In 1965, Agnès Varda made a short, intense documentary on the then almost 40-year relationship between the French writers Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet. Her film predominantly and characteristically focuses upon Triolet, and her role as both muse and important artistic and political influence on her partner. Varda’s film, Elsa la rose, titled after the moniker bestowed on Triolet by Aragon, was made between two of Varda’s most controversial, inscrutable and misunderstood features: Le Bonheur (1964) and Les Creatures (1965). All three films focus on the couple and the complex relation it holds to both its immediate environment and circumstances and the realms of individual and collective fantasy. This gaze on the couple as a sacrosanct and malleable entity, a measurable and unknowable partnership, a shared and totally separate consciousness, as well as the impact and influence of landscape and place on daily existence, are key motifs, themes and autobiographical concerns that feature throughout much of Varda’s work both prior to Elsa la rose and in the often intimate, domestic and restless, yet profoundly situated work she has made over the following 50 years.
The filmic “portrait” is also a mode that Varda has consistently revisited in both her documentary and fictional films, an approach that has often acted to blur key distinctions between these two forms or realms of cinema. As Varda has stated, “I’ve been trying all my life to put into fictional films the texture of documentary” (1). For example, Varda’s most acclaimed film, Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985), constantly returns to the frontal or face-on image of characters speaking directly to the camera, expressively and somewhat self-consciously posed in their common surroundings (almost like they are undertaking on-the-spot police interviews). This confessional, sometimes confronting and somewhat distancing technique is consistently deployed as a means to fuse together “actor”, person, environment, place, time, memory and more concrete representations of both the past and present in her work, including the varied approaches – shifting restlessly across time and history – to the subject that is “surveyed” in Elsa la rose. It is also one of the pictorial means Varda uses to link her films to other art forms (such as her true inspiration in photography and painting), and emphasise both artifice and the documentary grounding that inflects and infects all of her films and installations.
Amongst the most interesting and intriguing aspects of Elsa la rose, at least in hindsight, are the ways in which it pre-empts and speaks to the string of four remarkable and often playful films that Varda made about her husband, Jacques Demy, since his AIDS-related death in October 1990: Jacquot de Nantes (1991; commenced while he was still alive), Les Demoiselles ont eu 25 ans (The Young Girls Turn 25, 1993), L’Univers de Jacques Demy (1995) and Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès, 2008). Each of these films approaches various aspects of Demy’s life through an exploration of environment and place, as well as the impact of his work on particular locations and audiences. On a somewhat superficial level, the parallels between Triolet and Aragon, Varda and Demy, are both startling and revealing. After Triolet’s death in 1970, Aragon promptly “came out” as bisexual and became a somewhat noticeable figure in or symbol of the French gay pride movement. Demy’s sexuality has been a much less discussed and debated topic, partly as a result of his own reticence on the matter but also due to Varda’s subsequent unwillingness to work such a discussion into – on any substantive level; though some revelations are given in Les Plages d’Agnès – the series of interconnected films she has made about his work (a group of films that have themselves been somewhat overlooked by many commentators on the two directors’ works). References to Demy’s sexuality are often fleeting in this analysis, particular in English language criticism (but this also appears to be true within France itself). For example, Jonathan Rosenbaum briefly compares Demy to Yasujiro Ozu as a “closeted” gay or bisexual man “living in [a] highly formalized middle-class societ[y] where ‘coming out’ was not regarded as an option…. Their fascination with ‘normal’ family life was thus emotionally and philosophically complex – their views both idealized and ironic.” (2)
It is nevertheless tempting to try to see or decipher a degree of identification and recognition in Varda’s portrait of Triolet, a sense of connection between her own and the writer’s situation, relationships and gendered experience. But nothing in the film really suggests or allows this. Intriguingly, Demy was meant to have made a companion piece to Varda’s film that would have led to a more equitable focus on Aragon. The initial idea was for the two films to focus on each writer’s knowledge and imagination of the other’s childhood, with Varda profiling Triolet through Aragon and Demy looking at Aragon through the eyes and words of Triolet. For whatever reason, Demy dropped out of this project prior to filming.
