The Worm and the Apple
Speaking in a DVD interview on Le Bonheur, Agnes Varda described the film as being a worm inside an apple, but it might be an image equally valid to the rest of her work also. Or rather not so much the image of the worm inside the apple, as the apple and the worm – there is in Varda’s oeuvre a sense that the apple and the worm are fighting it out as her work is both lyrically whimsical and harshly cruel. Occasionally the films are mainly cruel, as in Vagabond, and occasionally almost entirely indulgent, as in Lions Love, but usually with the two in conjunction. Perhaps this combination is never more evident than in the film she made in 1977, One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (L’une Chante, l’autre pas) especially if we think of the film’s closing scene, and closing shot.
Here one of the leading characters’ children Marie is now seventeen, and earlier we’ve been told that she misses the father who committed suicide when she was a child. The picnic that concludes the film is presented as an idyll, as the leading characters, Pomme (Valerie Mairesse) and Suzanne (Therese Liotard), with their friends and their children all gathered around them, take a holiday in a rented house. As the camera passes from character to character, explaining what they are doing and how they are living, the film finally settles on Suzanne’s daughter. Varda’s own voice-over says first of all that Pomme and Suzanne had “fought to gain the happiness of being a woman”, before the camera pans from the two of them to Marie, following Suzanne’s gaze. “Maybe their optimistic outlook could help others, like Marie who was becoming a woman. No one thought it would be easier for her, but perhaps simpler, clearer.” After Varda’s voice-over concludes, the camera stays on Marie for about twelve seconds, as though acknowledging potential difficulties that are not only to do with women’s emancipation that the film has explored. The apple might be emancipatory, but there is also the worm of pain working its way inside that apple.
Much of Varda’s work concerns itself with survival in all its manifestations, with the director often working the line between idealized living and the difficulty of existing, between creating a Utopia and life as practical necessity. It has taken various forms in her other films, whether it happens to be the lovely walk Cleo takes near the end of Cleo from 5 to7 with a young man soon off to war as she awaits the medical results to know if she has cancer, or the runner and teacher in her documentary The Gleaners and I, who may live on the street and out of dustbins, but has plenty self-belief and self-determination. In Le Bonheur, the happy affair the husband embarks upon leads to the wife’s suicide, but months later the lover becomes the man’s new partner and the two of them bring up the children as normal. The worm is inside the apple, but the apple will still be eaten, perhaps, as though the worm wasn’t there. Yet some of the responses to One Sings, The Other Doesn’t question the film’s optimism as though it were only optimistic, or the reviews try too hard to push the positive and ignore the negative. Pauline Kael in a New Yorker article reckons “Varda’s lyricism is trivializing. If there were twenty seconds of footage of an actual abortion in the movie, Pomme’s chiruppy songs would be chilling.” Jill Forbes, in The Cinema in France, reckons, “the central characters are difficult to admire and occasionally unsympathetic in their exemplarity.”
Varda, though, is usually a paradoxical filmmaker, interested in tonal shifts that show the need for wilfulness up against the demands of ‘real life’. In One Sings, the Other Doesn’t the women’s resilience works; in Vagabond Mona does not as she travels from place to place, barely surviving hand to mouth. We needn’t go along with Forbes who reckons Vagabond is a better film than the earlier one, saying “it does not manifest the uncertainties of genre of the earlier film”, but instead see less the uncertainties of genre, than the tonal uncertainties in living. Varda seems to want to capture giddy heights and sudden lows not as narrative coherence, but lived chaos, and the line just before commenting on Marie that we mentioned earlier is Suzanne’s idea that she was happy while Pomme was coherent and content. The film seems to have acknowledged in its own ‘incoherence’ the lack of stability in Pomme also, just as it has contained its demanding dimension in Suzanne’s difficulties. This is a film that has grim scenes of Suzanne at the family farm with the parents refusing to acknowledge her ‘bastards’ (Suzanne wasn’t married to their dad), and where Suzanne sits freezing in the barn typing after her father tells her to “stop banging that machine”. The scenes here are reminiscent in their grim stolidity of Vagabond’s mise-en-scene, but here there are also scenes of Pomme’s trips to summery Amsterdam, and exotic Iran. Forbes may talk of generic instability, but Varda seems more interested in caprice and possibility in Pomme’s escapades. We might not always like how she treats her parents (generally more sympathetic than Suzanne’s), nor even how she treats her Iranian husband, but she is the film’s life force, and Varda is willing to sacrifice tonal and ethical consistency for the ethos of adventure.
