The World and the Work
Agnes Varda may sometimes give the impression in the various conversations to be found in Agnes Varda Interviews that there isn't a great deal of difference between fiction and documentary, but she also sometimes makes clear that there happens to be. Talking about The Beaches of Agnes she suggests this ambivalence when saying she won't make any more fiction. "But fiction films, I don't think I'll do any more of those. The Beaches of Agnes is already a hybrid." (Electric Sheep) Speaking of the fictional Vagabond that nevertheless contains what can seem like documentary elements, she says: "as for framing, I'm always concerned with framing. Because I can't help believing that how people are placed, and at what distance, is important. I've been known to redo a scene that I'd shot at a distance of five feet in order to film it one foot closer. No need to tell you that the TV people don't worry about things like that." (Cine-Bulles) This is surely the fiction filmmaker talking and not the documentarist. Though Varda will often speak about the vague categories of fiction and documentary as an aesthetic endeavour, it seem to us often a one-way street. One can easily absorb documentary elements into fictional cinema and maintain the aesthetic, but fictional elements in documentary usually arrive at the frivolous or playful. When Varda says "everything is carefully composed, every line in Vagabond is written...it's truly a fiction film that I nourished with the lives of real people..." (Cine-Bulles) this is about fictional art. It is evident too when she says, "we might have said 'let's do a tracking shot' and that would be that. But no, we discussed the exact moment she [Sandrine Bonnaire's character) should touch the shoulder straps of her backpack, or laugh to herself." (Cine-Bulles) Then there are the tracking shots. Bonnaire's "rarely there at the beginning of the tracking shot and rarely there at the end...The first tracking shot begins at the beach: there's a white streak on the road and music, the music starts up so that the film begins on a musical note and we're off, rolling along sixty metres of rails..." (French Review)
Vagabond is a rigorous work of art in the way that documentaries like The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnes and Faces, Places are not. This isn't to say that documentary can't be art, that there is always a clear line between fiction and documentary, and that our notion of rigour is commensurate with the carefully planned. There can be rigour without much planning, there are many films that blur the line between fact and fiction (including of course some of Varda's and maybe none more so than the fascinatingly liminal Documenteur) and it would be hard, and indeed stupid, to claim that works like Night and Fog, Shoah, The Thin Blue Line, Sans Soleil and The Act of Killing have nothing to do with art.
Our claim is merely that in Agnes Varda's work the great films are fictional and not documentative even if the documentative is often embedded in these four great fictional films - Cleo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur, One Sings, The Other Doesn't and Vagabond - especially One Sings, The Other Doesn't and Vagabond. What we want to distinguish is the fun Varda has making a documentary (no matter how serious the subject), and the freedom she demands when making fiction films. In fun resides superficial freedom, the ability to respond to one's whims. In proper freedom, the whim has little place because an inner integrity of the work makes demands on the artist that cannot easily be countered. Varda more or less acknowledges this herself when saying of Vagabond, "the danger was to make an unstructured film. Naturally I only discovered while shooting and that's what slowed us down since these tracking shots took an extra two weeks." (French Review) Again we don't want to insist that structure is all-important - more that there is a tension in the form in Varda's fiction films that we don't usually find in the documentary work. In a scene from The Beaches of Agnes, Varda playfully creates a fictional scene outside her house on Rue Daguerre, a house she has lived in for more than half a century and which has been used on numerous occasion as a set for her work. Here she creates a beach like environment where various women working for her company Cine Tamaris are answering phones while neighbours from the street look on and semi-fictional characters occasionally find themselves intruding - including a woman in a bikini. It is an amusing scene loosely linked to the film's title and theme - the importance of the beach in Varda's life. But we watch it with no sense of the scene's inner necessity. it remains fun but doesn't register freedom.
