Library Dissertation Showcase

The ground-breaking work of Agnès Varda and La Nouvelle Vague

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2021

La Nouvelle Vague is a movement in film in which directors experimented with innovative film techniques; stripping back modes of production in order to subvert ‘le cinéma du papa’. With an emphasis on mise-en-scéne and the auteur director, the Cahiers du Cinéma (hereinafter Cahiers) group of filmmakers reinvented French cinema with a “fresh sensibility and a radical style of filming” (Austin, 2008, 14), not only influencing scholarly work, but also world cinema. The Cahiers critics were a group of male cinèphiles turned directors, who analysed and developed theories in their journal articles and films. Known for their obtrusive handheld camera techniques, on-location shooting and unconventional editing, La Nouvelle Vague filmmakers supported the auteur theory and suggested that the director is the most important aspect of artistic creation.

The concept of le politique des auteurs proposed by the Cahiers critics has been the topic of debate in many critical studies, with many agreeing that “in spite of the industrial nature of film production, the director, like any other artist [is] the sole author” (Cook, 1985, 114). Often analysed using the films of Truffaut and Godard, the theory is important to this study in that it emphasises the way in which film can be an expression of the director’s specific viewpoint. However, as the majority of the work regarding auteurism has been written by and about men, the theory highlights the androcentric male dominated cinema of the time and reiterates the patriarchal constructs embedded within the industry. This is supported by Christian Keathley, who argues that “ the success of Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, and the others not only brought international attention to the Cahiers but also helped to legitimise their critical agenda of auteurism” (Keathley, 2006, 54). However, as this study will suggest, Agnès Varda played an important role in La Nouvelle Vague as not only was she a female filmmaker within a male dominated movement, but she also helped to establish the very conventions that many argue is what made the Cahiers critics auteurs. As Delphine Benezet suggests:

“Because of her double status as a woman and as a filmmaker who did not
belong to the Cahiers du cinema group formed of Godard, Rivette, Truffaut
and Chabrol […] Varda has always been perceived as a bit of an outsider, a
persona that the filmmaker has even cultivated for various reasons,
including her desire to assert her individuality” (Benezet, 2014, 10).

This dissertation is therefore concerned with analysing the work of Agnès Varda and will emphasise her role as a female filmmaker, creating stories centred around the lives of women in France. Showing how “an outsider could make a movie despite the industrial barriers” (Neupert, 2007, 56), Varda demonstrated many of the theories advocated by the Cahiers critics and influenced the industry with her mixture of experimental and documentary techniques. Varda as an auteur and the way in which she represents women in her films deserves such critical attention because she is an expression of the gender politics in not only the industry, but also the context of the society of the time. Surrounded by men in her field, Varda subverted traditional norms and was able to challenge the patriarchal constructs inherent in everyday social structures. This study will use two of her films from La Nouvelle Vague period: La Pointe Courte (Varda, 1955) (see appendix I) and Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1962), (see appendix II). These are relevant case studies in the discussion of Agnès Varda as they convey how she established her style within La Nouvelle Vague movement. La Pointe Courte will therefore support the analysis of Varda’s auteur style, whilst Cleo from 5 to 7 will convey her representation of gender and the female gaze. As a result, this dissertation will analyse the role and impact of a woman within a male dominated industry and will ultimately argue that Varda was indeed a precursor to La Nouvelle Vague.

Chapter 1 will contextualise the discourses surrounding Varda’s films from La Nouvelle Vague, whilst aiming to look deeper into the male dominated industry and the theories they created. The auteur theory is key to this investigation as by acknowledging the centrality of the director, the Cahiers critics were able to emphasise their own importance as filmmakers, therefore conveying the heavily influential male perspective of the time. Developed in his 1948 article on the theory of camera-stylo, Astruc believed that cinema is “a means of expression […] by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be” (Astruc, 1968, 17-18). Placing the director as equal to the novelist, the theory consequently gave the director total control over their work and as a result saw the Cahiers critics become a “voice among many that were reshaping the discourse around film criticism” (Neupert, 2007, 28). Taking the auteur theory as a starting point, it is important to question how Agnès Varda’s gender affects her role as an auteur and how as an ‘outsider’ to the Cahiers critics she was able to subvert the dominant ideology of the time. In order to develop my argument the use of feminist works, such as Pauline Kael’s Circles and Squares article will provide better insight into feminist critiques of the auteur theory as she suggests that it was “an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence” (Kael, 1963, 26). It will therefore be argued that although the notion of auteurism is often only regarded in terms of La Nouvelle Vague male directors, Agnès Varda as the only female filmmaker during this movement, was able to establish herself as an individual, creating films using experimental techniques that precede those of Godard and Truffaut.

This argument will be developed using textual analysis in Chapter 2, focusing on how La Pointe Courte establishes Varda as a precursor to La Nouvelle Vague. As Varda’s first feature length film, La Pointe Courte tells two intertwining stories, documenting the lives of a small fishing village alongside the troubles of a young couple. Conveying her realist yet experimental style, La Pointe Courte highlights Varda’s ability in representing societal hardships on-screen, aligning her work with Italian Neorealist conventions and emphasising her authentic skill as a filmmaker. As Rebecca J. DeRoo argues:

“The concepts of the auteur and camera-stylo meant that the work
was primarily viewed in terms of personal creativity and filmic
expression – and would establish Varda as an innovative precursor
or first member of the New Wave” (DeRoo, 2018, 24).

Drawing back to discourses surrounding the auteur theory, this chapter will aim to discuss the extent to which Varda can be seen as a precursor, using La Pointe Courte as an example of how she was able to create a signature style that predates the beginning of La Nouvelle Vague. Subsequently, Chapter 3 will move on to discuss arguably Varda’s most well-known feature length film from the period, Cleo from 5 to 7. The film follows a couple of hours in the day of a young woman as she wanders the streets of Paris and in doing so offers a standpoint to discuss the way in which Varda represents women and the gaze. Relying heavily on feminist readings, this chapter will aim to discuss the importance of a female director making films about the lives of women, and will use feminist concepts, such as Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory. Mulvey’s male gaze theory is important in this study as it analyses the way in which female characters on-screen are objectified for male sexual pleasure. As a result, this chapter will highlight the struggles felt by Varda’s characters, and will demonstrate how, when represented from a female point of view, women on-screen are not merely objects. This will help to explore how Varda herself overcame boundaries as a woman in the industry, and will reflect the gender struggles that continue to happen in film to this day.

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