For Agnès Varda, the use of a digital camera began a new chapter in her already noteworthy career as a filmmaker and visual artist. Embracing the possibilities of digital media, Varda made The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), two of the most successful films of the New Wave filmmaker's illustrious career.1 Unlike her films most commonly studied by feminist scholars, L'Opéra-Mouffe (1958), Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961), Women Respond (1975), One Sings the Other Doesn't (1976), and Vagabond (1985), both Beaches and Gleaners feature Varda herself as the most prominent female subject.2 Now well into her 80s, Varda fearlessly integrates herself, and notably her own aging process, into these two feature-length documentaries while simultaneously continuing her career-long exploration of marginalized people, places, and practices. Long before Varda could have been considered elderly, she enjoyed filming older people, particularly women, as well as the unusual and the unseemly, thus providing access to unconventional representations of the "other" as presented through the lens of female subjectivity.
The Beaches of Agnès, Varda's autobiographical documentary, takes us on a tour through her memories of childhood, couplehood, marriage, parenthood, and widowhood while providing the social, political, and historical contexts of each period of her life. References to her films, her contemporary film directors (all male), and other influential figures are intertwined with her personal and familial memories, all playfully connected by visual narratives, including staged reenactments, and most significantly, the beaches she so dearly loves. Even students unfamiliar with her work before Beaches will appreciate the wit, striking compositions, and intricate editing of the only female filmmaker from the French New Wave. Beaches also demonstrates Varda's ability to use images to capture a range of gendered relationships, from her relationship to men, to her role as daughter, sister, girlfriend, pregnant woman, parent, feminist activist, wife, grandmother, and widow. The film offers a female visual artist's fragmented self-portrait and chronicles her multi-layered memories while spanning the events of her lifetime.
Though The Gleaners and I is not an autobiographical film, Varda is the "I" mentioned in the title.3 The term "gleaner" typically refers to those who pick up produce remaining in the fields after the harvest, however Varda expands the term to include anyone who picks up an object that has been intentionally discarded. As a gleaner of images rather than of leftover produce or discarded objects from the street, she is curious not only about the unwanted objects, but especially about those who pick them up. Varda invites viewers to contemplate and appreciate the hidden beauty of those individuals or objects our society traditionally discards, such as rotting potatoes, heaps of garbage, homeless people, normally unusable film footage, or aging women with thin white hair. Varda films close-ups of her own wrinkled liver-spotted hand to create a seemingly unvarnished self-portrait. We see that same hand glean heart-shaped potatoes, clocks with no hands, semi-trailer trucks on the highway, and images of her own aging body.4
Between filming The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès, Varda developed a career as a multi-media installation artist, which led to new explorations of the relationships between photography and cinema, movement and stillness, viewer and artist. Her early installations incorporated themes from art history as well as from her own films. For example, Patatutopia featured hundreds of real potatoes heaped in front of a video triptych of the spoiled, heart-shaped potatoes seen in Gleaners and its feature-length sequel Two Years Later (2002).5 Over time, her installations also influenced her films, as at the conclusion of Beaches when she presents her "house of cinema" from her solo show L'lle et elle (2006).6 One of her most powerful installations, The Widows of Noirmoutier, features the heartfelt testimonials of fourteen widows, including that of Varda, playing simultaneously on fourteen individual screens. Viewers either listen to each individual widow with headphones or observe them all in silence. Once again, Varda's films glean untold stories from a range of feminine experiences.
While Beaches and Gleaners may not be as explicitly feminist in content as some of her earlier films, they portray Agnès Varda's feminine subjectivity in the same innovative cinematic style that challenged previous generations of traditional filmmaking that both anticipated and influenced the entire New Wave movement. For over fifty years, whether in photography, films, or installations, Varda has rendered marginalized subjects, especially women, visible. Her recent work intimately chronicles both her personal life and her entire career, reminding us of her incomparable and ongoing legacy as a feminist and artist.
