Chronic Caring

by: , November 7, 2023

‘Care is a tightening of the throat, a constriction of the heart, a difficulty in swallowing,’ writes Elizabeth DeLoughrey (2021: 812). Readers of this sentence may baulk at its unusual definition of care. Some may find it produces in them the very tightening and constriction described. In our neoliberal society, whose upkeep depends upon continuous, invisible, sacrificial acts, all of us—caregivers, the cared for, the carefree, and even the uncaring—are taught to tacitly reject the unsettling notion that caring can hurt. DeLoughrey’s confirmation that it does in a recent issue of Women’s Studies is therefore essential. She acknowledges that scholars writing for that journal and others have addressed the ‘feminist ethics of care’ consistently over the past decades, but few have truly delved into care’s ambivalence (DeLoughrey 2021: 812). A deep chasm of physical and emotional difficulty is always just below care’s surface, and it remains under-explored. Under-explored, and also indeterminate: caregiving and the hidden difficulties it entails often have no clear beginning and end points. A caregiver must continually face the prospect that both the act of caring and the pain that results from it can be chronic.

In the first years of the global Covid-19 pandemic, a wave of writing on care surged within both academia and popular journalism. Some writers contrasted care for self and others to power and the neoliberal economy (Hamington & Flower 2021; Singer, Ricard & Karius 2019). Others explored the intersection of care and art, envisioning the transformation of art institutions into ‘beehives of collective care’ (Millner & Coombs 2021; Fokianaki 2020). Authors called on us to decolonise our understanding of essential workers and emphasised that the labour of mothers is the very bedrock of this public health and economic category (Garbes 2022; Gottlieb 2022). Some who had made vital pre-pandemic contributions to the discourse of care were discovered anew by millions grappling with the interlocking crises of accelerated climate change, public health failures, and growing white supremacist violence. Among these writers were Robin Wall Kimmerer, who links care of the earth and care of community from an indigenous perspective, and Tricia Hersey, whose anti-capitalist, care-as-rest project The Nap Ministry is rooted in Black radical thought and liberation theology (2020; 2022). The work of Elena Pulcini, whose own life was cut tragically short by Covid-19, compels us to examine the intersections of care and emotional life with greater urgency than ever before (2013; 2017; 2018).

This surge of interest in theories of care is invigorating, but it remains to be seen whether these authors and their expanding audiences will attend in equal measure to care’s pain and chronicity. Many of those referenced above emphasise care as curative and ceremonial, with little mention of its potentially detrimental or tedious nature. To uplift or affirm care without addressing its shadow side is to neglect what Warren Thomas Reich calls the ‘dialectical element’ so historically and cross-culturally definitional to the concept (1995). As examples of ‘pairs of ideas of care’ operating in dialectical tension, he names ‘care as worry or anxiety versus care as solicitude; the care that enables growth versus the effort to care that robs a person of self-care; or taking technical care of the other versus caring about the other’ (Reich 1995). Care loses both its moral context and its quotidian context when we don’t take its inner conflict into account.

Now, with Covid-19’s endemicity, the very word, ‘care’ seems the worse for wear. It is tired out, like the single parents and the immunocompromised, like nurses, teachers, and the estimated one in three Americans capable of pregnancy who have now lost access to abortion healthcare in their region (Shepherd, Roubein and Kitchener 2022). What does care mean at a time when providing it in so many wealthy, European and North American countries has become more dangerous, more thankless, or more prohibitive than just a few decades earlier? Will caring continue to get harder and last longer as these societies age and their formal and informal care sectors struggle? Is chronic caring ever escapable, and why is the taboo against labelling it as such so strong? Although contemporary art has the power to crystalise our understanding of existential questions like these, it has had vanishingly little to say on the subject over the last few centuries. Fortunately, the major contributions of a few artworks go some way toward redressing the general lack.

The films of Agnès Varda are among these artworks that brilliantly probe caregiving’s bittersweet chronicity. We see it in an early work like Le bonheur (Happiness) (1965), which revolves around the image of the ‘serving hand’ and its ‘constant, perpetually unfinished domestic work’ (DeRoo 2018: 55 & 59). We see it decades later in a film like Jacquot de Nantes (1991), where Varda’s own directorial servitude to her dying partner, Jacques Demy, results in a biopic that continuously weaves together memory, reality, and fantasy. Shortly before her reunion with Demy, and well before the worldwide acclaim she would receive for her autobiographical essay films, Varda made a gem of an experimental short film that offers yet another radically original take on care, its time, and its cost. Titled 7 P., Cuis. S. de b… (à saisir) (3 Bedrooms, Two Baths: Don’t Miss Out!) (1984), the film transforms one of Avignon’s architectural landmarks into a memory palace for chronic caring. A series of impressionistic vignettes juxtapose strange devices and ghostly inhabitants with a young woman’s coming of age in a patriarchal household. With humour, disgust, and desire, Varda explores the tensions between childcare and health care, physical and intellectual labour, and old and young. 7 P. is a radical affirmation of the gendered absurdities of caregiving as well as its inexorable chronicity.

