Nick Pinkerton on One Hundred and One Nights
Keeping up the front that goes by the name “personal taste” often calls for the creation and maintenance of extravagant systems of self-justification. For the artists with whom we feel an affinity, we’ll often go to great lengths to let them off the hook. When the career as a whole is one that we feel sympathy for, the masterpieces are “signature works,” moments of “apotheosis”; the failures are “one-offs,” and if there’s any compromising external factor which might be brought to bear in considering the lapse (personal crisis, meddlesome producer, economic pressure, etc.), so much the better. When we don’t like the odor of the body of work as a whole, however, the triumphs are flukes, and the absolute worst piece confirms something basically fraudulent in the whole enterprise.
Fifteen years ago, I liked Agnès Varda very much indeed. As an undergraduate I’d watched everything of hers that I could get my mitts on in my film school’s library, which included considerable holdings: the then brand-new Criterion Collection DVDs of Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Vagabond (1985); the letterboxed Home Vision Cinema VHS release of Le bonheur (1965), which seemed to me the most ravishing movie that I had ever seen; and even a disc of One Hundred and One Nights, which at the time I was ready to make excuses for. More than once I drove the seven-and-a-half-hour round-trip, upstate and down, from Dayton, Ohio, to the Cleveland Cinematheque to see screenings of Varda rarities: her first feature, the bifurcated La Pointe Courte (1954), or the scarcely screened fantasy film The Creatures (1966), which if nothing else starred Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, so how bad could it be? I don’t recall in detail what my responses were to each of these films at the time, but I do remember reading that Pauline Kael had called Cléo “one of the few films directed by a woman in which the viewer can sense a difference.” I think that this was at least a part of what drew me to Varda’s films, because I was interested in women—or girls, if the reader will forgive my 19-year-old self—and how they saw the world and what made them tick, and at the time I simply was not aware of many other film directors who might have access to some privileged information on this subject by virtue of their being female. (This was, remember, before listicles.)
I liked Agnès Varda’s films, and was happy in the knowledge that I did, until early 2007. At this point I was living in New York City, in my mid-twenties, and hopefully at least marginally more intelligent in matters of life, aesthetics, and everything. I was working at the time, as I would continue to do for some years to come, as a technician in the New York offices of a Paris-based subtitling company, Laser Video Titres—LVT for short. Along with operating a laser engraving machine that occupied the better part of a large room, which frame-by-frame and reel-by-reel did the painstaking business of etching titles into the emulsion of prints, part of my job involved inspecting the final results on a CTM reel-to-reel flatbed. Usually this was done at a brisk fast-forward jog, half-attentive, while peering over the top of a crime paperback, but occasionally I’d hunker down with something that I knew I liked, which is exactly what I did with the print of Cléo from 5 to 7. On this re-viewing, however, something very strange happened. The lead performances by Corinne Marchand and José Luis de Vilallonga, which I’d remembered with great tenderness, seemed broad, clunky, often cloying. It felt airless, a little stickily sentimental, and self-defining in a way that offered little room for further investigation. The silent “film-within-a-film” starring Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, first encountered as a dazzling, liberated piece of pure invention and a film culture inside joke that I was proud to be in on, seemed more like a gesture meant to spell “invention” than something that sprang organically from the film and, worst of all, it was grating in a way that I could only think to describe as “kooky.”
“Kooky” is the adjective that stuck. It’s not necessarily a pejorative, but seems a touch more trivializing than playful, which is quite often applied to Varda with a positive connotation, while kooky is ever so slightly redolent of dotty aunts and obnoxious urban attention-seekers, of tall bikes, devil sticks, stripy socks with those gross articulated toes, or your grade school art teacher’s oversized holiday-themed earrings. Once I got it into my head that Varda was kooky, this judgment retrospectively colored everything that I’d ever felt about the films—a Sixth Sense-like turnabout calling for total reconsideration of everything had come before—or would feel about those that I would see in the future. There were a handful of titles that I’d seen that I didn’t want to disown, but this was a simple matter of reattributing credit, so the magnificent, cold confection that is Le bonheur became the property of cinematographer Jean Rabier, who’d put the icing on it, and the decidedly un-kooky Vagabond was split between star Sandrine Bonnaire and the presiding spirit of Robert Bresson, and the rest were scattered to the four winds. (The lean and taciturn Vagabond, I have noticed, is the one that even Very Serious Men like myself will grant to Varda. So be it.)