However, Varda’s is not at all a ‘superficial’ film, and this is surely central to its significance: how it gives weight to caprice, meaning to chaos, purpose to aimlessness. Varda’s are not the paradoxes of impossible ironies – more those of ironic possibilities. When we talk of people’s paradoxical behaviour it is often offered as an example of impossibility: someone wants the heating on because they’re cold, but they also want the window open for fresh air; they want to see a film but they hate sitting still for an hour and a half. Such examples in filmic form we might call conservative paradoxes, where contraries aren’t affirmed, but the paradox humorously offered. Varda is fascinated however by radical paradoxes, and it would be to misunderstand her work to take them as conservative ones. For example, in Vagabond some might insist that Mona is basically lazy. In one scene a couple of philosophy graduates who have decided to devote themselves to the land give Mona a piece of it to cultivate, yet she doesn’t even get out of her caravan to work it. If she is that keen to drop out of mainstream society as she seems to be, then why won’t she take the chance to till a bit of land for herself? From a conservative angle Mona is paradoxically slothful; from a radical point of view her anomalous behaviour opens up a space for enquiry. Is she simply lazy, or should we ask ourselves what she is resisting? A resistance that will by the end of the film cost Mona her life as she freezes to death in the Provencal winter cold.
The same attitude to character is the case in numerous Varda films, with the director looking for behavioural anomalies to open up the ethical possibilities. Shortly before committing suicide, Suzanne’s photographer partner says to Suzanne that she is so brave to take a job, and the comment seems almost a gag on the suffering artist, someone who has said moments earlier that “I can’t make concessions. No more kindness, no more smiles!” as his wife then goes out to work. Shortly afterwards as he is found hanging from a rafter in his studio we are well aware that the suffering artist was indeed suffering. Like the last section of Le Bonheur, where the central character replaces his dead wife with the lover partly responsible for the suicide, Varda doesn’t want the ready made assumption, but the ethically possible based not on external moral principles; more on an interconnecting personal ethos. Though Kael says of One Sings, the Other Doesn’t that “it’s a cheery, educational feminism-can-be-fun movie”, and later reckons the “men in the movie are shaded out. Varda doesn’t appear to be antagonistic toward men; she just has no particular interest in them”, Kael is missing the manner in which Varda observes character rather than explains them. Better to think of another New Yorker writer, John Updike, and his comment, in Due Considerations, while reviewing a biography of Kierkegaard, that the philosopher’s “great contribution to Western philosophy was to assert, or reassert with Romantic urgency, that subjectively speaking, each existence is the center of the universe.” Part of Varda’s sensitivity as a filmmaker resides in this acceptance. She may focus chiefly on the put-upon Suzanne and the free-wheeling Pomme, but the film’s texture comes from the peripheral as much as the central, subtly acknowledging the consciousness of others even if they remain subordinate to the film’s thrust.
This is surely the case with Suzanne’s photographer partner, whose subjectivity seems of little concern to the film until he takes his own life and announces its presence as we think back to his comments, and again at the end of the film where Varda holds on the face of his daughter. The paradoxical empathy also contains within it an observational empathy – a moment which asks us not to judge character promptly, but to query into their subjective universe, even if Varda refuses interiority. In the last scene of the partner before he commits suicide, Varda holds on a medium shot as he stands haplessly looking off after Suzanne, before his eyes look down in a manner very similar to his daughter at the film’s conclusion. In another shot again Varda observes, as she cuts from pictures of Suzanne and her kids taken by her partner, to the photographer once more looking helpless. It is unlikely anybody will predict that the next time we will see him he’ll be dead, but the motivation behind the action has been formally and psychologically earned. As we see him on the edge of the frame in the shot where his eyes drop, as we see him fiddling with his work apron, as we listen to the plaintive violin on the soundtrack, so Varda indicates the opposite of what Kael claims: that she is very interested in the man. She simply doesn’t characterize and dramatize that interest. She instead observes and alludes to it and as we will see there is a sense of this allusive observation even in relation to her leading characters.