In the film that was made, Varda is rightly and understandably more concerned with the somewhat wearisome role of the “muse” that the matter-of-fact but unflinching Triolet is required, even forced to play, and in presenting – in an around this – the sketched-in but remarkable details of her life and work (though the latter is mostly left to the side; a realm too vast to broach here). It is this approach that is central to the more expressly feminist concerns of Varda’s documentary. As in her films about Demy, Varda also provides a remarkable portrait of her subject’s corporeality, the way she looks, the gestures she makes, her interactions with the camera and filmmaking process, and how she relates to her physical surroundings. This uncanny ability to place subjects within their environments, to create a portrait in an almost classical sense, is a recurring preoccupation of Varda’s bracingly situational documentary and fictional cinema. Such a concern with the context of figures and actions lies at the centre of Varda’s approach, as Sandy Flitterman-Lewis argues: “Varda starts with a locale – a deeply felt sense of the effects of environment, both geographic and social – and works from there” (3). As can be seen in such major works as Jacquot de Nantes, Daguerréotypes (1976), Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners & I, 2000) and Vagabond, and in the focus on the couple’s living environment and immediate surroundings in Elsa la rose,it is such “environmental” portraiture that provides an important portal between documentary and fiction in Varda work, an approach to the subject that is collaborative and poignantly staged rather than merely observational. It is also in this tricky space that Varda runs the greatest risk of allowing her work to tip over into the realms of the mannered, fey and cloyingly indulgent, as it does in films like the often excruciating Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988) and Les cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma (1995). It is testament to Varda’s talents as a truly exploratory and profoundly essayistic filmmaker that these failures provide the exceptions rather than the rule in her work. Elsa la rose is one of the most clear-eyed and touching explorations of this exploratory realm in Varda’s cinema.
Elsa la rose is an explicitly fragmented work that tries on various approaches – straight-ahead portraiture, reenactment, Proustian memory work – as a means of attempting to “capture” its elusive subject. It slips between the writing of Aragon about Triolet (breathlessly voiced by Michel Piccoli), the spoken words of Aragon, and the more grounded, corrective responses of Elsa to Aragon’s idealisation of her. Although Varda would probably insist that her film is equally an abstraction, a study of the ways in which couples aestheticise and obscure the true natures of their partners as well as the relationship they conduct together, she provides a wonderfully varied “account” of Triolet’s image and being within its condensed but never rushed 20-minute running time.
In the process, Elsa la rose profiles and uses the rhapsodic poetry and prose that Aragon continued to write about Elsa throughout his life. Aragon’s impressionistic, sensual and often litany-like odes to his wife are some distance from Varda’s more matter-of-fact but still poetic films about Demy, but they do share some commonalities and specific qualities. Elsa la rose, Aragon’s writing and Varda’s films in this mode insist on the quixotic and incomplete nature of the portraits they offer. Aragon’s poetry evocatively presents a wonderful, flattering and endlessly shifting “picture” of Elsa but is also somewhat wide of the mark (what he “captures” is plainly not her), an attempt to fix and pin down the ineffable, the inexpressible, the abstract, and the deeply subjective. The great value of Varda’s film lies in the way that it both pictorialises Aragon’s way of looking at Triolet and provides a more tactile, feminised and empowered perspective in the process. It partly frees Triolet from Aragon’s words, but also recognises its own limitations in its often decentred and conspicuously fragmented portrayal. Despite opening with the image of Aragon writing about Elsa – “I’m filled with the deafening silence of loving” – and ending with a close-up of Aragon’s mouth voicing his dedication to his wife, Varda’s film moves to the side of Aragon’s perspective and presents a profound and moving portrait of Triolet that significantly outstrips it.
Varda: All these poems are for you. Do they make you feel loved?
Triolet: Oh, no! They aren’t what make me feel loved. Not the poetry. It’s the rest. Life. Writing a life story, with its stops, switches, signals, bridges, tunnels, catastrophes…
Parts of this essay first appeared in “Living Cinema: The “Demy Films” of Agnès Varda”, Studies in Documentary Film, vol. 4, no. 2, December 2010.
1. Melissa Anderson, “The Modest Gesture of the Filmmaker: An Interview with Agnès Varda”, Cineaste vol. 26, no. 4, Fall 2001, p. 27.
2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Songs in the Key of Everyday Life”, Chicago Reader 16 May 1996: http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/songs-in-the-key-of-everyday-life/Content?oid=890489.
3. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema, Columbia University Press, New York, 1996, p. 224.
Elsa la rose(1965 France 20 mins)
Prod Co: Pathé Dir: Agnès Varda Phot: Willy Kurant, William Lubtchansky Ed: Jean Hamon Sound: Bernard Ortion, Jacques Bonpunt
“Cast”: Elsa Triolet, Louis Aragon, Michel Piccoli (voice: poems)