The Ethics of the Unseen: Care & Feminist Vision in Visages Villages

by: , November 7, 2023


In early sequences in Visages Villages (Faces, Places, 2017), interspersed amongst scenes of their travels throughout France and images from their eclectic catalogues of work, Agnès Varda, street artist JR [1] and Varda’s cat, Mimi are filmed sharing a small meal around a comfortable kitchen table. The filmmakers discuss the nature of their prospective collaboration. The shots suggest an easy intimacy between and amongst the camera and its subjects. Their conversation is peppered with close-ups of JR and Varda sharing slices of fruit, and Varda’s age-marked hands resting against her plate or stroking Mimi, as the cat relaxes on the sunny windowsill. As their ideas for how they will ‘make images, but differently’ progress, JR comments, with an apparent degree of both pride and trepidation, that this will be the first film on which Varda will be working with a co-director. JR was hardly alone in expressing surprise at this turn of events: international media outlets covering the film lavishly emphasised how this was the ‘first time’ she had collaborated in this way. Established Varda scholars have also shared the intrigue in the partnership. Kelley Conway, for instance, describes the film as such:

Visages Villages feels new, because, for the first time, after more than sixty years of filmmaking, this resolutely independent director has co-directed a film. Her collaboration with the artist JR has resulted in a road film structured around the creation and exhibition of monumental portraits of ordinary people. (2019: 23, emphasis mine)

Yet, whilst Varda’s filmmaking style, practice and production are certainly independent, they are far from individualistic. Though Varda may never previously have shared the director role, in each stage of her diverse career she embraced and celebrated many other forms of collaboration, collectivity, and community that are in evidence in the accounts of her filmmaking practices and in the aesthetics of the works themselves. As Emma Wilson aptly puts it, Varda’s work negotiates ‘a generous opening to the other in an access of emotion and a manifestation of the self as artist’ (2012: 22). Quite different from the patriarchal mythology of the auteur as a sovereign and solitary wellspring of creative genius, Varda’s cinema maintains a deeply personal and artistically distinctive character while consistently and joyfully elevating her many collaborators. Such ‘opening to the other’ is demonstrable both in her engagement of the ‘real-life’ subjects of her documentaries and some areas of her fiction work in mutually respectful practices of co-creation [2], and—extensively shown in the filmed masterclasses she conducted for Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès,2019)—her emphasis on the profound value of her creative, professional, and personal relationships ‘behind the screen’ with a range of collaborators, including musicians, producers, cinematographers, gallerists, and the staff at Ciné-Tamaris.

In this essay, I consider the importance of collaboration and community in Visages Villages—and in Varda’s work at large—examining how they are interwoven with practices of care that shape the personal, artistic, and working relationships between directors, film crew, and documentary participants. I am also particularly interested in how the ethics of care operate within the form and aesthetics of the film itself. The article explores when and how Visages Villages makes these dynamics visible, and when it does not. What I will call the ‘ethics of the unseen’ in Varda’s work is in this sense twofold. On the one hand, as Conway and many other critics have identified, Varda’s work compassionately celebrates ‘ordinary’ communities and the overlooked—and often gendered—acts and relations of care that sustain them. Making the ‘invisible’ visible here is received as an act of intersubjective care and respect for the other. Elsewhere, however, the decision not to show—to allow the subject to maintain the integrity of their body, feelings, and intimacies in privacy; to refuse spectacularisation—is the ethical choice. The ‘ethics of the unseen’ emphasises the importance of invisibilised relations of care within communities, and the care-ful and fluid moral negotiations over when a film might invite an ‘unseen’ subject to become visible, and when it might allow it to remain unspectacular.