Since Beaches and Gleaners are complex films that cover diverse subjects, they could be integrated into a variety of interdisciplinary courses. For example, either film could be instructive in discussions about the performance of female identity in the aging process, visual representations of female aging, female artists around the world in the 1950's and 60's, French feminism or the female image in art. Gleaners, in particular, has strong themes of environmentalism, eco-criticism, homelessness, and social justice, and could be used in conjunction with a curriculum focusing on women and the environment. Beaches, however, would be a perfect selection in courses treating forms of autobiography.
1 The French New Wave is a movement in film history that began in the late 1950's and continued through the 1960's in which a new generation of French film directors adopted an innovative cinematic style challenging the practices of the French classical cinematic movement known as the "tradition of quality." Using more natural light and sound, on-scene filming locations, improvisation, incorporating non-professional actors, these films d'auteur were usually written and directed by the same person and rejected previous artificial and commercial practices. Other New Wave filmmakers include François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. Varda's first film, La Pointe courte, is stylistically New Wave, though it predated the movement by at least four years.
2 Commonly referenced readings include To Desire Differently: Feminism and French Cinema (1990) by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis; Agnès Varda (1998) by Alison Smith; Susan Hayward's chapter, "Beyond the Gaze and Into Femme-Filmécriture" in French Film: Texts and Contexts (2000); Nam Lee's dissertation Rethinking Feminist Cinema: Agnès Varda and Filmmaking in the Feminine (2008); Film Studies: Women in Contemporary World Cinema (2002) edited by Alexandra Heidi Karriker; Rubaiyat Hossain's article in FORUM magazine (2011) "Female Directors, Female Gaze: The Search for Female Subjectivity in Film."
3 The title of the film in French, Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse does not indicate a first person perspective but rather a group of gleaners and a separate female gleaner. The implication of Varda as the female gleaner occurs early in the film when she adopts the gleaning woman's pose from Breton's painting, La Glaneuse and then proceeds to drop her bail of grains, replacing it with her digital camera. However, the glaneuse of the French title also evokes a general female sensitivity to the act of gleaning.
4Varda often films her hand to demonstrate both her physical age (as a product of the passage of time) and her status as a gleaner. For example, in one sequence she explains in voice over while filming her hand, "This is my project: to film with one hand my other hand. To enter into the horror of it [as it ages], I find it extraordinary. I feel as if I am an animal. Worse, I am an animal I don't know." In another example, Varda gleans a clock with no hands from the curb, as she comments on aging with, "A clock without hands, that suits me. You don't see time passing." Interestingly, the passage of time is a vital component of filmmaking, one that Varda often explores intimately, as in Gleaners when she examines the origins of cinema with Étienne-Jules Marey's study of movement, gleaning still images to make a fluid moving one, thus illustrating the necessity of temporality to the cinema as opposed to the still, fixed, ostensibly timeless photograph. Varda also plays with framing and perspective as she films her hand encircling the passing trucks through the car window during her road-trip and closing her hand around them, thus giving the impression that she is gleaning them, as she did with the potatoes.
5 Filmed as an epilogue to Gleaners, Deux ans après or Two Years Later recaptures the same basic collage format as the original film, creating another visual travel essay that intersects quirky fans and their letters, new-found gleaners, forgotten artwork, and most importantly, representations of time passing, not only through interviews with the gleaners from the original film but, most strikingly, with shots of the two-year-old heart shaped potatoes, now aging, rotting, sprouting, germinating, and being transformed over time.
6 L'lle et elle, a homonym for He and She, treats the notion of couplehood and the difficulty of losing one of its members. Housed in the Fondation Cartier in Paris, L'lle et elle's eight installations combined collage, video, photography, music, construction, and interactive art to unite themes of melancholy and happiness while focusing on the island of Noirmoutier, the ile or island of the exhibit's title.
Laura Gross (email@example.com) is engaged in ongoing research on Varda's work and in regular contact with her team, which led to in an internship in 2011 at Ciné-Tamaris, Agnès Varda's film production company in Paris. Gross graduated with a Master of French Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Professional French Masters Program in 2012. More recently, she has been working with Professor Kelley Conway (Communication Arts, UW-Madison) on an upcoming book about Varda's career.