In Vagabond, an hour into the film Varda offers a lengthy tracking shot in the woods where a man starts to sexually abuse centra character Mona (Bonnaire). As she screams and tries to wriggle from his grip, the camera keeps tracking away from her as he wrestles Mona to the ground and we can conclude without doubt that she has been raped. Varda says: "sixty meters, four hours of set up! Don't you see how beautiful it is? We escape into the woods..." (French Review) Varda provocatively notes that she refuses to show us what happened; offering a stunning track over an explicit moment all the better to indicate that the aesthetic must find its ethics and the ethical must acknowledge the aesthetic. "I have an ethical system that tells me what to show and not to show." (French Review) What Varda offers here is a horrible variation of the classic Hollywood trope where the camera would retreat from the scene of seduction towards the window or a fireplace. Except this isn't a seduction and the retreat becomes a formal property in itself: a very lengthy track. Varda escapes the cliche and finds an ethos as she determines to say she will not show the exploitation here, but she will show numerous other examples of violence towards Mona without titillation. Reckoning that so many scenes of sex and violence contain within them a degree of pleasure, better to focus on the violence elsewhere that shows her predicament without offering a voyeuristic moment to the viewer. "...There's not a whole lot more violence in the rape in the woods than there is in the way everyone treats her, making her sleep under a porch in ten below weather, from the moment they reject her and she rejects them." (French Review) One feels the scene of the sand outside Varda's house is a bit of fun; the rape scene in Vagabond is an exploration of freedom in numerous manifestations: partly about the choices Varda allows herself and partly about the limits to freedom on Mona's part.
The idea of fun versus freedom has nothing to do with the seriousness of the content: a comedic filmmaker can offer just as much rigour as dramatic director, and we can think of numerous examples of films that are ostensibly very serious but finally a bit of fun - a film like Chuck Norris's Delta Force or Stallone's Rambo: First Blood Part II have very serious subjects indeed as they cover aeroplane terrorism and Vietnam POWs, but fun is to be had nevertheless. They have none of the rigour we find in more ostensible comedies like His Girl Friday and Dr Strangelove, no matter the seriousness there too - the man on death throw and the nuclear threat. Our point is that we don't find seriousness by dint of content. That is no excuse. Perhaps the most usual way of thinking of fun versus freedom is to think of how casual or essential the choices appear to be and how much the filmmaker seems to attend to the pleasures of an audience or the demands of the work. In Vagabond Varda starts with a difficult question that she is aware she cannot answer about a character she doesn't pretend to know. In voiceover just after the beginning of the film, Varda's narrator says she knew "little about her myself." When speaking about Mona in interviews she says "I can't - I don't want to speak for Mona" (French Review)
Vagabond provides no reason for why Mona chooses the difficult life she does, while in the superficially similar The Gleaners and I there are reasons aplenty as some choose to explore gleaning across the social spectrum, including in numerous instances people who struggle to survive. As Varda interviews people they often explain their reasons in a way that she doesn't with Mona. Mona is a black hole that sucks into it many of our societal expectation and obligations - Mona brings out in others what they cannot easily countenance in themselves: their greed, their lust, their judgement. We needn't see Mona as any sort of saint (she too is greedy, lustful and judgemental) but she might be an inverted one as Vagabond seems in some way close to Bresson (Mouchette and Balthazar), and not far away from the spiritually preoccupied Georges Bernanos - who both Bresson and Maurice Pialat adapted: Diary of a Country Priest, Mouchette and Under Satan's Sky - with Bonnaire in the latter. Bonnaire would also, of course, go on to play Joan of Arc in Jacques Rivette's Jeanne la Pucelle. Indeed the character she plays in Under Satan's Sky is called Mouchette, the titular character in Bresson's film, written by Bernanos. Obviously such referencing isn't enough but what we might find in Vagabond is a film that asks certain questions about freedom and the limits of the materialist without at all falling into the spiritual. Yet this is partly what we mean by the film's rigour: how does it find a means by which to show up impoverishment in various manifestations while finding an aesthetic that keeps its problematic in a state of ongoing tension?
In Varda's best fiction, even in works we might find less successful, like her first feature La Point Court, Les Creatures and her messy, adventurous and absurdist American film Lions Love...we see her constantly seeking correlatives to the feelings she wants to explore without reducing these correlatives to symbols. Perhaps a better way to look at these correlatives is to think of them as embodying, things that are not merely there to illustrate or symbolise the people on the screen, but to contain within them a state of resistance which means they have a status of their own. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard notes that "we have only to speak of an object to think that we are being objective. But because we chose it in the first place, the object reveals more about us than we do about it." (Psychoanalysis of Fire) What Bachelard wants to show is that our scientific relationship with things is rarely immediate, that "in point of fact, scientific objectivity is possible only if one has broken first with the immediate object, if one has refused to yield to the seduction of the initial choice." (The Psychoanalysis of Fire) What Bachelard says about our relationship with science might also be useful in thinking of functional objects and symbolic objects. Do we respect the immediacy of our impressions or fall into assumptions about their status? Bachelard seeks instead the poetic image in its deepest sense: "the new born poetic image - simple image! - thus becomes quite simply an absolute origin, an origin of consciousness, In times of great discoveries, a poetic image can be the seed of a world, the seed of a universe imagined out of a poet's reverie." (Poetics of Reverie) What matters is the first impression understood without a comprehension that refuses the possibility of that first impression. When an object is functional, scientific or symbolic, that impression is lost.
