Thursday, August 27, 2020


 Elle l'ouvrira, la meuf

Not cruelly meant, and two to tango after all. Photographed by Sacha Vierny, here is one of the great films about faces, like Godard's Band of Outsiders or Bergman's The Magic Flute. But how's this for the full title, the first to set the tradition of Varda's lengthy ones: L'Opéra-Mouffe, carnet de notes filmées rue Mouffetard à Paris par une femme enceinte en 1958 [The Opéra-Mouffe: Diary Filmed on the rue Mouffetard in Paris by a Pregnant Woman in 1958, 1958]. The film is set, not close exactly to the Place de l'Opéra (though it serves up personages), but on and around the Latin Quarter's rue Mouffetard, a food marketplace frequented by the working- and lower-classes and used as a hang-out for the outright destitute, located near Varda's flat of the period. Mouffe, bouffe, (as in la grande), Varda has digested her meal well before Ferreri's big feast of '73.

L'Opéra-Mouffe shares some features with La Pointe-Courte. Its structure, for one: built out of parallel observations in sets, one poetic documentary (the street-life), in alternation with one poetic narrative (Varda's — or rather her stand-in Dorothée Blan(c)k's — amorous life with André Bourseiller, before and during Varda's pregnancy [sa grossesse] with their daughter Rosalie Varda). (He's involved in Agnès's previous films, and in 1966 can be spotted in Godard's Masculin féminin at a café table in a meeting with Bardot.) Varda likened that first film, La Pointe-Courte, to Faulkner's novel If I Forget Thee, Jersusalem (also known as The Wild Palms, as insisted upon by the editor), citing the book's seemingly surface-unrelated alternating narratives from one chapter to the next, though that doesn't jibe, isn't flush, in sitting parallel next to Varda's movie either: her picture involves a wide milieu of village fishermen and their families out of which grows, more than even merely contiguously, the drama of the two lovers, whereas Faulkner's work involves a couple tracing the US before rearriving in the southeast, and a wholly unrelated pair of jailbirds, only one of whom is truly concentrated upon, in the wake of a levee-burst. (Both La Pointe-Courte and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem are masterpieces.) Nevertheless, Varda connects the latter film consciously to the earlier: she gives us a shot of the same wood and grain close-up from La Pointe-Courte, before a Picasso-esque shot of a citrus fruit, a sun, a flower — as a voice intones: "It was a beach / And the sun spread wide its rays..."

Carry over now to the "Quelques uns" ("Some of Them") sequence, where we're to make the connection that the faces on the Mouffetard were once those of infants (a point Varda reiterates in her accompanying Bonus) — "Vivants, ils sont absents / Morts, ils sont disparus..." ("Alive, they're absent / Dead, they're gone...")

An exhausted woman schlepps past the word "PAIX" scrawled repeatedly on the wall, potatoes dropping from her sack — another word: "Algeria." Moments later, her doppelgänger eats flowers. "RIDEAU." ("CURTAIN.")

In the 2007 Bonus, she links infancy with the elderly, as aforementioned — and muses upon the link between pregnancy and gluttony.


Monday, August 24, 2020

Ô saisons ô châteaux

What Soul Is Without Flaws?

Pierre Braunberger commissioned Varda for 1957 to make a short travelogue documentary in color about the châteaux, or castles, of the Loire Valley: Ô saisons ô châteaux [O Seasons, O Châteaux], named after the title and recurring line of Arthur Rimbaud's poem. She films the still and semi-ruinous exteriors and interiors of the locations, and on the soundtrack a narrator intones the script. Varda won't be too irreverent in her treatment, but she won't be conservative. (Braunberger will get used to the temperament over multiple directors' commissions, cf. À bout de souffle.) The atmosphere is genial. "O seasons..." utters Rimbaud... Varda hasn't half-a-year or more for her project: she films autumn, the mutable season. Her speaker narrates the evolution of the castles' architecture across the centuries, from Château Montrésor to Langeais to Blois, to Villandry — it's at Montrésor that the models arrive.