It is this latter capacity that leads Varda’s work to move from documentary to fiction as she often incorporates the two in the one film. No matter the range of documentary styles now available (including many that use dramatic devices more familiar to fiction film in pushing a story along, as in One Day in September, Touching the Void and, of course Errol Morris’s masterly The Thin Blue Line), documentary is surely first and foremost, when dealing with people, and not focused on talking heads, an observational form; an attempt to bring out the details of people’s lives. Indeed Forbes notes this slippage in One Sings, The Other Doesn’t in the presence of Giséle Halimi, a well-know lawyer who defended a woman’s right to abort, saying, “the slippage from fiction to documentary in L’Une Chante, in the use of Gisèle Halimi to play herself, for example, is illustrative of this attempt at social comprehension, even if it isn’t successful.” It is as if for Varda there has always been a tension between dramatizing a story and observing the behaviour of the people she films, with the fictional not especially residing in dramatic exposition, but as readily in the manner in which she films what she observes. Numerous critics have talked of the look of One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. Forbes for example reckons “the colours are too unrealistic, or perhaps hyper-real”, while Kael says “visually, the film has the glamorous unreal quality of the new feminine-hygiene ads – muted realism.”
Maybe it is more useful to say that Varda’s use of colour is an attempt to escape from documentary whilst holding to the notion of observation. Instead of strongly dramatizing the story, she aestheticizes it, takes responsibility for the images fictionally, but not dramatically. Numerous filmmakers dramatize their story but they don’t take great responsibility for the frame and the colours within it. Paul Mayersberg, in his book Hollywood: The Haunted House, mentions Nicholas Ray talking of making Rebel Without a Cause, “I do feel that not only story points can be made but emphasis can be put on scenes where you want the emphasis to be put” as Ray mentions that James Dean’s character is wearing socks of different colours. But we’re talking more generally here about colour, of tonal balances, of a ‘prettiness’ that critics like Kael and Forbes find maddening, but can contain the wistful hope of the film. In one scene Pomme asks her Iranian husband Darius if she can have another child: that he will return to Iran with the child she has just had, and she will keep the one they will soon conceive. He believes it is beyond unconventional; it is Utopian. At the same time we notice that the flower pictures on the wall resemble the dress Pomme is wearing, and the lampshade is of the same shade of purple. We don’t want to over-egg close descriptive analysis, but the colours go well with the dress and make Pomme completely at one with the environment in which she wants to create her Utopian world. One may notice as well that it probably isn’t Pomme’s dress, but one that she’s borrowed off Suzanne – we see Suzanne wearing it earlier in the film when Pomme is in Iran. Critics may lambast Varda for her use of colour, but it is subtly connotative, with Varda suggesting how it can make Pomme at one with her environment as the dress matches the colour scheme of the room, and also complicit: she wants to stay in France with her friend whose dress she is wearing; not go back to Iran with her husband.
In such moments the film is less interested in dramatic showing than a telling colourism, with much of the documentary/fictional tension lying in minimizing dramatic encounter but maximizing colourist possibilities. In the scene with Darius the whole episode is shot frontally, in the observational style, rather than dramatically, with shot/counter-shots. The observational and allusive often interest Varda more than the dramatic and dynamic; which could be why the film gathers thematic weight as it progresses, and leads to the final shot to which we’ve alluded. It is the peripheral becoming central as the film ends on the daughter who has been of little importance to the film, dramatically, but vitally important to the film thematically. If the film had more obviously been dramatically focused, then the peripheral would struggle to find a place as thematically central; yet what we’re proposing is that the constant attentiveness to characters and situations that aren’t vital to the film, nevertheless gives the film its meaningfulness, and makes it the exact opposite of Kael’s claim: that the film is shallow.
