In the distant past of April 2020, Chris and I dove deep into an episode of our podcast Cinema Dual on the films of French filmmaker Agnès Varda. Though technically not my first experience with Varda, that week of watching Varda’s movies was eye-opening, to such an extent that when Criterion announced they were going to release a Blu Ray box set of her complete filmography, I jumped at the chance to catch up on everything I had missed. Each post will cover 1 of the 15 discs in the set.
If you were to read accounts of Agnes Varda’s 28-year marriage to fellow French filmmaker Jacques Demy, they generally read as fairly positive. They supported each other’s careers while maintaining healthy professional boundaries. When Demy was given the opportunity to travel to California to try his hand at Hollywood, he and Varda packed up the family and Varda found her own work to do in the meantime. It seems to be a modern partnership of equals that you’d want. But while both Demy and California will have their own forthcoming sections in this series, Varda’s thoughts on marriage generally as expressed through her art tend towards ambivalence at best. Like Varda’s philosopher colleague Simone de Beauvoir, we draw our attention to how traditionally women in heterosexual relationships were “shut up in a kitchen or in a boudoir, and astonishment is expressed that her horizon is limited. Her wings are clipped, and it is found deplorable that she cannot fly. Let but the future be opened to her, and she will no longer be compelled to linger in the present.”
This is most pointedly observed in Le Bonheur (1965), a movie that Varda once described as “a summer peach with a worm inside.” The exquisite use of color, the beautiful music and picturesque family picnics that permeate the film serve to establish the idyllic quality of the protagonist François’ life. A handsome, almost Bill Hader-esque figure, François is a carpenter and is married to a beautiful dressmaker named Thérèse, and they have two young kids. They spend most of their time outside in the fields. From everything that’s presented to the viewer, there’s nothing to suggest that anything is amiss.
And yet, when he meets Émilie, a similarly attractive young woman at the post office, he falls in love with her fairly quickly and they begin an affair. Insofar as we take François’ explanations of his actions to either Émilie or eventually Thérèse at face value, he doesn’t see any harm in his actions, so long as both women are cool with it. “Happiness added to happiness” for François, this seems like a win-win.
While the music, picnics, and joyful lovemaking continue unabated, the viewer feels in their guy something is off. Certainly healthy non-monogamous relationships exist, but this isn’t that. We know this because François doesn’t reveal his actions to Thérèse until the end of the movie, because he knows that it will hurt her to hear this. Similarly for Émilie, while she introduces herself as a liberated woman who knows going in what she wants, when she tells him that it bothers her whenever he brings up how happy he is with Thérèse, it goes unacknowledged. Both women’s happiness are being set to be found in François, so he can do whatever he feels like regardless of their stated consent.
Thérèse reaches her breaking point when, having agreed to this open arrangement, falls into a lake and drowns the next day. While not shown directly, it is heavily implied to be suicide, a horrific rejection of François ‘ vision of a happy life. And yet the horror isn’t quite finished, as a mere two months later, François has picked up his relationship with Émilie, seemingly disposed of Thérèse. Émilie is slotted into the matron role, and everyone picks back up their perfect lives. In the hands of Varda, who only shows her hand with a handful of subtle visual tricks, the fact that the movie otherwise doesn’t break from its cheery tone makes the ending that much more chilling, and subject to debate. But if the specifics of Varda’s intent can be debated, her concern for women’s subservience to men cannot.
That relationship dynamic also finds expression in her short film Elsa La Rose (1965) and subsequent feature Les Créatures (1966). In Elsa La Rose, Varda dedicates her spotlight to writer Elsa Triolet, an accomplished writer who nevertheless lives in the shadow of her more famous poet husband Louis Aragon. Fortunately to Aragon’s credit, he’s a full participant, providing narration and poetry to ascribe his wife’s amazing qualities. To use a more contemporary phrase, he comes off in this movie like a real “wife guy.”
In Les Créatures, however, the marriage between Michel Piccoli’s Edgar and Catherine Deneuve’s Mylène mostly provides the backdrop for one of Varda’s most compellingly strange stories. Having gotten into a car crash for driving too fast against Mylène ‘s wishes, Mylène (now mute) and Edgar move to an isolated island for her to recover and him to work on his writing. During his trips into town, he has several encounters with the locals, ranging from strange to hostile. As the camera (and Edgar) follow the residents on their own separate adventures, Edgar becomes suspicious of a particular scientist who lives in a tower on the island. He hires a pair of linen salesmen (don’t ask) to break into the tower, and the bulk of the movie involves a game created by scientist Ducasse played against Edgar. The stakes are Mylène’s life, who remains at home for the duration of this adventure.
While the details of the game are vague, the easiest way to explain it is that Ducasse has created mind control technology, which explains the strange encounters that Edgar has had to this point. In this game, they will take turns using it to control the residents of the town like chess pieces into making good or bad decisions in the course of their lives. Each turn is followed by them watching the results of their move play out on a television screen, and so the movie becomes a voyeuristic look into these people’s lives.
As if that wasn’t enough, Varda adds another layer by implying that at least some of what we’re observing is in fact part of the story that Edgar is writing. Because he’s made himself the protagonist of his own story, sorting through what’s real and not becomes especially challenging. There’s definitely comparisons to be made here to Ingmar Bergman’s work, especially with the “chess-like game” in Seventh Seal and “the isolated protagonist with loose grip on reality” in Persona, which coincidentally came out just a week or two before Les Créatures. It’s unfortunate that Les Créatures wasn’t well received in its time or contemporaneously placed in the high echelons of Varda’s masterpieces. Varda herself took the leftover film stock from this movie to make her installation piece “Ma Cabane de l’Échec, or My Shack of Failure.” And yet, if you are reading this, I implore you to watch Les Créatures, a wonderfully weird movie that’s ultimately about artistic inspiration.
Next time: California