The House of the Father

The film begins with the sales pitch of an invisible estate agent. ‘It really is a bargain,’ he insists. ‘Seven rooms, kitchen and bath for a million. A steal.’ [1] His prospective client, we come to learn, is a doctor. The bargain in question is the first floor of a former hospice, originally built in the sixteenth century (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1: Wooden doors open to the first floor of a former hospice.


The film’s opening credits roll over an extreme close-up of its massive wooden doors. As the realtor continues to narrate, film viewers are suddenly inside the ancient building, peering into one of its cavernous rooms. ‘I can picture your family, your clientele, your bedroom, waiting room, game room,’ the realtor enthuses. His sentence trails off as the door to this empty room in long shot closes, then opens again, now revealing a trio of young children at play. Are they ghosts of the future conditional? Are they harbingers of the domestic bliss that will come into view when the property is sold and the transformation of institution to home complete?

In fact, these children belong to the past. They are members of the family that the realtor mentions had lived here before a tragedy occurred, prompting the father to put the hospice up for sale. That father was also a doctor and had already converted the building into a residence and private medical practice. The children’s magical appearance is one of many ways that 7 P. embraces discontinuity, immersing its viewers in surreal environments and events. In the scenes that follow, we see the children, father, and mother in more detail, as well as the family’s maid and the father’s elderly patients. Then, just as film viewers are becoming acquainted with this young family and their unusual living spaces, time jumps. A long shot of the entire family at the dinner table reveals that everyone is now ten to fifteen years older, and they are now served by a different maid. Whether time travellers or ghosts, the building also remains home to a number of inhabitants from previous generations. Nuns and elderly patients from the former hospice appear throughout the film, their faces occasionally hovering upon the walls.

The film’s most haunting encounters are not with people, but with the interiors themselves: the rooms of the hospice are filled with unexpected textures and bizarre objects. The family dinner table is set with a feast of fake food, revolting in its perfect glossiness. In the hospice’s institutional kitchen, stainless steel is overgrown with grass and mushrooms. Chickens and a turkey roam free there. The massive food preparation station holds vats of blue goo and miniature goldfish ponds. One section of the hospice’s bathrooms is bathed in strange blue light, and in another, the walls and floors are covered with down and feathers. Throughout the building, viewers are shown medical maquettes, mechanisms, and mannequins, all functioning against their conventional use. In 7 P., Varda eschews cinematography that would simulate human vision and the conventional editing that would suture viewers into the film. Instead, she introduces us to these items and environments by alternating slow tracking shots and static close-ups, formal choices that cultivate a subtle anxiety of disembodiment in viewers and prime them to be wary of every space they enter. This combination of shots cleverly recalls two quite different yet complementary film traditions: the weighty, trance-like tracking shots and the evidentiary close ups of Varda’s erstwhile collaborator, Alain Resnais, and the gliding movements and shocking reveals of the commercial horror film genre.

7 P.’s surreal interiors were filmed in Avignon’s Hospice Saint-Louis. Originally built for Jesuit use in 1589, the building served as a hospital and later a hospice for indigents over the centuries and was decommissioned in 1984. Later that same year, the Hospice Saint-Louis was chosen as a venue for the internationally renowned Festival d’Avignon. This was the capacity in which Varda encountered the space, and the important role she gave it in her short film was the result of artistic symbiosis. Director Bernard Faivre d’Arcier had invited self-anointed ‘zoosystematician’ Louis Bec to use the Hospice Saint-Louis as an exhibition space. Bec in turn invited artists Christian Tobas and Jean Tartaroli, who designed the feather-scape in the hospice bathroom, and Danièle Sanchez and Hervé Mangani, who turned the institutional kitchen into a woodland fantasy. These decors were part of a gleefully eccentric curatorial vision that sought to make a number of transversal connections between the biological and the technological across installation art, collections of historical medical equipment, and scientific curiosities. Varda shot her experimental short during and inside this exhibition, which Bec entitled, ‘Du vivant et de l’artificiel,’ ‘Of the Living and the Artificial.’

The exhibition catalogue included a short text by Bec’s frequent collaborator, philosopher Vilém Flusser. Flusser predicted that the intensifying connections between the biological and the technological would lead to the indistinguishable merger of the living and the artificial. This is a threatening prospect for Western culture, he explained, dependent as it is on the hierarchical distinction between humans and their devices (Flusser 1984: 65). Flusser rather gloomily concluded that the core purpose of the Festival d’Avignon should be ‘to reflect on the difference between the living and the artificial, and to make it clear, before it fades away’ (1984: 66).

