World of Wander

Malle, Varda, Akerman, Vigo, and the philosophy of the flâneur film
by Livia Bloom  posted August 4, 2008
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Strangers in Strange Lands: The Explorations of Great French Directors, Maysles Cinema, July 13-August 6, 2008

Hailed by Baudelaire as "the botanist of the sidewalk," the flâneur explores new territory, contemplates his or her place in the world, rescues mundane details from the fog of the everyday. Personal films inspired by the traditional arc and conventions of the travelogue make up an unusual subset of documentaries that reflect this philosophy. "Rather than a 'road movie' this is a 'wandering-road-documentary,'" Agnès Varda said of The Gleaners and I (2000). Whether exploring distant lands like Louis Malle in Phantom India (1969), one’s own neighborhood as Varda does in L’Opéra mouffe (1958), the desolate urban landscapes on the fringes of New York City in Chantal Akerman’s News From Home (1977), or the upscale French resort town of Nice as in Jean Vigo's À propos de Nice (1930), flâneur films can embody a worldview that is compassionate, adventurous, introspective, and political.

A hybrid of city symphony, travelogue, nature film, and personal essay, flâneur films are often distinguished by their use of personal, idiosyncratic narration and a comparably intimate scale of production. Narration is a fixture in traditional travelogues but may be used in flâneur films to quite different effect. Here, the director’s monologue often admits insecurities, undercuts the film’s visual authority, distances the viewer from the people and places spied upon, and raises questions about the veracity of what is being shown. For instance, on the soundtrack to Phantom India, an epic work composed of seven 50-minute episodes that document the director’s trip through that country, Malle frequently despairs at the degree to which he stands out from his surroundings and how little he knows about what he’s seeing. In one of many surprising about-faces in the film, the beggars that he imagines lining up for meager handfuls of rice turn out to be well-born Brahmins collecting ritual gifts of food. Vultures devouring a dead buffalo seem to him violent and cinematic, but local Indians see a dull, everyday sight unworthy of being filmed. And even as he records a powerful scene of the numbing, back-breaking work done by the Untouchables and lower castes, he worries that his leftist principles are irrelevant in a place where social class is considered karmic reward for one’s behavior in previous lives.

The modest production models of independent films—microbudgets, inexpensive equipment, and the collaboration of only a few select colleagues—can be seen as inherently political, in economic opposition to the large-scale models of their mainstream and Hollywood counterparts. Malle made his political critiques explicit in Phantom India, his personal frustration at the injustice and poverty around him tempered at times by his growing understanding of the cultural differences between the prevailing Indian mindset and his own. He first traveled to India in 1967 with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to introduce a series of films that included his Le Feu follet (1963). Captivated, he returned as soon as possible—mere months later, in 1968, this time with a camera. He worked with a skeleton crew. Malle spent two months alone in India before being joined by cinematographer Étienne Becker and sound recordist Jean-Claude Laureux. The three friends often filmed without knowing what they were seeing or why it drew them. “After six months in India you’re not even quite sure that two plus two is four,” Malle later explained. “Instead of wasting my time trying to understand, I decided that we would just drift around India and let things happen.”

When filming strangers in Phantom India, it was important for Malle to include the negative reactions many of his local subjects had to his presence. From the film’s outset, footage is shown of locals crowded around the camera in wonder and distrust. In a wedding sequence, the members of a bridal party halt to stare uncertainly at the filmmakers; only slowly do they pick up their musical instruments again and return to the ceremony at hand. During the entrancing, largely silent sequence at an Indian dance academy, however, Malle provides a typically thoughtful explanation of the performances and their context, but admits confusion and even a touch of disappointment: The people are so engrossed in their dance rehearsal that, for the first time on his trip, his subjects barely notice him filming at all.

Agnès Varda, on the other hand, was at home in her neighborhood along the Rue Mouffetard. One of her earliest films, L’Opéra mouffe, is a lyrical black-and-white record of the scowls, grins, and grimaces of working-class Parisians on her street, entwined with staged footage illustrating everything from love to pregnancy to drunkenness. The film’s title is a play on the satirical popular 19th-century operettas known as “opéra Bouffe.” (Bouffe here likely is short for bouffon, a buffoon or court jester.) One of the sole female auteurs of the French New Wave, Varda made the film as a cinematic diary while she was pregnant with her first child. Like Malle, she worked with a tiny crew, includuing cinematographer Sacha Vierny and editor Janine Verneau. Documentary footage is mixed with staged experimental tableaux as lovers, vagrants, and the vibrant local vegetable market are all captured with Varda’s keen eye for texture and sensual detail, while the soundtrack contemplates Parisian life and the experience of pregnancy with characteristic insight and humor, seemingly interpreting them for the filmmaker herself, for us, and for her daughter-to-be. As in an operetta, the film’s narration is sung rather than spoken, and its first words tell us that la Rue “Mouffe” is first and foremost about la bouffe, or food. The film begins with the image of Varda’s nude body, followed by the image of a melon, which is then split open to reveal the seeds inside, a humorous metaphor for her pregnancy.

