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Caryatids of Time: Temporality in the Cinema of Agns Varda

Author(s): Yvette Br and Catherine Portuges

Source: Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Sep., 1997), pp. 1-10
Published by: Performing Arts Journal, Inc
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Temporality in the Cinema of
Agnes Varda

Yvette Biro

The films ofAgnes Varda are being shown in a traveling retrospective originating at the
Museum of Modern Art, New York, in the fall of 1997.

n her best-known film, Cleo From 5 to 7, Agnes Varda's approach encompasses

an interval of two hours during which she marks off the boundaries of her
heroine's life. What reality does she apprehend by the use of such contingent
temporality? What order, what caprice does she capture in the images that unfold?

Her point of departure is unusual and rather revealing. The unexpected ingenious-
ness of Varda's procedure introduces us to the heart of the message: that time itself
is the main protagonist of Varda's films-not just its passage, its fertile construction-
destruction, but its many facets, its metamorphoses and burdens. Time is seen as a
natural milieu of everyday life, with its gently pulsing rhythm, its impenetrable
continuity; and time as a moment of strong density, suspended by the violent twists
of life, time as messenger, death's herald, its brother sent out ahead to scout.

This primary theme seems to return insistently, for in each of her films, Varda
surrounds us with an abundance of daily events, in addition to the vitality of urban
life and the liveliness of nature. Yet all this is but a catalyst, a special filter that places
us in the presence of something substantial. For what appears on the horizon,
however discreetly presented, is, finally, death, happiness, freedom. The procedure is
always the same: from intentionally banal elements, Varda attempts to carve out a
path that leads us to the abstract, to the lofty. Aided by a few subtle gestures, a few
imperceptible shifts in the emotional and affective realm, her accents conceal
suggestive allusions to the limits of our human potential.


In her first film, La Pointe courte, Varda takes us into the surroundings of a fishing
village that depict the most fundamental elements: humanity in the midst of nature,
the simplicity of existence. The leading roles are played by the wind, the sand, the
sea, and the tedium of everyday gestures. The inhabitants of this landscape are

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robust men, carved from a single granite block. They speak in raucous voices, go out
to sea each morning, and return to their lime-bleached houses where children gather
around. Poverty, illness, unforgiving infantile mortality are bound up in this grim
existence as surely as are the joys of love or the mean-spirited quarrels of domestic
life. Celebration and mourning are its natural components, accepted as inevitable.

Into this rich mixture Varda places the personal drama of her protagonists-the
story of a couple enduring the gradual extinction of their love. The blonde,
melancholy woman arrives in the village in search of her husband, intending to
divorce. Between them is only distance and estrangement-at best, that shared
sadness one senses when love has grown cold. Around them is the wind, the sand,
the sea. And then, all of a sudden, quite imperceptibly, a kind of enchantment
envelops them. Sun-dappled walls, the lapping waters of the harbor, the calm
laziness of barns, ragged fishing nets, wooden objects combine to create a bizarre,
still-life portrait, all of which makes them more sensitive, more attuned to one
another, more inclined to accept the beckoning of time and landscape so that,
relaxed once again, they reach out for each other with the promise of a new

What is remarkable in La Pointe courte is that, by confronting these two spheres of

life, Varda also establishes a parallel between two temporal experiences. The simple
events of this fishing village are more than merely a backdrop to the story of a couple
in the grip of their emotions: rather, they become a strange sort of dramatic
adversary. Tension is created through simultaneity, through identity and antago-
nism, similarity and difference. The denser the documentary segment of the film,
however effaced, the more it lends to the other segment an unconscious impulse, on
the surface more intense and more intellectual. Both segments are concerned with
the passage of time, but according to different rhythms. Everything happens as if,
onto the raw material of objective, chronological temporality, another level of time
is inscribed-this one subjective, internal, more tormented, obeying only the law of
decomposition and wear capable of drawing energy from "external," ordinary
existence. Once our protagonists begin to take part in village life, they are
imperceptibly impregnated by a resolute sense of action that mitigates against the
impulse toward surrender.

Varda maintains these two strata in Cleo as well, but here they are far more closely
linked. The forest of Parisian streets is the young woman's natural habitat, the place
where she lives, strolls, runs errands. Wherever we might discover her, in each event
of her life, every parcel of her history-all appear to be part of a whole. When she
becomes ill in the bistro, banal events unfold around her; when she takes a taxi, the
radio announcer reports another historical reality-that of the Algerian war-that
eclipses for a moment her own destiny. Throughout this commotion, Varda
manages to suggest the infinite, the inconceivable richness of simultaneous events,
the dizzying heterogeneity of things.