Varda studied under Bachelard, and was influenced by him, saying in the context of the philosopher: "everybody is replaceable, people say, but that's true only in terms of a person's function, because each single person is unique. And so is each single tree." Varda says, "the reason I think this is because of a professor of philosophy who had a very great influence on me when I was studying at the Sorbonne...he taught us to study writers not only the stories they told but by the material things they mentioned." (Image et Son) We have already noted how films often use symbols as a means by which to make clear what they don't state (evident in the camera moving to the window or to the fireplace). The filmmaker isn't especially concerned with the fire or the window, but the symbolic aspect of the people's behaviour. Though we have noted similarities with the conventional approach in Varda's camera movement during the rape scene in Vagabond, she doesn't only problematise and reinvigorate the cliche, she also situates the characters within the freeness of the trees. The lengthy tracking shot entangles the characters within the frame so that they remain indistinguishable within the mise-en-scene. The film doesn't cut or track to a tree as a symbol of Mona's loss of innocence, or whatever else, but indicates that this is an embodying moment. There is not 'only' Mona's rape, there is also the treeness of the trees as the camera remains throughout on the trees and not on Mona. It is a terrible incident. But it is a scene that Varda not only refuses to functionalise as she refuses to show it, but that she also refuses to symbolise as she always acknowledges the nature within which the scene takes place.
We can call this a proper sense of mise en scene, and think also for example of the scene in the cafe in Cleo from 5 to 7 where the central character, tall, striking Cleo, frets over her impending results to find out if she has cancer. Her housekeeper tries to reassure her and we can see looking on cafe staff. We initially see their look of concern in the mirror but could easily miss their attention until one of them comes over and asks if everything is okay. But even here the manager remains in side elevation in the shot and we must read his face through the mirror; all the while we have the waiter in the background still looking on. When he enters the frame abruptly and asks how she is doing that abruptness will seem less so if we have noticed him through the mirror still watching her. Moments later the housekeeper starts telling a story to the manager and halfway through Varda cuts to perfectly framed shot which shows us Cleo on a third of the left-hand side of the frame, and a couple taking up the remaining two thirds. It looks like a split screen shot but what we have is the space carved up by the mirror reflected in the background behind Cleo and the cafe space occupied by the couple. As she half listens to the couple discussing their affair, so Cleo seems in a world of her own: offscreen to the left is the housekeeper telling her story; to the right the couple who look like they are in a different world by dint of the mirror that seems to carve up the space. We may have noted the woman discussing the affair with the man earlier in the scene, but it isn't until the shot where we see Cleo occupying a third of the frame that we can recognizse the gravity of their conversation. After a minute the man gets up and leaves and the woman is left alone as the film cuts to a high angle shot at the rear of the cafe, as we get a better perspective of the whole space while also noticing the young woman' solitude among the general bustle of bodies. When the film cuts back to Cleo and the housekeeper who is still telling her story, we see her still there taking up about a fifth of the frame. The film pay no more attention to her than that, but there is concern in this framing, just as there is concern in seeing the waiter and the manager in the mirror rather than in a reaction shot. Varda asks for us to show concern in our attention not in our apparent sensitivity: the latter a compassion often forced upon us by a film's insistent need to put pity centre frame and in our face. Varda puts it on the edge of the frame and offered through mirrors as she generates a proper sense of filmic mise en scene all the better to generate co-feeling that we have to seek out and not simply assume.