Varda’s film captures some of the tension between anthropos and techne to which Flusser alludes, but it does not share his angst for what the future may hold. Varda’s training as a photographer taught her that, whether images are produced in the human mind or reproduced for others, they always make the difference between the living and the artificial unclear on purpose. There may certainly be an ‘end game’ to fear between fake and real images (Flusser 1984: 64), and in particular with photography, but Varda’s emphasis in 7 P. is on the game, not the end. Her camera positions anthropos and techne as always already symbolic of each other and always conditioned by the dialectic of care.

As Raymond Bellour has noted, Varda ‘installs’ her films as much as she writes them (in Bluher 2008: 65). She relished the opportunity that ‘Of the Living and the Artificial’ presented to integrate unusual props, costumes, and architecture into her filmmaking. Dominique Bluher confirms Varda’s taste for installation and theatricalisation and adds that the ‘settings for unfolding miniature narratives’ in Varda’s films are most accurately described by the psychoanalytic term, ‘dispositif’ (2008: 65). They powerfully convey ‘an inner state, a mood, emotions associated with the evoked times (with the past) as well as the emotions provoked by the evocations of these times (by the act of remembering)’ (2008: 65). In the case of 7 P., Varda used the items and environments in Bec’s exhibition that represent anthropos and techne as mise-en-scène for conflictual moments of care and control.

It is difficult to know whether Varda’s admiring encounter with the space-and-emotion-driven philosophy of Gaston Bachelard inspired her emphasis on filmic dispositifs or simply enhanced it. Either way, Varda diverges significantly from Bachelard by privileging the question of gender in her work. In The Poetics of Space (1958), his famous study of intimate space and its symbolism, Bachelard is oblivious to the hegemonic distinctions drawn between masculinity and femininity that might prevent someone who defies that hegemony in the slightest from feeling safe, free, and self-determined in a wide range of spaces. He does not address the possibility that private, domestic experiences might be connected to public, institutional ones, and that power dynamics in one area can sustain power dynamics in the other. For this reason, those who have felt the seamlessness of gender inequity inside the home as well as outside in the world may find Bachelard’s descriptions of home too simplistic, too cloying. A quotation from Michel Barrault’s poem ‘Dominicale’ hints at the importance of gender in memory and intimate spatial experience, but there is no expository commentary:

Je me surprends à définir le seuil

Comme étant le lieu géométrique

Des arrivées et des départs

Dans la Maison du Père.


(I find myself defining threshold

As being the geometrical place

Of the comings and goings

In my Father’s House)

(Bachelard 1969: 223).

Barrault’s stanza richly implies that existential entries and exits—indeed, the word ‘threshold’ itself—are conditioned by the multi-dimensionality of patriarchal control. That control may be exercised by a biological father within a nuclear family, but it is also exercised in the normative, gendered ideologies that govern communal or institutional spaces. The family of eight who live inside an institution of public health in 7 P. heightens our awareness of domestic power operating within the institutional, and institutional power operating within the domestic. They lend credence to Roddey Reid’s theory that

‘[f]amily’ has never been a private matter. The normative family household and the bodies of its members have never constituted either a sanctuary of values and relations at a safe remove from the outside or a depth of feeling and sentiment in opposition to the public sphere and the bodies of social others… ‘Family,’ like gender, doesn’t simply exist; it must be a non-stop public performance. (1995: 193)

Such a performance could not go on if it weren’t for the ongoing tasks of caring for bodies, minds, and dwellings—tasks that are traditionally assigned to those identifying as women. In the 1970s, feminist family abolitionism dared to ask whether public and private lives might be more equitable if this gendered performance called ‘family’ were to end completely, at least in its current, capitalist iteration. Then as today, the isolation and unfairness of the nuclear family experience prompted many to call for alternatives or replacements. However, Kathi Weeks admits, the family as ‘the principal managerial regime’ of what Marxists call social reproduction and what is more widely known as care work has proven devilishly hard to abolish (2021: 10). In 7 P., Varda critiques the physical and psychological architectures that regulate the performances of family and gender, but repeatedly suggests that care cannot happen without them.

Varda establishes this pattern of critique and confirmation early on in 7 P., with an ingeniously self-reflexive casting choice that equates the Hospice Saint-Louis with the Father’s House. Louis Bec himself plays the realtor who narrates the tour of the hospice. In this sense, Bec assumes curation of the film narrative in addition to the art and artifacts the film uses for mise-en-scène. As an unseen speaker, or, in Michel Chion’s terminology, an ‘acousmêtre,’ his immateriality gives us the impression of his ‘ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience and omnipresence’ over the space and the stories it contains (1999: 24)—until, that is, viewers recognise his voice in an actual embodied character. Varda also cast Bec as the elderly doctor-father who appears in the second half of 7 P., the one who is now selling the hospice.

