How does one avoid sounding sexist when discussing a great female artist like Agnès Varda and her work against the swirlingly relativistic backdrop of current gender theory? It seems moronic to ignore her gender, or her artistic attitude towards femininity and womanhood. She is no man with a movie camera, even when we allow for the fact that she often did collaborate with male cinematographers: for example, Sacha Vierny filled this role on her 1958 film, L’Opéra-Mouffe. In this striking essay film, Varda’s sympathetic sense of people and their environment makes Dziga Vertov look like a brilliant scientist driven by the power of his rather inhumane constructivist abilities.
There is little point in debating art historian Norbert Lynton’s self-evidently true claim that Vertov’s theory and practice (as well as the visual dialectics of the more epically inclined Sergei Eisenstein and Abel Gance) made cinema appear the constructivist art par excellence (1). It is more to the point to stress that Varda came from a generation that rehabilitated mise en scène as a theory and as an ideal. As Louise Heck-Rabi and Rob Edelman point out: “the personification of objects; the artistic determination of cinematic composition; […] and the correlation of individual subjectivity to societal objectivity to depict socio-political issues, are denominators of Varda’s films, which she writes, produces and directs” (2).
This being the case, L’Opéra-Mouffe is a fine sample of Varda’s abiding formal, stylistic and thematic concerns. This is despite its brevity and the Jean Vigo-inspired lightness that shrugs off the weight of pretense common to such “arty” ventures. A pregnant woman gives us a guided tour of rue Mouffetard, one of Paris’ more colourfully ethnic neighbourhoods. As Keith Reader has argued in stressing the iconic status of Paris as a location for the young cinematic firebrands of postwar French film:
The New Wave is usually seen as arrogantly Parisian, and operating within a very restricted conception of Paris at that (The Latin Quarter, Montparnasse, and the area around the Champs Élyssés). There is some measure of truth in this: Paris, being the world capital of cinematic discussion and study, attracted aspirant directors like a magnet, and it was natural that those who had studied or written about cinema there should also make their directorial debuts on locations in the crowded streets and boulevards. (3)
If Varda’s presentation of the Parisian Latin Quarter’s rue Mouffetard is far away from the average glossy tourist brochure, and even much of the “rest” of the nouvelle vague, it is further still removed from the abiding image of rural France on film; whether that rustic ideal be denounced as a cauldron of paranoia and recrimination, as in Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943), or filtered through fond memories as an essentially idyllic place populated by grumpy but tender-hearted old coots, as in Le Vieil homme et l’enfant (Claude Berri, 1967).
In L’Opéra-Mouffe, Varda shows us young couples whose love is in its wonderful first flush. Yet she does not shy away from also filming the derelicts and drunkards of the city. Both are presented without a hint of superiority and with little sentimentality. The film is divided into segments separated by handwritten intertitles; some of these headings are laconically accurate while others are poetically oblique. The whole film is a loose, largely silent work that weds an extremely sure-footed sense of place to a beautiful Georges Delerue score in a way that reaches back to the wonder of cinema’s earliest beginnings, when everything was fresh and virginal: “There was at first a sort of instinctive repugnance to [the] construction of motion pictures around a unified and set plot” (4), wrote French film historians Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach in 1938, after little more than a decade of talkies.
Susan Hayward’s laconic description of Varda’s style as one of “detached awareness” is apt if unsurprising when used to describe a professional photographer well-versed in the history and theory of art (5). What aesthetician and psychologist Edward Bullogh thought a crucial factor in art, “psychical distance” (6), became central to the overall scheme of modern art theory. It is the complete absence of rhetoric or preachy didacticism, rather than any narrowness of subject matter, that has most characterized Varda’s film work from the very outset.
