The Review/ Feature/
The Affiches of Agnès
Scanning the 60-year career of Agnès Varda with 30 great (and five not-so-great) posters
Some of the most enduring images in film history never ran through a projector, but began life as elements of promotional campaigns, and — thanks to nostalgia, notoriety, or sometimes just pure ubiquity — became iconic in their own right. Our ongoing series FilmArt looks at the advertising, posters, lobby cards and other ephemera that complement and enrich the filmgoing experience.
Agnès Varda is having a moment. What began with her meme-inspiring “appearance” as a cardboard cutout at this year’s annual Oscars lunch has snowballed into a genuine pop-culture phenomenon. While the 89-year-old filmmaker has long been lionized in classrooms and cinematheques — even though she has often been marginalized in favour of her all-male colleagues in the nouvelle vague and “Left Bank” movements of the 1950s and ’60s — with this year’s honourary Oscar, the worldwide success of her most recent film Faces Places and her new two-dimensional (omni)presence, Varda is finally getting her due outside of arthouses.
Each of Varda’s 20-plus films is a rare bird, which has proven to be both an inspiration and a challenge to the artists and designers who have sought to evoke them in poster art over the years. In the survey of her career and films below, I’ve limited myself to assembling some of the best — and, in a few cases, the not-so-best — posters from across her six decades of cinécriture (cine-writing), as she liked to refer to her craft. In many cases, I've skipped over the more common posters for a film in favour of their more unique and strange cousins.
Arlette Varda was born in Brussels in 1928. During World War II her family moved to Sète, a seaside fishing town in the south of France, where she rechristened herself with the new moniker Agnès at the age of 18. Relocating to Paris with the family, she studied a variety of subjects at the Sorbonne and Louvre, but it was a night class in photography that eventually led her to her vocation.
In 1954, having begun a career as a photographer, Varda made a trip to Sète, and this return to her roots inspired her to take on an entirely new enterprise: making an independent film. Explaining this sudden change in her practice years later, Varda claimed that what attracted her to film was the potential to expand its vocabulary: where other forms had been constantly progressing, in her eyes the young seventh art was stunted in its growth. “Cinema was not free, especially in form, and that irritated me,” she said.
Working completely outside of the mainstream film industry and casting a mix of unknown actors (including a young Philippe Noiret) and non-professional extras recruited from her location, Varda used personal savings and loans to produce and direct her feature-film debut La Pointe Courte, which premiered nearly half a decade before François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows supposedly launched the nouvelle vague. “I saw myself as a courageous artist, a filmmaker,” Varda told Film Quarterly’s Barbara Quart in 1986. “Nobody was making films at my age at the time — men or women. The young ‘new wave’ came later.”
After a Cannes screening which attracted little attention — beyond a notoriously chauvinist Variety review that described the film as “made for $20,000 by a 25-year-old girl” — the film languished for a year, with little hope of exhibition. Finally, programmer JL Cheyard gave it a two-week run at Le Studio Parnasse, a favourite haunt of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd. Though the official Cahiers review of the film (by Truffaut) was a little ambivalent — with the future filmmaker expressing open confusion about Varda’s intermingling of “true” and “false” elements — the journal’s legendary editor André Bazin called it a “miraculous film,” praising it as a “work that obeys only the will of its author without depending on external constraints.”
However, for the next seven years “external constraints” would prevent Varda from making a follow-up feature. In part because she had skirted union rules, in part because La Pointe Courte was a financial bust, and no doubt in part because of her gender, Varda was unable to make another feature until 1961 — and when that second chance presented itself, she used it to its full potential.
Described by its director as “a portrait of a woman painted onto a documentary about Paris,” Cléo de 5 à 7 — which follows the title character, a young chanteuse played by Corinne Marchand, between the designated afternoon hours as she awaits the possibly grim verdict of a medical diagnosis — was Varda’s breakthrough. Invited to Cannes, it went on to screen in more than 50 film festivals around the world, and was received as one of the signature works of the emergent nouvelle vague (even though Varda identified more with the Left Bank group that included Jacques Demy, whom she married the year after Cléo’s premiere).
Cléo’s international success has bequeathed us an array of one-sheets from the 20-plus countries the film played in throughout the 1960s. As an offshoot of the advertising industry, movie posters quite often take the position of the “male gaze” when depicting women, but while many Cléo posters certainly focus on the attractiveness of the film’s star Marchand, the best of them find Marchand/Cléo gazing back at the viewer — just as she does in Varda’s film.