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What, then, is time here? It is what cannot be suspended. It is profusion, the spirit
of life, the simultaneity of many millions of events. What, then, is a hero? A single,
unique instant, an infinitesimal fragment of the universal metabolism that the gaze
cannot embrace: change, palpitation, anabolism, catabolism, and yet, too, a perpet-
ual movement and progression. From this perspective, time appears to us to be
perfectly homogeneous. Its movement is enriched by other movements, its breath
draws upon the circulation of the whole universe. Examined closely, however, it
reveals itself to be heterogeneous, not only because we become conscious of the
disparity and the incommensurability of things and their concomitant impressions,
but because its very continuity is only the sum of fragments of life in differing
degrees. So the hero follows a path paved by the unexpected, whose ultimate
moment alone is predetermined, and the path leading there is perhaps the most
capricious of all.

Both Le Bonheur and Lions' Love are crafted following the same technique. As in the
small colored stones of a mosaic, episodes and minute observations combine,
connect, and echo one another, acquiring an aleatory aspect to all appearances
disconnected from the material we are given. Existence thus seems to have no aim:
with a playful kind of freedom, episodes are linked only by flux and reflux, as if
originating within themselves.

We might, then, well ask: how is a measure of coherence attained? From this point
of view, Cleo and Le Bonheur are exemplary. It would be difficult indeed to imagine
adventures more whimsically selected than those of Cleo's two-hour odyssey. The
slightly affected episode in which she feels suddenly nauseated is followed by a
ravishing sequence featuring the purchase of a hat, melding vanity and narcissism
with triumph over anguish. The rapid mood shifts provoked by Cleo's stroll, and
then hailing a taxi, lead next to the exhaustion of her return home. And what can be
said of her home? A white room, lacy undergarments, an oddly-placed rocking
seesaw, a delicately carved, canopied bedstead, a smooth-faced, perfumed lover,
some minor annoyances with a cat-these few random touches manage to create a
whole universe. Then comes the enchanting ambiance of the singing lesson, and the
playful game suddenly turns to anguish. Cleo begins to sing, but since she is in the
mood for tenderness, she gives us a foolish little song about sadness and solitude.
And, though this whole exhibition is at first voluntarily and discreety ironic, as if
captured in quotation marks, suddenly we are brought in closer to her, the camera
allowing us to see her tears, the depth of her suffering. She is touched by something,
and so are we, the viewers, as well.

Now comes the turning point. No more coquettish and hysterical sniffling. Irritated,
she grabs her blond wig-a symbolic mask-and her doll's face takes on the
anguished expression of a woman's face, tired and fearful. She must confront the
world, but this second stroll in the city stands in sharp contrast to the previous one,
becoming instead an honest search, Cleo's coming to terms. But how to go about it?
She has little experience of honesty, for she can only relate to herself as an object, a
toy. What to do with the fear now bearing down upon her-with this first authentic

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experience of her life-for which she lacks both discipline and preparation? As for
the world outside, it appears no more unfriendly than usual: aggressive cars, a noisy
ride. Trifles attract her attention: the mad exoticism of the marketplace, the frog-
swallower's rather disgusting trick, even the habitues of the Cafe de Flore. She is ill
at ease everywhere: the least incident grates on her nerves, the most minor sensation
imprisons her. Even her long-absent friend, posing in a sculptor's studio from 5:58
to 6:00, only makes Cleo all the more aware of her own solitude. The other person's
life, as usual, eludes her, is complete without her, given a schedule, a plan, a precise
goal. And Cleo, what might she have to offer? A few compassionate words, a tender
glance? Yes, but also a sense of unbridgeable distance, an insurmountable exclusion.
Eventually, she arrives at the park. There, nature's indifference seems kindlier: the
play of sunlight, trees, and foliage seems to impart a bit more warmth. But what
finally brings her deliverance is the encounter with the person she has called-not
love, and certainly not redemption, but simply the goodness of human warmth, the
possibility of a connection-in a word, the promise, so often denied, of communi-

Varda's schema is thus one of seductive simplicity, for she leads her charming,
spoiled heroine through random fragments of events, suggesting all the while that
she might just as well have chosen any other preceding or subsequent moment to
reach the same final result. She seems to suggest that, wherever we might begin
unraveling the thread of our lives, we are everywhere present. There is no privileged
moment. Our entire experience carries meaning, speaks our relation with the world.
The basic idea is to place Cleo at once in a dramatic situation: in doing so, Varda has
her catch sight of death. Afterwards, Cleo can walk along calmly before our eyes,
however and wherever she might wish, yet every one of her gestures is, in a sense,
undermined, her encounters suffused with meaning. The walk is, then, obviously far
more than a simple stroll: it becomes rather a strange voyage toward her inner self,
for after having looked herself straight in the eye for the first time ever, she becomes
at last capable of opening herself up to the world, conscious not only of her own self
but also of the gift of others.