‘Rosalie Varda Présente…’: Rosalie Varda’s Work in Agnès Varda’s Last Films

The topic of this article was initially motivated by an interest in one off-screen relationship in particular: the collaboration between Agnès Varda and her daughter, Rosalie, in Varda’s last films. Rosalie has been a quiet sometime presence throughout the entirety of Varda’s career both in front of and away from various cameras. Varda’s pregnancy with Rosalie was in a sense the ‘unseen’ subject of her early short,[3] L’Opéra-Mouffe (1958). Rosalie later featured in small roles in some of Varda’s full-length films: she played the teenage daughter of Suzanne, one of the dual protagonists of Varda’s 1977 fictionalised reflection on France’s reproductive rights movement, L’une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t), and appeared as herself in Varda’s dream-like autobiographical documentary, Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès, 2008). Rosalie also occasionally acted in the films of her adopted father, Varda’s long-time partner, Jacques Demy; following her appearance in Demy’s 1964 Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), American Vogue published an article featuring a glamorous photo of the young filmmaking family titled ‘People are Talking About: Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda, and Rosalie’, and declaring ‘This family is movie-struck’ (Vreeland 1965: 90). However, the majority of Rosalie Varda’s participation in the work of both Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy has been behind the scenes, as a costume designer and within Ciné-Tamaris, in which Varda’s two children, Rosalie and Mathieu Demy, have had a long-standing and substantial involvement on the business and organisational side (see Conway 2021). For Varda’s final three films—the feature-length documentary, Visages Villages, the two-part television mini-series retrospective on Varda’s career, Varda par Agnès, and Les 3 boutons (2015), an artistic short for the fashion brand Miu Miu’s female-directed anthology, ‘Women’s Tales’—Rosalie also took on a role as producer and receives top billing in the opening credits of Visages Villages. The animated graphic of ‘Rosalie Varda présente’ (‘Rosalie Varda presents’) is the first image we see after the Ciné-Tamaris’s logo.

The inspiration for Varda’s last two major projects originated with Rosalie, and she also provided a great deal of practical momentum in realising both projects. Rosalie has described how the idea of introducing her mother to JR occurred to her during the process of conducting the series of filmmaking masterclasses that would go on to form the basis of Varda par Agnès (Rouyer & Tobin 2019: 10). Once the two artists had met and the potential of the partnership became clear, the Ciné-Tamaris team paused work on the masterclasses and instead focused on devising and filming the material for Visages Villages. However, other than in the leading credit, Rosalie’s pivotal role in the genesis of the project is playfully mystified in the resulting film, becoming another element of structural play between the seen and the unseen. Varda and JR do, after all, discuss their first meeting at the beginning of Visages Villages; but rather than laying out a factual backstory, the film stages a whimsical series of speculated ‘missed’ encounters between the two artists. Sharing an alternating voiceover, Varda and JR act out several near ‘meet-cutes’ in which their paths briefly cross but never quite manage to converge. [4] The scenarios and language that they borrow here pastiche a romance genre, as they imagine near-misses in a bus stop from which Varda decides instead to walk, a discotheque in which they dance in separate corners of the room, a road on which JR’s hitchhiking is successful and Varda’s is not, and a bakery in which Varda buys the last two eclairs that JR also wanted: importantly, all are moments that could have been enjoyably shared. They reflect on their admiration for each other’s work and remark how strange it is that they had not met sooner. When JR describes their actual initial meeting, he also puts this in the language of a romance genre by claiming that he ‘made the first move.’ Rosalie’s instrumental role as the ‘matchmaker’ of this partnership therefore remains an unseen part of the mechanism, and her own description of it maintains the language of artistic romance:

Et puis, j’ai eu l’idée d’appeler JR pour lui proposer de rencontrer ma mère, parce que j’étais convaincue qu’ils pouvaient faire quelque chose ensemble. J’avais pensé à une installation ou un court métrage. Mais, entre eux, ça a été l’amour tout de suite, coup de foudre de travail et d’univers. (And then, I had the idea to call JR and suggest that he meet my mother, because I was convinced that they could do something together. I had in mind an installation or a short film. But it was love at first sight between the two of them, a perfect meeting of work and worlds). [5] (Rouyer & Tobin 2019: 10)

It is therefore Rosalie’s interpretation of the meeting rather than the prosaic facts of her role in setting up the encounter that is brought to light in the final film.

In the same interview, Rosalie goes on to describe the other aspects of her role as a producer of Visages Villages. She details the process of pitching the film and securing financial backing from various sources, including gallerists as well as French television and production companies such as Arte and Canal+. However, there is another aspect to her role as she describes it that interests me here: as well as speaking about her successes and creativity on the practical work of the film, she also alludes to the labour of care and humanistic interaction that her work involved ‘behind the scenes.’ She frames her production role as also providing material care and support for Agnès in managing the labour of filmmaking alongside the demands of aging and illness. She describes the filming process of Visages Villages in the following terms:

Mais ça a été très long parce qu’Agnès ne pouvait pas travailler plus d’une semaine par mois et, pour le montage, pas plus de quatre heures par jour. Mon travail de productrice était de l’accompagner dans son projet et trouver des solutions pour le financer tel qu’elle le voulait. (But it took a very long time because Agnès couldn’t work for more than a week each month and, for the editing, no more than four hours per day. My work as producer was to accompany her in her project and find solutions for financing what she wanted to do.) (Rouyer & Tobin 2019: 10, emphasis mine.)

