By – Gareth Jones
For fans of Agnès Varda, short travel documentaries, poetic cinema
Planning a trip to the beach or to the country? Schools are finally out and summer vacations have begun. My daughters are fortunate to be going on a trip to France with their school. I have never been to France so being the film professor, I immediately thought about getting them ready by watching some French films. What better way to prepare them than to watch some cheeky short films directed by the incomparable French New Wave auteur Agnès Varda in some of the areas that they will be visiting.
After completing her first full length film, La Pointe Courte in 1954, Agnès Varda was approached by the French Tourism Office and commissioned to make two films. The first, Ô saisons ô châteaux, is about the incredible chateau in the Loire Valley and the second, Du côté de la côte, is about the Cote D’Azur in the French Riviera. In both cases, Varda, with her typical sly humor, delivers a love letter and a critique to both of these tourism spots.
Ô saisons ô châteaux is structured around the season that it was filmed, the fall. There are no tourists, just gardeners, painters, and the locals there to guide us. We are given a lovely history of France through the architecture of the chateaux chronologically. Each structure is connected to history and to the arts. There are a series of paintings in the “naive” style that ask the audience to compare the impressions of the artists to the environment and structures. The poetry that was inspired by the region is integrated seamlessly throughout and often in a comedic fashion, as Varda deflates the grandiose ideals and actions of the royalty who built these castles. In typical Varda fashion, she always finds a way to focus on natural landscapes and creatures in a playful and almost reverential manner. Cats, birds, and dogs wander through these grounds with ease and style. Varda had not visited the region before and gives us a first hand account and impression through her camerawork and narration. She uses people as props, especially the models she invites to parade on the chateaux roofs and walkways. These purposeful anachronisms allow the audience to enter the past through the present (even for viewers watching today instead of 1954.) The film is a critique of the aristocracy but also shares our admiration and love of the architecture and landscapes.
Du côté de la côte is more critical of the modern aristocracy, where the beaches and the beauty are no longer available to locals but are owned by the tourists and the rich. Varda playfully presents the invasion of tourists to these locals while still highlighting the many reasons why these areas are so beloved. The tourists who carve their names into the plants and who have bacchanalian Carnival parties littering the grounds with confetti and violence is countered by when she lovingly shows us these areas after the people have left. The horses at play in the water are one of the most striking examples. She completes the film with a series of gates being closed as if a warning to us all that this “Eden” is no longer sustainable and available, if it ever existed at all. For her Eden is available to all on the island where there are animals and trees there to represent the purity and beauty of nature without man. The use of colors in this film is particularly inviting with the different classes and tourists represented by different colors such as the Germans humorously in green. This playful nature that is in much of Varda’s work allows her to present a strong critical analysis in the guise of a tourist film. She is a marvelous guide. The cinematography of Quinto Albicocco is drawn to the color and beauty while also showcasing the mass of humanity.
So, before you head to the beach or the countryside this summer, give Varda a look!
Available to stream on the Criterion Channel.
Written by: Gareth Jones
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