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  • Caryatids of Time: Temporality in the Cinema of Agnès Varda
  • Yvette Bíró (bio)
    Translated by Catherine Portuges (bio)

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

In her best-known film, Cleo From 5 to 7, Agnès 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?

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Figure 1.

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

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Figure 2.

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

Her point of departure is unusual and rather revealing. The unexpected ingeniousness 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.

“Time Creates Us, Time Devours Us.”

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 [End Page 1] 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 beginning.

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...

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