Are Bec’s characters one and the same? Furthermore, could owner, seller, and potential buyer all constitute the same person in a repetitious loop of time and space? By refusing to confirm or deny these sorts of hypotheses, Varda preserves those virtually limitless powers that film viewers accord to unseen voices of authority, bolstering the visible father’s power by this association (Chion 1999: 27). As some combination of realtor, narrator, curator, father, owner, seller, and ghost, Bec plays a caretaker of sorts, but one whose care takes the form of discipline: he holds the keys to the place and controls its narrative in language and assemblages. In fact, Bec’s multiple-character role demonstrates ‘the extent to which discipline can be institutionally unbound as well as institutionally bound’ (Bartky 1988: 103, emphasis in original), a mutability that Michel Foucault describes as characteristic of power in the modern era and beyond. While many feminists agree with Foucault’s theories on what he would come to call ‘biopower,’ many are justifiably infuriated at his negligence of ‘those disciplinary practices that engender the “docile bodies” of women, bodies more docile than the bodies of men’ (Bartky 1988: 95). 7 P. upholds Sandra Lee Bartky’s thesis that biopower is fundamentally ‘an oppressive and inegalitarian system of sexual subordination’ in its division of space, its disciplining of bodies, and its oversight of the care both receive (Bartky 1988: 103). As the House of the Father, the hospice for sale in the film is not such a bargain, after all.

The ‘Involved Knowledge’ of Touch

In a world where bodies are controlled and self-controlled in an imbalanced, biased manner according to sex and gender, it is no surprise that ‘the economy of touching is out of balance, too’ (Bartky 1988: 98). Those who enjoy high standing in patriarchal culture are given to believe that they have the right to as much touch as they desire, on the condition that they avoid appearing vulnerably in need of it. The desires of those with low standing may not be considered at all, and they are more consistently subjected to non-consensual or abusive touch. In 7 P., an imbalance in touch registers the caregiving divide between the unnamed doctor-father and the women in his household.

‘You are a marvel of nature!’ the young doctor (Hervé Mangani) crows to his wife (Saskia Cohen-Tanugi), nuzzling her arm as they lie together in bed. The bedroom is framed in a long shot, and in it, the bed’s pink satin headboard stretches to the ceiling, giving the bed an air of feminine excess. The doctor’s compliment and his touch suggest tenderness, but this bedtime exchange is the only time he behaves tenderly in the film. Moreover, the compliment itself is backhanded: he considers his wife a marvel not for the six pregnancies she successfully navigated, but for quickly slimming down after each one. His sentiments echo the ‘standards of female bodily acceptability’ that encourage maternal productivity but, above all, demand an appearance that pleases or excites (Bartky 1988: 108). In a later scene, the couple have aged a decade or more, and the doctor’s assessment of his wife’s appearance is now openly disparaging. ‘Your eyes are paler, your mouth has narrowed,’ he (Louis Bec) complains, without looking at her. His wife (Colette Bonnet) is not listening. She is too busy critiquing the family’s servants, her own misogynistic disparagement of appearance and performance aimed further down the social hierarchy. As the couple in this now touchless marriage fall asleep, they slump in opposite directions (Fig. 2).


Fig. 2: The estranged mother and father slump in opposite directions at bedtime.


The doctor’s touch is also missing in his professional practice. We learn from the film’s narrator that he is ‘either a gerontologist or a geriatrician,’ but we never see him in consultations. Elderly patients gather in his waiting room, seated around the perimeter of the space. Varda’s camera pans across their tight faces, contrasting them with the strange expressions of plaster heads that are arranged in rings on a large, central table. These heads were part of the medical collections on display for ‘Of the Living and the Artificial’—plaster casts of criminals, or of the mentally ill, or death masks, or a combination thereof. Instead of caring for the living in that waiting room, the doctor spends time in his office, surrounded by books, posters, and preserved specimens. He obsesses over his social ambitions and intones the names of various ailments. When his wife interrupts his diagnostic recital with a sick child in her arms, he refuses to come to the child’s bedside, offering a verbal prescription, but no caresses. He uses touch to rebuke his children, not to connect with them, striking a son and daughter in fury on two different occasions.

In these scenes, Varda gestures at the hegemonic masculinity at the heart of a family and of too many encounters with institutionalised healthcare (Connell 2005). In Western medicine, it is common for medical practitioners to minimise touch in particular and engagement in general because of the potential discomforts and inconveniences that accompany the interrelatedness of care work. Many specialists don’t want to leave ‘the invulnerable, untouched position of the master subject-agent,’ even if departing from that perspective might deepen their understanding of a patient’s plight (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017: 115). Without presence and without touch, the doctor-father will never be able to attain the care-informed perspective on the world and its interdependent organisms that María Puig de la Bellacasa terms ‘involved knowledge’ (2017: 93). He and those like him risk not only error, but also irrelevance if his encyclopaedic knowledge of wellness and unwellness does not take situatedness into account. His intellectual narrowness and his unsatisfied ambition are simply other kinds of pain that accompany an alienated chronic caring.

