- Finding a Voice:Varda's Early Travelogues
"DIRE avec des images." — Agnès Varda1
"Agnès Varda a été depuis ses débuts, mine de rien, une authentique 'essayiste' du cinéma..."— Alain Bergala2
If the essay film is an audiovisual equivalent of the written essay, its "voice" can be far more elusive than the writer's. Bill Nichols characterized the documentary voice as the procedures by which a nonfiction film orchestrates its perspective. "By voice I mean ... that which conveys to us a sense of a text's social point of view, of how it is speaking to us and how it is organizing the materials it is presenting to us" (50). The documentary voice must of course be distinguished from literal voices on the soundtrack, which may be those of an authoritative narrative voiceover (an important—but by no means the sole—constituent of the overall voice) or the voices of others within/outside the images. Semantic relations between voiceover narrations and the documentary voice may vary from strict correspondence to deliberate ironic counterpoint; when we consider the vast expressive potentials of verbal language and film "language"—relationships among mise-en-scene, cinematography, picture editing, voices, sounds, music, and so on— we begin to see how complex their relationships in many nonfiction films can be.
Agnès Varda's nonfiction filmmaking career can be usefully seen as the story of the refining and maturation of her cinematic voice. This occurred in part through her unusual insistence on authoring as many aspects of her films as possible. By late in her career with Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000), Agnès/Varda—that is, the persona in the film and the real director—are both investigator and cinematic gleaner, in frame and out; a camera operator, framing shots-within-the-shot, discussing her video camera and including its inadvertently-made footage; onscreen, both interviewer and a model posing to imitate painting. The voiceover narration is that of Varda; and when we hear a rap song, the lyrics are hers, too. By Les Plages d'Agnès (2008), the filmmaker has wholly become her own subject. [End Page 40]
Varda's distinctive voice did not emerge fully formed. This essay examines her first two documentaries to trace developments in their literal and figurative voices. O Saisons ô châteaux (1958) and Du Côté de la Côte (1959) were both commissioned by the French Tourism Office; Pierre Braunberger (Les Films de la Pléiade) produced the former and Anatole Dauman and Philippe Lifchitz (Argos Films) the latter. As is well known, such commissions were considered during the 1950s a means for new filmmakers to cut their teeth on directing and to gain entry into the profession. Dominique Bluher and François Thomas's Le Court métrage français provides a richly detailed look at this period, the economics, the personnel, and the quantity of creative works it produced. In that excellent collection of essays, Arnaud Chapuy and Jean-François Cornu argue convincingly that the postwar flowering of short film production in France paved the way for the French New Wave.
Varda was a successful photographer before turning to film; her two careers overlapped between 1954 and 1960. Through personal connections, she began working for Jean Vilar as the photographer for his Théâtre National Populaire and rose to prominence as the theater did, both at the Palais de Chaîllot in Paris and at the Avignon festival. Additionally, she went on photojournalistic assignments for such magazines as Elle and Marie-Claire, and her reportages of Cuba, Portugal, and China developed her incisive eye for the relationship between human figures and their characteristic environments. (According to Bernard Bastide, her 1959 photo essay on the Riviera most likely consisted of location scouting she had done for Du Côté de la Côte.) This impulse to frame the figure with distinctive objects and landscapes, conveying a strong sense of place, has remained constant in her film work for six decades. Think of the opening of Les Créatures (1965), with Michel Piccoli framed against the changing tides on the island of Noirmoutier; Le Bonheur's...