Although the orderly arrangement of Le Bonheur is even less dramatic than that of
Cleo, one can observe in it the same narrative progression, the same multiple strata
as in the latter. Varda's heroes are content to live, to come and go, to work, to take
trips or make love-that is, up until the moment when these everyday events
acquire the fullness of a drama, a destiny. But this destiny always transcends that of
a simple story or anecdote, and its trajectories communicate something exemplary
and imperative.

The bold paradox of Varda's writing demands that uncertainty and randomness
become a means of expression. Sans toit ni loi illustrates this conception perfectly.
The heroine's vicissitudes are at once fortuitous and determining. Mona's every step
seems to follow an inevitable direction: that of the law of being-outside. Being
without a roof means repeating this unique law until the final exit. Although in that
film, too, time appears to be the raw material of action, this in no way implies a


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Cleo From 5 to 7. Still courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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chronology. On the contrary: it is a permanent frame, not essentially progressive, a
duration that accommodates any structure. The vagabond experiences her own
duration, or, more precisely, reminiscences and memories project the same pattern.
Varda even allows the other characters to anticipate their reports of her, since the
film is not about facts or even the illuminating role of events, but rather about the
mystery of a life that is closed in upon itself, and that rejects simplistic explanatory
attempts. What the gas station attendant or the chambermaid remember; what
Macha Meril's unusual student or even the post-1968'er recycled as goat-keeper
remember of Mona are only the trace of an absence, of a missed encounter. The only
variable is the fact that each bit of evidence expresses a different idea. "I would like
to be free" or "wandering is error," they say, as if to suggest that, in wandering, Mona
has "passed beyond this game of human mirrors that reflects its own image and
reconstitutes a small world unto itself" That is what makes the whole structure
conform to the modern exigencies of temporal conception: time is "a serpent to be
sold off in slices or portions," as Baudelaire would have it.

"Time creates us, time devours us," Ronsard proclaimed. The films of Agnes Varda,
so tender and intimate at first glance, illustrate this cruel dialectic. For not only do
"destiny" and accelerated time ravage us, but also, and perhaps even more so, does
time that evolves quietly. No more complete affirmation is required to prove that
time acquires its implacable power precisely from this very movement, from this
unpredictable play of slowness and speed that surrounds and at the same time
delivers us.


In Cleo, as we have seen, the main idea is the particular choice of a decisive event:
death. Now Varda treats the idea of death with exceptional intelligence. In her eyes,
death is not an element external to life, neither demonic nor terribly mysterious, nor
especially theatrically tragic. Rather, death is a simple fact with which we must
reckon, with which one can and must live. More precisely, one may wonder whether
it is not in fact only by becoming conscious of this, by recognizing its true scope,
that one becomes capable of truly living. Would it be ostentatiously paradoxical to
note that it is the first touch of death that turns Cleo toward real life, incites her to
live out her destiny, throw away her masks and her roles, and constrains her
implacably toward attentive introspection, and the gestures of solicitude and
devotion so unfamiliar to her up to that moment?

What makes Varda's film beautiful is that the idea of death becomes a fertile, vital
principle. The sight of death, the sense of an ending, attract Cleo's attention to the
essential. Although-perhaps even because-she has never done so, she must now
ask the question: who am I? Obviously, there is no easy answer, but what is certain
is that, once she fully confronts her destiny, all artifice and affectation fall away, and
true suffering is enough. By suggesting that through Cleo's simple story we retrace


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the stages of a liberating human evolution, we may conclude that, because of this
transformation, Cleo is actually indebted to death.

