R.I.P. Agnès Varda

I woke up to the news that the great pioneering French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda, active up until the very end, has just died at the age of 90. In 2017, her documentary Faces Places was on my Top 10. 90 years is a good long life. This is not a shock. But her work, and who she WAS out in the world, has so much meaning, connecting up all of these disparate threads of the past into our Right Now, 90 years of experience … this is what I am present to now, this is the loss I (and so many others) are feeling. My first disoriented thought was, “But what am I supposed to do now?”

I scribbled something about this on Instagram, and I’ll put it here as well, since it’s a story I love. I look forward to the more in-depth career-spanning tributes which I know will be coming out today. I’ll link to the ones I love. In the meantime, here’s an anecdote about Varda as a director, an anecdote that has always stayed with me. Maybe it stayed with me because of my actor background: I love examples of directors who know how to give good direction.

Here is the great Sandrine Bonnaire giving her unforgettable performance in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond.

Like all great directors, Varda knew when to give direction/guidance, and when to stay silent. When Varda DID give direction, it was specific and action-oriented. Bad directors talk about abstractions and themes, none of which an actor can really play.

Bad director: “Remember, your character represents innocence in a fallen world.”
Actor: “….. Okay. Got it.” [Inner monologue: WTF.]
Scene begins. Actor tries to represent innocence in a fallen world.
Bad director: “Cut! Okay, so maybe this next take think of a really happy circumstance in your childhood that you now look back on and feel sad about.”
Actor: “So … I wasn’t really getting across innocence in a fallen world, is that what you’re saying?”
Bad director: “No, it was great, what you were doing was great, I just want you to maybe think about something personal.”
Actor: “So … a happy childhood memory that makes me sad now?”
Bad director: “Yes. Let’s try it.”
Actor: “Should I keep trying to be innocence in a fallen world?”
Bad director: “Let’s forget about that for now.”

This is not an exaggeration of what it is like to work with a bad director who
1. does not know what he/she wants
2. does not understand the actor’s process

Good directors always give actors something to DO. If you’re a bad director, and you don’t know how to do that, then just say NOTHING to the actor, let the actor work, stay out of their way. (Unfortunately, of course, bad directors don’t know they’re bad. That’s why they’re bad.) Good directors know how to say one tiny thing, one tiny suggestive thing, that sets the actor’s imagination on fire, or makes the actor know, “Got it. I know just what you want.”

Varda didn’t “help” Bonanaire give the great performance she did in Vagabond. That’s a misunderstanding of the relationship between director and actress. But Varda made one comment, one very pointed comment early on, which ended up being the thing that gave Bonnaire her “way in” to the character.

In the early development stages, Varda said to Bonnaire, “This character never says ‘Thank you.’”

Something in this simple statement sparked something in Bonnaire. She was curious about it, she hadn’t thought about it in those terms, she wondered what that would look/feel like. Also, on a practical level, it was something she could DO. Specificity is ALWAYS preferable to generalities. No exceptions. Even in highly stylized work.

Bonnaire began experimenting in her own life with not saying “Thank you,” just to get a feel for it, just to see what it might provide her in understanding the character she was going to play. She said she was surprised at how difficult it was. It felt wrong. It made her confront all kinds of things in herself, how you internalize civilization, how we all use good manners to get by the best we can in the world. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary. But what happens if you opt out of it? The “why” isn’t even as important as the “what.” Choosing not to say “Thank you” in the preparation phase made her realize how often she said “Thank you.” A cashier hands you change. A guy holds a door open for you. You trip off a stair and someone reaches out to help you. A waitress clears your table. You say “Thank you” for the help in every single circumstance. Or you should.

But not if you’re playing the lead character in Vagabond.

Bonnaire got into the groove of what it was like to accept help and never say “Thank you.” It was a whole other world and it opened up all of the possibilities of the character for her.

And it all came from a six-word sentence of direction. PLAY-able direction.

It set Bonnaire – already enormously gifted – free. Keeping those words in mind, she literally could do no wrong in her performance. It showed her how to be, where to go, what to do, what not to do.

Young directors, take note: THAT’S how you give direction.

