Three Essays

1. Les Glaneurs est la glaneuse (1999)

Agnès Varda has been linked to the work and the ideas of the French Nouvelle Vague (Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol) having to do with four aspects of her films: the bringing together of fictional and documentary elements (all her fictions have a documentary presence and in her documentaries, either fictions and stories emerge or the real world assumes a quality of the magical and strange), a citational density (from literature, painting and films), an interest in found images and found objects (heart-shaped potatoes, clocks, decks of cards, cats) and strategies of filming and editing open to chance and improvisation that are essentially associative (without a predetermined order) rather than dramatic or linear (where everything is in place). Varda is also linked to the Right Bank group that included Alain Resnais, her husband Jacques Démy, and Chris Marker whose interests were centred on memory and the effects of time and were more obviously close to French Surrealism fascinated as it was with the marvellous in the everyday. The Right Bank group as well were politically committed.

In three of her principal feature fiction films La Pointe Courte (1954), Cléo de 5 à 7(1962) and Sans toit ni loi(1985) and in the documentary Les Glaneurs…, the main character is a woman wandering within a real landscape, the village of Pointe Courte in Pointe Courte, Paris in Cléo, northern France in Sans toit, all of France in Les Glaneurs. The wandering, a kind of vagabondage, and its encounters tend to transform the real into a wondrous world even if sometimes unjust, terrible, cruel and oppressive (like a fairy tale). The wanderings are marked as at the peripheries of the normal and the conventional, kind of leftovers, debris, the rejected, the dirty, that is objects, persons and situations that tend to be unfixed and thereby open even if constrained by poor health, worries, insanity or lack of money. Even constraints are provocations to inventiveness and thus occasions for joy and pleasure.

The wanderings are not simply geographical but, in the encounters that occur, pathways that return to a remembered scene, to childhood, to an image, to something lost or, as in Glaneurs, to paintings (French Impressionism, Millet’s Les Glaneurs, self portraits by Rembrandt and Utrillo, the collages of Luis Pons, Hédoin), to films (the work of Marey and more broadly to the musicals of Démy, which like Varda’s films transform reality, quite literally ‘paint’ it, add to it, give it music, rhythm, colour). These recollections and associations can be as thematic as the Millet painting which sets the entire film in motion, or a colour (red, yellow, blue), or a sound, or a line (horizontality), or a movement (the dancing camera, the dancing lens), often infinitesmal, that turns the smallest detail (the texture of her skin, the focussing through her fingers of the passing lorries) into something beautiful and even sublime, so that nothing, literally nothing is insignificant or rather that the most ignored, neglected, discarded, demeaned and insignificant becomes precious and wondrous, and precisely for those reasons of being out of step, are unseen. This transformation of the passing and the insignificant, even of the invisible, eternalises the present and for an instant immobilises it, celebrates it.

‘To glean’ is not simply the subject of the film (different gleanings) but its aesthetic, a film that gathers, accumulates, stores up, makes use of, juxtaposes, like one of the compositions by Luis Pons of pieces of wood and windscreen wipers, materials that have existed elsewhere, with other uses, part of other lives, other places, that have a history, that resonate and that enable Varda, by gathering them up and putting them together in new ways to find them nourishing, indeed, especially tasty, even inebriating, delicate, like a stick of celery or an apple or a wedge of camembert cheese, discarded at the market because they are no longer market perfect (odd-shaped potatoes), or have gone beyond their use-by date. It is of such material that Varda composes her film, vagabond elements outside the law. All that is lawless for Varda is free, and that attracts her.

Varda seems to photograph everything (she was, like Johan Van der Keuken, a photographer before she made films), like a collector, and what she seeks is valuable for its uniqueness, that is, objects and images that have no particular conventional place, are no longer worthy of being classified, precious to her for being out of order, for lacking authority, not part of tradition, that which has been rejected, something therefore truly authentic, like the people she meets, who are, as she is, a gleaner of things society has no place for. This flotsam and jetsam that come her way, that she seeks and that she is open to is put into play. Play, for her, with all it implies of chance, improvisation, a lack of constraint, is thereby what is joyous for the possibilities that are offered by the random in reality. They are the very substance of Varda’s art, its precondition.

2. Letter to Jane (1972)

Letter to Jane was made by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. Together the two, one a well-known film-maker whose films redefined the cinema, the other a young intellectual on the political left and both strongly marked by the May events in France in 1968, sought to begin to construct a political cinema that was political in two respects: in its relation to the world (Politics) and in its relation to film (a politics of film). They formed a production film/political group (short-lived) called “The Dziga Vertov group” named after the Russian-Soviet film-maker of the 1920s and 1930s.