Varda satirises the doctor-father’s out-of-touch pedantry in two further scenes. She juxtaposes his priestlike incantation of medical terms with the actual bodily communion that takes place between women and children in the hospice kitchen. There, the family’s first maid prepares tartines for the kids and satisfies their cravings for physical affection by gathering them into her loving arms. When a woman going door to door enters the kitchen and offers to read the mother’s palm, the three women huddle together in trust and anticipation. Later, when the children are cooped up in their room, they list with raucous glee all of the dirty expressions for sex that they have picked up. Crouching head-to-head, they page through what are presumably medical books swiped from their father’s library, in search of genitalia. Varda shoots these scenes in cozy medium shots, emphasising closeness and confronting solemnity, status, distance, and discipline with their opposites. She gives screen time to ‘continuous ordinariness’ and suggests it is worth ‘just as much as the worth of thinking’ (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017: 88). These scenes are, in the words of Puig de la Bellacasa, a way to

cherish every insight for alternative relatings to be found in the worlds of domestic, petty ordinariness, the difficult and playful, the joyful and aching mediations of caring affection, crucially involved in everyday experiences of interspecies intimacies in contemporary naturecultural worlds. (2017: 88)

The Revolt of the Revolting

In Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès) (2008), Varda rejects the idea that her film scenes that privilege ‘continuous ordinariness’ (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017: 88) come from her own youth. She declares that she doesn’t feel ‘a strong link’ to her childhood and doesn’t consider it to be an ‘inspiration’ for her filmmaking or a reference in her ‘thought processes.’ Then she hedges. ‘Well, I don’t know,’ she murmurs. Varda’s childhood may not have directly inspired 7 P., but there are many undeniable resonances between them. In fact, directly after Varda makes this statement in Les plages, she shoots the tall wooden doors of her family home in Brussels just as the tall wooden hospice doors were shot from the outside in 7 P. Two female characters in 7 P. serve as the most important conduits for Varda’s autobiographical glimmers or refractions: the family’s eldest daughter, Louise (Catherine de Barbeyrac), and the family’s Yolande (Yolande Moreau). Both of these characters offer a spirited resistance to the hospice/ home’s oppressive atmosphere in different ways.

Varda grew up in the middle of a large family with an overbearing father, exactly like Louise. As Louise waits for the time when she can fully escape gendered care obligations as a daughter and sister, she finds a kindred spirit in Yolande. Yolande encourages Louise’s defiance while herself choosing to keep her head down and thereby keep her job. Yolande’s revolt takes the form of revolting actions. They don’t really weaken the father-doctor’s control of the household or lessen the domestic labour that must be done, but they do punctuate it all with moments of contrarianism and disgust. The character of Louise represents the hope that romantic love and individual adventure might allow a young woman to evade the burden of familial and communal care that awaits her. Yolande’s character, on the other hand, suggests that care work is inescapable: chronic, yes, but never beatific.

Louise blatantly defies her father’s rule, as Varda did on the cusp of young womanhood. In a furious outburst at the family dinner table, Louise refuses to eat in the military atmosphere he has created. Rising from her chair, she announces, ‘I’ve graduated. I’m an adult now!’ She turns to her older brothers: ‘You boys can do as Dad says if you want to. But I’m leaving home. I want to be free!’ Lacking the financial and logistical means to escape, she stands at the hospice windows and watches the wind move in the plane trees outside. ‘I must get out of this house,’ she says to herself. ‘Real life is beyond those plane trees, not here… I want everything, except what is in this house.’ These same desires drove Varda to leave home and spend a summer in Corsica when she was not much older than Louise (Les plages d’Agnès). Varda recounts that she found self-actualisation in the double transgression of defying her father and making a place for herself in the exclusively male world of Ajaccio fishermen. For a short time, she was able to explore her identity as a woman while refusing the social trappings that would dictate a greater, ongoing burden of care for self and others.

With freedom still out of reach, Louise indulges what desires she can at home. She rejects the notion that caring for her parents means acquiescing to their demands. She stays out late at night in violation of her father’s rules, and he punishes her for it with a slap in the face when they cross paths on the hospice stairs. She revels in the hormonal rush of romantic love and explores the pleasure of erotic touch, so different in its simultaneity, reciprocity, and exuberance than the solace-giving touch that her family or community might require. As Louise and her lover embrace, the camera pans slowly to a machine pumping away a few feet apart from them in the bare hospice room. It is supposed to schematise the body’s circulation of blood, but the visual link Varda creates between its flow and the passion in the corner overrides whatever healthcare-related purpose the machine served. It becomes a symbol for the constant replenishment of liquid desire, a more youthful, less cynical version of the ‘bachelor machine’ depicted in Marcel Duchamp’s Grand Verre (Large Glass, 1915-1923) (Golding 1973).

