A recurring​ effect in the films of Agnès Varda, especially her documentaries, is a kind of hesitation between photography and moving pictures. A shot looks like a still – the opening image of Daguerréotypes (1975), say, showing a couple behind the glass door of the perfume shop they work in. The wife shifts her head slightly but that’s all she does, and the man who strides past the shop down the street seems to belong to another world, miles away from the dreaming pauses of photography. This art lingers in the film’s careful visual references to the Paris streets of Eugène Atget’s work, and of course in the title, even if we do arrive at the name of Louis Daguerre through a street map and a pun on the word ‘types’. The film is devoted to the patient, ordinary days of people who work on a small stretch of the rue Daguerre in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, where Varda herself lived.

Varda speaks in voiceover of the strange time of shopkeeping, the long gaps between customers. She is ‘fascinated’ by the perfumist’s wife and her ‘douceur de captive’, her captive’s gentleness. We can see why right from the start: the woman looks ancient, worn and lost, seems burdened by a story she is never going to tell. Near the end of the film, as the street’s shopping day ends, she moves towards the door of the shop. Her husband says: ‘Don’t go out.’ ‘Why not?’ she replies, and steps onto the street, only to stand outside looking in through the window. Then she comes in again. Her husband says she does this every day. She doesn’t leave, he says; she just wants to leave. Varda picks up the metaphor immediately. Don’t we all want to ‘partir au crépuscule’, leave in the evening? There follows a long, wonderful sequence in which the denizens of the street are interviewed about their dreams, which in turn allows Varda to sign off as ‘the neighbour who made the film’, and to wonder what sort of work she has created. ‘Is it a reportage?’ she asks. ‘A homage, an essay, a regret, a reproach, an approach?’ All of these possibilities seem slightly more appropriate for an exhibition of pictures than for a movie. That’s partly why the movie, since it is one, is so good.

Varda died last March. She was born in Brussels in 1928, and is best known for her New Wave films, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Happiness (1965). Her late essay-works, The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008) have many admirers, and some of us have a soft spot for The Creatures (1966), which was a distinct flop on its first appearance. Three of her works, Cléo, Daguerréotypes and Vagabond (1985), are being shown at the BFI until 31 July.

The sense of still photography is less present in Cléo and Vagabond than in Daguerréotypes but both films are also about wanting or not wanting to leave. Cléo (Corinne Marchand) is a singer who is told she may have cancer, and we spend two hours of her life with her as she tries to deal with the thought. At one point we hear about Edith Piaf’s actual illness, but a lot of what matters, as always for Varda and her camera, has to do not with what happens but with where it does or doesn’t occur. The film is as much about Paris in the 1960s – cafés, art studios, parks, street performers, echoes of the war in Algeria – as it is about Cléo’s condition.

Vagabond is Varda’s most bewildering film, and in this sense a great success, since bewilderment is what she was after. She was disappointed, however, by choruses of praise from people who thought they understood her. ‘I invented a character who eludes me,’ she once said. Mona, wonderfully played by Sandrine Bonnaire, has given up settled, respectable life but doesn’t know what she has abandoned it for. We quickly learn what she gets for her gesture, since the film opens on her corpse being found in a ditch. The actress was 18 in 1985, and the character looks about the same age. She is fit, funny, rude, and she does as she likes – well, sometimes. She sleeps in a tent, hitchhikes, works occasionally for a few sous, sleeps with men she fancies, moves on. She likes pot and pop songs, and we learn that she was once a secretary. She completed secondary school too, and when she is bored she recites the forms of English irregular verbs (‘catch, caught, caught’) to entertain herself. In one fantastic image, which we might think of as a photograph that moves, her hair is blowing in her face as she talks to someone, and she looks really wild. Except that she is doing nothing except stand in the wind.

All this we see not in flashback, since Mona has no memory now, but in a sort of simulated documentary reconstruction. People who met her are interviewed, sometimes speaking directly to the camera, but the film also seems to be freely inventing a life for her out of these testimonies. The credits include a word coined, it seems, to describe just this process: the film is ‘cinécrit’, cine-written, as well as directed by Varda. As in her other films, the places are important, and she spoke of finding France again after working for some time in America. In this case it was rural France, around Nîmes, and I was repeatedly struck on seeing the film again by how strange and unkempt, almost as if waiting for a horror movie to start, a historical countryside can look: tyres, tractors, sheds, crumbling stone walls, an empty château, a shabby graveyard. The people who inhabit these scenes are not anonymous but they seem accidental. ‘I think of tiny figures in old landscape paintings,’ Varda said. And yet we learn more about them – the Moroccan and Tunisian farmworkers, the tramps, the goat-breeding dropouts, the tree-saving professor, the rich old lady and her maid, the small-time crooks – than we do about Mona, since they are still around and talking, if only in cameos.

The question the film asks and won’t (can’t) answer is what Mona wants. It’s as if she is revising 1960s hippiedom by excluding even the idea of an alternative lifestyle. At one point she says she dreams of having a spot of land and growing potatoes. She stays in bed reading and listening to the radio. She and her benefactor have a quarrel about the work ethic, and she takes to the road again. All she wants is to ‘live outside’, vivre dehors, as she says – outside of everything that has an inside. She is like the worried lady in Daguerréotypes, except she goes beyond wanting to leave. But she can’t get anywhere, become anyone, without betraying whatever her inchoate project is. There is something admirable about this stance, and Varda admires it, even romanticises it. ‘It seems to me she came from the sea,’ she says, as if Mona were a nymph who got stuck on land. It turns out the ciné-writer only means that the first sightings of Mona in the area took place when she was having a swim.

And of course, though Varda doesn’t want to moralise, she knows that without some sort of lifestyle, however chaotic, one just doesn’t live. Mona moves on from pot to booze, has more fun but less control, narrowly escapes from a burning house, wanders into a village ritual that involves scaring the locals and bathing in wine, falls into a ditch and dies of the cold. The French title of the film helps us a little here: Sans toit ni loi, ‘without roof or law’. It is apparently a play on the proverbial phrase sans foi ni loi, ‘without faith or law’, meaning without religious or civil allegiance. The new word in the title, along with the rhyme, suggests that anyone who is homeless is also lawless. But then ‘lawless’ could mean two things: not bound by law and not protected by law, and somewhere between the two chances Mona finds her death.

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