- Agnès Varda by Kelley Conway
To undertake a new book length study of Agnès Varda is surely a daunting task. The filmmaker has been hard at work for over 60 years, having preceded (and partially inspired) the French nouvelle vague, embraced multiple formats for her creative work – moving from fiction, to documentary, to installation art, and every permutation in between – and, perhaps most intimidating for academics, having already inspired a wide range of scholarship, including two monographs (one as recent as 2014), a significant section of Sandy Flitterman-Lewis' To Desire Differently, and a stuffed-to-the-brim dossier of book chapters and journal articles over the years. Thankfully, the latest study of Varda has been expertly undertaken by Kelley Conway, who provides great insight into Varda's films, methods, historical context, and personality through unprecedented access to the Ciné-Tamaris archives and the legend herself. A lucid survey of Varda's life and work, Conway's Agnès Varda brings readers as close to the real Agnès Varda as seems possible in a scholarly work.
Conway's monograph appears as the latest in University of Illinois Press' Contemporary Film Directors series dedicated [End Page 75] to individual filmmakers who are continuing to probe our relationship with cinema. As such, Conway begins with a passionate defense of authorship as a form of study. While this might seem a polemical move for some, Conway defends it by shifting the focus of auteur-directed studies to the production process of a film rather than its formal interpretation. In a national system that already privileges the artisanal, Varda, as Conway demonstrates throughout, is a uniquely independent filmmaker, from her cooperative produced La Pointe Courte (1954) to the beloved Sans toit ni loi (1985) which, as Conway fascinatingly reveals, was largely cultivated through a process of gleaning, with Varda collecting characters (and the [non]actors who inspired them) throughout her own travels. Conway articulates her vision of film authorship as one which "holds that while directors are certainly acted upon by forces outside of themselves, they also seek challenges and solve problems, maintain certain aesthetic commitments (but abandon others over time), and impose creative constraints on themselves (while resisting others," (7), a vision that is well supported by her fascinating discussion of Varda's development.
Conway's information on Varda's films, largely derived from her unique access to Ciné-Tamaris, is so rich that one nearly laments her case study approach to Varda's oeuvre. While Alison Smith's and Delphine Bénézet's monographs aim for breadth over depth, surveying the themes and trends within Varda's work, Conway opts instead for a chronological strategy that gives space to all her pieces but dives deeply into specific films that exemplify Varda's process during a given period. Receiving deluxe treatment in Conway's monograph is La Pointe Courte (1954), the short documentaries Varda made in the late 50s, Cleo de 5 à 7 (1961), Sans toit ni loi (1985), Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000), Varda's installations of Patatutopia (2003), and L'île et elle (2006), and her most recent masterpiece Les plages d'Agnès (2008), a quite broad and encompassing discussion of Varda's career given the great detail Conway has been able to excavate.
How Conway treats each of these pieces varies from film to film. As already noted, the primary lens through which the films are viewed is that of production; readers are walked through the (often slow) process by which Varda's films are made, but each film is used to exemplify a unique aspect of her filmmaking. La Pointe Courte, for instance, allows Conway to discuss Varda's many influences and inspirations, from modernist literature to neorealist cinema, although the most important seems to simply be Varda's personal relationships and friendships of the time. We find the roots of the film buried in Varda's experience as a still photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire, where she was exposed to the Brechtian preferences of director Jean Vilar, and introduced to the two main actors...