7 P. ends with the possibility that Eros has triumphed—in the kitchen rather than the bedroom, no less. Smoke rolls out of the institutional-sized oven, associated in earlier scenes with childbirth and the mother’s womb. The turkey who has made the grassy kitchen its home looks on, perplexed. On the soundtrack, Rachel Ortas of the postpunk band, the Tokow Boys sings, ‘If you strike, strike a match/ Watch out for the flames, the sparks/ They will feel like caresses to me.’ Perhaps Louise’s introduction of Eros into the hospice environment has wreaked havoc, a use of the erotic that Audre Lorde would surely celebrate. In her ground-breaking essay from 1978, Lorde confirms Eros as ‘born of Chaos and personifying creative power and harmony… an assertion of the lifeforce of women’ (2007: 55). Perhaps this lifeforce will waylay chronic caring and burn the whole place down, to boot. With this ending in medias res, Varda celebrates the individualist, euphoric, and nihilistic power of arousal. The film audience is invited to conclude that sexualised touch can be revolutionary, overthrowing the caring touch of ‘involved knowledge’ (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017: 93) that takes so much time, and is so often a gendered trap.

Is it possible to overthrow care’s burdens, even symbolically? Can care’s chronicity be cured? After the kitchen fire is extinguished, will the family need dinner? Varda leaves these questions unanswered. To better grasp the complex relationship between care and Eros, or between care and any kind of individualistic creative fulfilment, we must turn to the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, whose version of these questions is: ‘After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning’ (1969)? This ‘sourball’ of a conundrum was the heart of Ukeles’ proposal for a museum exhibition called ‘CARE’ (1969). As an artist who had married, and had recently become a mother, Ukeles experienced the precipitous drop in status, worth, time, and agency that accompanies assuming the role of a caregiver. CARE as an exhibition was a set of interlocking, process-based, participatory artworks that would transform an entire institution and expose how care is anathema in the art world. CARE was never realised, but Ukeles’ proposal functioned as a manifesto for a radical approach to creativity that defines her entire artistic career.

One section of the museum would be given over to Ukeles’ work as mother and housewife: she would publicly clean, cook, and take care of her baby there as a work of ‘Maintenance Art’ (1969). Another section would be devoted to transcripts and live interviews on the subject of caregiving and maintenance with people from different occupations and social classes. The final section would function as a platform for the display and treatment of the polluted environment. Trash would be dumped, sorted, and disposed. Contaminated air and water would be purified. In this way, CARE would expose the gendered operation of development and maintenance as a dialectic and demonstrate the injustice done to women, minorities, the disadvantaged, and the earth, all caught in the works.

It was crucially important to Ukeles to preserve her fundamental ambivalence toward care work in each of the sections of this exhibition. ‘Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (literally),’ she wrote (Ukeles 1969). ‘The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom’ (Ukeles 1969). CARE as an exhibition and as a Maintenance Art manifesto was by no means a simple call for social do-gooding, or a celebration of successful stewardship. CARE did not offer any solutions to the inequities (gendered and otherwise) upon which the dialectic of careful and carefree depends. Its liberational potential lay in the radical visibility it accorded to care work’s displeasures: the rotting banana peels, the typos, the stubborn sheen of petrol on river water, the unhappy customers, the dirty nappies, and the burnt-out light bulbs. Ukeles implied that, if given enough time, space and value, these displeasures might actually generate the possibility of a motivational novelty, a perversity, and an irrepressible egoism within care that provides temporary respite and ‘dynamic change’ for stifled caregivers (1969). After all, it was the disgust and displeasure of maintenance that inspired Ukeles to invent the concept of Maintenance Art in the first place.

Varda’s 7 P. is similarly dedicated to the radical visibility of all within care that is ambivalent, even ugly. Especially with the character of Yolande, Varda affirms that sloth, apathy, and spite exist naturally within chronic caring’s long trajectory. Just one year after 7 P., Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond) (1985) would focus on Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), a young woman whose social transgressions were flagrant, even avant-garde in their extremism. Yet however much the character of Mona and her social rebellion captivated Varda, it is characters like Yolande who demonstrate a complicated blend of transgression and servitude that resemble Varda the most. Varda implants in Yolande her own childhood memory of her mother instructing her to polish knives by plunging and re-plunging the blades into the soil (Les plages d’Agnès). Yolande reminisces about this childhood task while lounging in the hospice kitchen, at ease, as if she were picnicking in an open field after a rainstorm. She repeatedly pokes her finger into the plush, green grass that mysteriously covers the kitchen floor, imitating a knife being cleaned by the earth. The gesture is distracted, tender, violent, and phallic all at the same time.