Symbols of death recur across many Cléo posters, including the Hungarian poster above (with its ominous hourglass design) and the bleak work below by Czech painter and graphic artist Jaroslav Fišer (whose Cléo might find her ability to gaze back somewhat hindered), with its invocation of the tarot cards from the film’s opening sequence. In his five-decade career, Fišer crafted hundreds of advertisements and posters, sometimes indulging his personal painting practice by combining it with his graphic design work — as in the case of his Cléo, whose diagnosis seems very grim indeed.
Like its counterpart in neighbouring Poland, the government of Czechoslavakia (later the Czech and Slovak Socialist Republics) designed a system to free the country’s young commercial artists — who were also their young visual artists — from the “constraints” of promoting a film. This program engendered a legacy of offbeat artwork that rivals the much-discussed Polish poster tradition, though it hasn’t generate quite as much appreciation. A likely reason for this is the Czech government's lower tolerance for capitalist product, resulting in fewer examples of weird visual treatments for familiar and beloved Western films — although plenty exist.
Another interesting addition to the Cléo poster canon comes from Neue Filmkunst, a West German distribution company founded in 1953 by film enthusiast Walter Kirchner that had introduced German audiences to some of the key art-house films of the era, including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. One of the hallmarks of Neue Filmkunst during its 20 years of existence was the inventive, usually monochrome posters by graphic artists Hans Hillmann and Isolde Monson-Baumgart. Where Hillmann’s posters tended to be greyscale, Baumgart’s often relied on a single, prevalent colour; such is the case with her original poster for Cléo, as well as with her rather more text-heavy revision for the film’s 1967 re-release.
Baumgart’s poster makes an appearance in Varda’s 2012 documentary “scrapbook” Agnès Varda: From Here to There, where the filmmaker notices that, while the action of Cléo takes place on a Tuesday, “the German translation of the title [Mittwoch zwischen 5 und 7] contains neither [the words] ‘Cléo’ nor ‘Tuesday’: it’s ‘Wednesday from 5 to 7.’” The discrepancy seems to stem from the fact that the ever-precise Germans, like most sources, set the film’s action on June 21, 1961; Varda’s Tuesday assertion would set the film in 1960.
Varda was validated by Cléo’s largely positive reception: “I understood that one should never underestimate the intelligence and comprehension of the audience,” she said to film scholar Kelley Conway in 2003, “despite what professional distributors and the purveyors of big spectacles say.” The director's unwillingness to talk down to audiences would be manifest in her follow-up to Cléo.
Despite its sunny title, Le Bonheur is a film that doggedly refuses easy answers. Varda cast actor Jean-Claude Drouot, his wife Claire and the couple’s own children as the film’s onscreen family, who live an almost impossibly idyllic existence in the countryside — until Drouot begins an affair with a woman near-identical to his wife, insisting to both women that he has more than enough happiness (le bonheur) to go around.
Le Bonheur has generated innumerable readings in the decades since its 1965 release, and it still seems to defy any critical consensus. “Is it a pastoral? A social satire? A slap-down of de Gaulle-style family values? A lyrical evocation of open marriage?” asks critic Amy Taubin in her essay for the film’s 2008 Criterion Collection release. “Is the central character a good husband who knows how to enjoy life, a psychopath, a cad, or an unreal cardboard construction?”
Given that viewers and critics are even unable to decide on whether the film’s title is earnest or ironic, it’s intriguing that many of the film’s international one-sheets offer such rigid readings of such a nuanced (if not enigmatic) film. While it’s a beautiful piece of artwork, the Polish poster below by satirist Eryk Lipiński depicts love as a caged, wounded butterfly, imposing the kind of judgment that Varda’s film deliberately foregoes. Similarly, the Argentine poster for the film portrays Drouot and his extramarital paramour blissfully nuzzling, suggesting that the film concerns these happy lovers, not the pre-existing family unit we follow from the film’s outset.
Le Bonheur was Varda’s first colour film, and from its wardrobe to its numerous cross-dissolves it is dominated by bold primary colours. While many of the artists behind Le Bonheur’s international posters embraced the film’s florid images (chiefly the blooming yet already-dying sunflowers featured in Varda’s opening credits), only Czech designer Stanislav Vajce fully distilled the film’s unfettered vibrancy, as well as speaking to its innate inscrutability.
