In the 1970s, film studies in Great Britain and the United States took an interesting turn. Scholars lessened their preoccupation with retrospective, hero-worship analyses of the oeuvres of individual directors (e.g. “John Ford is a genius and here is why”) and took up the mantle of other socio-political movements that were drastically altering the landscape of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Foremost among these was feminism and the study of gender representation, which opened up multidisciplinary areas of research previously ignored and, in turn, deeply invigorated film scholarship.
Well, everywhere except France. French film scholars remained a recalcitrant, old-boy network, with only a small cadre of researchers pushing against a canon that had become almost unquestionable it its position of cultural dominance. As one feminist scholar, Genevieve Sellier, points out in her study Masculine Singular, it is the “blind spot in French historiography of the New Wave.” Part of the problem is that, almost from its inception, the New Wave was a movement intensely reflexive and self-conscious, bordering on narcissistic. It cemented its ideology quickly via its own journal Cahiers du Cinema, essentially carving out an identity within its pages, with more “objective” critics falling in line without too much protest. For an “avant garde” movement on the cutting edge of modernity, it was suspiciously comprised solely of white men, and the exceptions to this can be counted on one hand. Last week’s film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, covered one of these, the writer Marguerite Duras, whose full command of the script placed her on par with director Alain Resnais. This week’s screening covers the second key figure, Agnes Varda, director of 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7.
Varda started her career as a photojournalist before shifting into filmmaking in 1954, with the important work La Pointe courte–an odd hybrid of ascetic romance and fishing village documentary–which today many non-French scholars cite as the origins of the New Wave. Varda admits that she is often more concerned with the objectivist, documentary elements of her work and even went so far as to say that Cléo from 5 to 7 was a documentary on early-1960s Paris with a story about a sick girl overlain onto it. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, Varda was clearly influenced by the nascent cinéma vérité movement then taking off in France, best exemplified in the works of anthropologists/filmmakers like Jean Rouch, with Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer) from 1960, and Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx’s Les raquetteurs from 1958. She was most closely affiliated with what came to be known as the Left Banke movement of filmmakers, whose tastes leaned towards leftist and literary; this group also included her husband Jacques Demy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour).
Cléo from 5 to 7 is unique in several aspects. At the most obvious level, it is the first New Wave narrative to be both directed by a woman and to have a woman as the lead protagonist. These two components together are key, as all New Wave representations of femininity on screen up to this point had been masculine stereotypes of women, e.g. the doomed, 19th-century-romantic man unable to find his true inner artistic self due to a relationship with a woman who will eventually destroy him. Conversely, Cléo from 5 to 7 has at its core two transformative hours (90 minutes technically) in the life of a woman who is sick and awaiting a diagnosis. We follow her from location to location, from cafes to rehearsal sessions, to meetings with strangers to mini-breakdowns. She wanders. She meets random people for conversations, listens to herself on a jukebox. In a brilliant twist, Varda cleverly paints her as a somewhat vain petit-bourgeoisie minor celebrity ye-ye singer, which prevents over-sentimentalizing her subject and thus avoids slipping into a maudlin vibe. It is a clever move which gives the viewer the perfect amount of distance from the subject, being able to sympathize with both her fear of mortality and the rolled eyes of friends that accuse her of being an insufferable drama queen.
Apart from Cléo and Hiroshima, the only comparable New Wave film to feature a strong female lead that avoids some level of patriarchal spin is Louis Malle’s 1960 adaptation of Zazie in the Metro, which contemporary scholars have refreshingly reanalyzed as a sort of anarchic, riot-grrrl manifesto against the suffocation of a sterile, postwar, male-dominated Paris. That many New Wave directors hated this film and others that failed to conform to their strict worldview does speak volumes about the accusations later leveled against them as “masculine-singular” sexists, as they replaced the cinema of their fathers with one just as ideologically suspect.