I am particularly interested in the conception of the work environment that is implied here as a space that is shaped both by relations of artistic and commercial productivity, and by relations of interpersonal care. Rosalie Varda’s role within the making of Visages Villages was that of acquiring resources to make the work and the (shared) artistic vision possible, but it was also that of accompanying or ‘being with’ her mother and participating in a work schedule that was structured around a compassionate and dignifying recognition of the needs of the labouring body. This process of putting together the documentary has also been noted by Delphine Bénézet, who writes that:

After the whole team was done filming, one week here and one week there to accommodate Varda’s stamina and schedule, she [Varda] spent five months working on the final montage of Visages Villages, so beyond the fragmented trips, there is a clear logic in how the film was assembled into a meaningful mosaic, as well as a determination to edit the team’s apparently random vagabondages into a cohesive story. (2018: 407)

Bénézet’s reading begins to suggest that the embodied and care-based approach to artistic labour is more than just a practically necessary condition of creativity, but becomes an aesthetic signifier in the film in itself, leading to a ‘mosaic’ narrative in which we might see practices of care as the partially visible cement into which the bright fragments of story are laid and assembled into a pattern in which cracks, fractures, and interruptions of the visible are not regrettable but are the very substance of a new and rich artistic form. This intersubjective care and respect for the other on which such practices rely is something that Varda both receives and extends throughout her film work here and over her entire career, and, I argue, it is fundamental to the aesthetic and political character of her cinema. Furthermore, whilst the substance of these relations of care are always important, the films themselves are consistently engaged in making careful and reciprocal ethical decisions about when these relations and the physical bodies around which they are built are made visible and when they remain unseen.

The ‘Ethics of the Unseen’: Filmic Caringscapes and Feminist Theories of the Gaze in Varda’s Cinema

In this article I am centrally interested in considering relations of caring and embodiment, and the ethical aesthetic strategies through which they are visualised as part of Varda’s feminist politics of intersubjectivity. Within this, I want to read Visages Villages and its production in terms of textual and material ‘caringscapes.’ ‘Caringscape’ is a term developed within feminist social geography to better understand the ‘doing of care’ in all of its spatial and temporal complexity (Bowlby, McKie, Gregory & Macpherson 2010: 7). Seeking to account for and foreground the often unruly and officially unacknowledged practices by which care takes place, Eleanor Jupp defines caringscapes as ‘spatial and temporal landscapes of care, including relationships, formal and informal, emotional and material kinds of support as well as the (increasingly uneven) geographies of service provision and place’ (2017: 270). This notion explores social practices of caring and their emplacement within physical spaces, emphasising the multiple and multi-directional ways in which these activities and experiences are always in excess of the imaginations of family and care-giving institutions constructed by policymakers and dominant cultural discourses. This framework understands caring practices as taking place in different and constantly shifting ways throughout ‘lifecourses,’ and recognises the expansive and diverse nature of caring networks, which extend beyond biologically and legally recognised bonds. Questions of how and where labours of care are recognised are also frequently gendered; as Abigail Gregory and Jan Windebank reflect in their comparative study of social policy in France and the UK, the dynamics and inequalities of paid work (for both men and women) tend to be far more politically and culturally visible than domestic and ‘community’ work, ‘which is perhaps most often forgotten,’ and are predominantly undertaken by women, and thus tend to be undervalued and overlooked (2000: 3).

The dual focus a ‘caringscape’ framework offers on negotiations of place and time within the supple, pluralistic, and embodied ‘doing’ of care invites a useful perspective on Visages Villages. In a direct sense, the subjects of the artworks that Varda and JR make centre on the types of fluid communities and networks of care that ‘caringscape’ describes, which often escape official forms of recognition. As well as this, the filmmaking process itself becomes interwoven with complex and unruly practices of care that shape the space and time of its production, and the aesthetics of the resulting film. What I propose is that it is not just the substance of caring communities, or the fact of showing them, that is an important feminist project in this film; it also matters how their subjects are shown. I will argue that the artistic form and editorial choices of Visages Villages also model a way of looking at these relations that themselves invite questions on the ethics of care, and intersubjective relationships between self and other.