It might sound paradoxical that a film gains weight by digression, but is this not vital to many filmmakers’ work, from Ozu’s pillow shots, to Herzog’s landscapes, from the philosophers’ meditations in Godard’s Vivre sa vie and La Chinoise, to the apparently unmotivated shots in Scorsese’s work, especially in Taxi Driver? In One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, there are numerous examples of the digressive, where Varda will attentively observe people with the same focus apparent in the numerous photographs we see over the opening credits of the film, taken by the photographer. These scenes are allusively of importance, as we may wonder, say, in one particular shot of an aging couple of sisters, when the pop singer Pomme is touring in a small village, who they are and what their life has been. Nothing in their posture or body language suggests an emancipatory life, but this needn’t at all indicate a symbolic function, more a documentative one where our musing over their lives is part of the empathic texture of the film. They don’t symbolize the lack of freedom in a woman’s life; they are examples of that limitation. It gives the film not an assertive message; but a compassionate wistfulness of lost lives as readily as found ones.
Partly why we disagree so completely with Kael’s take on the film is that she insists on Varda’s frivolity and indifference, where what the film illustrates is instead gravitas and a constant expanding sense of concern. The film could have been indifferent to the photographer’s suicide as it functions as a plot device, a means by which the two women could become closer, but this is not Thelma and Louise, and little is gained narratively from his death. Instead he hovers over the film, the artist as a figure like the women trying to escape from drudgery and find freedom. Shortly before he kills himself he tells Suzanne about the hack work he needs to do, and again an ironist might say Varda is showing that the man has a misplaced sense of boredom, and has a high minded attitude to demanding yet empty work. However if Varda is interested in the subjectivity that means everybody is the centre of their own universe, the question is does one show this as self-centredness, and often superciliously ironic, or as a centre that can’t in every instance be accessed but at least inferred, and that can lead to a more complex, deeper irony?
There is a fascinating comment Jean Baudrillard makes in an interview somewhere, differentiating between subjective and objective irony. “It would be the end of an era in which all philosophy had a stake (Kierkegaard as well as the Romantics) and the beginning of a type of objective irony.” Are critics responding to Varda’s film with objective irony where Varda searches out the subjective, taking into account our earlier mention of Kierkegaard through Updike? This is where a certain type of inference becomes vital. From the objective point of view the photographer should be dismissed for his facile comments about his partner’s bravery, but subjectively he is reflecting his own world, and the filmmaker chooses, in shortly afterwards showing him having taken his own life, to indicate that this irony shouldn’t be viewed at the one remove of the objective, but searched out subjectively. The photographer’s comments are ironic remarks, but in a specific way. They say one thing, but mean, generally, another. But subjectively they mean what they say, and there is no reason for us to question the sincerity of the character saying them, even if we may question the validity of what is said.
This notion of subjective irony and objective irony runs through a number of Varda films. It allows her to be utterly sympathetic to the crisis within, and also to place that crisis in the context of the society at large. Whether it is in Cleo from 5 to 7, to One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, Le bonheur to Vagabond, she does not expect the viewer to sit smugly superior to the character even when someone makes an apparently stupid remark as in One Sings; the Other Doesn’t, or lazily refuses to get out of bed in the morning as in Vagabond. To understand further Varda’s capacity for subjective irony, one can think of a moment in Vagabond where the philosophy graduate, and now goat-herder, talks to Mona about the loneliness of the vagabond life. While he mentions various friends who went mad with aloneness, Varda offers a reaction shot to the man’s partner, and we are left to wonder whether or not she might herself be lonely. This isn’t the cutaway to undermine the character speaking, to show the hollowness of his words in the reaction of another, but it might be to question what he is saying. For him the problem of loneliness may have been involved in finding a partner and having children, but is he speaking for himself or also for his partner, whose response we are not privy to beyond her glance up as she puts wood on the fire? An objectively ironic position would have placed the character in the inverted commas of the reaction shot: with the partner looking on in such a way that he might be satisfied with the situation but she clearly isn’t. Varda’s response is closer though to a question – as if she were asking, “and you, the partner, are you lonely?” – without assuming the answer.
