physical eclectic cord, which she described as an umbilical cord symbolically connecting the filmmaker to her child at home (ibid).
Varda was limited by her umbilical cord, and her film ‘bear[s] witness to the world that is open to women, to a woman who goes shopping,’xiv Not that Varda did not travel. She once followed her husband Jaques Demy to California where she made a series of films, the focus of the exhibition Agnès Varda in Californialand at Los Angles County Museum of Art (2013-2014). This exhibition was dedicated to her work in California, including Documenteur (1981) Mur Murs (1981) and Lions Love (…and Lies) (1967). The latter informed the centrepiece of the exhibition: an architectural structure constructed from Varda’s filmstock from this very film.
The audience could walk into her work titled My Shack of Cinema (1963-2013), and move amongst her celluloid strips. «If you recognize the house of a symbol of the self, then you’ll get the subtle joke of Varda’s film house installations,» Emily Kramer writes in her review of the installation, seeing the work both as a homage to Varda’s work and her «limited desire to build a traditional home.» (Kramer, 2014)
In my living-room Varda’s oeuvre inhabits a different structure, namely a box filled with DVDs and items. Yet, TOUT(e) VARDA (2012) also reveals her attention to film as something moving beyond the space of the cinema, including the materiality of film itself: the celluloid stock, and the postcards taking the presence of a film to be distributed, sent and received, handed over in person or send through the post service. Just as Daguerrotype (1976) exposes the constraints of a (female) filmmaker where the physical frame of her filmmaking forms a limitation that sparks creativity and defines My Shack of Cinema (1963-2013) and TOUT(e) VARDA (2012) treat film as much more than a screening in the darkness of the cinema space, as she moves between literal and figurative meanings.
‘All of Varda’ is not just films screened, but the literal and material aspects of filmmaking. The stock of film forms an architectural structure and move into and through. That is Varda’s shack of cinema: inhabitable, material and visible.
As Varda now has passed away, her body will disappear out of sight forever. I never met her, but did communicate with her over email. Here she quite strongly stated that she was not an architect, nor did she care much for the field. I think perhaps there must have been a misunderstanding in what architecture is, and what architecture might do.
It might very well be too much to claim that she was an architect, as such. But as a spatial thinker, I very much admire her. Her life as a mother dictated what spaces she would film in. Her feminist I takes place in the film, in the frame, behind and within the camera. Her installations are inhabitable, a shed of cinema to walk through and be within. As I sit and look at her DVD box-set, I realise that in this box ‘TOUT(e) VARDA’ now resides.
Bénézet, Delphine. The Cinema of Agnès Varda: resistance and eclectism. (London: Wallflower Press, 2014).
Corrigan, Timothy. The Essay Film : From Montaigne, after Marker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)
Ince, Kate. Feminist phenomenology and the Film World of Agnès Varda, in Hypatia, 28:3, 601-617 (2013).
Kramer, Emily, «The House that Agnès Built: Angès Varda at LACMA,» in Droste effect mag (2014), accessed 14 December 2017.
Rascaroli, Laura. How the Essay Film Thinks (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017)
Rascaroli, Laura. The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film (London: Wallflower, 2009).
Wera, Françoise and Varda, Agnès. «Interview with Agnès Varda». In Agnès Varda: Interviews, edited by Jefferson T., Kline (University Press of Mississippi, 2014).