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6 Responses to R.I.P. Agnès Varda

  1. Ted says:

    Your clear description of this does honor to Varda. It’s interesting, it’s a direction that is not only specific, action-oriented, and small enough to focus one’s attention on. It’s also a thing that she (the actress) CAN do, rather than a thing she MUST do or MUST do in some particular fashion because I-the- director thought of it. And then it is matched by an actor, who can take it as a prompt to her curiosity (as you say) but not as her obligation. And it could be given this way because Varda was not under the delusion that Bonnaire’s doing good work dependended soley upon her direction.

    • sheila says:

      Ted – I am so glad you commented – I had a feeling it would be good! You’ve provided perspective here on what I love about this anecdote – thank you for digging into this with me. I love the difference you point out between “can” and “must” – and how different that feels from the actor’s side of things.

      I love the “prompt’ nature of the direction – not a “do it this way” – but a suggestion, almost tossed off – and Varda who understood Bonnaire, knew Bonnaire would run with it. and boy did she!!

      // under the delusion that Bonnaire’s doing good work dependended soley upon her direction. //

      this, too, is key. No power trip.

  2. Ted says:

    The words Playable direction really stand out as if I have never quite heard the phrase before. Both director and actor embody that in this story. Varda in knowing what to offer, and Bonnaire in running out and playing with it in her life (her job, in fact). One has to be free to play ( in the child’s sense of that word). And good direction doesn’t set you free in the sense of releasing oneself abstractly, as much as it sets you up with what you need to play. It Releases you into play. I think of that word in the sense of a thing one does with the joy of engagement – in the Jillinskian sense (do you know his great book on acting)?

    • sheila says:

      some of this is reminding me of what Sam Schacht used to say in class: “The name of the job is not FEEL-er. It’s ACT-or.” Like, what am I supposed to be DO-ing? (or … play-ing.) Objective, sure … but “never say ‘thank you'” isn’t exactly objective. It’s bigger than that.

      I think Varda’s knowing that that would be the key to unlock the character shows that she knew what she wanted – she also knew how radical it would be (maybe especially for women – we’re socialized for politeness). By freeing Bonnaire from that – without going on and on and on about it – she was helping Bonnaire into the space where the character could actually come to life. Because … you couldn’t really THINK your way into that part. It’s not a CONCEPT. I don’t know. You know how actors come up with concepts and then try to act out that concept? It seems like it would have been very easy to go that route with Vagabond … but Varda is so tough, she wouldn’t allow it.

      // as much as it sets you up with what you need to play. //

      right. It’s not an idea. “setting you up” is really the perfect way to put it.

      and of course if you have an actress as good/responsive as Bonnaire … you’re halfway there.

  3. Ted says:

    This character never says thank you – so interesting. It’s negative space. It places this actor in a place to say – hmmm, so what does that mean when I’m offered a chair? – so what does that mean when I’m served coffee? It isn’t the same as saying that “she’s the kind of person that doesn’t say thank you” or “she’s impolite” both finite, whereas the prompt is infinite!

    Ah… Sam Schacht – I loved that picture of him you posted the other day!

    • sheila says:

      Ted – totally negative space. and maybe there’s a bit of a power trip in it too. Or, not a power trip, but … by not saying Thank you … it’s a way to maintain a sense of power. Of not being “beholden” to people who help you – of refusing to be classified as a “victim” or accepting people’s “pity.” I don’t know, it’s really interesting to think about how all this operates.

      I should have added this in the post, I thought of it later: So you’re offered a chair and you sit down and don’t say “Thank you” – that’s one thing. it’s rude, for sure. When I hold a door open for someone, or something like that, and they don’t say “Thank you” … I notice. I don’t like it.

      But then imagine a larger more urgent situation – like “someone offers me food and shelter on a subzero night” or “someone gives me a ride to the bus station when I’m stranded on the side of the road …” Imagine a situation like that and not saying “Thank you.” to the person who may have saved your life, or taken you in from the storm and fed you. It starts to get into some truly interesting territory – and that’s where Vagabond lives. We expect “vagabonds” to be “grateful” – is that part of it? The expectation that the less-fortunate should be appropriately grateful when you help them out? The underbelly of “charity” – that it makes the charitable feel good about themselves, that the “charitable” still expect the “vagabonds” to say “please” and “thank you,” maintaining some kind of hierarchy. And what is it like when a “vagabond” ISN’T appropriately grateful? What does that bring up in audience members? Can we sort of look at that conflict inside of ourselves watching this unfriendly woman not say Thank you to the people who help her?

      It’s such a confrontational film in this way.

      and yes – Sam and Faye Dunaway. I clocked him right away!

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