What's happening? Well, Varda says in her 2007 Bonus (included on "Disc 2: Early Varda" in the Criterion Complete Films), it was a matter of bringing women in now who might stand in for the ladies of the early 20th century in their finery... A pastichey, or gimmicky, tactic? Of course not. By Varda's calculation, the 'last "ladies"' were the equivalent of this new 20th century social class, profession; additionally, the existence of the latter proves the once-proposed endurance of the strictures, ceremonies, and notion of The Court; it mustn't go unremarked that both they and the grounds-workers all sport châpeaux, hats, to rhyme with the châteaux; finally, perhaps, their presence predicts (to say "foreshadows" would seem less concertedly psychical) the 'use of the grounds' for all the photo-shoots, soirées de Maisons, cinema rentals, and vandalism-wandered-through, candlelit, in the parties of the children of Garrel, Assayas, Beatles...

Circa 1000: Fulk le Noir contre Thibault le Tricheur. — Like Resnais, Varda documents the traces of historical steps: e.g., the courtyard where Jeanne d'Arc stepped to her destiny.

"In Langeais, where Louis XI built, near the old dungeon, a fortified château..." — or, where Ronsard courted Cassandre Salviati — who "preferred her neighbor." I first came to know old Ronsard from the Gainsbourg song, "Ronsard '58" off SG's first record. My translation:

As long as you’ve got those handy assets, my dear, / You’ll have lovers, you’ll make it. / You’ll have vacations on the finest shores, / And bikinis that knock everyone out.

You’ll have vistas, you’ll have cars, / Well-dressed guys’ll scrape to kiss your hand. / You’ll flash smiles, you’ll play your role — / But you’ll only ever be a little whore.

Whore of the sidewalks, whore of the moviehouses. / For the guys in charge, it’s the same old shit — / You pay her price, you’re outta there. / She’s supposed to make love, and not a scene. / Besides, my excellent little babe, one fine day

You’ll realize you’re over it, / Then, sniveling, you’ll say, / Dumb-Ol’-Me / Had some talent as a writer after all.

That’s all you’ll have left of my pathetic lines, / My literature you didn’t give a flying shit about; / It’s all you’ll have left to remind you of the men, / Those past fuckwads of yours who’ll never look your way again; / It’s the only mirror you won’t be ugly in —

It’s guaranteed for eternity. / Good old Ronsard was no fool / When he said that to his stuck-up bitch — /
To his stuck-up bitch — to his stuck-up bitch. •

— Serge Gainsbourg, 1958, Du chant à la une!...

There's François I with Queen Claude in Blois — retaken by Charles d'Orléans, who in turn took up poetry and held competitions, to which contributed François Villon.

Clément Marot lived there.

In Villandry, "[t]he maze is hornbeam" (no article) — four quadrants: topiary representing tragic love, fickle love, tender love, and mad love (which makes another maze).

Agnès Varda, Sunday painter sublime.


Saturday, August 22, 2020

La Pointe-Courte

Short Points

Released an entire year after only a single début screening at the 1955 edition of the Festival de Cannes (out of competition), La Pointe-Courte found one of its earliest champions in André Bazin, who in August '55 wrote in Radio-Cinéma-Télévision that "Agnès Varda's film essentially constitutes an excellent example of what has become the genuine cinematographic avant-garde.... [there's] simply a will to express through cinema spiritual and moral realities, more liberated and more subtle than those that make up more ordinary films. In this sense, the Journal d'un curé de campagne is an avant-garde film, just as was, in 1938, La règle du jeu, just as Rossellini's Journey to Italy undoubtedly is today.  With very modest means, which nonetheless do nothing to turn this into a film d'amateur, Agnès Varda knew how to write in cinema a true petit roman, in which moral experience and the deep personality of the author are tangible in each image." And yet, in the January 1956 [no. 55] Cahiers du cinéma's Conseil des Dix, Bazin, in a different humor, awarded the film only ** out of ****, exactly one year before he changed his tune again in the pages of Le Parisien libéré (7 Jan, no. 3523), deeming La Pointe-Courte in his final word on the matter "a film free and pure," "a miraculous film": "one would have to rescreen Le sang d'un poète to find a film as liberated in its conception from any commercial contingency." It is at once "stripped-down [dépouillé] and composed," exhibiting her talents as a photographer while also demonstrating her aptitude as a writer of dialogue.