Cleo From 5 to 7 is thus a demystifying film, and it is with the same disarming
naturalness that death surrounds Varda's heroes in her other films. In La Pointe
courte, death is accompanied by a modest, restrained process of mourning, since for
the inhabitants of the village, it is part of the changeless laws of nature through
which one must inevitably pass. In Le Bonheur, many thought it a sacrilege that
Varda rejected the self-punishment that penitent survivors believe they must impose
upon themselves. A woman dies, a victim of suicide. Yet the director is never for a
moment tempted to embellish her with the romantic aura of irreplaceability. Her
presentation is more sober and objective: instead, she examines the elements that
allow one to transcend this moment in search of a kind of equilibrium. Quite
obviously, she denies neither the emptiness nor the disorder caused by grief, but
refuses instead the sanctifying and demonizing gestures toward death that are the
stuff of funerary eulogies.

Moreover, by demystifying death, Varda also asks: what is the scope of happiness?
what is happiness-availability or creation? devotion or, alternatively, defiance? In
Le Bonheur, her most frequently criticized film, her answer is complicated. This
time, though, the setting is a classical triangle: a charming, attractive man, a
prepossessing woman, two beautiful children-the accessories of happiness. And
summertime, deep forests, ritualized Sunday outings, bodies reposing in embrace.
Added to so much joy, an extra gift, there is the man's nascent love for a woman just
as pure, charming, and blonde. One more mirror, one more source of joy. The wife
tries in vain to reason things through, but, overwhelmed, she ends up drowning
herself. And what happens afterward? Just what one might expect: the man marries
his lover, who becomes, from then on, his partner at home, at mealtimes, and in
bed, on Sunday excursions-in happiness. In Varda's film, the most trivial event
takes up the same space as reverie. There is abundant beauty-that of landscape, of
the endless floral tapestry of meadows, the blue of river or the green of trees; the
protagonists' beauty, too, with their touching goodness and angelic, ringletted
children, and, finally, the great beauty of Mozart's music, accentuating the
musicality of each caress.

And what makes all this enchanting sweetness so ambiguous? The very succession of
beauty itself, this seamless continuity, the seeming inexhaustibility of happiness.
One joy echoes another, and when once, only once, evil-death, to be precise-
manages to insert itself, the perilous crossing is made without impediment. Varda
gives us the impression that time's power to use up is in fact powerless, that only its
ability to "cure"-an accentuated clich6-is at work here.

The most provocative turn takes place at this very moment of the film. The willful
parody of serial love, its ironizing intentions, are unveiled quite flagrantly, by the
near-instantaneous re-establishment of harmony in our heroes' little universe.
Important human emotions are indeed present in Varda's film: love, grief, the desire

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for beauty, but they all make their appearance on a small stage. And it is precisely
these reduced proportions that give the film its floating feel, a fundamentally ironic
tone that is at first concealed and only later revealed, and that calls everything into


Looking at Varda's films, one recognizes the extent to which image and document
play a primary expressive role: these basic forms continuously and appealingly define
their vision and mark their personal style. There is no line of demarcation between
crude reality, carefully composed image, and fiction. So it is no accident that she uses
the same sensibility to analyze, comment upon, and follow subjective associations in
her so-called documentary films as in her fiction feature films, always linking raw
document with articulated story, with emotional or rational response. This constant
flow between the objective world and its subjectivity, the permeability between
external and internal are the basic features of Varda's cine-criture. Because this
dialectic and the tension it encloses are internalized to such an extent, Varda
manipulates relationships with great restraint. She creates furtive junctures and a
distant sort of accompaniment without forcing correspondences, fleeing the impor-
tunate accents of symbols. Despite-or rather because of-this, the links between
them become suddenly sensitive and captivating.

In La Pointe courte as well as in Cleo, the two processes are taken to the extreme. The
setting is authentically rendered, methodically presented, abundantly detailed.
Setting, dialogue, and movement are all equally "unformed." The so-called "per-
sonal" story is the opposite: each shot is composed with accentuated artistic beauty.
Image and dialogue carry within them all the marks of a carefully constructed
artistic vision.

In Cleo as well, the diversity of the external world is suggested by the force of a
dynamic immediacy, whereas stylization of the stages of personal life resembles a
graceful arabesque. The camera, always in motion, is a basic element of this writing,
but the delicacy with which Varda is capable of making choices among possible
movements is striking. Documentary description is based on the ceaseless move-
ment of the tracking shot: it is light, free of added emphasis, like the dispersed
attention of a walker. It changes point of view and axis incessantly, but without the
tension of an exaggerated disengagement. The projection of Cleo's internal life is
formulated by a change of rhythm that is far more fragmented and articulated. What
surrounds her is always beautiful, or at the very least composed with great care, so
that when the camera approaches the secrets of the white room, it can do so with
restraint. Otherwise, how would it be able to capture the play of the rocking seesaw,
except with such complete immobility? When the lover arrives, on the other hand,
even the camera seems to be all curves and pirouettes, circling the heroine as
reverently as her lover, with his elegant smile.


