The Faces and Places of French New Wave: Varda’s Lasting Influence on Modern Cinema

The New York Times’s review for Agnès Varda’s “Cleo From 5 to 7,” published in September 1962, found the film wanting: “[it] fails to do more than skim the surface of a cryptic dramatic theme.” If one were to be objective, wrote Bosley Crowther, the film might be said to be “a fair example of the slick techniques of the French New Wave.”

Corinne Marchand in “Cleo from 5 to 7”

Crowther, if this review is to be taken at face value, was not a fan of the French New Wave. “Cleo From 5 to 7” was accused by the critic of “glittering” with “photographic and cinematic ‘style’,” style here being subjective.

In fact, “Cleo From 5 to 7,” Varda’s second feature, was indeed infatuated with photography, and with street photography to be precise. More so than Corinne Marchand (whose gravitas in the film should not be understated), it’s the streets of Paris, and the life these streets promote, which Varda’s camera seems most keen on.

These photographic experiments would remain a mainstay of Varda’s cinematic career; the deliberateness with which she trained cameras on subjects and objects would come to define her own “style,” as it would the aesthetic of the French New Wave. Many of the tenants of cinematic language and “style” we now take for granted (i.e. jump cuts) originated with the filmmakers associated with nouvelle vague.

A significant characteristic of Varda’s (as well as other French New Wave filmmakers) films was the use of hand-held cameras and shooting on location. These choices were both practical as they were innovative. One effect of these choices is that viewers are able to “feel” the setting, no merely see it.

Varda seems to have returned to these experiments in “Faces Places,” a film which takes as its prime focus settings and the people inhabiting them. While Varda has often used still images in her films, this film is about the production of still images and what this production reveals about their subjects and about the photographers.

It’s no coincidence in “Faces Places” that Varda ends up visiting the grave of Henri Cartier-Bresson, a pioneer of street photography whose “style” was all about capturing the moment, which is to say, the meaning in everyday action and interaction. In another moment in the film, Varda shows a picture of a fellow director associated with the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, a notoriously private person who refused photographs; in this cinematic moment Varda seems to lament their estrangement.

Agnès Varda and JR in “Faces Places”

A staying impulse in much of Varda’s work is to show and share the lives and voices of marginalized persons. Prior to “Faces Places” Varda seems to have taken up projects which revisit the places and the people she’s featured in her films. Perhaps “Faces Places” is a film about how these people and these places have changed Varda and, by extension, how they’ve changed film.

Rubén Casas is an assistant professor of English at Fresno State, and he serves on the Filmworks board as a member of the marketing committee.