Varda's compassion in her very best work is indeed a complicated business, as the mise en scene and the feeling must serve each other, making each more nuanced as a consequence of the other. To understand the complexity of Le bonheur we might need to understand the mise en scene as readily as the characters; indeed, from a certain point of view, more than the characters. In the scene quite late in the film when Francois tells his wife that he has been having an affair with another woman, it isn't just that he tells her that he still loves her and believes they can live happily while he continues the affair with the other woman, feeling that he has expanded his happiness without in any way believing he needs to contract his wife's. It isn't just these aspects that will create consternation in many watching the film who find its morality dubious. It is also that the scene takes place in the woods on a lovely summer's day. Who allows this to take place; who allows the revelation to be offered? Is it Varda; Francois or his wife, Therese? Is it Varda who of course films the scene and is responsible for the film or is it Francois, who reveals his feelings? Yet it is Therese who insists that she wants to hear what Francois has to say. Gerald Peary may be grossly simplifying the film when he asks her "how she could make a film showing a wife drowning herself in a lake so that her husband can hang out freely with his mistress." (Real Paper)Yet even if Peary's remark isn't remotely fair to the ambiguity of the film, it reflects well enough how many viewed it. Yet by asking the question who is responsible we can put the moral question aside and ask how the film manages to outrage. Had Francois told her about the affair in a less picturesque environment would that have helped? If the colours the characters are wearing had been darker and more glum would that have made a difference? By focusing on the mise en scene instead of the characters one might notice that central to the offence is the inoffensiveness of the locale and the costumes. People don't confess in such circumstances - why ruin such a wonderful outing?
But rather than seeing this as the husband's insensitivity, Varda wonders whether it might be his optimism, an optimism Varda risks sharing in her form. When she says "if his wife committed suicide, and he wants to feel good with another woman, he has the right! Do you think he should cry for twenty years?" (Real Paper) Here Varda offers a tetchy response to clumsy questioning ten years after the film's release, but an aspect of this response to the film in more nuanced form is there ten years earlier. "The subject of the film is really that a guy who is constitutionally drawn to happiness both because of his love of nature and his other aptitudes, and for lack of any outside pressures (whether religious, political etc.), well for a character like that, you notice that any person so focused on happiness supposes and requires that he will have to invent some ethical position." (Image et Son) Francois clearly does not, but Varda does so by generating a mise en scene that seems to side with Francois's approach while at the same time calling it into question. The colours are generally bright and summery, but later after the wife's death, the colour scheme (as well as Mozart's music used throughout) becomes subdued. The summer has passed and Autumn begins but it is more than that. There has been a decisive change. A life has been lost and yet life must go on. Varda offers what we might call a cinematic dialetheia: a statement that is true and false at the same time. The husband mourns his wife and is in love with the new mother of his children. Varda doesn't indicate they are mutually incompatible, just as she doesn't suggest that when he embarks on the affair with his mistress that this inevitably means he no longer loves his wife.
As if accepting that such an apparent contradiction cannot stand diegetically, Varda insists on a non-diegetic colourism that suggests a world richer, more possible than the one in which we live while he is having the affair, and a world no less indicative of mood when she passes away. Thus Claude Ollier and Gilles Deleuze are right to say that the colours in the film "absorb not only the spectator, but the characters themselves, and the situations, in complex movements affected by the complementary colours." As Deleuze says, "colour is...the affect itself, that is, the virtual conjunction of all the objects which it picks up." (The Movement Image) This seems to us a much more useful way of looking at the film than David Thomson's oddly resistant perspective when he says "admittedly its abandonment of social morality is novel, but it is still hard to see the movie as anything other than a shamelessly intellectual shocker - not dealing with real people. Such beauty is hollow because it is won against no opposition." (Have You Seen...?) Calling the film "irresponsible and facile", Thomson