The absurd mixture of Yolande’s presence and dissociation in this scene typifies all of the care work that she does for the doctor’s family. In the care she provides, she has deemed provision enough; she firmly resists the pressure to deliver service with a smile. She smokes while cooking, and the ash from her cigarette dangles precariously over the pot. Her apron stays unbuttoned, exposing too much skin. Her awkward and disinterested timing in clearing the table punctuates the end of a family dispute. She encourages Louise to run away from home, giving supportive but bad advice that is curtailed by self-interest. Varda makes it clear that these are not sins to be absolved, but something more like hair in the soup: shocks, social infractions, moments of reckoning that can make or break the assumption of saintly goodwill in acts of caring.

A good deal more disgusting than hair in the soup is Yolande’s nonchalant act of spitting into a dish of raw egg that she is preparing for the family to eat (Fig. 3).


Fig. 3: Belgian maid Yolande spits into the eggs as she prepares them for the family.


She deadpans, ‘Monsieur likes his eggs nice and runny,’ a comment that implies a targeted malice towards the head of the household. In this scene, Varda cultivates an ‘ironic’ and ‘reflexive’ disgust in film viewers (Plantinga 2009: 215). She stages an encounter with the revolting that also seeks to trigger social reflection. She wants spectators to think twice about ‘the very conditions for the elicitation of disgust found in conventional melodrama and perhaps also in middle-class culture’ (Plantinga: 2009: 217). Does the father not deserve this? Varda asks provocatively. Is there not a satisfaction to seeing the vulnerabilities of this autocrat exploited in a small and nastily humorous act of vigilante justice? Could such acts multiply, causing care work itself to transform into a tool first for vengeance, and eventually for real social change? Following this reading to its logical conclusion, Yolande would seem to be the real culprit behind the fire in the hospice kitchen’s oven. Whether the result of her inattentive caring or her resentful caring, the conflagration may spell an end to the strictures and injustices of the familial institution within which she has laboured.

Space That One Can Hold

As with so many of Varda’s films, the ending of 7 P. is open enough that spectators can look back to earlier sequences and draw conclusions that may contradict the one officially offered. While some viewers will delight in the possible burning down of the House of the Father, others may find it unconvincing. The ambiance for most of the film is markedly different, more subdued, full of melancholy. The ancient hospice and its ‘ghosts’—women exclusively, who appear and disappear in rooms and corridors—are responsible for this ambiance (Fig. 4).


Fig. 4: A hospice ghost appears next to a window looking out on the plane trees.


The scenes in which they are pictured do not readily connect to the drama of the nuclear family. They complicate the film’s through line of chronic caring, shifting the emphasis away from the givers and receivers of care to a more abstract meditation on care’s potentiality or foreclosure.

In a poem inspired by some of Varda’s films, American poet Cole Swensen transposes the ghostly atmosphere of the hospice interior into words. Unlike 7 P.’s last scenes, this section of Swensen’s ‘7P., CUIS., S. DE B . . . À  SAISIR (3 BD, 2 BATH; DON’T MISS OUT!’ (1984) ends in ice, not in fire:

and the window swings open

                                    now its panes the light divide

and the tree within that light

                                    flying in the wind which rises in the wind

tearing things

                                    that opened a window in the wall

and the feathers

                                    come and go across the woman, old.

The feathers are the snow you held for years until it shut. (2017: 58). [2]

Here, Swensen alludes to the hospice’s long galleries of windows and the plane trees outside (the ones that, for Louise, demarcate the boundary between subjugation and freedom). She also alludes to an old woman (Marthes Jarnias) whom we see, naked, amidst the feathers in the institutional bathroom, as if in a microclimate filled with snow and silence. This woman is in very few scenes and does not speak, but she is nevertheless central to the film’s significance. As the Elderly Feminine, she is a mystical archetype of sorts, projecting an unvarnished ease with herself and her surroundings. She contemplates her reflection in the mirror, runs her fingers through her white hair, laughing, and sits quietly in a feather-covered chair as the camera tracks away from her. Also present in this downy bathroom is a baby, lying naked in the bathtub. Together, the pair’s age difference may call to mind Father Time and Baby New Year, representations of the end of the calendar year and a fresh start. By symbolising old age as feminine, however, Varda shifts the emphasis in this pairing away from the notion of start and finish and toward time’s interconnected and cyclical nature. These bodies are not opposites: they hold or once held the potential for each other’s emergence.