This is, of course, a total crock, seeking out of loopholes to avoid having to reconsider an across-the-board negative judgment that makes the mess of aesthetic experience a little more easily negotiable rather than having to constantly reconsider, reappraise, renegotiate. AndI don’t recount this “kooky” revelation as a shrewd, insightful, or even accurate appraisal of Varda’s work, but rather as an instance of the erratic twitches or identification and temperamental recoil that make up a great deal of aesthetic judgment, even among those of us who’ve read C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism and like to think that we’re better than all that. It begins with a reflexive revolt of sensibility; then, after the verdict of “guilty” has been delivered, the evidence to satisfy burden of proof is duly assembled. Varda’s movies were, of course, the same movies that they had always been, but I fancied myself different—no sensitive stripling, but a full-blown grown-ass man who had learned to negotiate his nervousness around women with brusque, curmudgeonly bluster and binge-drinking, a dedicated, two-fisted servant of “hard” art reading Black Mask writers and mainlining Don Siegel and worshipping the qualities of concision, clarity, and efficiency and altogether holding out very little patience for flimsy whimsy. Looking at the above examples of dotty aunts and such which I turned to in illustrating the dreaded “kookiness,” I can perhaps descry the shadow of hoary misogyny spreading across my judgment of Varda—though I would use the same adjective to explain my distaste for, say, most of the late films of Varda’s sometime-compatriot Alain Resnais, and I do not believe that male directors have any provenance on the values of concision, clarity, or efficiency. I really need to try Varda again; there’s something off-putting in being a little too proud of holding out against work that’s widely loved, as though inuring yourself to work was any kind of accomplishment—as though it’s a failure to learn to appreciate more rather than less.
So, to return to Varda’s One Hundred and One Nights, as I did recently: dear Christ, is it ever a kooky movie. It was filmed in 1994, including a trip to the red carpet of that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and released in January of 1995—for lack of any more convincing candidate, the year that has generally been decided on (in France, especially) as cinema’s centenary, marking as it does the 100-year anniversary of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s first public exhibitions of their Cinématographe. It belongs to the category of film which might be called “Love Letters to the Cinema,” and comes on the heels of three other movies about movie-love by Varda, all tributes to her late husband Jacques Demy, who had died of complications from AIDS in 1990: Jacquot de Nantes (1991), Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans (The Young Girls Turn 25, 1993), and The World of Jacques Demy (1995).
Piccoli, wearing a floppy, often-askance wig that recalls Bresson’s white mop, reunites with Varda to star as superannuated “Simon Cinéma,” the century-old embodiment of the medium whose name he bears, now slightly senile and living with his servants outside of Paris in a villa cluttered with movie memorabilia, where he is periodically visited by a star-studded lineup of old friends including Bonnaire (in her Vagabond duds, among other signature costumes), Marcello Mastroianni, Gérard Depardieu, Deneuve, and the ghosts of the Lumières, forebodingly silent and clad in lightbulb-fringed suits. In order to keep Simon youthful and alert, Camille (Julie Gayet), a pretty young MFA student and ardent cinephile, is hired to come daily for a period of three months and talk movies with the codger—the arrangement and the title are meant to echo the Arabian Nights, though there’s more than a soupçon of Tuesdays with Morrie. Camille isn’t the innocent gamine she appears, though, and she hatches a plan to defraud the old man of his fortune with her boyfriend, also called Camille (Varda’s son Mathieu Demy), who wants the cash to further his aspirations as a director—this is not long after the Pulp Fiction win at Cannes here, and the junky mob movie we see him shooting might broadly be described as Tarantino-esque, a perceptible sideswipe at then-ascendant movie nerd machismo, rooted in genre cinema and crime paperbacks and all that tommyrot.