doesn't only miss the point, he finds a much narrower one and accuses the film of lacking depth because of it. Yet surely Varda's is but one of many films from around the mid-sixties that wondered what colour could do to our faculties, from Pierrot le fou to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Red Desert to La religieuse, colour became a property of feeling, or in Deleuze's terms, affect. We don't just follow the story, we are bewitched and seduced by colour, caught in a scheme that needn't be symbolic but isn't accidental either. When Ollier and his fellow Cahiers du cinema critic Jean-Andre Fieschi interviewed Varda when the film was released, they reckoned "one could argue that in Le bonheur your repertoire of signs is very well organised." Varda replied: 'But there's nothing symbolic there. You are talking to me about the colour purple, but it's simple, purple is the shadow of orange. Thats 'a feeling that brings us back to he idea of painting. The impressionists discovered that colours are complementary, that a lemon had a blue shadow and an orange mauve shadow." (Cahiers du cinema) She is interested in how colours work together and how they make us feel more than what they mean, and wonders how such ideas work in the context of our emotional lives more generally. It is one thing to say that we like the colour blue one week and then say our favourite colour is red the week after, but quite another to say I like one woman (whom I have two children with) and then claim you like another woman equally well. Varda takes very child-like and acceptable feelings that concern colour and emotion and applies them to the context of adulthood and society, creating a fascinating and troubling hypothesis. Imagine, she seems to be asking, if we were to live in a world of immediate pleasure and sensation, close to a child at play in a nursery, what would the repercussions of such a world be in the one in which we live? Varda isn't averse to showing the negative consequences (the wife, after all, dies almost certainly by suicide), but also in the making of the film reveals the resentfulness of society at large which can't countenance an optimism that overrides despair. When Varda asks Peary if he thinks the husband should cry for twenty years, she is responding to the audience's refusal to accept that a man can continue to be happy after a terrible event has taken place. Varda does acknowledge grief, but puts it into the image as the palette pales and Mozart's music turns bleak. The mise en scene absorbs unhappiness more readily than the characters within it, but this isn't a symbolic use of colour but one that absorbs the pain of the situation and leaves the characters to live happily. A symbolic use of colour would be more inclined to reflect the unhappiness, to see in the despair of a life a mise-en-scene to match it. Film is a medium often given to such personification. It is even partly what gives cinema its aesthetic sense. When a director shows a character walking down the street after breaking up with his girlfriend and the earlier sunshine is replaced by overcast skies we view the weather as a reflection of his mood. But it doesn't absorb that mood; at best it symbolises it. Varda's is closer to, though not at all to be confused with, colour therapy: the idea that colours can absorb pain rather than reflect it.
In proposing that there is a world of a difference between Varda's documentary work and the four Varda fiction films we are concentrating on here, we can see that the sort of questions Varda asks in Le bonheur would seem mainly irrelevant to documentary, without quite going so far as to suggest that documentary is an inaesthetic form. Who would deny that Sans soleil, Shoah, Chronicle of a Summer, Welfare and aren't works of art, and some would claim, in another register, The Thin Blue Line, When We Were Kings and The Act of Killing? The latter may find ways to dramatise the material, while the former are more concerned with the accumulation of observation, even within the context of utilising taking heads. But if all are works of art, they are generally reactive rather than active. Their mise en scene is usually the world rather than the set. Obviously many filmmakers use the world and shape it according to their demands, and sometimes documentarists generate modes of mise en scene: the reenactment the most obvious example of it, brilliantly used in Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line. Then there are the ethically complicated reenactments in The Act of Killing, with documentarists Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn getting Indonesian perpetrators of various atrocities in the sixties to reenact their crimes according to their favourite movie heroes. But even in these instances, the directors know that any mise-en-scene they create has an obligation to the material of the world and not of the set, however manifold we might insist the set happens to be.