It is important to note, as Jupp, Bowlby, Franklin, and Hall do, that ‘Not only are care relationships imbued with notions of morality; they are often—perhaps always—relationships of unequal power’ between carers and the cared-for (2019:7). Caring relations are inherently an ethical matter, which necessitates careful consideration of power relations and a resistance of binary hierarchies between subject and object. Any relation of uneven power risks the subject who holds more power (knowingly or not) using their position to intrude upon the subjectivity and privacy of, or to deny the agency of the other. These are issues that, fundamentally, also preoccupy both scholarship on documentary ethics, and feminist theories of the cinematic gaze. While filming—like caring—may be undertaken in the name of compassionate attention to the other, it also contains the capacity to objectify them. I want, therefore, to ask how the aesthetics of Visages Villages respond to this risk and invite us to consider modes of vision and interaction that extend compassion and care whilst still respecting the bodily and social integrity of the other-as-other. Central to this project is the documentary’s careful negotiations between intimacy and privacy across the film’s form, content, and production in relation to all of its subjects, including Varda herself. Her films are attentive to the vital and often invisibilised relations of care, interdependency, and bodily vulnerability that sustain communities, but without making demands upon their subjects to transform themselves into corporeal spectacle. Ultimately, I want to argue that the film’s intersubjective politics of spectatorship are structured by what is shown and unshown, seen and unseen.

In what follows, I first outline what I will call Varda’s ‘ethics of the unseen’ and position this idea in relation to broader scholarship on Varda and the cinematic gaze. I then discuss two examples of how this visual politics plays out in Visages Villages: one instance in which it is successful, and one in which I will suggest that it fails (although the film’s response to the failure is interesting). There exists a vast and rigorous body of feminist criticism on Varda’s filmmaking, within which questions of gender and the gaze have received lively and passionate attention. Within this work, two dominant approaches have emerged that are pertinent to the present discussion, and which tend (with some exceptions) to be applied to Varda’s earlier fiction work and her later non-fiction work respectively. The former is grounded in psychoanalytic feminist theories of film and visuality and considers how Varda’s fiction films address issues including female sexuality, patriarchal gender roles, objectification, and feminine expression. There is much compelling scholarship herein on Varda’s commitment to ‘filmer en femme’ (to film as a woman) (Bénézet 2014: 5, emphasis in original; Flitterman-Lewis 1996: 40), reading in her cinema the development of an aesthetics that is feminine as well as feminist. Critics have noted how Varda often plays with classical cinematic and artistic conventions to critique the male gaze and gesture towards new forms of spectatorship that move women from objects to subjects of the gaze. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis’s seminal monograph, To Desire Differently, is particularly attentive to the ways in which Varda plays with gendered aesthetics to examine and disrupt the mechanics of patriarchal desire; as she argues, ‘Varda examines the social and psychic constructions of femininity by adopting specific distancing devices to produce a critical, reflective spectator’ (1996: 33). This trend is also in evidence within close work on individual films, such as Rebecca J. DeRoo’s excellent analysis of Varda’s ironic imitation of misogynistic gender roles in Le bonheur (1965), or Janice Mouton’s examination of the protagonist’s transformation from object to subject of the gaze in Cléo de 5 à 7 (1958) (DeRoo 2008; Mouton 2001). Though such feminist approaches to Varda’s fiction films differ in their precise frameworks and foci, insofar as they are concerned with a gendered cinematic gaze, they share an emphasis on hierarchical relations of looking between a subject and an object. These analyses make compelling cases for the ways in which these films both deconstruct objectifying cultural images and discourses of female bodies and explore creative aesthetic and narrative strategies by which feminine subjectivities can be remade.

