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Agnes Varda: Mon Corps Est a Moi

Agnes Varda: Mon Corps Est a Moi

L’une chante l’autre pas/ One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1976)

Upon her death in March 2019, Agnes Varda was lauded not only for her importance as a filmmaker but also for her feminism, cinematically investigating any situation in which she found gender injustice. Her authorial voice highlighted the unique inner lives of women, with her varied protagonists worrying about impending medical results (Cleo de 5 a 7), debating the future of their marriage (La Point Courte), and being discussed in the light of their recent lonely death (Vagabond).

Throughout her work, Varda examined female subjectivity, giving a voice to women who have not always been able to speak for — or about — themselves in a patriarchal system; the autonomy, agency, individuality, and uniqueness of the women of Varda’s films presented a powerful challenge to the cinematic gaze, or understanding of women.

Often associated with the left leaning Left Bank Group of French filmmakers, Varda operated concurrently with the more visible and feted male filmmakers of the French New Wave. These directors, while technically innovative, did not significantly challenge traditional representations of women. Look for example at the representation of ‘It’ girl, Brigitte Bardot in Et Dieu Crea La Femme (Vadim 1956) or Le Mepris (Godard 1963), where Bardot is reduced to a body on display, revealing her legs or bosom in a provocative manner for the enjoyment of a male viewer. Varda’s films are markedly different, choosing to focus on the trials and intimacies of female life and experience, and while nudity is not avoided, and is even embraced, it is not salacious or titillating, but rather matter-of-fact and inclusive, revealing the wide assortment of female shapes and sizes. In this way, Varda promoted an exclusively female gaze.

In 1975, Varda was one of several female filmmakers commissioned by French television channel Antenne 2 to answer the question “What is a Woman?” posed by the television show F Comme Femme. In Reponse des Femmes (1975), a warm, funny, life-affirming short film, Varda’s camera tracks along a line-up of (mostly) naked women of various heights, weights, races, and shapes and lets them talk about their experience of being female. The camera lingers on their faces just as much as their naked bodies, as if to challenge the idea that a woman can be reduced simply to her physical attributes.  “I’m not just a vagina and breasts”, states one woman. “I am not simply a man, but without cock and balls”, states another. Although most of the women are nude, some are fully clothed, underscoring Varda’s respect for their choice. Throughout, Varda embraces variety over voluptuousness and does not encourage the sort of voyeurism evident in the Bardot movies mentioned previously. Beyond physical variety, Varda foregrounds the variety of life choices; one heavily pregnant woman discusses her love of her changing body, while another puts forward her opinion that she should not be judged for not wanting children. Motherhood is a choice, they agree, and a woman is no less a woman for not embracing motherhood.“Is a man who is not a father any less of a man?” they question.

This embrace of the concept of women’s choice and subjectivity is revisited in Varda’s L’Une Chante, L’Autre Pas.(1976).  The film follows the friendship and fortunes of two French women in the early 1970s, Suzanne and Pauline. Suzanne is the partner of an impoverished artist and, at twenty-two, is already a mother of two young children. Dismayed at the discovery of a third pregnancy, she is faced with a dilemma that faced many French women at a time when abortion was illegal and contraception impossible to obtain. Without the funds to travel to Switzerland for a legal abortion, her only option is to visit a back-room abortionist. Although her friend Pauline raises the money needed, she chooses to pay off her many debts and almost bleeds to death during an illegal abortion. 

Pauline leaves school and becomes a feminist singer, writing and performing songs about the gender inequalities in contemporary France. She bumps into Suzanne (now a secretary at Planned Parenthood) at a demonstration for the legalization of abortions and they keep in touch over several years. After meeting an Iranian man while she is visiting Amsterdam for an abortion herself, Pauline follows him to Iran, where they marry. Here she encounters a parallel world of restrictions on the lives of women. Alarmed at the patriarchal traditions she encounters — and her husband’s alignment with them – Pauline returns to France where she reconnects with Suzanne and has a child. Suzanne marries a doctor, and the friends raise their children together. They have achieved fulfillment and success in different ways and, although their lives have taken separate paths, they are ultimately united in and by their womanhood. 

The scene at the demonstration where the two women meet is rooted in the real-life protests in Bobigny in 1972, where a schoolgirl was on trial for having an illegal abortion following her rape. The trial and demonstrations drew attention to the archaic abortion legislation in France. In the film, women outside the courthouse carry placards in support of “The 343”, prominent women — including Varda – who had signed a manifesto stating that they too had received illegal abortions. The protest scenes do not include actual footage from 1972, but their staging has a documentary aesthetic, underscoring the point that, although fictional figures, Pauline and Suzanne’s experiences are rooted in the lives of French women of that time. The lyrics of Pauline’s songs reinforce the film’s pro-choice message: “Mon Corps est a Moi,” she sings outside the courthouse, “My Body is Mine”.  Another scene in Amsterdam presents a diverse group of women, all of whom have travelled there from France for abortions. Echoing a shot from Reponse de Femmes, the camera tracks along the lines of women, emphasizing their diversity, while simultaneously uniting them in their search for control over their bodies. As in Reponse De Femmes, throughout the film, nudity is not avoided but is presented in a matter-of-fact manner, devoid of voyeurism. When Pauline breastfeeds her child, her full breast and nipples are exposed but not gratuitously. Her body is revealed to be a source of nourishment and comfort, not the site of male desire. The gaze of the film is focused on displaying the myriad choices of women, supporting choice by reclaiming the gaze of the camera.

Despite its pro-choice stance, the film is never anti-motherhood; Suzanne’s love for her children is undeniable and motherhood as a concept or role is not damned. The film embraces motherhood while insisting on a woman’s right to choose whether — or when — to have a child. Neither are men vilified here: although the father of Suzanne’s children is not supportive, he is not condemned for his choices; the doctor that she later marries is kind and encouraging of her independence; and Pauline’s husband, who is initially supportive but reverts to a traditional patriarchal attitude once he is in his native Iran,  is portrayed honestly and is not reduced simply and purely to a misogynist. The film is uninterested in adopting a stance on the behaviour of men, choosing instead to focus on the lives of its female protagonists and their life choices. For the film, it is far more important to present the central female friendship, which is particularly celebrated throughout the last sequences of the film, as the friends raise their children together. Shot in a gauzy soft light, the friends create a utopian feminist ideal, looking hopefully towards a future where Suzanne and Pauline’s daughters do not have to face the challenges that they themselves had. If this seems blinkered and idealistic to us in the twenty-first century, it should not be forgotten that the film was made at the height of the 1970s feminist movement, where progress on issues such as abortion was possible. 

In all her films, both before and after L’Une Chant, L’Autre Pas, Varda challenged the traditional portrayal of women by denying their sexualisation while at the same time embracing their gender-specific struggles. In doing this, she successfully subjugated the male gaze and instead supplied viewers with an examination of women’s rich, varied, individual inner lives in all their myriad complexities, recognising the fundamental importance of agency and choice for women.

Written for The Film Dispatch by Lesley Finn.


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