In the same year as Letter to Jane, Godard and Gorin made just before it (four months prior) Tout va bien (All is Well) with two stars: Yves Montand and Jane Fonda. In the film, they play intellectuals (the Montand character was a film-maker before 1968 and is now making commercials and the Fonda character is a broadcaster for an American broadcasting company like NBC or CBS) and they are also lovers. Both of them had been involved in the May events. The film takes place in 1972 (the year the films were made), four years after those events. The two characters are trying to redefine a role for themselves after May 1968, whose experience they reflect upon, that is, on the role of intellectuals in French society and in particular in relation to film-making and broadcasting. Montand and Fonda as real persons outside the film were in fact political militants on the left not only in 1968 but in 1972 (Montand’s involvement with political-film groups after 1968 and Fonda’s taking up of political issues, most especially the war in Vietnam).

Letter to Jane resumes the issues of political cinema and the role of intellectuals raised by May 1968 and explicitly by Tout va bien. In Tout va bien, the two actors are sequestered in the office of the manager of a meat factory (Salumi) by the workers who have occupied the factory. The question that is raised by the occupation and their being sequestered is how to engage with these events and in particular how to represent them to themselves, to the workers, to the public and in turn how are the workers to represent their strike to these bourgeois intellectuals. The situation creates a crisis that forces Montand and Fonda to reflect on their role as intellectuals in the light both of the strike and the May events and is also a crisis of reflection and representation for the workers. The question of representation is of course not only an issue for the characters (or a social class), but for Montand and Fonda as persons and most especially for Godard and Gorin, that is the issue is personal and for the fictional couple in the film, political choices and artistic ones impinge on their relationship. The film then brings two dimensions into play and does so by a complicated system of mirroring between fact (reality) and fiction (the story), reality (political conflict) and its representation (a film), the film that is made and the making of the film. Making a film or giving a broadcast becomes a question of how to make a film, that is, a question of forms so that political matters become aesthetic ones. If you want to change politics, you need to change the way of representing things. Tout va bien and Letter to Jane are not political films simply because they speak of politics, but primarily because they speak of film-making.

Letter to Jane concentrates on a single image, a photograph of Jane Fonda (the political militant, the American movie star) listening to (talking with?) a representative of the Vietnam resistance struggle against the American invasion, the American massacre of Vietnamese and the bombing and destruction of their country. The photograph, in an article that contained other photographs, was published in the French popular weekly news magazine L’Express, a kind of equivalent to Newsweek or Time, but more intelligent and better informed. Godard and Gorin discuss in voice-over the photograph and other images that their discussion and the photograph evokes (images of the war in Vietnam, of Nixon, of Marx, of Lenin, of Fonda in other roles, of her father Henry Fonda in other films – Young Mr LincolnThe Grapes of Wrath, the latter a novel written as Gorin notes by the fascist John Steinbeck – of images from Tout va bien, of posters, of writing). The images are accompanied by natural sounds, by revolutionary songs (the Internationale), and by Vietnamese martial music.

What is interesting about the film, among other things, is that the interrogation of it by Godard and Gorin (in words, by analysis – formal and political) and by the film by what it juxtaposes (sounds, other images, associations, memories) changes the image each time it appears so that this single image is never single and never alone but in fact a multiple image, an ensemble of images (and sounds) such that each repetition of the same is always different and most important perhaps is the fact that what you see in the image is what at first sight is invisible and hidden, so that the juxtapositions allow you, literally to see.

The method of the film is a montage which is not linear nor additive nor causative, that is, the images you see that are juxtaposed with the image of Fonda (1+1) results not in two images but in a third image (1+1=3), the third being the thought produced by the montage in the gap (the discontinuity) between images. And importantly while the two images in relation to one another produce a third, the autonomy of each of those images is retained, nothing is lost nor effaced as occurs with an editing for continuity and linearity, where 1+1 does not even equal 2 but proceeds by its linearity to produce a continuous 0.