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These elements continue to shift once we approach the story of the "professional"
vagabond. The destiny of Mona the nomad requires no less sensitivity than that of
Cleo, but a different shape and character of emotional intensity. The main
element-the dynamism, the seamless tracking of the camera, its attention fixed
upon the heroine-remain the same; yet to render the progressive impasse of a
young woman destined for failure whose marginality removes her from hope of
redemption would require a constant act of distancing. We can neither draw near to
nor further detach ourselves from her: all we can do is walk alongside, without hope,
like the occasional travel companions who remember her, with her personality
beyond reach, always in flight and distress. For she is a traveler whose only
framework in life is the road itself: an open, deserted landscape ("the decors of
Herault and du Gard, with wintry vines, this stiff, Protestant region") with a few
rough-hewn walls. She walks in front of them as if they were a backdrop, never a roof
or shelter. The emptiness of her adventure is accentuated by suggestions of the
opposition between "inside-outside," done in bits and pieces, assuming more
discontinuity than in Varda's previous films. What interests her after all is not "the
story, but what happens between important moments." We know the ending from
the very start. And that is what makes for the film's extraordinary structure: Mona's
constant vagabondage among the decors of an arid landscape. Since space is marked
by intimacy, movement has a special kind of poetry, a modest beauty.


In the documentaries, the distance covered from protagonist to decor is naturally the
reverse-"a train of thought suggested and regulated by the external world and the
fate of circumstance" (Baudelaire), always revelatory of a world rich in meaning. In
this way, Daguerrotypes or Rue Mouffetard, but especially Ulysses, Caryatides and even
7pieces, cuisine, salle de bains become, in a sense, "little poems in prose." Some are
a bolder panoply of associations in perspective, while others remain closer to the
grotesqueness of sensual life.

Among them, 7pieces, cuisine, salle de bains is perhaps the most audacious. It, too,
is not only about temporality: in this case, time is projected into space, takes form
in space, and finishes its dance by populating or destroying space. The chosen decor
is a house with seven rooms, kitchen, and bathroom, an imaginary scene in which
everything that could happen appears in fantasmatic form: the past. Or, better still,
everything that potentially existed there: the future, as a "conditional past." The
large windows of the house behind which trees rise up, rustling in the wind; the
wide, empty spaces, the long deserted corridors seem mysterious, provoking a
shudder as they speak of shadows and faded light, the trace of what is no longer
there. Then, abruptly, come the trivia of daily life, ironic, playful fragments that
interrupt melancholic memory or fantasy. The structure of parodic wedding scenes,
a maid's obsessions, an adolescent revolt or the diminished life of the elderly give
way to grotesque and bizarre metamorphoses. But beyond the content of the images,
their very texture is stranger still, evoking with surrealistic tactility a stove overgrown

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by grass, foods in crystallized form, an old nude woman appearing on walls covered
in down quilts. All this is offered up as incongruous, and in a floating, shifting
sensuality, gradually yielding sections that associate "the frightening with the
comical, and even tenderness with hate," as Baudelaire would have it-an insepa-
rable amalgam of ideal beauty fused with the trivial. In this work, suggestions of
empty space, shifts of consciousness, languorous reverie, philosophy, dream, and
even anecdote each in turn have their moment, in a prose form perfectly adapted to
the author's varied states of mind. The structure follows the principle that regulates
the law of the genre-that of discontinuity.

Varda serves up a flexible, jerky prose, mere trifles of rhapsodic thought, at once
penetrating and light, suggesting a terrible and profound truth. Poetry arises from
just such fortuitous encounters with that space. Here, then, is its strength: the mass
of extremes, the melding of figures belonging at once to the realm of the ordinary
and to the dreamlike, weaving an everyday mythology, seizing upon the corrosion of
time, of the transitory structured like an irrevocable imprint upon the physical
world, because everything-place, object, body-is marked by the passage of time.

(Translated from the French by Catherine Portuges)

YVETTE BfRO teaches screenwriting at New York University. CATHER-

INE PORTUGES is at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

PERFORMING ARTS JOURNAL, NO. 57 (1997) PP. 1-10: ? 1997

The Johns Hopkins University Press


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