The next year saw the premiere of Varda’s very own film maudit. Part science fiction, part psychological drama, Les Créatures was a critical and commercial failure, despite the combined star power of Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli. Rarely screened (it was unavailable for the current TIFF Cinematheque retrospective) and barely available on DVD, Les Créatures nevertheless generated a lot of fantastic posters around the world, each with wildly differing artwork — a telltale sign that no one could quite agree on just how to explain this cinematic oddity.
Unsurprisingly, the strangest of the bunch hails from Poland, courtesy of artist Franciszek Starowieyski. At first blush, this might appear to be yet another in the country’s long line of brazenly unorthodox film posters — Starowieyski was certainly of the faith, and later became the first of the Polish Poster School to garner a solo exhibition at MoMA — but this poster, depicting the various characters who populate the mind of the film's writer-protagonist Piccoli, is strangely representative (though Piccoli might take issue with that descriptor).
In 1967 Varda moved to Los Angeles with Demy, who had been contracted to make a film for Columbia Pictures: the utterly singular Model Shop, a semi-sequel to his first feature Lola. While in California, Varda produced two films that explored two wildly different variants of American-style counterculture in two very contrasting settings: in Sausalito, she tracked down a long-lost relative living on the fringes of society to make the short film Uncle Yanco, while in Oakland she produced a documentary for French television about the Black Panther Party.
While Varda’s Black Panthers never aired — it was pulled from the network’s schedule in the wake of the May ’68 uprisings — in a 1977 interview with Boston’s The Real Paper Varda described the experience of making the film as a moment of awakening, which sparked her overtly political engagement with the feminist movement. “The Black Panthers were the first to say, ‘We want to make the rules, the theory.’ And that’s what made me aware of the woman situation,” said Varda. “A lot of good men had been thinking for us.”
The final film Varda made on this (first) California sojourn was an impressionistic portrait of the Age of Aquarius, Lions Love (...and Lies) — a West Coast film for which Varda gathered together different strands and representatives of East Coast counterculture. While en route to Los Angeles, Varda had met Andy Warhol in New York, who introduced her to Viva, one of his Factory “Superstars”; now, Varda cast Viva alongside James Rado and Gerome Ragni, the actor-creators of the Broadway musical Hair, as a trio of lovers who idly enjoy one another’s bodies in a Santa Monica mansion in between musing about free love and politics; meanwhile, filmmaker/Varda stand-in Shirley Clarke attempts to make a film about the threesome, as media coverage of Robert Kennedy’s assassination repeatedly plays in the background.
The US poster for Lions Love is dominated by a swirling pen-and-ink illustration by Bob Peak that evokes both the original poster for Hair and Bill Graham’s series of iconic Fillmore posters. While Peak’s poster perfectly captures the film’s languidness and visually ties it to a certain moment in history, a rarely seen West German poster more closely captures the structure of Varda’s film.
The poster, credited only to “R. Hutt” (perhaps a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s “R. Mutt”?) combines overlapping day-glo colours and stencil letterforms in a typographic simulation of the film’s überfluss of stars, politics, and ideas; no single element is allowed to truly stand out, not even the title. Traditional hierarchies are subverted by illegibility: while Varda and Viva’s names may occupy more space, their seeming prominence is undermined by the explosions of colour beneath them.
After returning to Paris and her home on Rue Daguerre, Varda found herself somewhat stranded in her own home after the birth of her second child. Undeterred, the director rigged her camera and audio equipment up to an extension cord that drew electricity from her house and allowed her to film up to 90 metres from her front door. Powered by this “umbilical cord,” Varda set out to shoot her first feature-length documentary.
An affectionate portrait of Varda’s street and its assorted inhabitants — including a baker, an accordion salesman, an Algerian dry-goods salesman, and the adorable/haunting elderly couple who run the local perfume shop — the playfully titled Daguerréotypes anticipates such later films as The Gleaners and I and Faces Places in both its form and its ingratiating charm. Fittingly, the poster for Daguerréotypes is as unassuming and homespun as the film itself: a handful of stills assembled in a rough photostat, with the film’s particulars spelled out in Varda’s own handwritten script.
Varda’s feminist awakening in California was transformed into direct action shortly after her return to France. In 1971, she joined other prominent French women — including Simone de Beauvoir, Bonjour tristesse author Françoise Sagan, Jeanne Moreau, Anne Wiazemsky and Delphine Seyrig — in signing the “Manifeste des 343”, whose Beauvoir-authored text declared, “I am one of them. I declare that I have had an abortion.” At the time, abortion was still a crime in France, and following the “Manifeste” and the Bobigny trial the following year — in which four working-class women were put on trial for procuring an abortion for one of their daughters, who had been raped — it became a subject of intense public debate. That trial, and the protests in response to the guilty verdict, found their way into Varda’s next film, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, in which two former friends — each of whom has had an abortion during their decade apart — reunite at Bobigny.