Varda also often dissolves fiction and fact in her fictional films, but the question is in which direction the dissolution takes place. In The Act of Killing and The Thin Blue Line, the people interviewed are those whose actions have consequences in the world. Whether it is Randall Adams imprisoned for a crime he would later be found innocent of committing, or the men in The Act of Killing who have not been tried for crimes they have boasted of doing, these are actions in the world. There is no suicide in the world in Le Bonheur even if Varda has drawn on what might seem like an aspect of the documentation in the making of the film. The central couple is played by Jean-Claude Druout and his real-life wife Claire Druout. the children in the film are the Druouts' kids. Varda draws on the reality of a family's life and then shapes her own fiction around it. Varda didn't force Druout into an affair in reality and Claire didn't take her own life in the wake of that affair. This is to state the glaringly obvious all the better to understand an aspect of documentary's limits. It is utterly within the realm of fiction to do what Le Bonheur does even if it works from a real-real-life couple and then fictionalises their life. But if Varda had taken a happy couple and wanted, documentatively, to test the limits of that marital happiness, introducing Jean-Claude to a woman she thought he would be attracted to and not only does it scupper the marriage but leads to the wife's demise, we would be in a very troublesome relation with reality indeed. Fiction has the advantage of getting at the truth without feeling obliged to the reality it reflects, a point numerous documentarists make when they question their ethical obligations concerning after all not actors and characters, but subjects. Krzysztof Kieslowski, for example, talking about his non-fiction film First Love, was concerned that he hadn't just filmed a story about a young couple, he had also manipulated the reality for the purposes of a greater optimism in the subjects' lives as readily as for the film itself. Kieslowski explains that it would take up to fifteen years for a young couple to get an apartment but he went to the television head proposing a follow-up film. Kieslowski suspected the man would want an optimistic film and the head said of course, and Kieslowski suggested an optimistic documentary needs optimistic facts - it is after all non-fiction. To continue to tell that ruth wouldn't be optimistic: the couple from First Love were living with their baby in a hovel. "Suffice it to say that when the little girl was a half a year old, they already had a flat. A large, decent four-bedroomed flat." Kieslowski reckons, "in my opinion, documentary films shouldn't be used to influence the subject's life either for better or for the worse. They shouldn't have influence at all." Reality had to be reshaped; quite distinct from a fictional universe that need only reshape its world. The actors would have been paid, an apartment rented for the shoot, and a broader manipulation of reality wouldn't have been necessary. As Kieslowski says, "with the help of its influence in various places - the Party, the council or whatever, I don't care where - Television found a flat for them." (Kieslowski on Kieslowski)
We needn't pretend that fiction filmmakers won't go to various lengths to manipulate a given situation - perhaps someone knows someone who knows someone and they then manage to get to film in an exclusive location not usually accessible to a filmmaker. But the example we give from Kieslowski (who very deliberately stopped making documentaries and moved into fiction filmmaking), gives us some idea of the ethical complications involved in securing even a modest amount of freedom for one's non-fiction work. It is an issue Varda addresses well when talking about the casting in Vagabond. Many involved in the project were non-professionals, but that isn't quite the same as saying they played themselves. Varda mentions the shepherd in the film, an ex-professor who decided to change his life. Varda said she asked him to appear in the film. "I asked if he'd play the part and I wrote a text for him Because that's how I work with my characters: if he'd written the text by himself, I'd have had the impression of stealing what he is to insert him in my film. I define my characters as fictional by the texts that I write." (Cine-Bulles) Varda makes clear that in films like Vagabond she has control of the material as she cannot hope to have in a work like The Gleaners and I. The latter offers personal testaments; the former creates characters that are part of an aesthetic project. Varda indicates it wouldn't be fair to take someone like the shepherd and allow him to offer his personal testament and then shape it according to her own needs.
However, we've been proposing that this is part of a bigger problem that generally differentiates documentary from fiction, while acknowledging that non-fiction filmmaking can be an art form too. It is just that we reckon the tension in Varda's work - the force field it generates - is so much stronger in Cleo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur, One Sings, the Other Doesn't, and Vagabond than in documentary works like The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnes and Faces, Places. To conflate the two is to confuse the issue of quality. There is a very large qualitative difference between Vagabond and The Gleaners and I no matter their ostensible similarities. One way of looking at this is to think of the hippies in both films. In The Gleaners and I Varda speaks to some hippies who discuss being dragged into court after an instance of minor vandalism. They seem a pleasant enough group of rabble-rousers who Varda interviews briefly and sympathetically. In Vagabond near the end of the film Mona hangs out with various figures living in squats and working scams on the locals at Nimes train station. The hippies are presented much less sympathetically in Vagabond than in Gleaners... but they are solid characterisations rather than insubstantial subjects. They possess a density on the screen even if their screen time is hardly more than those in the non-fiction film. Varda gives her hippies imaginative focus; she would seem to have given the 'real' hippies no more than her camera's attention. In Vagabond she can illuminate the characters any way she wishes, in The Gleaners and I she cannot. When Varda's camera shows us the squat in which the characters are living in Vagabond it feels, like most of the places she films, rich with fictional life; in The Gleaners and I she offers a modest enquiry into the very surface of the hippies' lives as she asks them a few questions outdoors.