The second major critical trend in Varda studies—which has become current in the twenty-first century and focuses predominantly on Varda’s documentaries and avant-garde work—works with ideas from haptic film theory and draws welcome attention to the importance of tactility and sensuality within Varda’s distinctive feminist film style. This includes Delphine Bénézet’s and Kate Ince’s work on phenomenology and embodiment within Varda’s art films and installations, and Emma Wilson’s sensitive exploration of touch and intimacy in Varda’s filming of Jacques Demy (Bénézet 2014; Ince 2013; Wilson 2012). Like the previous strand, these analyses richly interrogate questions of gender, the gaze, and the body in Varda’s work. However, instead of mapping critical movements from sexual objectification to feminist subjectivities, these accounts investigate formal devices that de-centre the epistemological privilege of ocular-centric gazes and explore forms of knowledge, intimacy, and relationality based also on touch and multi-sensory reciprocity. Martine Beugnet and Laura Mulvey’s discussion of Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 2000) is particularly instructive as to how such shifts from optic mastery-at-a-distance to haptic intimacy might be understood as a feminist manoeuvre. They argue:

If, as Marks and Sobchack remind us, an economy of the look based on the observer’s detached gaze tends to establish a one-sided relation of visual consumption or ownership, then the films’ insistence on touch and tactility testify to a willingness to evoke a relationship based on reciprocity and debunk the tendency towards vision-as-consumption of which the female figure remains a primary object. (2015: 196)

In diverse ways, critics have thus consistently recognised a capacity to reflect creatively on the politics of the gaze in the form and content of Varda’s work. Whether through subversive play with visual relations between subject and object or through troubling the supremacy of ocular-centric knowledge per se, her films frequently foreground ethical encounters between the camera and the body that invite new forms of knowledge-making and relationality that resist patriarchal power relations between an unseen seer and an object of the gaze, gesturing instead towards an intersubjective relation built on both interest in and respect for the other.

Whilst informed by these established readings of the gaze in Varda’s films, my own move here is to suggest a further component that is vital to her visual politics. Alongside these thoughtful accounts of Varda’s feminist uses of what is seen in relation to care, intimacy, reciprocity, and the body on screen, I argue that decisions over what not to show, or what is allowed to remain unseen, are constitutive of Varda’s distinctive aesthetic ethos in particular, and are fundamental to a feminist gaze in general. I am inspired here by Sarah Cooper’s work in Selfless Cinema (2006). Using Varda as one of her case studies on documentary ethics, Cooper concentrates on an affirmation of the otherness of the other in film, not as a question of alienation, but as a matter of respect for the socio-political and bodily integrity of the other and a refusal of an impulse towards epistemological consumption and mastery on the part of the spectating self. As she explains:

It will be the aim of this book to attend to this oscillation within a selection of films by [French documentary filmmakers including Varda] whose images challenge the way the film-maker relates the experience of those s/he films. Distance and difference from the filmed subjects (within the diegetic space, between film-maker and subjects, and between viewer and film) will be valorized throughout, but not in the name of indifference. (2006: 2, emphasis mine)

This ethical attention to ‘distance and difference’ could, in a sense, be viewed as a useful counterpoint to the rising prominence of coercive performance and performativity in popular documentary film that critics have identified throughout the twenty-first century (for instance, Bruzzi 2006: 1; Lyons 2019: 3-6). Although Varda’s documentaries do require performance and self-disclosure on the part of her subjects (including herself), they adopt an ethical viewpoint that listens closely without attempting to capture or master and maintains a discursive space that is open to disagreement and refusal. Whilst the artworks created in Visages Villages allow their subjects to be seen in novel and affirming ways, the subjects are also (on the whole) allowed to maintain spheres of privacy, participating in subjectifying decisions about which aspects of their communities, individual bodies, and intimate experiences might remain unseen and unperformed. My intention herein is to expand on Cooper’s ideas by examining the political and aesthetic functions of the unseen in Visages Villages as a constituent component of this feminist ethics of intersubjectivity that is modelled in Varda’s films.

