Varda and the Time-Image


I’ve always thought that Dave Kehr had one of the most interesting jobs in film criticism.  In his current job, writing the weekly new DVDs column for the New York Times (I remember when he was a regular film critic for the Chicago Reader), Kehr gets to regularly revisit film history.  He works under certain constraints, such as he can’t review a film if it is already been reviewed in the Times, but otherwise it’s a dream job for somebody who is really interested in film history. I wonder if he gets to keep all of those boxed sets.

In any case, this week he returns to perhaps the most famous periods in recent film history:  the French New Wave. Criterion has just released a boxed set, 4 by Agnès Varda. The best known of the four is Cléo From 5 to 7 (1961). (The others are La Pointe Courte (1954/1956), Le Bonheur (1964) and Vagabond (1985).) Filmed in real time, Cléo tells the story of 90 minutes in the life of a young pop singer who was waiting for lab report that will tell or whether or not she has cancer.

Although La Pointe Courte made her reputation as a cinéaste to be watched, Cléo was the means by which Varda began to rethink what it meant to be a female director. The plot of the film has a great deal of potential for melodrama, but rather than waiting for the news from the lab, we’re distracted by the film’s treatment of time.  Gilles Deleuze, the quirkiest and hardest to categorize of all the recent French philosophers, wrote two gnomic books on the cinema, Cinema 1: Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image.  In these books Deleuze argued that the cinema reflected a new way of understanding time.  In pre-modern times people used machines like clocks to measure the movement of time. In modernity, on the other hand, our sense of time comes out of the machines themselves. Because it is a machine that creates a temporal experience, the cinema is, for Deleuze, a philosophical instrument. Through its manipulation of story time, cinematic is a means by which we can better understand how we experience time in the modern world.  Specifically, it shows how our experience of time — indeed, our experience of reality itself — is mediated by technology.

During a rehearsal scene Varda plays directly with our perceptions of the differences between the world we call the real and the world created by the cinema. We watch as Cléo tries out some new songs. We hear her voice in diegetic space–that is, as if we were actually sitting in the room with her. Then an orchestra appears out of nowhere, literally, and Cléo’s voice itself begins to sound recorded, even as it’s coming from her mouth. This transition from the diegetic to the non-diegetic is a staple of the musical, but it’s weirdly out of place from a hyperrealistic film. Just as were getting used to film as a passive recording device, the film eludes our primary identification and starts to take a life of its own.

We’re left to ask, who’s really in charge of this whole production?  Suddenly auteurist mastery runs smack into filmic cliché. We can imagine a cigar-chomping male studio head demanding that Cléo’s rather thin pop voice get some support from a lush orchestra–aesthetic designs of the film be damned. This is about as good as an allegory of female filmmaking in the late studio era as we are likely to see.

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