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.
Didacticism in art can be tricky to pull off well. You can have a band like Rage Against the Machine, whose politics are notoriously and very obviously left-wing, get co-opted by their political opponents who can’t see the irony in their choices. Even successfully didactic art is subject to taste, because some people don’t find a lecture all that inspiring. While the ideal balance between art and education isn’t always the same for every project, it does need to be considered. This week’s batch of movies finds Agnès Varda, no stranger to directness, pushing that balance in interesting ways.
The history of Varda’s nearly lost movie Nausicaa (1970) is almost as fascinating as the film itself, and serves to underscore the film’s goals. Having written the movie in 1967 as a reaction to the right-wing Greek military coup of that same year, Varda finally got the go ahead to shoot it 3 years later. However, prior to its scheduled release, her lab was broken into and the copies of the film destroyed. It survived only because a single workprint copy had had an advance screening in Belgium, and that survived. This film isn’t even listed on the official box set, and is buried in the supplemental material.
The films contents provide at least enough context to provide theories on its mysterious disappearance. It opens up with an interview of a former actor who declined to act in Varda’s movie because the real life torture and suffering he endured during the coup was still too near to him, and he didn’t want that to be in a movie that would be advertised alongside Greek tourism ads. Alongside that are various interviews with Greek refugees and French tourists who claim to love Greece while knowing absolutely nothing about the coup. This is interspersed between the movies romantic plot. In that way, it bears a similar structure to La Pointe Courte.
The most purely didactic film in today’s set is a short film titled Réponse de femmes: Notre corps, notre sexe (1975), in which Varda is asked to answer the question “what is a woman?” While a lecture on the wider tension between relevance and datedness in second wave feminism seems unnecessary here (it’s not hard to find), it is worth noting that this wasn’t distant academic theories that Varda was engaging with. She was contemporaries with Simone De Beauvoir, and signed her “Manifesto of 343”, a document wherein everyone who signed admitted to having an abortion at a time when such practices were illegal in France. By contrast, she had two kids, and loved the experience of being a mom, and so in her mind, there was no single definitive viewpoint on being a woman in her context, because both having abortions and having kids were valid expressions of womanhood.
This gets more fully fleshed out in One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1977). Set against that same contemporary struggle for legalizing and getting access to abortions, the film follows the lives of Pomme and Suzanne, friends brought together by Pomme needing to get Suzanne out of a desperate situation by raising funds for an illegal abortion. They go their separate ways, Suzanne to be a struggling single mother and Pomme to be an artist, and the film skips ahead in time to the next time their paths cross. This pattern repeats throughout the film, as each woman is at different stages of relationships, having kids or not. I’d argue that the beauty of the film here is how Pomme and Suzanne (not to mention the communities of women they’re in) support each other regardless of their situations. This is a story about friendship and solidarity as much as it is about anything else. Even Pomme’s boyfriend (and semi-antagonist) Darius gets a nice moment in a scene cut from the film but released as its own short Plaisir d’amour en Iran (1976).
And yes, this film is a product of its time and culture, seen through the eyes of Varda, a cis, straight white lady. But with her refusal to answer to the question “what is a woman?” with a single definitive path, one imagines and hopes that would leave the tiniest crack open for a wider set of answers to exist possibly in the future.
Next time: No Shelter