Heterotopic Spaces and Nomadic Gazes in Varda: From Cléo de 5 à 7 to Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse
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Heterotopic Spaces and Nomadic Gazes in Varda:
From Cléo de 5 à 7 to Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse

In 1986, at the time of Sans toit ni loi, Agnès Varda made a revealing comment about space in films: "I'm tired of the fact that French films never have space, as if the entire universe of the French cinema were psychological, internal and enclosed."1 Her comment is predicated on a familiar binary, the exterior versus the interior. Critical work on Varda's films has itself often relied on this and other binaries; and yet, in many of Varda's films the gaze is nomadic, not least because several of them are road movies, the nomadic gaze undermining the binary instead of confirming it. As Rosi Braidotti explains, nomadic thought helps to deconstruct binary representations, especially those of women. The nomad, she suggests, "expresses the desire for an identity made of transitions, successive shifts, and coordinated changes, without and against an essential unity." Consequently, the nomad is a "form of political resistance to hegemonic and exclusionary views of subjectivity."2

Varda's cinema is a nomadic cinema; it is by a traveler, about travelers, and often uses iconic traveling shots, which are key to understanding how Varda's use of space functions. Her cinema is one that crosses the boundaries between the object and the subject to create the space of the imaginary. Objects, like le hasard objectif of the surrealists, reveal traces of hidden subjectivities. In that respect, the real world, if taken at face value, at topographical value, lies, hence Varda's pun combining the word documentary and lies, "documenteur," the title of one her films (1981). The real can be apprehended only through subjectivity. But equally, the subject can be apprehended only through objects. As the artist Macha Makeïeff in Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse: deux ans après (2002) says, to Varda's surprise, "les objets nous contiennent." And Jean Laplanche says in the same film, reflecting on what he said in Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000), that he wishes that in the first film he had pointed out something that seems retrospectively self-evident to him: that he as a psychoanalyst gleans objects from the unconscious mind so as to construct a narrative of identity. Space, and the objects and the people within that space, are as fluid and as fragmented as the structure of Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, as mobile as the tracking shots of lorries pursued by Varda's camera; what matters is not where you are nor where you are going, but movement, transformation, becoming, of the object and of the subject. [End Page 68]

Figure 1. "Je ne vois pas la … cachée dans la forêt." Photomontage in La Révolution surréaliste, 12 (December 15, 1929).
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Figure 1.

"Je ne vois pas la … cachée dans la forêt." Photomontage in La Révolution surréaliste, 12 (December 15, 1929).

At the center of Varda's films is often a woman, either gazing or gazed upon, a woman who is an avatar of Varda herself. To understand that gaze or gazing, we might note Varda's interest in an image published in La Révolution surréaliste depicting the surrealist group, all men, their eyes closed, surrounding a painting by Magritte of a naked woman, her eyes also closed. Below the image is the caption "je ne vois pas la [femme] cachée dans la forêt" (Figure 1). Varda comments that she could talk about this image end-lessly;3 indeed, she returns to it in her film Les Plages d'Agnès (2008). The image is emblematic of three interlocking issues, which I shall pursue in this [End Page 69] article. The first issue the image suggests is that of Varda's position as a female director often associated with a group of male directors, the New Wave, yet remaining slightly outside, marginal to that group, as she points out in her comment on the picture. The image also suggests the autobiographical strand of her work, most obvious in some of the documentaries, but implicit in the fiction films. The second issue involves, in philosophical terms, the relationship between seeing and not seeing, being awake and being...