An auteur, a documentarian, and an experimental commentator on the existential questions of life, Agnes Varda emerged into the 1950s nouvelle vague as a voice to be reckoned with. Decades later, Varda remains a paramount voice in cinema, known for her specific location shoots, use of amateur actors (in tremendous performances) and subtle, consequential performances she has directed, especially in female protagonists.
I remember the first time I saw “Cleo From 5 to 7,” and how completely awestruck I was at not only the stunning scenery and peculiar depiction of an infectious young woman, but I was mesmerized by the way the woman was portrayed. She was both strong and terrified; beautiful and obscene; tense and at ease. In a new video essay from Fandor, Serena Bramble and Arielle Bernstein discuss “Cleo” and Varda’s incredible “Vagabond,” and how these two films singlehandedly showcase an entirely other kind of cinematic woman, thanks to having a female behind the lens.
Quoting the inimitable Pauline Kael on Varda’s direction, Bramble cites that watching these films feels almost innate thanks to the female helmer. It is a woman seeing a woman for whom she really is, rather than the askewed symbol she is so often portrayed. This is an issue that remains in film all these years later, but somehow Varda was able to overcome it by inflicting real life issues onto her otherwise dreamy characters.
The critics discuss how Cleo’s good looks are both a blessing and a curse; it’s a red herring for the internal struggle she’s facing while contemplating whether or not she has cancer. The beauty succeeds on the outside, but there is something possibly putrid growing within. If Cleo is heard (she’s a pop singer after all), she’ll feel more alive, burying the looming possibility of illness.
Mona, in “Vagabond,” becomes so vulnerable that she becomes a martyr for the human condition instead of a character. Her feelings and issues are so large they embody their own physicality. Varda’s nuanced women have a sense of purpose, despite their insecurities and idiosyncrasies; their crises surpass superficiality and cement them as some of the best we’ve had in cinema. Take a look at the brilliant essay below.