In Cleo from 5 to7, Cleo is waiting on the result of medical tests, and is all but told by a fortune teller that she has cancer. After the woman’s comments and as she waits for the results, Cleo wanders round Paris for the remainder of the film’s running time (the two hours squeezed into ninety minutes), and the film balances itself carefully between Cleo’s insistent projections and also feeling the beauty of life within the possibility that she might soon die. Cleo is superstitious but also out of that superstition comes acute perceptions, and Varda doesn’t reject one and accept the other. Cleo says at one moment she is scared of people’s fear, and it nicely encapsulates the sense of someone who is part of a broader world than her own subjectivity, yet where her subjectivity imposes itself on that world. There is plenty room in Cleo from 5-to 7 for Varda to ironise her ostensibly shallow central character, who says at one moment as she puts on a hat, “trying things on intoxicates me”, and also reckons everything suits her, but that isn’t Varda’s point. It is to find an angle upon which to allow subjective irony a place.
What is often so interesting about Varda’s work is that she gives weight to the essence of a character. What do we mean by this? In One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, Suzanne decides she must learn to type, and we watch her practising on a piece of paper with the keys marked before some time later an old woman arrives with a heavy machine that she takes out of her Citroen to give to Suzanne. The lightness of the piece of paper she practises on, and the heaviness of the actual object, gives to the film a weight of detail that reveals character much more readily than psychology often does. For example, though the film contains scenes showing that Suzanne’s parents are hardly supportive, Suzanne’s attempt at self-definition isn’t shown in psychodynamic assertiveness; it is shown in the determination to master typing and get a job. When the woman with the typewriter arrives Suzanne says she doesn’t know which way to turn, as she literally turns in one direction and then the other, in two minds which direction to go in, whether to take the typewriter into her parents’ house where she feels so uncomfortable, or to the cold barn where the kids are playing. We can see, as she walks with the woman across to the kids, the mother peering out of the window and the father standing by the door. “I’m counting on you”, she says to the woman, clearly unable to count on her parents, yet the film eschews the sort of central conflicts vital to much mainstream cinema. When shortly afterwards, after she finds work in a local factory and receives her first wage, she hands over money to her mother, but keeps some for herself. “For foolish things”, the mother says. “That is how it is”, Suzanne replies, as the exchange develops no further.
Varda is also great at showing the importance of the encounter – the manner in which others give weight and significance to our lives, however temporarily. Fiction films like Cleo from 5 to 7, One Sings, The Other Doesn’t and Vagabond, as well as documentaries The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnes are all encounter-films, works that rely on the significance of other people. At the end of an interview with Liza Bear in Interview magazine, Varda says she disagrees completely with Sartre’s comment on hell being other people. She likes them, she insists, and yet whether they are likable or not, there is significance in the encounter as someone impacts on another’s life. The encounter between Suzanne and Pomme becomes a firm friendship, just as Varda kept in contact with people from her first film, La Pointe Courte, and returned to film them in The Beaches of Agnes ;just as she made a follow up to The Gleaners and I using some of the people from the first film. Indeed maybe one of the tragedies of Vagabond (and Varda describes the film as a tragedy) is that Mona generally meets people only once – and makes little effort to sustain the connections. Critics (Jill Forbes for example) have pointed out the nominal root of Mona in Greek – alone – and though Varda is seen as a filmmaker of the left, the tragic dimension of the film seems less socio-political, than emotional: that Mona for whatever reason cannot or will not trust in the bonds with others. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, though is basically an inverse Vagabond, just as The Gleaners and I muses over characters who are not unlike Mona and yet have the resilience, or the social optimism, she doesn’t quite possess.
Now in interviews Varda has become quite irate with critics like Gerald Peary who have wondered about the ending of Le Bonheur, where, as we have noted, the husband goes off with the lover and rebuilds his life with his two kids after the wife commits suicide, with Varda saying why shouldn’t he try and find happiness again? Why should one get stuck in negative emotions and feelings? Should the husband spend the next twenty years crying alone, she wonders. Her comments seem in some ways un-thought through and yet the work itself is decidedly more nuanced. Few will not find the ending troubling, as if the film is playing off the awfulness of the wife’s suicide with an outcome that is on some level desirable: the husband is now with the woman he loves as they bring up his children. Yet of course Varda has also talked of the worm in the apple, and if what is sweet to taste is often in digestion sour, Le Bonheur ends with a sort of sweet sourness. How can the wife’s suicide not permeate this developing relationship that was founded on betrayal and led to a woman’s demise? Varda offers an ending that surely says that life must go on but life has also been removed; does it not create anomalous feelings in the viewer?