Despite — or, rather, because of — its overtly political content, Varda set out to make One Sings, the Other Doesn’t her most “commercial” film. In the same interview with The Real Paper where she described her political awakening, the director outlined her strategy for the film: “If I put myself on the screen — very natural and feminist — maybe I’d get ten people in the audience. Instead, I put two nice young females on the screen, and not too much of my own leftist conscience. By not being too radical but truly feminist, my film has been seen by 350,000 people in France. It’s better if they all got half the message than to have 5,000 people seeing a courageous 16mm film.”
Adopting this same covert strategy, both the day-glo UK poster (at the top of this article) and the sunny French affiche by Michel Landi below offered no hint of the “message” movie they were promoting.
From 1979 to 1981, Varda exerted what must have been an enormous effort to catalogue street art murals around Los Angeles and then track down their creators. The result was Mur Murs, a remarkable time capsule of place, people, and impermanent artworks.
As Varda and her editor Sabine Mamou were wrapping up Mur Murs, they began work on another film, Documenteur, which fuses documentary and fiction in its semi-autobiographical story of a French mother (played by Mamou) struggling to survive in the foreign city of L.A. with her young son (played by Varda’s son Mathieu) following her separation from her husband.
The two films were released together, and while Yves Prince’s poster for the double release (above) manages to seamlessly (and rather impressively) represent both films equally, it’s nevertheless something of a shame: Mur Murs is full of stunning visuals that could doubtlessly have inspired some stunning one-sheets, while Documenteur is a key film in Varda’s career-long project of blending documentary and fiction in every conceivable way.
“What I’m trying to do — what I've been trying to do all along — is to bridge the border of these two genres, documentary and fiction,” Varda told The Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson at the turn of the millennium, and many would agree that Vagabond is her most stunning realization of this aim. Rivalling Cléo as Varda’s most famous and critically acclaimed film (critic Molly Haskell called it “the masterpiece toward which the remarkable Cléo de 5 à 7 points”), Vagabond won the Golden Lion at the 1985 Venice Film Festival, became Varda’s biggest box-office “hit,” and netted its star Sandrine Bonnaire her second César, following the “Most Promising Actress” award she received for her 1983 debut in Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours.
Depicting a grungy, almost swaddled Bonnaire against a stark, wintry backdrop, the French poster for Vagabond (again by Yves Prince), which was used throughout Europe, serves as something of a brazen riposte to the image of a beckoning Bonnaire that had turned heads on the poster for Pialat’s film.
Bonnaire is so fundamental to the film that when I first saw the below poster by Štefan Theisz — which boldly foregoes including the star at all — I questioned whether it was for a different film entirely, until a helpful online translator informed me that Bez střechy a bez zákona is the Czech equivalent of the film's considerably more badass original French title, Sans toit ni loi (“Without Roof Nor Law”).
Greatly impressed by Vagabond, actress Jane Birkin approached Varda about the possibility of making a film with her. Instead, Varda made a film about Birkin: Jane B. par Agnès V., a playful portrait of the actress, and her many contradictions, on the eve of her 40th birthday. “She’s shy, but she wants to be seen. She’s modest, but she loves to show herself. She understood that I understood the contradiction in her,” Varda explained to The Hollywood Reporter. “So we played with that.”
While working on Jane B., Varda and Birkin expanded one of the film’s episodes into a separate, full-length feature, Kung-fu Master!, which featured Birkin, as well as both women’s children (Mathieu Demy and Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg), in a story about a middle-aged mother who becomes attracted to her daughter’s 14-year-old school friend.
Upon its release, Kung-fu Master! wasn’t afforded much respect by the folks tasked with releasing it: French distributor Capital Cinéma first saddled it with the somnolent poster above, before rebranding the film with the baiting title of Le petit amour. Though it’s certainly stronger than the French effort, I’m not sure that the Canadian poster below helped the film’s Toronto release any (especially given the extra-rating snipes courtesy of “Theatre Branch Ontario” cautioning that the film “May Offend Some”).
In spite of the bungled release, the film received admiring reviews and has gained many acolytes over the years — including Miranda July, who calls it a “radical masterpiece” and attests that it inspired her to make her first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know (“It felt like a very personal invitation, a gentle dare, a challenge that must be met,” said July).