What Godard and Gorin manage to do is bring images together that are distant from each other in time, in space, in their nature such that each illuminates the other simply by this fact of juxtaposition. For example, in the photograph there are already two Fondas, the militant and the Hollywood star and there is, by the fact of the latter identity (the star), an association with other stars and similar looks and gestures: Lillian Gish, Rudolf Valentino, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda in Klute) and from these associations another involving the entire Hollywood industry, America, Vietnam, and history, and Bertolt Brecht, Dziga Vertov, the cinema, political struggle, intellectuals, portraiture, framing and, above all perhaps, the mechanism of montage as a form that thinks, that challenges, that interrogates. This complex not only opens up political and ideological questions (the star/the militant), but formal ones (how to photograph, what to photograph, why photograph) and issues such as distance/closeness, clarity/obscurity, light/shadow, repetition, the frame, as if from a single still image not only can an entire history be evoked (and examined and related) but also the history of the cinema including the falsity of fact and document and the facticity of fictions and therefore the relation of the cinema (and its means) to history.

3. Jacques Tati

Jacques Tati’s early career was in music hall. He was a mime. His most successful act was ‘Sporting Impressions’ where he imitated the gestures of footballer, tennis player, boxer, cyclist and so on.

Mime is and is not naturalistic. It is because it is based on the gestures of everyday and not because these are reworked and recomposed. The gap between the real and its recomposition is delicate, graceful, ever so slightly detached, a comedy of light touches, observation, discretion, as if the real has returned but differently, not exactly deformed or unduly exaggerated, but as refined, distilled and purified, at once abstract, absurd and affectionate. It is the person, place or object represented and the idea of it.

Monsieur Hulot, the character in four of Tati’s six films, wears trousers a trifle too short that show his socks, has a slight stoop forward, a glide more than a walk as if Hulot is on tip-toe, more aerial than terrestrial, a pipe in his mouth that carries forward the inclined imbalance of his body, a hat that literally effaces him and a manner that advances and retreats simultaneously. Hulot is Tati recomposed, retraced, so evanescent, self-deprecating and abstracted as to insist on his inconspicuousness, like a shadow, a trace only.

Hulot is Tati mimed, present and not there. In conventional theatre and film, actors inhabit their characters, become them. Tati is never Hulot but rather at his side, not exactly acting the role as observing himself and at a wispy distance. Tati’s act is essentially reflective, the delicacy of being at one remove. He does not intrude on Hulot, still less interpret him, rather, and literally, he ‘plays’ him.

The play – Playtime – is magical. Mime has the ability to transform, to find another use or identity without losing the original, like Hulot’s boat that becomes a shark, an inner tube a funeral wreath, or a country excursion a military maneuver in Les Vacances de monsieur Hulot or the vehicles on the roundabout in Playtime, a merry-go-round, or the installation of a glass pane in the same film, an elaborate dance. The play is often no more than a change in perspective, a way of seeing the most everyday as different, an art then of observation. The comedy, as a gentle as a smile, is that things remain as they are and the difference exposed by the mime is only another use, a supplement, a change of angle, a multiplication, a tender inventiveness. It is the principle source of Tati’s gags like the man who seems to be looking through a keyhole at a woman undressing and is kicked for it by Hulot, but in a different view was only taking a family photograph. Whatever is can be imagined as other than itself to the point of becoming so, thereby creating an entirely new world.

Tati worked with non-professionals. It was not a neo-realism of persons being themselves, as characters on behalf of an enhanced realism, but rather of persons imitating themselves, becoming like Tati, mimes, doubles, a synopsis, their own self-outline.

Many Picasso collages were made of real materials. Picasso had bicycle handlebars doubling as a bull and toy cars and some feathers the head of a baboon. To look at things differently and recompose them was at the heart of Cubism along with its compositions of multiple perspectives of the same. Tati’s art is of this sort, most especially in his use of sound where inessential banal fragments of dialogue, the sputtering of his Amilcar, the barking of dogs, laughter, squeaks, buzzings become, if not music, purified, like the movements in his films become pure dance, or colour so drained that it is neither decorative nor significant but vaporized and softened, like Hulot.

Created on: Tuesday, 21 April 2009

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

Sam Rohdie (1939 – 2015) was Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Film at the University of Central Florida. He has held the Chair in Film Studies at The Queens University of Belfast and before that was Professor of Film Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He also held academic posts in universities in England, Ghana, Italy and the United States and was an original member of the Cinema Studies Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Sam was the editor of Screen in the United Kingdom from 1971 to 1974. His work was widely published in academic film journals and books. His books include Antonioni (1990), Rocco and His Brothers (1993),The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1996), Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism (2001), Fellini Lexicon (2002), Montage (2006) and Film Modernism (2015).View all posts by Sam Rohdie →