Yet this is also the case in much more moderate form in One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, so subtle one might easily miss it. Diegetically there would be no reason to assume a pessimistic ending. Varda’s voice-over indicates optimism, as friends from many years have gathered together at the country house to enjoy each other’s company. It is the antithesis of Vagabond’s ending with Mona lying alone in a ditch, dying a vulnerable, desperate death. But while it is true as Varda acknowledges that Vagabond is a tragedy, it also asks a similar question to One Sings, The Other Doesn’t – what price freedom? The price Mona pays is that of her life, but hasn’t the photographer also done so earlier in the more optimistic film, and isn’t this lost life what we wonder might be on the daughter’s mind as she mimics an expression he made earlier in the film shortly before killing himself?
Thus when we talk of inversions or extensions, whether One Sings, The Other Doesn’t as Vagabond’s apparent antithesis, and The Gleaners and I Vagabond‘s evolution, we also sense in Varda’s work a love for other people but not the blind optimism of feeling Forbes and Kael seem often to insist upon seeing in her work. The worm is always in the apple, potentially capable of eating something to the core, or at the very least calling into question the vitality that Varda so seems to admire. In one scene in The Gleaners and I, Varda cuts from a subject talking of his difficulties, as he lives in a rundown caravan and tries to get by after losing his trucking job and his unemployment money runs out, to a top chef who goes out into the fields and gathers together some of the ingredients he needs for the kitchen. As she cuts from poverty to wealth as we see some of the dishes being prepared, another filmmaker might want to show politically the gap between wealth and poverty, the rich and the poor. Varda instead cuts as though to draw connections between people who glean from the land to survive, others who glean to enliven. It is as though what interests her more than the poverty gap are the modes in which people live. How does one achieve meaning and purpose in the existence so chosen?
Certain modes create energy, others diminish it. Certain approaches to life lead to one’s demise; others to the vitalizing of self and others, and even if one’s own mode can lead to one’s death, that doesn’t mean it cannot create a useful question in the mind of the people with whom one comes into contact, evident in how Mona in Vagabond is resurrected after her death by those interviewed who had earlier met her. In this we can say Varda is a vitalist rather than an optimist, and her dismay at the idea of hell being other people is consistent with the vitalist belief that there is as the Encyclopedia Brittanica notes in the entry on Vitalism, a “vital force peculiar to living organisms and different from all other forces found outside living things.” The tragedy of Mona in Vagabond, of the photographer in One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, is that they seem finally to be searching out an inner freedom in the photographer’s case, and an outer freedom in Mona’s, that cannot quite countenance the vitality of the human exchange. Is this partly their tragedy, and thus helps explain Varda’s interest in judgement that is nevertheless not a moral one? In other words the photographer and Mona die not because they are morally dubious (as the photographer won’t leave his wife despite having an affair, which leaves him emotionally enervated, and Mona relies constantly on the help of others in the latter, though without much enthusiasm), but more because they do not know how to live vitally, don’t know how to live without having their life force drained out of them. At the end of Vagabond Mona seems to half die, to half kill herself: she succumbs to a death she can’t quite find the wherewithal to avoid. In One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, the photographer dies burdened: unable to work on his own terms, he cannot accept, it seems, any other. The question at the end of One Sings, The Other Doesn’t may be whether the daughter will have the vitality to continue living that is so evident in the way that Varda photographs Marie (played by Varda’s own daughter), suggesting a young woman beginning to glow as she becomes a beautiful woman. But perhaps Marie is also thinking of the tragedy that sits inside her: yet another potential worm inside an apple, yet another example of the vital need to live containing within it a feeling that might be pulling in the other direction