Agnès Varda is a director who has a nose for a good story and an eye for the sublime. The Grand Dame of French New Wave Cinema started her career as a stills photographer and it is clear that she has brought these skills to her feature films. Her movies are often quite sensual and visceral pieces where each frame is beautiful (even if it’s dark and ugly) and is often an exercise in colour, lighting and experimenting with different palates and hues. Her films will form part of a season at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and The AU Review will now look at three features that will be playing.
Le Bonheur (Happiness) was Varda’s first colour film and at the time she received criticism for using too many pastel colours. She hit back and said it was in keeping with the story. The audience is shown a young and happy couple with two young children having fun and long weekends away in the idyllic French countryside. But as with much of Varda’s work, all is not as it seems.
The husband, François Chevalier (Jean-Claude Drouot) meets an attractive telephone operator, Émilie Savignard (Marie-France Boyer) and stars cheating on his pretty and successful wife (Claire Drouot). This bizarre love triangle results in Chevalier wanting it all. He feels like he can still maintain an intense relationship towards his family as well as exploring his new-found passion and feelings for this other woman. At a time when divorce was still quite uncommon, this would’ve been a fairly controversial idea but Varda doesn’t hold anything back with her sad, beautiful and ultimately, disturbing story.
By comparison, L’une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) shows far stronger female characters and this was no doubt influenced by Varda’s burgeoning interest in feminism and women’s liberation. This film sees two women meet, one is a teenager named Pauline who becomes “Apple” (Valérie Mairesse) who is having trouble with her family. The other is Suzanne Galibier (Thérèse Liotard) who has two young children. The latter has an abortion and loses her partner and this results in the pair losing touch only to meet at a pro-choice rally some ten years later where they vow to keep in touch again.
This film uses lots of music, some of it is clunky and some is biting and full of the same clever wit and observations that Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell’s songs often exhibit. The women keep up with each other’s struggles and successes over time in life and love. This is a story full of adventure plus smart and free-spirited female characters and gorgeous imagery (both in the people and the landscapes). It also shows the iron-clad strength of female friendship and its overall triumphs.
By contrast, Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond) isn’t about friendships unless they are of the superficial kind. Here, a young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) is found dead and through a series of flashbacks, vignettes/episodes and brief interviews we learn about the life she spent camping and loafing around the countryside. She is a wild and unwashed creature, smelly, chain-smoking and poor and yet she manages to touch many lives through different encounters. The film is provocative and thought-provoking, an uncompromising and visceral tale about a mystery that remains a puzzle. It is perhaps Varda’s best work as it continues to haunt audiences after the credits roll.
Agnès Varda was a vanguard. She tackled topics close to her own heart and subjects that differed from the norm. In doing so she created highly rewarding experiences in French cinema. Her films offer more to audiences than initially meets the eye and are mostly uncompromised, balanced and steady in their storytelling and visual representations of strong and complex ideas.
Le Bonheur (Happiness) (1965) Review Score:
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
L’une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977) Review Score:
TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond) (1985) Review Score:
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
ACMI Melbourne is running a season of Agnes Varda films, including the three reviewed here, titled Joyous Curiosity: The Cinema of Agnès Varda from June 19 through July 13th. For more information please visit: http://www.acmi.net.au/cinema-of-agnes-varda.aspx