The Creatures of Agnès Varda's vision

The news of the death of Agnès Varda shouldn’t be surprising considering she was 90 years old. Still, there is a supreme sense of loss. What has been lost is a curious spirit who rarely appeared dogmatic, neither in her approach to cinema or to feminism. Varda is often labelled as a Nouvelle vague director but was rather part of the, so-called, Left bank group, that also included Alain Resnais and Chris Marker among others. When she made her first feature La pointe courte (1955) she asked Resnais to do the editing. When he looked at the footage he was very reluctant to do so, since he felt that Varda was doing similar things to him, but that she was way ahead. He finally gave in, however.  

Cléo and other creatures

The next feature was to become one of the directors’ most iconic films: Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) The expression cinq à sept in France generally refers to a meeting with a lover. In Varda’s film, however, we follow a self-centred singer, anxiously waiting for the result of her biopsy. We follow her walking around the city, meeting friends, and at the same time reflecting on the situation she is in, and how shallow integral parts of her life has been. As a funny interlude, she visits a cinema where she watches a silent short, featuring Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, where the former makes fun of his trademark dark glasses.

Jean-Luc Godard Anna Karina Cléo de 5 a 7
Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina

However, I would like to focus on one of her lesser-known features, Les Créatures (1966) It was one of six co-productions that the Swedish company Sandrews made at the time. 1Among the other directors were Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Jacques Doinol-Valcroze and Alain Resnais. 19 years later the same company would refuse to import Sans toit ni loi (1985) also known as Vagabond, giving the reason that nobody would go and see it. It was finally released by the Swedish Film Institute. The French producer of the film was Mag Bodard who also passed away this year at the age of 103. 2She was one of the most prominent producers at the time, working with directors such as Bresson, Resnais, Jacques Demy, André Delvaux and others. A critical and financial flop, Les Créatures stars Michel Piccoli as Edgar and Catherine Deneuve as Mylène, As the couple is riding in the car an accident occurs that renders Mylène mute. Fortunately, we are not in Carnival of souls territory. Edgar is a writer and is working on a novel, using the inhabitants of their village as characters. The story concerns a scientist who can control the villager’s actions. Any further description would threaten to simplify this complex but also very playful film. With that said when the actual game of the film starts, it might be the film’s less stringent section.

Mon Oncle Alain Resnais

The opening credits feel like a Resnais film, in particular, Muriel made three years earlier. There are however more profound similarities between the two directors. Varda’s film doesn’t only point backwards but also anticipates later films by Resnais such as Providence (1977) and Mon oncle d’Amerique (1980) Two of the director’s major films, that in some quarters have been labelled “academic” and “dry” whereas they, in fact, are quite playful and humorous. The same goes for Les Créatures. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to try to analyze the interweaving between truth and fiction, but it still wouldn’t do justice to the pure pleasure involved. Characters are manipulated in the game/story in the same way as Clive Langham manipulates his relatives in the draft for the book he is outlining in Providence. The abundance of crustaceans brings Mon oncle d’Amerique to mind, where, incidentally characters also seem to be directed by forces beyond their control.

Male vs Female creativity

That these manipulations are visualisations of the creative process goes without saying, but it seems that Varda is interested in her character’s growth as well, at least the female ones. Edgar doesn’t show much of development. He walks around the village, doing nothing or at least very little. Maybe that is why he, on occasion, speaks with animals. On the other hand, the other creatures of Varda’s imagination seem to actually learn something about themselves. For instance, Michele Quellec (Ingmar Bergman regular, Eva Dahlbeck) who, unlike Cléo, doesn’t need a life-threatening disease to evaluate her life. Her relationship with a married man is not going the way she expects, and she learns to deal with it.

As mentioned above the film was something of a failure upon release (Cinémathèuqe director Henri Langlois said that people just didn’t get that it was “pure Meliès”) Varda managed to turn that lack of success into an installation piece called Ma Cabane de l’Échec. It consisted of a shack built with reels from the film. Varda referred to it as a “Shack of a recycled movie.” More can be read here ( in French) An unusual and good-natured way of handling a non-success.

Varda’s work has been underrated for years, but it seems her reputation has surged during this decade. There are plentiful of great works “cinecrit par Agnès Varda”.

Tofifest Day 4

19-year-old Nathan Ambrosiono is yet another director whose first film is presented at Tofifest. Paper flags (Les drapaux de papier 2018). After 12 years behind bars, Bruno is released. With no prospects in sight, he decides to pay a surprise visit to his six years younger sister Charlie. After the initial shock, she actually decides to help him as much as she can. However, he sometimes has difficulties controlling his temperament. There is also a father in the background who doesn’t want to have anything to do with Bruno.

Paper flags Les drapaux de papier
Noémie Merlant and Guiiaume Gouix in Les drapaux de papier.

