Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 02 August 2010
Documenteur, Agnès Varda’s companion piece and follow-up to her documentary Mur murs, shares with it a filming location and a similarly punning title (a menteur is a liar, in French). But the similarities end there: while Mur murs is a more or less straightforward film that purports to document the murals, the artists who created them, and the effect the pictures have on the neighborhoods surrounding them, Documenteur, which includes shots of some of those same murals and has scenes set in those same neighborhoods, is, by its own admission, “an emotion picture.” Neither pure fictional feature film nor documentary, it’s perhaps best described as a documentary with a fictionalized main character.
Both films were made during Varda’s second sojourn to L.A. from 1979 to 1981. This time, Varda was separated from Jacques Demy, filming Mur murs for French television, and trying in vain to put together financing for an ultimately abandoned film called Maria and the Naked Man. She was charmed by L.A. with its glittering façades and population of dreamers, but felt isolated by its sprawling highway system that encouraged segregation and discouraged community. Feeling adrift and alone after the completion of Mur murs, Varda picked up her camera and, in a sense, turned it on herself to make Documenteur. The autobiographical impulse has always been present in Varda’s filmmaking, but until her recent films it has always been expressed obliquely. Up until 1981 she had made documentaries about her neighborhood, her family, her friends, her political heroes, and her political beliefs. Documenteur is the first Varda film that can be said to be about Varda herself; and yet it is not about her, exactly. It is about a woman named Emilie, separated from her husband in Los Angeles, accompanied by her precocious and inquisitive son Martin (played by Varda’s own son, Mathieu Demy).Â But Varda deflects true autobiography by casting not herself but her editor, Sabine Mamou, as Emilie, and making the character not a filmmaker but an assistant to one (represented in the film only by her voice).
If Documenteur feels like a documentary about a fictionalized Varda, it also, at times, feels like a documentary without a subject. Not much happens to Emilie in the film, at least not externally. She takes in some old furniture, giving it new life in a new home (an early glimpse of Varda the gleaner); she does some laundry; she struggles with her son as he learns to sleep alone in his own room; and she types and types and types, apparently working on an endlessly revised script for her boss. Internally, though, Emilie roils with emotion, and this is expressed in the voiceover narration, if one can call it that: it seems more apt to label it an audible, stream-of-consciousness internal monologue. It is poetic and amusingly punning at times, maddeningly close to a private game of word association or list-making at others, but its droning tones are often a good match for the onscreen images of inaction. The overall effect of the sound and the images is to create a convincing portrait of a woman who is, physically and emotionally, just plain stuck.
Documenteur didn’t get a very good reception upon its initial U.S. release as the bottom half of a double bill with Mur murs. After the exuberance of the earlier film, nearly any other is bound to pale in comparison, and Varda’s dour and uncharacteristically ramshackle elegy of marital separation is no exception. Far from the riot of color and movement of Mur murs, the images in Documenteur do not seek to engage the viewer, and the voiceover and dialogue might actually turn some audience members off entirely. Janet Maslin, writing about the film in the New York Times, noted that the voices are so flat that the film sounds badly dubbed, which, in many scenes, it quite plainly is. Furthermore, the dubbed voices are curiously lifeless, as if recorded in an airless room. While this is surely just an artifact of the film’s production and not an intentional choice by Varda to distance and disengage the viewer (though distanciation and disengagement are precisely the effects it has), Varda includes a clever reference to voiceover recording and dubbing in a scene where Emilie is asked to record some voiceover for a film in the absence of the filmmaker for whom she works. Emilie reads aloud a bit of narration (which happens to be from Mur murs, further linking the two films), and when it is played back, the voice on the tape is that of someone else. When she expresses surprise at the sound of the voice, the sound man replies, “You never recognize your own voice.”
Because of its technical limitations, alienating manner, and dissimilarity with the rest of Varda’s work, Documenteur will never be considered one of her best or most characteristic works, but it commands more attention and respect than the “for completists only” kinds of films that pepper other directors’ filmographies. For me, it has even become something of a favorite among Varda’s work precisely because it is so surprisingly different from most of her other films. It is such an introspective film — really, the “emotion picture” subtitle is not a conceit but an accurate description — and it is the rare film that attempts (and mostly succeeds) to express the often oppressive sadness and vulnerability that comes with the end of a relationship. After Varda’s overtly and politically feminist films of the 1970s that immediately preceded Documenteur, it might seem incongruous to make a film about the despondency of a woman without a man. Yet if there is anything characteristic of Agnès Varda, it is her unwillingness to play it safe and to do what is expected of her.