No harm, finally, comes to Simon Cinéma, who will reign for another hundred years, one imagines, though Camille and Camille appear to be on the outs when she returns from a trip to Hollywood, which involves cameos from Harrison Ford—a friend of Varda and Demy from their time in California in the 1960s—and, mystifyingly, Stephen Dorff. The bulk of the movie is more cloistered, however, revolving around conversations at Simon’s sickbed, the headboard of which contains two panels displaying the face of whatever film historical figure is being discussed at the present moment: Orson Welles, or Luis Buñuel. The film is full-to-bursting with these kind of “cues”—either significant pans to an appropriate poster when a new guest enters Cinéma’s chambers, or illustrative excerpts from several dozen films or their soundtracks. Not all of these allusions are explicitly commented upon. Simon is periodically attended by a manservant dressed to recall Erich von Stroheim in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard—and, calling in favors from across the film world, what Varda has assembled here brings to mind Joe Gillis’s line about “waxworks,” resembling the garage sale collections of Golden Age stars in certain Hollywood films of the late sixties and seventies: Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968), or The Phynx (1970), which trots out the likes of Huntz Hall, Georgie Jessel, and Butterfly McQueen.
Varda would have it that cinema isn’t dead—but in One Hundred and One Nights it definitely seems in need of a nap. In spite of the film’s low, laggy energy level, a valedictory tone is striven for, which leaves little room for real tension of any kind, political, social, or sexual, to slip in. Camille tut-tuts Simon for calling her “rosebud”—William Randolph Hearst’s nickname for Marion Davies’s clitoris—but otherwise there isn’t much in the way of war between the sexes, although it is very difficult to imagine that that old scopophiliac Simon Cinéma wouldn’t be an ogling lecher in his dotage. (When the clip from Contempt played, I remembered reading somewhere about octogenarian Fritz Lang’s assignations with prostitutes, and his visits from a grad student who gave the director of M “such vunderful head.”) A case can be made for Skidoo as a satire, at least, but One Hundred and One Nights, even when it visits the set of boy Camille’s Reservoir Dogs knockoff, is too toothless to warrant consideration in this regard. It’s all very sweetly wistful and sanitized, in much the manner of Varda’s many cinematic eulogies for her late husband, whose same-sex desire is deeply inscribed in his films, but scrupulously circumnavigated in her discussions of their relationship. Varda also remained evasive on the actual circumstances of Demy’s death until her 2008 film The Beaches of Agnès, though they are averred to here, in a scene where a benefit for an AIDS charity is given in Simon Cinéma’s garden. This silence is of course Varda’s right as a private person—kept, she has said, at Demy’s behest—though in an artist taking up the autobiographical tone, it suggests something less than absolute frankness, a shying away from the discomfiting and essential.
One Hundred and One Nights, all soft edges and winsomeness, is a nice little movie—maddeningly so. The cinema has written enough love letters to itself; it could use more anonymous threats, bricks through its window, and flaming turds on its porch. It’s not much to look at, even, the cinematography a desultory job of work by the usually excellent Eric Gautier, who would very soon shoot Olivier Assayas and Maggie Cheung’s Irma Vep (1996)—a film likewise concerned with the past, present, and future of cinema, but whose openness to then-current happenings in Hong Kong pop cinema show up how Euro-American-centric Varda’s view of cinephilia is. (Other than the presence of a cartwheeling Chinese maid, played by Weiwei Melk, and Jean-Claude Brialy, who appears as guide to a Japanese tour group, there is very little in One Hundred and One Nights that is referent to a world outside the Western hemisphere.)
Varda herself may have gotten a sense that something hadn’t worked on this film, for it is her last fiction feature to date, and after its box-office “flop” (her words), she would turn to the handcrafted documentary mode of her late films, works which have brought her a new generation of admirers. They almost certainly will represent the voice of posterity, and maybe someday I’ll find my way back into chez Varda, though for now I have to borrow the great side-eye compliment/dismissal that Douglas Sirk always had recourse to when addressing any undeniably important figure whom he doesn’t hold in high regard: “She has her place in history…” Even a skeptic can’t deny that Varda is a major figure in European cinema of the last 60 years, which gives One Hundred and One Nights a strange sort of distinction. In the many tributes to come, it will be the lacuna in the highlight reel, the one they conveniently forget.