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Ecriture and Cinematic Practice in Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ni loi Florianne Wild A LEXANDRE ASTRUC HERALDED the New Wave cinema in France when, in a 1948 essay,1he proposed the camera and its lens as equivalent of the writer’s pen, and suggested that the cinema’s brightest future lay in considering the director as a writer. Cinema would then be a specific kind of writing, a discours imagé, rather than a vehicle for a story, while the film author would be one who wrote directly with the camera, without necessarily elaborating a screenplay first on paper. Working from a two-page scenario, Agnès Varda, a self-identified prac­ titioner of cinécriture,2 which refuses a literary cinema wedded to an elaborate screenplay, has produced a complex social portrait, a detailed and subtle analysis (since, as Roger Dadoun suggests, the choice, arrangement, articulation and embedding of forms and signs making up the image may be termed an analysis3 ). In this sense, Sans toit ni loi is simultaneously an analysis of society, of the filmed narrative, and of the status of the filmic image of the female. Varda’s vagabond is, fittingly, a traveller who turns the image field she crosses into a mobile writing, a wanderer who produces a “ motion” picture, a figure for whom errancy and venture are a scriptural activity. The landscape she traverses is recognizably France of the 1980s: the Midi over-planted with vineyards; country houses and resorts uninhabited during winter; burglaries at epidemic stage and the omnipresent yapping guard dogs; the train-station traînés, paumés, and punks, all of France’s marginalia—chief among whom are the migrant workers from the Maghreb, the laborers in the vineyards. But if the passage of Mona, the nomad, situates events in the here-and-now, much of the film pulls us back to the archaic, to figures that have long populated the psyche and found expression in the plastic arts of the oldest civilizations—since paint was first applied to pottery and statuary. The Mona lifted frozen, petri­ fied, from a ditch is unearthed like a statue by archaeologists who then measure the site, while police photographers murmur, “ Le visage, prenez le visage.” The film begins with a lengthy tracking shot towards a prehistoric tumulus marking the place of her death. The sole establishing shot, the briefly glimpsed Maison Carrée in Nîmes, signals a pagan 92 S u m m e r 1990 W ild monument, “ un temple qui ne surprendrait pas sous le ciel d’Athènes,” 4 an inscription of Varda’s own paternal Greek heritage on the culture of France. Mona mobilizes painting, as well: the extreme long shot of her “ birth” shows her emerging, like Botticelli’s Venus, from the Mediter­ ranean, and her face framed in close-up reminds the viewer of La Gioconde glimpsed once in the Louvre. The lands through which she travels, the littoral of the Bas-Languedoc and the orchards and vineyards of the Vaucluse, were inhabited in the third millenium B.C. by the Celtic Galatians to whom Paul wrote his epistles. A druidic people, they wor­ shipped natural phenomena: certain trees and plants, the oak, the beech, mistletoe, were sacred to them. Thus, events which would situate us in contemporaneity, such as the infection and death of the plane trees, call forth an archaic dimension even as they delineate a modern paysage moralisé. “ Je m’en fous de vos platanes,” Mona will say, “ s’ils meurent, vous penserez à moi!” Mona is part of the landscape, a laissée-pourcompte in an economy lacking a human ecology. Punishment among the Celts was meted out in the form of expulsion from the social group. Although Mona claims a voluntary excommunica­ tion, actually she is ostracized, literally excluded. While nomadism is normally lived among a community, hers is lived in solitude. But she reveals the nature of the sedentary community she traverses by her passage through it. In this respect, the narrative structure of Sans toit ni loi bears comparison with that of the picaresque novel, in which the pere­ grinations of a rascal or wench of low degree lead...


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