It is no accident that as a young high school student, after attending a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless at the Brattle Street Cinema in Cambridge, Mass., I consciously decided to live in Paris and unconsciously decided to become a filmmaker. Godard believed in the transformative power of cinema, in its ability to make a creative viewer, someone who would participate actively in the watching of a film as opposed to a passive consumer. Having grown up in the 1960s and 1970s, I was invigorated by this idea. I spent a year in Paris, and there I learned about movies by spending hours at the Cinémathèque Française, where one could see all kinds of films day and night. I discovered the French New Wave in Paris and fell in love with Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7.
I was drawn to Varda’s film because of her use of cinematic elements, time and space. Time is actually the subject or theme of the film. The idea and challenge of capturing and reconstituting the experience of real time was fascinating to me. The film vividly captures an hour and a half in the life of a carefree young woman waiting for the results of a medical diagnosis. Instead of relying on the usual conventions of narrative, ellipsis and skipping from one place to another, Varda created an immediacy I had never seen before, concentrating on just this one hour and a half in the character’s life. While nothing really happens, everything happens. The act of waiting for the results while wandering around the Left Bank of Paris, every second, every step traced, creates so much tension. This was the Paris I came to live in myself, and the portrait of this woman feels so utterly natural and even now, all these years later, so contemporary. In a way, Cléo From 5 to 7 is a portrait of a woman but also a documentary about Paris in the 1960s — a documentary that I was conscious of reliving years later as I walked the same streets and neighborhoods every day. When I saw the film that first time, the details of character, Cléo’s inner life, her passions and fears, were as vibrant and as textured to me as the streets and neighborhoods and characters she encounters during that one hour and a half. Paris is the film’s visual centerpiece, but the film also reflects a woman’s evolution from self-absorption to awareness, her growth from being shallow and childlike to being empathetic.
Varda has said, “It’s not enough to tell a story. You have to find a way to make it cinematic.” I completely agree. As a filmmaker, I have never been satisfied simply by telling an entertaining story. Rather, I have been drawn to look beneath the surface of things, to see the unseeable, to speak what is usually unspoken and to ask the viewer to explore the world below the conscious mind. My early films explored the unique aspects of the film medium — the way we perceive an image in relation to how the camera alters that perception — especially three of my early films: Michigan Avenue (1974), I-94 (1974) and The United States of America (1975). These three films were investigations into the material of time and space. They were made one frame at a time by alternating frames and, finally, by mounting a camera inside a car as if the car were the camera in order to document a cross-country drive as seen through the front windshield/lens of the car/camera. A later film of mine, Empty Suitcases, plays with narrative and cinematic expectations, presenting fragments of a woman’s life: her work, her friendships and her relationships. The film chronicles her story and her economic, sexual and artistic struggles. She travels between New York and Chicago, but she can’t make up her mind where she wants to stay and is unable to locate and define herself. Like Cléo From 5 to 7, it’s a film about identity. We see the character sitting in bed with a record player next to her as she lip-syncs Billie Holiday’s “All of Me” in a deadpan mockery of synchronous sound in film. Later she is shown wearing a red dress and crossing an idyllic lush field of green to greet a man in red standing on a riverbank. Trees are blowing in the breeze and a boat is pulled on to the bank, and the scene is observed from extreme distance, through the window of a room the camera inhabits. The most real shot is identical to a picture postcard, a play on rear screen projection. I love the moment in Cléo From 5 to 7 where the character disappears behind a structure and reappears instantly in a new outfit. It’s about the artifice of cinema. In Empty Suitcases, one of the most notable scenes is influenced by Varda’s film — two women (photographer Nan Goldin and filmmaker Vivienne Dick) exchange clothes and photograph each other. They exit the frame behind camera and immediately reappear wearing different clothes. An X-Ray Spex song, “Art-I-Ficial,” is playing in the background. Cléo also clowns around. There is a full musical number in Varda’s film, and then at the end of the number we snap back to the realism of the everyday. Like Jean-Luc Godard, Varda was interested in breaking narrative rules, something that intrigued me in my early work as well. Varda has Godard and his lead actress, Anna Karina, appear in a film within a film in Cléo From 5 to 7.
But perhaps, it is my film Variety that is most influenced by Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7. Varda presents Paris almost as a character, and we follow Cléo’s journey through Paris cafes and parks, and Cléo’s emotional state of mind deepens. Influenced by this idea of a journey, I set about to see New York City in a similar way. New York City, the one I’d seen in movies like Pickup on South Street and Naked City — the underground, late-night New York City of the 1980s — is the backdrop for a film about a woman who sells tickets at a pornographic movie theater. She starts to follow one of the patrons from the theater, and we wander with her through Time Square’s sleazy sex shops, through the Fulton Fish Market, Wall Street and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Color, texture and mood were as important as the story. I used frames within frames, windows and doorways to capture visually the idea of watching and voyeurism. I remembered the proliferation of mirrors and reflective surfaces that Cléo finds whenever she sees herself. Varda is aware of the element of performance for Cléo, sometimes humorous, sometimes slightly exaggerated. The performance of Christine, my character in Variety, is more nuanced, but she is still aware of the element of performance. The film tracks Christine’s emotional state of mind through observed behavior, and her obsession grows as the film progresses.
Clearly, Varda was a pioneer of feminist cinema and a leading director of her generation. Not only was she one of the few women directors during the 1960s and 1970s who made feature films, but her portrait of a female character, Cléo, is complex and not idealized. Cléo has strengths and weaknesses, and we come to care about her, but she is not perfect, nor is she unnecessarily sexualized. In Vagabond, a later Varda film starring Sandrine Bonnaire, the director also presents a complex female character in the story of a drifter who refuses to offer herself as a female object. Varda’s earlier film One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, made in 1977, was one of the first feminist testaments to friendship, the story of the bond between two women who struggle with their identities and male relationships, building their friendship over time and as it intersects with love, marriage and family. Varda celebrated female independence and survival in the late 1970s, just as the women’s movement was coming into its own.
Varda is a role model for myself and others, and she is still directing movies as she turns 80. I hope to follow in her footsteps. Her perseverance, the depth of her characters and the cinematic vision in her work have stayed with me since the moment I first came upon Cléo From 5 to 7.
Bette Gordon premiered her new feature Handsome Harry at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival in the world narrative competition section. The film stars an ensemble cast including Campbell Scott, Steve Buscemi, Aidan Quinn, John Savage and Karen Young.
Gordon is best known for her bold explorations of themes related to sexuality. Her early short films have won numerous awards and festival acclaim worldwide, and have been screened at The Berlin International Film Festival, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Biennial. Her feature film, Luminous Motion (2000), was called one of the best films of the year by A.O. Scott of The New York Times.
Gordon is a Professor of Film at Columbia University’s graduate film division in New York City, where she is the supervisor of the directing program. She is also a regular contributor to BOMB, a journal of art, film, music, and writing.