Between birth and death, it is chronic caring that passes our time—for some much more than others. However, when we read care into the symbolic pairing of an elderly woman and an infant, we are challenged to understand care outside of or beyond the long arc of chronicity, as something ontological instead of something temporal, as Luigina Mortari does. Mortari writes, ‘the essence of care responds to an ontological necessity, that of continuing to be, an ethical necessity, that of being-there with sense, and a therapeutic necessity, that of repairing being-there’ (2021: 168). In Mortari’s telling, care is not linear, nor does it function as a dialectic. Care is a unity, not just an emotion or a practice; it is ‘a fabric of being’ (2021: 145; emphasis in original). It is definitional to being human because to be human is to be vulnerable, fractured, always in the process of becoming—in other words, definitionally needy, Mortari explains (2021: 149).

If this is true, human fragility, inconsistency, and dependency are well symbolised in the hospice ghosts in 7 P. Some of these ghostly women lament their bodily departure from the hospice, yearning aloud for a past state of care in which they felt they belonged. Others stand sentinel in a doorway, as mute and still as the twins in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Their haunting of the hospice suggests that they were not given care adequate to their needs or desires and must now testify to that unfulfillment in the afterlife. According to Avery Gordon, haunting and being haunted is nothing less than ‘a specific type of sociality’ (Gordon 2007: 202). When ghosts like the ones in Varda’s home/hospice appear, it is because a space, identity, or history has been dismissed as something strictly private and individual when it should have been recognised and shared as something social (Gordon 2007: 202). The very sound of wind whistling through the hospice’s rooms and hallways lends an auditory dimension to care’s potential lack therein, to needs unmet by self, others, or institution. Of their tragedies, perhaps the greatest is their isolation, for these ghosts seem unable to perceive and comfort each other. This is surely the cruellest of all of the thematic connections that we might make between 7 P., caring and the pandemic years: during the months in which Covid-19 was the deadliest, people like these former hospice patients—the aged, the disabled, and the ill—were the most vulnerable not only to the virus but also to the loneliness and depression of extended lockdown. Their losses haunt us all.

Mortari makes a more optimistic and ambitious claim about existential human need: treating care as ‘a fabric of being’ stimulates humanity’s ‘potential to realise the possible in its best forms,’ she writes (2021: 145, 157). Potential is never only positive, however. As a filmmaker, Varda was not terribly interested in the creative theme of realising the possible. Her art is deeply invested in the transformational process of potentiality, but not necessarily its outcome. Here again, Swensen’s poem is illuminating. In words, line breaks, and caesurae, it captures the way 7 P. spatialises potentiality:

To fold the roam into something you could

get lost within, and this is how

something opens into space that one can hold (Swensen 2017: 57).

All the stops and starts, openings and closings that occur during our tour of the hospice mirror the interior negotiations that we must go through as we skirt the limits of our subjectivity and the conditionality of our power. Who do we care for? How do we do it? When is enough care enough? Varda’s dispositifs are not so restrictive as to suggest that caring for self and others and living a life of interconnectedness necessitates a permanent psychic retreat inward. However, they do suggest that sometimes Eros, travel, transgression, peace, community, and many other forms of freedom just aren’t available. During those times, the idea is to stop pacing behind one’s own powerlessness as if it were the bars of a cage. Crucially, this is not an end to movement altogether; it is simply an important paradigm shift in which body and inner space become more important than the space outside.

With a tracking shot along the hospice’s darkened corridor, Varda gives us a lovely illustration of slowing ourselves to potentiality’s rhythm. The camera captures the light filtering through the green leaves outside of each window it passes. Inspired by Varda’s short, Swensen describes a process of contenting the urge to wander with a wandering mind and biding one’s time for desire’s next opening to present itself. Folding the roam ‘into something you could/get lost within’ (Swensen 2017: 74) is a process of folding the desire for self-actualisation inward, and caring for the richness there until a better opportunity to act outwardly arises. Whether we experience different forms of giving care and receiving it as becoming a ghost or Mortari’s ‘fabric of being’ (2021: 145 & 157) has everything to do with our experience, inside and outside, of holding space and letting it go.

Care cannot ensure a ‘happily ever after,’ but, in all of its forms and expressions, it creates the conditions for exactly where we perceive endings and beginnings. Accepting these periods of holding space, holding one’s breath, and holding on is not a consolation prize for patriarchy and capitalism’s losers. It is admittedly a coping mechanism for those who stand against these systems in the present, especially when compared to the more effective resistances that can be mounted with robust allyship (‘without community there is no liberation,’ as Lorde famously said) (2007: 112). This concept of ‘space that one can hold’ (Swensen 2017: 74), this pausing inward in the present, is a requisite for the expansion of the possible, for the expansion of the social. It is a requisite for the expansion of caring into something synchronous and no longer so insufferably chronic.



[1] English quotations from 7 P., Cuis. S. de b… (à saisir) throughout this essay are taken from the subtitles to the recording on the Ciné-tamaris dvd Varda Tous Courts (2007).

[2] Reprinted by kind permission of Cole Swensen.


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