This applies equally to an airy and playful short like L’Opéra-Mouffe (where the boundaries between documentary topicality and the personal essay, informed by a deep love for the historical avant-garde and that artistic mode’s infectious love for cinematic possibilities, counterpoint each other) as it does Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985), her most sombre film and, arguably, her masterwork. That mature road-movie is a deft amalgam of Rashomon-influenced relativity, cinéma vérité and Citizen Kane-like retrospection, shot with Bressionian austerity.
Born in Brussels, Varda studied literature and psychology at the Sorbonne, and art history at the Ecole du Louvre. Having found employment as a stage photographer in the early 1950s, she debuted with La Pointe Courte (1955). That film was edited by already up-and-coming Left Bank luminary Alain Resnais, whose own work as director seems joyless, to these eyes at least, when compared to Varda’s intellectual curiosity and emotional warmth.
Varda went with Chris Marker to China as early as 1955; way back when Godard still loved Coca-Cola almost as much as he adored Nicholas Ray; that is, long before he discovered Marx and grew disenchanted with cinema. Such an idiosyncratic and anecdotal point is pivotal: Varda was a harbinger of the nouvelle vague at a time when the movie-mad “young turks” who gathered around André Bazin and Henri Langlois had not yet emerged from darkened screening rooms, or advanced beyond fiery, printed polemics against the cinéma de papa.
L’Opéra-Mouffe opens with shots of a pregnant filmmaker who has pointed the camera at herself. Varda herself supplies the voiceover in this opening segment. Here Varda provides the viewer with a fresh, distinctly feminine take on Man Ray’s epoch-making aesthetic and the Duchampian conceptualism that underpins much of contemporary art. It is a documentary of sorts, with the voice of a woman rather than the voice of God. The film features no figures of power or authority. Absurdist elements ensure that its contrast with Griersonian ideals cannot be overstated. Furthermore, the film’s unabashed nudity and youthful exuberance supports Norwegian literary historian Francis Bull’s almost self-evidently true assertion: “Lyrical inclinations are usually strongest in the young; particularly when love awakens in the mind […] or when the woman sits by her child’s crib” (7).
Georges Sadoul was an early, enthusiastic supporter of Varda, and praised her for “a highly personal vision of both people and life, a feeling for the eternal drama reflected in the most direct actuality […] and a gentle irony” (8). Within its brief running time of 17 minutes, L’Opéra-Mouffe possesses all these distinct and admirable qualities in abundance. Even if the epoch-making shorts of the place and period have been relegated to the status of footnotes to the nouvelle vague, they helped open the floodgates to a new, vibrant kind of cinema. First in France, then in other European countries, West and East of the Iron Curtain.
1. Norbert Lynton, The Story of Modern Art, 2nd ed., Phaidon Press, London, 1989, p. 110.
2. Louise Heck-Rabi and Rob Edelman, “Agnes Varda”, The St. James Film Director’s Encyclopedia, ed. Andrew Sarris, Inkwell Press, Detroit, 1998, pp. 524-27.
3. Keith Reader, Cultures on Celluloid, Quartet Books, London, 1981, pp. 139-40.
4. Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasiliach, The History of Motion Pictures, trans. Iris Barry, W. W. Norton and Company and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1938, p. 23.
5. Susan Hayward, French National Cinema, 2nd ed., Routledge, London and New York, 2005, p. 253.
6. Edward Bullough, “Psychical Distance as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle”, British Journal of Psychology vol. 5, 1912: http://www.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361_r9.html.
7. Francis Bull, Verdenslitteraturens historie, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, Oslo, 1947, p. 9. Translation by author from the Norwegian.
8. Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Filmmakers, trans. and ed. Peter Morris, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1972, pp. 261-62.
L’Opéra-Mouffe (1958 France 17 mins)
Prod Co: CinéTamaris Prod, Dir, Scr: Agnès Varda Phot: Sacha Vierny Ed: Janine Verneau Mus: Georges Delerue
Cast: Dorothée Blank, Antoine Boursellier, André Rousselet, Jean Tasso, José Varela, Monika Weber