What else is extraordinary about this first film, now seen clearly as one of the greatest debuts in the history of cinema, is its status as a feature, 1 hour 20 minutes, Varda having bypassed entirely the making of shorts — having, instead, devoted the earliest part of her career to photography: photography-in-itself, not as roman-photo nor as the typical economical run-up to a vocation in filmmaking. She suggests in a filmed 2012 discussion with Mathieu Amalric (included on the "2: Early Varda" disc of Criterion's The Complete Films of Agnès Varda) that she was chasing after motion only as an incidentally sequential pursuit; Amalric observes that from the very opening of this very first film, the wind, as though like a gift from the gods, was with her. The initial push-ins on the street corridors of La Pointe-Courte (which is after all a fishing village in the vicinity of Sète in the Occitanie, full-stop) float among and along the mistral winds though the loftiness of the expression hails not entirely from the gods' beneficence; the technical prowess of Varda and crew make for traveling shots that attain great heights indeed, supplemented by a camera gliding through the rooms — pièces — of domestic households front to back, out the rear windows... It's like seeing the end of The Passenger in early rehearsal. (Varda's village images are not, in fact, far off from early Antonioni either: Le amiche, say, or L'eclisse.)

Objects not only vibrate (at least two or three images predate the staging — and the physiognomical interests — of Straub-Huillet: specifically those of the grandfather and clan, and of the knife-sharpener seated on his bicycle-grinder: both incidentally to be found in S&H's 1999 Sicilia!), they establish their solidity in space and time by metamorphosing within logical bounds. As such, a makeshift crib transforms into a coffin; an old fortress stands fast but ruined (Noiret's medieval haircut plays up his station as a warrior errant, returned home after time served in Paris — five days); a shaving bowl cuts to a bucket and an eel, as though the whiskers themselves might speckle the creature: one early example of Varda's plastic genius, secreting the specific detail à la Vigo or Renoir. And the tour de force sequence, recalling the first example: the death of p'tit Daniel –> the drowning of the cat in a bucket of tar.

Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret delight me with their exchanges and oddness. Noiret: "I'm glad you're here, but this isn't about us. It's just a pleasure, being living here." Monfort: "You think so? ... I wonder why I'm here where you chose to be born." (Hail the cat that disturbs this painstaking solipsism!)

(The gripe of the fishermen — "Why do they bother us poor guys with 'sanitary' vs. 'unsanitary'?" — could come from an early Gainsbourg song, like the ticketpuncher's or piano-mover's lament!)

Is it impossible to perceive a "dépouillé" film that is dubbed — and in dialect — as one of the finest ever? It's all true: la terra trema shakes the redes from this-or-that episode of Bourdain to the shores of the Stromboli volcano.


Saturday, August 15, 2020

Story of a Prostitute


Story of a Prostitute [Shunpū-den, 1965] operates full circle: beginning in a carbonic wasteland set in north China (the Manchurian conflict), ending on the images of similar wasted plains seen through the gate of a Japanese military compound, with the prostitute Harumi's (Yumiko Nagawa of Gate of Flesh) presence that of a wandering ghost both times. Her having gone to China to service the men, Harumi's experience, existential, is that of a dreamscape — stranded without apparent reason, no direction home, an absence of sexually transmitted disease. Spectre-like, she's trapped between two realms: China and Japan, differing expectations of honor between man and woman. A cry is rendered in an extreme staggered step-process that does not so much foreshadow Wong Kar-wai as it does harken back to Chris Marker's roman-photo La jetée. A scream, silently. Back-and-forth: the Chinese and the Japanese are almost indistinguishable in their uniforms and cruelty. Individuality is de-pronounced as it vies for attention with pools of light in the high-contrast black-and-white cinematography of Kazue Nagatsuka.