There are plenty of beautiful images in the film and Guillaume Gouix and Noémie Merlant both turn in fine performances. The main problem with the film is the aforementioned outbursts from Bruno that seems to appear every time the script calls for it, rather than organically. There are interesting themes not only about freedom but also about adolescence since Bruno is basically living like a teenager at the age of 30. Still, the scenario is not strong or subtle enough to explore the themes properly. Critics have been quite favourable to the film but this was the first film of the Tofifest that I didn’t like.

It wouldn’t take long for the second, unfortunately. Oleg (2019) by Latvian director, Juris Kursietis was another film that I found utterly pointless. It revolves around a Latvian butcher who goes to Brussels to find a better life for himself. Instead, he ends up being exploited by the people he meets, notably by Polish hothead Andrzej. This is basically a Dardenne brothers film with some weird attempts at poetry, sloppily thrown in. As Andrzej, Golden angel laureate, Dawid Ogrodnik is irritatingly one-note in the aggressive way that he controls Oleg. The less said about the film, the better. The image below says more about the film than about Oleg’s predicament.

Oleg

So it was a Day 4 bad films. Still, only one out of four which is not that bad.

Nowe Horyzonty 2019 Day 1

Wrocław in Poland is the city where the Nowe Horyzonty (New Horizons) festival takes place every year. This year marked the nineteenth edition. The festival stands out for many reasons. The selection is excellent, both when it comes to new films, as well as retrospectives. A particular highlight was the Fred Kelemen retrospective in 2017. The festival also has a dedicated audience that trusts the selectors, and are willing to take risks. It is more or less concentrated to a single multiplex, that actually serves as an art-house cinema all year long. This was my sixth consecutive year at the festival.

My first film was Little Joe by Jessica Hausner. A director I admire greatly. Her most recent film Amour fou (2014) was, in my mind at least, a neglected masterpiece. She is probably most well known for Lourdes (2009). Little Joe is her fifth feature and her first in English. As usual, it is co-produced by Coop99 where the cinematographer Martin Gschlacht is the managing director. The film takes place in a lab where Alice (Emily Beecham) works as a plant breeder. Now she has created a plant that emits a scent that will make people happy. She names the plant after her son Joe. Without going further into the plot, it suffices to say that things don’t go exactly as planned.

Little Joe. Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw in Little Joe.

It is quite difficult to have an opinion of Hausner’s latest offering. It might need more than one viewing, but to me, it seemed that her controlled formalism is slightly off-kilter here. There is gorgeous production design to spare, and Gschlact’s cinematography where the colour red dominates together with mint green is also impressive. It is obvious that Hausner wants to evoke a world where things are a bit out of balance, but I’m not sure if the film is calibrated enough to achieve that. Apparently the script was written in German and then translated to English. If that’s true that might account for some infelicities in the dialogue. The concepts are not really explored by the plotline that, if taken literally, is full of holes and inconsistencies. This is a film I will probably return to since I can’t believe that Hausner would do something that feels this vacuous. I’m rather hoping that I missed something.

Beecham walked away with the actress award at the Cannes film festival. Something that came as a surprise to many people, in particular, fans of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a lady on fire. (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) where many thought that Adèle Haenel and/or Noémi Merlant would win that award. This film, set in 1770 about Marianne (Merlant) who is commissioned to make a portrait of Héloise, has numerous fans. I am not one of them. I have always been sceptical about Sciamma as a director and always felt that her strength lies in her writing capabilities. She co-wrote the excellent script for André Techiné’s Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans 2016) and also in her own films, the writing usually trumps the cinematic aspects of the films. The award she received in Cannes this year, was for the screenplay.

Portrait of a lady on fire
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portait de la jeune fille en feu.

In this film though, I feel that nothing works. The film is made up of scenes from other films ( The Piano 1993 is only one of the films that springs to mind during the first minutes) and an array of clichés. What Sciamma seems to be going for are that three scenes with diegetic music will compensate for the rest, and work as a payoff. That is the take Alex Billington has in his Letterboxd review of the film. I agree with this assessment. If you don’t feel that those three scenes work (which I don’t) then the film will not work at all. To me, the film was a negative surprise, even though my expectations were not that high. Alex Billington’s review can be found here

Peter Strickland is a Brittish director who has lived in Budapest for many years. His first feature Katalin Varga (2009) made me immediately interested in him. The outstanding feature of that film was the sound design. Something that’s been a trademark for the director ever since. His second film, Berberian sound studio (2012), even dealt with the subject specifically. In Fabric is his fourth feature and maybe his strangest to date. It basically follows a dress as it passes from person to person, and the effects it seems to have on them. When I read about the film, I instantly thought about Alex Van Warmerdam’s The dress (De jurk 1996), but that film, quirky as it is, almost feels like a documentary compared to In fabric. As in Little Joe, the dialogue is quite stylized, but here there is no question whether it works or not. There is an eerie mood established very quickly, that intensifies as the film moves along. It’s often funny, sometimes scary, but above all weird and wonderful. For me, this is Strickland’s best feature, and a constant visual and aural pleasure. A great way to end my first day at the festival.