Over the years, Varda’s interest in food grew more political in nature. She was in her seventies when she made The Gleaners and I, an examination of the practice and history of “gleaning” in France. In the film, Varda crisscrosses different regions to explore vineyards, oyster shoals, and potato farms, speaking with their proprietors about the tons of unpicked or rejected crops—potatoes that are too big or irregularly shaped, fruit that grows below the picking machine’s range, sealed parcels of meat and fish that have reached their stamped expiration dates—and their policies on allowing gleaners to gather the remaining food before it spoils. She visits a variety of artists who create paintings and sculptures from ostensible garbage. In L’Opéra mouffe Varda examined street vagrants at a remove, but here she speaks with them one on one, learning about the lives of rural and urban gleaners who forage through abandoned fields and trash bins for their next meal. By focusing on the art of gathering, its remarkable history, and the resourceful people who keep the practice alive, Varda leaves implicit the corollary subject of waste, and the prevalence of an inefficient, uncreative, all-disposable consumer mentality. “I had to piece it together,” she explained, “without betraying the social issue that I had set out to address—waste and trash: who finds a use for it? How? Can one live on the leftovers of others?”

As a filmmaker, Varda considers herself a gleaner, too. She approaches her subjects like strange, rare fruits, and she sees herself as one of them. Her subjects speak for themselves, and she speaks for herself as well; the singer from L’Opéra mouffe has given way to a personal narration in Varda’s own voice, peppered with rhymes as well as visual and linguistic puns. Introspection is as important to Varda’s process as listening to others, so in addition to her thoughts on gleaning, she shares intimate observations of feeling and seeing herself age. It’s been 40 years since she was the pregnant woman in L’Opéra mouffe, but her body’s changes still fascinate her. In part, she says, this film emerged from her persisting “desire to film what I can see of myself,” even when “my gray hair and my hands tell me that the end is near.” These aspects of herself she also films like a gleaner, seeing beauty in what is outside traditional shapes, sizes, and expiration dates.

Narration functions differently still in News From Home, Chantal Akerman’s record of the empty alleys, abandoned warehouses, scowling strangers, and graffiti-covered subways of New York City. She documents the city in long, patient takes while quickly and flatly reading aloud letters from her Belgian mother on the soundtrack. The letters are oddly uniform and repetitive; each is guilt-inducing but also caring. The “news” includes updates on her mother’s health that hint at boredom and depression, worries about the safety of New York City that undermine her daughter’s autonomy, concerns over the family’s finances (she encloses $20 bills), and constant pleas to write more often, to enclose photographs, to explain where and how Akerman is eking out a living, and above all, to come back home. The letters simultaneously convey the reasons Akerman may have left her family in the first place and the constant pull she feels to return. This is further underscored by the unfriendly reaction of the New Yorkers Akerman films on the streets and subways; if they notice her at all, they glare angrily at the camera, going out of their way to avoid her invasive presence. Akerman too worked with only a few close colleagues to make the film; it was photographed by Babette Mangolte, a filmmaker in her own right and Akerman’s close collaborator on films including Hôtel Monterey (1972) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Though Akerman never makes her political, feminist, or socioeconomic concerns explicit in the film, they’re never far below the surface, implicit in the desolate streets, lower-class straphangers, and constant references to money in her mother’s letters, which ground Akerman’s formal, cerebral work in the realm of the personal and political.

Although narration is used to great effect by Malle, Varda, and Akerman, the flâneur can can also remain silent—as in À propos de Nice (1930), a study of the French resort town to which tuberculosis confined Jean Vigo and his wife (both of whom eventually died from the disease). Inspired by cinematic city portraits like Alberto Cavalcanti’s Paris classic Rien que les heures (1926) and Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), Vigo worked on his first short film without a crew, collaborating instead with his neighbor, the great cinematographer Boris Kaufman. Though the project began with a detailed script by Vigo, Kaufman, and their wives, this was soon abandoned for a more philosophical, critical depiction of the city. “He seemed both to love and to hate the town,” explained Kaufman in a 1939 article for Cine Club (excerpted in Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary, Faber and Faber, 1996). “Nice was getting ready for the Carnival….The focal point was the Promenade des Anglais, centre of action (or inaction) for the internationally lazy.” To illustrate this, Vigo juxtaposed Nice’s affluent elite with its impoverished inhabitants, creating a critical portrait of his town that reflected his own worldview.

Using ends of film saved from Vigo’s job as an assistant cameraman, Kaufman shot much of the movie as Vigo pushed him through town in a wheelchair with a camera hidden on his lap. Unlike Akerman’s more confrontational approach to filming strangers she encountered, it was imperative to them that Nice’s residents be captured clandestinely. Yet they also used editing devices to capture what they saw as the problematic socio-politics of the town, its economy, and its stratified, classist society. In one sequence, seemingly drunken young women dance and carouse on a balcony, their skirts fluttering while the camera peeks guiltily up at them. As the footage is periodically repeated throughout the latter half of the film—in some iterations Vigo reduces it to a slow-motion crawl—the girls appear to celebrate indefinitely, carousing regardless of whatever else is happening on the other side of town. Another sequence employs imagery from painting and surrealist cinema to satirize the idleness of the rich: an elegantly dressed woman sits leisurely, surrounded by empty lawn chairs. She stays in the same position while her dress fades into another outfit, then another, then another; finally she is shown nude except for her hat and shoes.

In each case, the flâneur films are site-specific, distinct products of their own places, their own times, and their creators’ authorial and political voices. Yet despite their very different periods, locations, and concerns, when juxtaposed and viewed collectively they reflect a profound philosophical worldview. Traveling through exotic, familiar, and even internal terrain, flâneur films are reminders of the tiny gems that can be found everywhere if one remembers not to walk, but to stroll.

Livia Bloom is the curator of the series "Strangers in Strange Lands: The Explorations of Great French Directors." 


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Courtesy NEF/Criterion Collection
Louis Malle's Phantom India
Photo Gallery: World of Wander


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Livia Bloom is Assistant Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. She writes for the quarterly film journal Cinema Scope and is the editor of the forthcoming book Errol Morris: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi).

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