'What I'm trying to do - what I've been trying to do all along - is to bridge the border of … two genres, documentary and fiction. Agnès Varda’s critique of her own work in a 2001 interview is a fascinating starting point from which to explore two of her most famous female creations - Cléo (Corinne Marchand) in Cléo de 5 à 7, and Mona (Sandrine Bonhaire) in Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi).
While Varda generally eschews any ‘feminist pioneer’ labels, her interest in the relationship between what we think we think we ‘know’ and what we actually construct, allows her to present us with two women with complex motivations and psyches. Placing death and fate at the heart of both their stories, Varda plays with our expectations and longing for these women to become tragic heroines; flawed but ‘good’, and essentially fathomable.
In Vagabond, her interest in the relationship between documentary and fiction - between truth and narrative - is made explicit. The film starts with a lingering shot on a dead body, and we are told by an unseen narrator (voiced by Varda) that the following film will be an attempt to find out more about the girl, through people that met her in the final weeks of her life. What starts out as a pursuit for the story of one girl, quickly develops into the stories and inner worlds of many others. Mona is in fact partly based on a real girl that Varda met on the road, further implicating the filmmaker in the version of Mona that we see, and distancing the account from the documentary tone.
As we watch, we see that people project their fantasies onto Mona as she wanders: a truck driver wants her to be a vulnerable Lolita that he can get to know better in the back of his truck, a single academic wants to her to be a neglected daughter that she can mother, a frustrated housekeeper wants her to represent romantic freedom, a philosophy professor turned goat herder wishes her to represent his ideals of nomadic existence. When Mona disappoints them they enviously attack her and turn her out of their homes and vehicles, washing their hands of her. In the case of the philosopher his response is explicit - he denounces and denies her very existence as a human being.
It is her lack of need and lack of fear that seems to make Mona the biggest threat to those she meets. The viewer too, is implicated in this, as we are confronted by our own desires for resolution and the appearance or existence of a noble heroine who wishes for life and redemption from death. In Vagabond, Varda presents us with a world that should be full of fear - Mona exists in barren rural France in the middle of a bitterly cold winter living dirty hand to filthy mouth. In stark contrast, when we meet Cléo it is in picture postcard perfect Paris, on the first day of summer. While Cléo faces death with relatable fear, and in addition has the ‘right look’ that Mona lacks, Varda paints her in all her narcissistic frivolous vanity, making her just as unfathomable.
Varda blurs the lines between documentary and fiction here too. She has described Cléo de 5 à 7 as 'the portrait of a woman painted onto a documentary about Paris.' In the city as in the country, the people Cléo encounters project their desires onto her. In this world, Cléo is impossibly beautiful and desirable, she is a star that everyone is drawn to, but just like the people Mona encounters, Cleo’s life - her very femininity - is defined by fear. As in the world of Vagabond, Cléo‘s fear quickly translates into grotesque judgement as she brands the female taxi driver who dares to do man’s work ‘revolting’. We too find ourselves judging Cléo; like her assistant Angèle, we too are tempted to brand her a ‘hysteric’, someone who cannot live in the ‘real’ world.
In both films, Varda’s interest in muddling genres results in a confrontation of accepted visions of femininity that ripple into the real lives of the actresses themselves. In Varda’s introduction to the Criterion version of Vagabond she details how due to the budget constraints of the production and terrible weather conditions, Mona’s world of filthy squats and freezing conditions also became actress Sandrine Bonnaire’s world for the duration of the shoot. In the same way, Cléo’s career, her fear of losing her looks, the narcissistic pursuit of celebrity and the camera’s obsessive gaze on her beauty all focus in on female fears and obsessions that could not be so very remote from the concerns facing young actresses such as Corrine Marchand.
For me, these films ultimately ask us to face our fears - perhaps even Varda’s own fear, one I fancy vocalised through Cléo’s friend Dorothée who declares 'I'm frightened by other people's fear' - in order to become more humane. Refusing to reduce or judge any of her characters and challenging us to do the same, Varda assembles layers of documentary and fiction, imaginings and projections, to present us with the unfathomable and flawed, but endlessly captivating Mona and Cléo.