Jane B. par Agnès V. and Kung-fu Master! are generally grouped together à la Mur Murs and Documenteur — Varda herself dubbed the former pair Birkin double jeu Varda I et II ("A Dipytch Dedicated to Jane Birkin I and II") — and in 2015 they finally got a theatrical release together in the US. While the release only lasted a week, it nonetheless garnered the splendid pair of posters that the films deserve, courtesy of artist Dylan Haley.
Varda further developed this concept of film-as-portraiture over the next few years with three films celebrating the life and career of her husband Jacques Demy, who died in 1990: Jacquot de Nantes, The World of Jacques Demy, and The Young Girls Turn 25, the latter an anniversary celebration of Demy’s classic musical The Young Girls of Rochefort.
While the 1990s saw Varda’s nouvelle vague confreres like Godard being invoked by a new wave of American filmmakers, her back catalogue fell out of circulation and her new releases were saddled with second- and third-rate ad campaigns. As the decade (and the century) ended, Varda embarked on what she called her “third career,” shifting her focus to a series of gallery pieces, including the multi-channel installation Le Triptyque de Noirmoutier and the potato-centric Patatutopia. In Varda’s words, she transformed from an “old filmmaker to a young visual artist.”
In this mode, Varda picked up a digital camera for the first time — a tool that allowed her to revisit many of the interests and motifs of her earlier work with a newfound ease, and enabling her to return to big-screen cinécriture. “I was free always. I could work without the money, to film this and that,” she told The A.V. Club in 2008. “[But] now I’m alone, and I can just use it when I want. I think the digital cameras have changed my view.”
In the rapturously received The Gleaners and I (2000), which almost instantly became one of Varda’s most popular films, the plainly reinvigorated artist marvels at her ability to “film with one hand my other hand” with her new digital technology. Varda’s hand graced many of the posters for the film, but it was the Japanese poster for the hour-long sequel, The Gleaners and I: 2 Years Later, that most perfectly encapsulates the charm, wit, and DIY aesthetic of the director’s post-millennial output.
Varda’s late career has seen the artist revisiting and recycling both the jewels and the scraps of her earlier work — usually by repositioning archival footage in the context of a new project, but sometimes more literally. One of Varda’s installations is a sunlit “cinema shack” whose walls are girdled with 35mm prints of her films (often Lions Love). “We had a stock of prints in a vault and they were like, sleeping and not being projected. I thought a good way to recycle all this film would be to build a house,” Varda explained; subsequently, the cinema shack itself (made in this particular iteration from abandoned prints of Les Créatures) turns up in Varda’s 2008 film The Beaches of Agnès.
First created for the poster of The Beaches of Agnès (seen above), a caricature of Varda by Christophe Vallaux has served as the director’s avatar on a number of recent projects, including the DVD release of From Here to There and the promotional materials for Faces Places, where it is accompanied by a sketch of that film’s co-director JR.
One of the few posters for The Beaches of Agnès not to use Vallaux’s sketch is the below collage by Rosław Szaybo. Szaybo became an early star of the Polish School when he introduced photographic techniques in his concert poster work, but his fingerprints are mostly absent from Poland’s venerated movie-poster tradition, as he left the country in 1966 for the UK (where he created over 2,000 album covers, including those for The Clash’s 1977 debut and British Steel by Judas Priest).
In this third stage of her career, Varda’s cinécriture has allowed the director to write her own legacy as more than the “godmother” of the nouvelle vague — and thankfully, in 2018 the world seems ready to assist her in the effort. On top of this year’s honourary Oscar, Varda’s filmography is the subject of at least three recent books; she is premiering a new video installation for the Liverpool Biennial; and, perhaps most importantly, her work is returning to cinemas in retrospectives at TIFF Cinematheque and the Museum of the Moving Image.
With Varda so en vogue, I was at first shocked to discover that, unlike many of her nouvelle vague contemporaries, her films had not inspired many modern or fan posters — though in retrospect, the masculinist bias of so much fan culture makes this much less surprising. (Props to the above exceptions — by Lauren Rolwing, Bruno Dinelli and Daniel Wahlström — that prove the rule.) And so I humbly submit my own drops in the bucket on Varda’s side of the column: these original posters for Agnès Varda’s short 1963 ode to revolutionary Cuba, Salut les cubains! (which is included in her 2004 anthology film Cinévardaphoto), and her 1986 tribute to the Cinémathèque française, You've Got Beautiful Stairs, You Know.