We aren't saying that documentary can't penetrate the surface of people's existence, but that penetration is often quite different from the possibilities available in fiction. Varda documents sympathetically her subjects in documentary; she penetrates the lives of her characters in fiction. One reason for this is simple and decidedly aesthetic. Speaking of The Beaches of Agnes she says that she "found specific cinematic ways of telling what I was telling. I could have told you the same things that are in the film by just talking to you for six hours. But instead I found shapes." (Electric Sheep) Varda may be talking about The Beaches of Agnes, but from our point of view she very nearly could have offered it up as a conversation as Vagabond, Le Bonheur etc. could not have been. Varda gives an example from The Beaches... but it seems to us that the imaginative faculties in the documentaries appear whimsical rather than essential, amused rather than purposeful. Whether it is turning her home street Rue Daguerre into a beach, or setting up numerous mirrors on a real beach, the moments are light but don't accumulate much meaning. in contrast an apparently inconsequential moment in One Sings, The Other Doesn't signifies a great deal. In one scene the singing Pomme is wearing a dress that near the end of the film her friend Suzanne dons. Years have passed but there she is wearing the dress of her long-term friend. Varda doesn't make anything of this - we only see Suzanne wearing it through the window and could easily miss it. But it is the sort of ostensibly whimsical detail that nevertheless can play out quite significantly if we notice it. The history of the friendship matters and there Suzanne is wearing an item of clothing that might move us as we recall the earlier scene, much earlier in time, when Pomme was wearing it.
There are numerous moments like this in Varda's fictional films. In Vagabond, Mona's boots deteriorate through the course of the film, while in one beautiful silent moment a Tunisian worker who had known Mona briefly doesn't say anything - he just looks at the camera and reminiscences in silence smelling the scarf that she wore. In Cleo from 5 to 7 news of the Algerian war plays casually on the radio when Cleo gets a taxi. Not long afterwards as she walks through Parc de Montsouris she starts conversing with a man about to go off to fight in it. We could miss the earlier reports about the war as it just happens to be another news item overheard on the radio that we needn't feel obliged to pay special attention to, but it can seem like a foreshadowing as forewarning, a variation of Cleo's own crisis when she goes to a fortune teller and we hear, though Cleo does not, that she is fated to die as the fortune teller informs her husband. In Le Bonheur, it would seem that the post office in the background where some wedding photos are taken is the post office where central character Francois's lover works, though nothing deliberate is made of this. "How do we recognise a masterpiece? In the pleasure of filming, Jean Decock says, in a camera whose joy overcomes the sadness of its subject. In the desire to look again and again when you know that the riches of your subject are inexhaustible." (French Review)
Perhaps one way of thinking about the work of art that Varda creates in her fiction is to discuss briefly Kant, and more specifically the Kantian through film theory - through Hugo Munsterberg. "Described by Geoff Andrew as "first and always a philosopher, an idealist in the neo-Kantian school", Munsterberg saw in art the importance of disinterest: the idea that aesthetics has a special relationship with ourselves in the world because we are in a position of contemplation rather than action. We do not have an interested view of events. Hence Kant's remark that objects of aesthetic beauty have a "purposiveness without purpose." (The Major Film Theories) For Munsterberg, writing on the early years of cinema, part of this disinterest in the context of film benefited from the weakness rather than the strength of film to capture what we see as the real world "No doubt the effect of the individual picture would be heightened by the beauty of the colors. But would it heighten the beauty of the photoplay? Would not this colour be again an addition which oversteps the essential limits of this particular art? We do not want to paint the cheeks of the Venus of Milo: neither do we want to see the colouring of Mary Pickford or Anita Stewart." (The Film: A Psychological Study) Munsterberg insists that concerning films, "we must be strongly conscious of their pictorial unreality in order that the wonderful play of our inner experiences must be realised on the screen." Adding colour for example to films makes them closer to the real world and pushes them further away from the disinterested contemplation Munsterberg seeks.
