The Memeification of Agnès Varda

At some point in the last year, after festival play and the Oscar nomination of her film "Faces Places," the French filmmaker became a meme.
Caspar Salmon

In February of this year, 168 Hollywood luminaries attended the traditional Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon, including Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and a cardboard cut-out of Agnès Varda. The 89-year-old director was unable to attend, so had sent three life-size mock-ups of herself, along with JR, the co-director of her Oscar-nominated documentary, Faces Places. The cut-out was duly posed with by Meryl Streep, Greta Gerwig and Guillermo Del Toro. The figurine was reprised a week later for the Césars ceremony, where it posed with the shy and retiring JR on the red carpet. This year it could even be seen in an Instagram picture with Justin Trudeau when it made its way through customs in Canada. A cut-out of Varda was reprised for the retrospective of her work that took place at the BFI in London this summer, enabling punters to take selfies with her in the foyer. 

During the BFI season, Varda attended screenings, and made the gaggle of film critics, industry professionals and errant cinephiles that constitutes “Film Twitter" happy when she was shown escaping a screening early to watch France play in the World Cup. This came after well over a year of Agnès Varda photo opportunities, including an event in Cannes with Cate Blanchett to honor female creatives last May, or dancing with Angelina Jolie at the Governors Awards in November. Varda is also one of a number of female creatives to feature on the popular Girls On Tops t-shirts, alongside Gerwig and Ava DuVernay. By the time Faces Places came out in cinemas, cold on the heels of its Cannes Film Festival premiere, Oscar nomination, BFI retrospective and countless photo opportunities, it felt like we had almost reached Agnès Varda saturation point. At some point in the last year, Varda became a meme. 

All the elements of memeing are present and correct in the way the culture deals with Varda—not least in the mapping onto her figure (which is divorced of any agency in the way she is re-presented) of any meaning that people might wish to ascribe to it. It’s impossible to say what exact meaning the cardboard cut-out of her has, but we can project onto it any number of interpretations, such as that the cardboard subverts the Oscars and show business; or that her old age and smallness are cute; or that she is playful. In turn, the cut-out can be owned in a sense by anybody photographing it or sharing it, reiterating the image, which is only a cousin in meaning to the actual person ‘Agnès Varda.’ 

We have now reached a point where the diminutive figure, the two-tone hairstyle, the cut-out, the name, all may have a far greater cultural reach or significance than the actual work of the director. It feels as if the meme of Varda—the sense of her as espoused by Twitter, or contemporary film culture—might be, even, detrimental to an understanding of her career, could overshadow her achievements as one of the original New Wave, who went on to pioneer in documentary work, installations, and fiction films with a deeply feminist backbone. In a sense, we wish to honor Varda’s work, but in doing so we render the very figure of her oddly blank. It’s also hard not to see in the reframing of Varda a function of ageism, which sees her as cuddly and sprightly, a good egg, amazing for her age, et cetera. 

There are several interesting aspects to this phenomenon, however, which has seen Varda accede, seemingly out of nowhere, to the sort of status enjoyed by, say, Werner Herzog, where the character of the director, their reputation, and certain characteristics (for Varda’s hair you might substitute Herzog’s voice) supersede their art in the public consciousness. Foremost among these—and here Varda mirrors Herzog totally—is the way there is an element of consciousness in the way she places herself in her own films (such as Murs Murs, 1981), makes herself a subject, and even plays on her image. In fact, a great deal of Faces Places has to do with memes themselves—that is, with taking pictures of people and reframing them in different contexts, and ascribing a renewed meaning to them. 

In one scene, Varda takes photographs of dockers’ wives wearing black, which she and JR blow up to vast proportions and position on a tower of containers in the dockyard where their husbands work. They then have the women pose within the photograph of themselves, sitting inside the picture, but dressed in white this time. This act clearly presents a microcosm of the act of memeing, projecting various significances onto the photographs—solemnity, a vague feminist message of solidarity, a quasi-religious overtone—from which the subjects are separated, or over which they have little control. In another scene, Varda takes a photograph of a woman with a parasol, which she and JR place on a big wall in a small village. The woman later speaks of her discomfort at the way strangers take photos of themselves with the picture, robbing her of her privacy and identity.

Similarly, Varda memes herself, or is memed by JR: part of the pleasure of the film is to witness a tussle between warring aesthetics, with Varda frequently looking backwards into time, seeking to reenact and relive memories, while JR has his eye set on the present (selfies) and the future (memes, which will live and live in their repetition). We see this when a photo of Varda’s toes is blown up and put onto a train, which will take this truncated image of her all over Europe: Varda is whimsical and poetic, seemingly more intent on the happenstance and beauty of an image than in its mimetic potential. In one scene, when she produces a collage of the photographer Guy Bourdin on a blockhaus that has fallen from cliffs onto a Normandy beach, we see clearly a divorce in significance between the image and its surroundings, which is proper to the modern meme: there can be no correlation between the meaning of Bourdin and the meaning of a derelict Nazi fortress. But Varda herself is not preoccupied with creating an event that makes a statement, so much as with rehearsing nostalgia, and even delights in the evanescence of the picture when it is washed away by the tide within 24 hours. When JR takes selfies with children, in front of photos of themselves that he and Varda have printed and exposed, he is ceding control of his own imagery, whereas for Varda the pictures often have a personal or even a mysterious significance that she keeps tightly to herself. 

Other memes abound in the film, such as the way JR and Varda re-stage the famous Louvre scene from Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), representing it as a sort of lark that jokes vaguely about ageism, removing the derring-do and sexiness of the original. The scene has no reason to be in the film, and feels like an addition by JR, whose cavorting in the sequence feels of a piece with more shallow elements in the film—such as those which play with no little smugness on the surface iconography of a little old lady and her somber young male accomplice. One can’t escape the feeling that the film would have been more successful with only Varda in the director’s chair, taking us on a more meandering path through her memories, rather than the trip we have, which is an odd collection of sorrow, whimsy and fortitude melded to Internet-era wowsers.

As it is, Varda has (co-)created a film in which vast photographs of people stand out in black and white, can be seen for miles around, in great two-dimensional iterations that dwarf the actual subject of the photo. In this proposition, as well as in ceding ownership of her persona, however unconsciously, Varda has ensured that ‘Agnès Varda’ towers over her own career.

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