Agnès Varda’s career as a feminist filmmaker moves from the French New Wave and Left Bank movements to political modernism, portraying with sincerity the lives of women. From her first film, La Pointe Courte (1956), she combines realism with subjective stylized editing and abstract compositions which continue throughout her work. Her feminist agenda is best represented in Le Bonheur (1965), a modernist attack on traditional morality that disturbed viewers by suggesting that one woman can easily take the place of another, and One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), which traces the course of two women’s friendship from 1962-1974 to focus attention on abortion and childbearing from feminist viewpoint. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) and Vagabond (1985) epitomize her realist, documentary-like style intermingled with character subjectivity and authorial marks.
Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond create a realistic aesthetic using aspects of a documentary and then break this illusion with the narrative structure. Cleo from 5 to 7 uses continuity of time and space, following her as she wanders through Paris in long shots or long tracking shots that allow the viewer to see through Cleo’s eyes. She pursues the Neorealist goal of portraying two hours of a woman’s life, giving equal emphasis to car rides, walking, and shopping as Hollywood does to explosions, gunfights and sex. Varda uses handheld camera, direct sound, and available light creating a realistic documentary-like style. In contrast to the realistic aesthetic the narrative is episodic and broken into thirteen chapters; breaking the illusion of reality in a Brechtian manner. The arbitrary chapters and flow of unlinked encounters show Cleo’s lack of purpose and direction. Vagabond employs the Cinema Vérité ideal of seeking truth and combines it with Art Cinema flashback structure to investigate the life of Mona Bergeron. The people who met her on the road speak directly to the camera about her, then we see it in a flashback. This structure unravels, revealing more of the lives of those who met Mona, not cutting directly between interview and flashback. It begins to show events no one had witnessed. The camera reveals not only Mona’s own life and personality but how she is perceived by and affects others. In her films, Varda gives her female protagonists the respect and integrity female characters rarely receive.
Varda captures Cleo’s Parisian lifestyle and Mona’s roving rural freedom with the appropriate camera movement. Cleo, who feels that she is constantly on display and judged, is shot with a handheld camera that follows her, jumping between close-up and long shot. Varda then reverses the gaze, revealing Cleo’s point of view as she watches others watching her. After she storms out of her apartment, we see her in a café, judging the reactions of the customers to a song she plays. Varda shows both her watching them and them watching her, placing emphasis on the idea of looking. Then in the next shot she walks through the street and all the passerby stare at her. The camera is Cleo, both looking and looked at, and we as spectators are in the place of Cleo, both subject and object of the gaze. Cleo, in a sense, is trapped by the gaze of the camera, while Mona is free from it. In Vagabond the camera finds and loses Mona in the frame, she is not bound by it. A shot will begin on an inanimate object or a photographic composition, then move to find Mona. A shot of a crosswalk moves up to reveal Mona standing by the side of the road. A house with trees lining the walk, appears to be a painting, until the scenery moves and the camera reveals Mona in a car. Even the beginning of the film is a search for Mona in the frame, slowly tracking through a field to find Mona’s body in a ditch. Like Cleo, tracking shots follow her but often the camera will continue past her or stop at an interesting composition. As she enters a building the camera follows a girl in a red jacket, then moves across the street to find branches reaching through metal bars. Even when the camera is still she is not bound by the frame. In Assoun’s apartment she paces into and out of the frame and while hitchhiking as she hails a car she walks out of the frame. Varda’s change in representation reflects the psychology of the characters more than a change in her style.
Several preoccupations remain constant in her work; the importance of mirrors, focus on hands, and close-ups of objects, stylistically unify Vagabond and Cleo from 5 to 7 and mark them as Agnès Varda films. Mirrors for Cleo represent the importance of appearance and her self-image. A zoom on her image in the mirror emphasizes its significance, and mirrors recur in the rest of the film. She examines herself in the café believing she will find traces of illness. She believes as long as her image is intact she is not ill. As she shops for a hat she is surrounded by mirrors fragmenting the shot. Finally her friend drops a mirror shattering the importance of image and allowing Cleo to find the calm she seeks. For Mona the mirror represents not how she sees herself but how others see her. She is the mirror reflecting their desires and prejudices back at them. She never looks at herself in the mirror but we see others looking at her in it. She like Cleo is the object of the gaze but she is unconcerned by it: the others do not control her. Hands also become important as representative of the whole. Cleo from 5 to 7 begins with hands in a tableau which echoes in Vagabond with a shot of Mona’s hands and an array of pictures, like the array of tarot cards in Cleo. Instead of the conventional style of filming a conversation (shot reverse shot) Varda chooses to focus on the hands and the cards. The dialogue and reactions are secondary. She distinguishes the shot of the hands from the rest of the scene by filming it in color, a jarring distinction between the hands and faces as she cuts between them. The hands seem to belong to another world. In Vagabond, Mona’s relationship with Assoun’ is represented in a shot of their hands: Assoun’ strokes her hand and she closes it. Symbolically representing her resistance to attachment. Close-ups of objects in Cleo represent the artificiality of beauty, and expectations of women. Point of view shots of hats reveal a preoccupation with image. A mannequin in a wedding dress symbolizes the role of a woman as wife and mother. African masks seem to suggest both the idea of being trapped by a mask and possible escape from it into an exotic “other” culture. In Vagabond close-up shots of modern technology: a radio, television, or farming equipment, always inactive, suggest the failure of modern life.
The two films, both in style and in content, contrast the freedom of Mona with Cleo who is still bound by appearance and perception, made all the more poignant by the shared imagery of hands and mirrors and the use of close-ups. Mona’s freedom is reflected by the camera, the frame cannot contain her, while Cleo must be either the object or subject of its gaze.
Varda’s style reflects a progression in the power of her characters, and their relationship to society. Mona’s escape is possible where Cleo’s was not. Though punished with death, she attains her freedom while Cleo must find peace within the structure of society. Varda acknowledges reality and its limitations, but reaches for a time when death is not the price of freedom.