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”.

The spellbinding quality of Anna Karina

 

In Chris Petit’s third film Flight to Berlin (1984), Eddie Constantine plays “Eddie”. At one point in the film, a character (falsely) introduces herself as Marianne. Eddie answers “I once knew a woman called Marianne or was it Natacha?” In a film littered with cinematic references, this is an obvious nod to Alphaville (Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution 1965) where Constantine appeared opposite Anna Karina’s Natacha von Braun. That was one of the two films Karina made with Jean-Luc Godard in 1965. The other was Pierrot le fou where she played a character called Marianne.

Born Hanne Karin Bayer in Solbjerg, Denmark in 1940, Karina moved to France at the age of 17. After a while, she started modelling. A Palmolive ad caught Godard’s eye and he offered her a role in A bout de souffle (1960). Since the minor part contained nudity, Karina refused. Instead, her first film with Godard would be Le petit soldat. It was shot the same year but since it dealt with the Algerian war and featured torture scenes, the film was banned until 1963. Thus the first film with Karina being shown publicly was Michel Deville’s delightful Ce soir ou jamais (1961).

Living her life with Godard

Karina and Godard married in 1961. She would appear in seven of his films. The musical comedy, Une femme est une femme (1961) brought her the Silver Bear for best actress at Berlinale. Vivre sa vie – Film en douze tableaux (1962) is very different. It’s in black and white and is the closest Godard ever came to a love-portrait of his wife. It begins with a long sequence with Karina (playing Nana) being shown from the sides and en face respectively. The sequence ends with a quote from Montaigne “Il faut se prêter aux autres et se donner a soi-mème.” (Lend yourself to others but give yourself to yourself.) As she later becomes a prostitute, she doesn’t really adhere to that statement. Late in the film when a young man reads The oval portrait by Edgar Allan Poe to Nana, its actually Godard who does the actual reading.

Pierrot le fou (1965) is much more colourful. Made the same year as Alphaville, after the couple’s divorce. Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as Ferdinand (constantly being called Pierrot by Marianne) and a substantial part of the film is about the couple’s inability to communicate. In a scene that is largely improvised that fact is summed up in Marianne’s phrase: “Parce que tu me parles avec des mots, que moi je te regarde avec des sentiments.”( Because you talk to me with words and I look at you with feelings.) This is one of the few scenes that was actually improvised. At this stage of their collaboration, Karina had learned to pretend that she was improvising.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in Pierrot le fou.

Godard and Karina were to make one more film together, Made in U.S.A. (1966) and also one segment of the anthology film, Le plus vieux métier du monde (1967). Even if Karina is mostly remembered for the roles she played in Godard’s films, she was in fact quite prolific and acted in numerous films with several important directors. The first was La Religieuse (1966) by Jacques Rivette where she played the leading role as Suzanne in one of the director’s more academic efforts. It became infamous since it was banned by the state at the time. Godard actually wrote an open letter about the affair, addressed to the “Minister of kultur” André Malraux. The film had many strong performances and Karina’s was certainly one of them.

Collaborations with other directors

Karina would go on to work with directors such as Volker Schlöndorff, André Delvaux, Marta Mészárós, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Raoul Ruiz. With Delvaux she actually worked twice, and it’s worth taking a closer look at their first collaboration, Rendez-vouz à Bray (1971). The story is set during the first world war. A young pianist (Delvaux regular, Matthieu Carrière) is supposed to meet a friend in his country house.

Once he arrives the friend is absent, and the only person present is a mysterious woman played by Karina. The latter doesn’t have many lines ( I haven’t performed the Anna Paquin test) but she has a strong presence which is often linked to how she connects with various objects, notably, but not exclusively a candelabra. The film is rather closer to Le noveau roman (The new novel) than The new wave and was in a way an artistic leap for Karina which she handled with aplomb. She was of course aided by a master filmmaker, whose films are always worth checking out.

Interview with André Delvaux and Anna Karina about Rendez-vous à Bray.

Fassbinder’s Chinesisches roulette (1976) was a French co-production and featured Macha Méril (who played the lead in Godard’s Une femme mariée) as well as Karina. The latter plays Angela who is the French mistress of the father in a family where both parties have a lover. Obviously the interpreters don’t play first fiddle in this play of framing and reframing by Fassbinder and Michael Ballhaus, she still makes quite an impression.

Anna Karina and Alexander Allerson in Chinesisches roulette.

Anna Karina would also move on to directing. In 1973 she wrote, produced, directed and starred in Vivre Ensemble. A film in the New wave vein that in some ways could be seen as a companion piece to Vivre sa vie. Like that one, Vivre ensemble is also divided into tableaux but instead of 12 she opted for 7. (6 numerated and an epilogue of sorts called Le dernier tableau) The story revolves around a professor (Michel Lancelot) who falls in love with hippie-dippie outsider Julie (Karina) In the process he abandons his former life without considering the consequences.

The storyline is set in Paris before a sudden trip to New York. The freewheeling style is typical of a film of the late sixties/early seventies. It features a song that is repeated numerous times in slightly different versions. although nowhere near as skillfully as the theme in The long goodbye, made the same year. The film was digitally restored and released on Blu-ray in 2017. There were also screenings in Paris, in the director’s presence, in 2018. Karina would also direct a second film in 2008 called Victoria which I haven’t seen.

Even if I’m not averse to the term muse as others seem to be. it’s clear that there was more to Anna Karina than simply being Godard’s muse.