Few would hold to Munsterberg's principles today, even if individually a filmmaker will make various projects in black and white even if colour happens to be the norm - from Woody Allen to Jim Jarmusch. But how does this play out in the context of Varda's work, and the difference between her documentaries and her fiction films, especially when we see in Le Bonheur, for example, a wonderful colourist? Munsterberg, writing in 1916, believes in technological limits that impose themselves on cinema so that it can be seen as clearly separate from life. Most would be inclined to see now that what makes a film a work of art isn't the technical imposition but the individual choices filmmakers adopt to allow for the sort of contemplation Kant insists upon. In our opinion that contemplative space, that disinterested beauty, is much more apparent in Varda's fiction films than in the documentaries. In both, there is the world and the work, but the work is that which is very careful about what it allows of the world into it. Again Munsterberg is useful even if we don't entirely agree with his position. Hearing of a police report about a burglary, or if we hear about a flood, that is one thing, but "if we read about all these in a short story, we have aesthetic enjoyment only if the author somehow makes it perfectly clear to us by the form of the description that this burglary and this flood...do not take belong to our real surroundings and exist only in the world of the imagination." (The Film: A Psychological Study) Cinema is a medium that makes such categories a little more fluid for at least two reasons. Unlike the short story, there aren't words on a page but images on a screen that much more clearly resemble our notion of the world than words on a page do. Secondly, a film can make people scream, cry and laugh more readily than a story. Of course, a work of prose fiction can do these things too, but film seems the natural habitat for such categorical emotions, and one reason why some might be distrustful of it and its capacity for manipulating our feelings.
Yet Munsterberg is talking about the artwork as an object with a world rather than of the world. The police report is an object in the world but not possessing a world of its own. Our sense is that in the context of Varda the documentaries are still too close to 'reports', still too much of the world rather than an object with a world. When Varda brings the fictional into the documentative we often arrive at the frivolous - the sand on Rue Daguerre; the mirrors on the beach. When she brings the documentative into the fictional - the shepherd in Vagabond, the people looking on at the band playing in One sings the Other Doesn't - she arrives at an added density. In the former instance we have fun, in the latter we have freedom. Yet this is freedom that makes very internal demands on the artist that allows them to understand freedom because of the nature of constraint. Constraint initself has nothing to do with freedom - prisoners are constrained but they aren't free. Freedom exists when the constraint is at its most self-generated. When Varda sets up the mirror on the beach or the sand on Rue Daguerre she is free to do so. She has a little money, a high reputation and many assistants who are willing to help. Yet this seems very different from the freedom she finds in Vagabond when she has to begin the project again when she realises that she needs thirteen key tracking shots, when she casts various non professionals in roles so that they aren't quite playing themselves, or when Mona generally moves from frame right to left, often exiting and entering empty frames. It is the difference between two different whys. The first answers with why not; the second cannot easily answer but knows it is very far from a shrug of the shoulders. We can think of the richness of colour in Le Bonheur when Varda explains why the colours aren't symbolic, or equally the emotional complexity of the mirror scene in the cafe in Cleo from 5 to 7. These are not fun ideas; they are examples of aesthetic freedom.
It is the artist at their most constrained which often allows them to be most free, but this idea of constraint is of a very specific kind. It is the necessity of making a work based on a tension the artwork demands first and foremost, not the artist nor societal expectation. It might be Varda who finally insists that she needs more money for the project when she realises that the tracking shots are needed in Vagabond, but this is only as useful as the demands the artwork places upon her. The tracking shots could have been a needless excess, just as we find the mirrors at the beginning of the The Beaches of Agnes to be. If we happen to see the art in the fiction rather than in documentaries we needn't offer this as a categorical difference between the two; only to say it seems an important difference in Varda's work and wonder whether it happens to be so more generally - whether as a rule fiction filmmaking makes this interior demand on the artist as it doesn't with the documentarian. Would someone regard Herzog's Grizzly Man as the equal of Aguirre, Wrath of God, even Little Dieter Needs to Fly as the equal of Heart of Glass? Of course, Herzog fictionalised Little Deiter Needs to Fly as Rescue Dawn, and few will be inclined to regard the latter as a better film than the former. Our claims for fiction's superiority over documentary would fail in such instances and we wouldn't want to downgrade documentary a priori. The danger with fiction is that it can very easily fall into convention - that the demands of stars, stories and bigger budgets create constraints that aren't internally motivated but externally driven. The documentarist is often free of such constraints. But the problem in most documentaries rests on failing to apply new ones themselves, feeling that being of the world is so much more important than generating one. Varda's documentaries generally seem fun but not free, minor works from a sometimes major artist, and The Gleaners and I and others ought to be seen as no more than secondary works.
© Tony McKibbin