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Agnes Varda – Her Polemic against the Cultural Hegemony through Cinema

Last March, Agnes Varda passed away. To commemorate, we have asked Utsha Sarkar to write about her:

The work of the French New Wave has been unparalleled in the world of cinema. Unparalleled because of their unique concepts like the famous auteur theory – a gift of the French New Wave  – which clearly states that a film is a creative conception of the highest order and that the director or the auteur is the heart and soul of the project.

Armed with this theory, the New Wave had flourished. Vehemently opposed by a lot of critics and filmmakers, the New Wave became a benchmark for filmmaking as advocated by directors such as Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard.

La Pointe Courte (1954)

Agnes Varda, who was popularly known as the ‘grandmother of the French New Wave, completes this grand circle of innovative filmmakers. Without a reference to her eclectic body of work, a discussion on the French New Wave stands misinformed.

One of the Left Bank or the Rive Gauche group of filmmakers, Varda had always been influenced by  photography, literature, single images, real life and imagination. In a career spanning over 60 years, she glided from fiction to documentary to shorts, though each never betraying her understanding of society, humanity, female subjectivity and a rich sense of historicity – a few of the hallmarks of a Varda classic.

Always larger than life and glowing with a cheeky sense of humour, she had even coined a term, ‘cinecriture’ (cine – writing), as a method to understand her quirky style of filmmaking. 

Her Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961) is an existentialist drama. We follow Florence ‘Cleo’ Victoire, the protagonist, who’s awaiting the result of a medical test that might confirm a diagnosis of cancer. Varda’s portrayal of a woman in the 60’s French society who’s debating her own mortality, is probably one of her finest creations. This New Wave classic is also a reminder of the nuanced female characters that have been a part of the Varda fiction and her enigmatic cinematic universe.

But Varda’s most intimate work will probably be Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985). Divided into a 47 episode film, it delves into the life of Mona, a drifter, whose death becomes the investigating subject for an obscure interviewer. Filmed in a complete non-linear fashion this film is undoubtedly Varda’s magnum opus. Featuring Sandrine Bonnaire, it dealt with the defetishization of the female body from the male perspective.

Her styles and influences often bring to the forefront her love for photography. It can be often seen in her documentaries and fictions, especially in the oppositions created between stills and the moving image. Her treatment of women and creating an agency for female characters in films are spellbinding. Though not affiliated to any strict agendas of the feminist movement, she was one of the 343 women to sign then Manifesto of the 343 supported by Simone de Beauvoir, admitting that she had an abortion in France, despite it being illegal at the time and asking for it to be made legal.

Agnes Varda was a tour de force and her body of work is a reminder of a cinematic genius in all its eccentricity and the subtlety of the art form.

Utsha

Utsha Sarkar is studying for his masters in Media and Communication Studies from Manipal School of Communication : “I’m  a cinema student with a penchant for words. Film theory interests me to the core. I am extremely opinionated when it comes to a discussion in social politics and binary oppositions.”

Featured Image : From Varda by Agnes (2018/2019)


Utsha Sarkar

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