My Dinner With Cinema is a video essay series exploring the way food is used as a narrative device in films, and as a window into feeling and culture. Each month, Tyrie Aspinall will focus on how a particular director integrates food into their films.
At a glance, the cinema of Agnes Varda would hardly be described as food films. Her stories aren’t based specifically around the eating ritual, and when food does appear, it’s usually in the periphery of the frame. Since some of her films, including her most recognized work Cleo from 5 to 7 (1960), don’t include any reference to food at all, and since Varda typified a variety of styles and subjects, it was challenging to determine how the use of food was threaded. In order to find that thread, I gleaned through each one of her films; scouring selfishly, picking at every morsel and crumb until I began to see a connection between her use of food and the subjects she focused on…
Varda’s subjects were typically everyday people living on the fringes of society, and the foods she incorporated into her films fell within the same theme: they were simple everyday staples such as bread, apples, watermelon or eggs; at first glance banal and commonplace, but from her perspective, nourishing and sublime. Varda – who was famously enamoured by simple heart shaped potatoes herself – didn’t lavish her films with surfeit imagery of Parisian fine cuisine, because she wasn’t concerned with the people from that culture. Instead, she wanted to depict working class families, couples, and loners; the everyday struggles they faced, and the simple yet nourishing meals they ate.
When Varda depicted food, it was used to articulate the themes, social issues and characterisations found in her films, while enabling us to relate to the experiences of her characters. In La Pointe Courte (1954), one half of the film’s polyptych structure follows the politics of fishing after government inspectors impose restrictions on the locals in the small town of Sette. L’Opera Mouffe (1958) opens on the image of a pregnant woman’s naked body, before match cutting to a ripe pumpkin being sliced open with a serrated knife at a fruit market. In Le Bonheur (1965), the idyllic representation of a working class family, picnicking and gathering around the dinner table, is underscored by a bitter inequality: François’ wife Thérèse cooks to feed her family, while François is only seen eating after he begins an affair with another woman (he also stashes sugar cubes away in a cupboard plastered with cutouts of Bridget Bardot). In Vagabond (1985) the récalcitrant young woman Mona aimlessly hitchhikes across rural France, mooching passersby for food or tobacco. The film habitually watches Mona scouring for food: stolen yogurt from a pastoralist family, free food from a local church, or stale bread she’d held onto for too long, knowing that every meal she eats may be her last for a long time.
And of course, the quasi documentary-self portrait-extended essay film The Gleaners and I (2001), deserves a special mention. Here, food takes on a political statement as Varda studies the ancient tradition of gleaning and its place in a wasteful modern consumerist society. 17th century artwork of gleaning features heavily throughout the film with artists such as Jules Breton and Jean Francis Millet who were both inured to the poor working conditions working class people were subject to, but approached the subject with different styles. The bare feet, proud statures, and striking colours of the women Breton painted romanticised the practice and evoked images of greek goddesses in epicurean gardens, whereas Millet used a more honest, sympathetic eye when depicting gleaning. Like Millet, Varda attempted to highlight the rusticism of the practice, which she accomplished with her low resolution digital camera. The subject of the film is symbolic for Varda because she herself gleaned for her subjects. Her work uncovered people who were left behind, ignored, forgotten and marginalized, but for whom she felt livened and enriched by.
Agnes Varda was characterized by a playfulness of spirit. Aleatory and experimentative, she always sought to uncover the sublime in the banality of everyday life and approached each new subject differently. Her choices of simple food dishes reflected her love for everyday people and the stories they had to tell. Her films inspire us to remain curious; to glean for the things left behind and to always ask questions. As she aptly says in a 2017 interview, “[Happiness] is what I had for lunch: watermelon and parma ham; the mixture of salted and sweet… a little piece of cheese and orange marmalade; the mixture of sadness and joy and what is always inside us… the contrary being together all the time.”
Tyrie Aspinall is a filmmaker, live visual artist, essayist and all round lover of movies based in Naarm (Melbourne). Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts with a BFA (Film and TV) Tyrie has developed multiple short films and freelance projects. Tyrie is drawn to the ineffable beauty of human imperfection; a subject of primal concern in his work.
If he’s not working or writing or re-watching Yojimbo, he’ll probably be out in his shed working on his analog Liquid Light Show. You can reach Tyrie at tyrieaspinall.com