Visages Villages is fundamentally a film all about bringing to light the ‘unseen.’ Varda and JR engage with and make art inspired by and with the participation of unspectacular communities and individuals engaged in various forms of labour that are rarely glamorised, but that sustain the wider national society. The importance of bringing to light the invisible within this film has already been touched on by critics. Delphine Bénézet draws attention to this idea within the episode in which Varda and JR visit a former mining terrace in which the ‘emplaced’ identity of the community is being gradually eroded through socio-economic change:

Jeanine, who is well known in the town, shares with Varda and JR anecdotes about her father and her life as a child. Her generosity in revealing the now invisible history of this place prompts Varda and JR to celebrate the social and cultural importance of the mining industry. (2019: 409, emphasis mine)

The eloquent idea of ‘invisible histories’ is integral to the ethics and form of the documentary. Similarly, Susan Bye, speaking about the general approaches of both artists, argues: ‘Within this context, art is about honouring the ordinary or nameless as a political act: revealing people in close-up and undermining codes relating to power and celebrity’ (2019: 82). The subversion of conventional codes of visuality and what is ‘worth’ seeing is fundamental to the artistic project of the documentary. This enquiry into the other represents, in many respects, a generous and humanistic disposition, interested in dismantling divisions (social, geographical, and philosophical) and presenting the unseen and the everyday as worthy of affirming recognition. However, as Cooper points out, core to the ethical considerations of documentary is a careful balance between ‘the right to privacy versus the right to know’ (2006: 3). It is important to remember when considering the power and politics of the cinematic gaze that this epistemic impulse—even when empathetically intended—contains the capacity to overstep its bounds and to intrude upon the other. As demonstrated by scholarship on Varda’s subversions of the phallocentric gaze, her films are well-aware of the always-imminent capacity of the enquiring cinematic gaze to ask too much of its subjects. This is also a tension that has been discussed by Laura Mulvey, who writes that,

the optical has always been closely connected with processes of deciphering and interpreting. I have tried to think this approach through in terms of curiosity, that is, a drive to look associated with women, which does involve distance and inquiry but not mastery. (Beugnet & Mulvey 2015: 197)

For feminist film scholars, it is important to think through the mechanisms by which the enquiring gaze might remain on the side of curiosity and resist an impulse to use it to dominate, reduce, and contain the other. Essential to this is a recognition that, even in the closest and most intimate moments of sharing, the subjectivity of the other can never be fully ‘captured,’ and that opening oneself up to an enquiring gaze is an act of generous mutuality, not an entitlement. Like the uneven power relations within caring relationships discussed by Jupp et al., the relationship between subject and object of the cinematic gaze is imbalanced and involves entering into a contract of trust. It is therefore vital that the ‘unseen’ individuals and communities in Visages Villages are not so much brought to light as invited into it. The film and film crew explore the lives of their ‘ordinary’ subjects, meeting them within their familiar spaces and engaging them in conversations about how they work together, love, and care for each other, using their interpretations of these encounters to create a series of artworks that encourage the participants to be seen and see themselves differently. Yet all this works by dialogic processes of consensus. Furthermore, as they ask their subjects to reveal more of themselves, the working practices of the filmmakers and crew (as a working and caring community in its own right) are likewise revealed and made subject to examination, including footage of the creative and practical processes of art-making and extensive sequences of conversations and interactions with the communities that inspire them, and how their self-expression is actively incorporated into the creation. We see that, in order to make the images, the subjects must agree to be there, participate in the image-making process, and reflect on the result.

Such issues of visuality, vulnerability, and the ethics of consent within intersubjective art-making processes are demonstrated in the footage surrounding Varda’s own careful and personal decision to reveal her macular degeneration and have her eye surgery filmed. Whilst frankness about—and often pleasure in—her own body through various embodied experiences such as pregnancy and aging have been characteristic of many of Varda’s films, she had until this point chosen to keep this aspect of her health largely private. The act of opening herself up to be visualised in this way in Visages Villages is one that the film treats with sensitivity and respect. As Kelley Conway writes:

Varda’s decision to expose her macular degeneration was not made lightly … One senses that Varda would not have agreed to the revelation of her vision problem if they had not found a way to create something of it—an installation, a happening—that results in a clever emulation of her gaze, but also speaks to the larger philosophical issue of how she sees the world. (2019: 31)

The documentary not only shows the artworks that Varda’s accounts of her changing vision inspire, it also includes evidence of the decision-making that takes place around what will be shown, and how Varda’s bodily autonomy and creative subjectivity will remain at the centre of it. As Conway suggests, it is clear from the discussions the film includes as part of this process that a condition of the consent that is given is Varda’s freedom to express herself. Varda’s own physicality becomes itself a centrepiece to Visages Villages, mapping an embodiment that is at turns difficult and joyful. The film makes reference to Varda’s deteriorating eyesight, memory, and mobility; but it also takes pleasure in showing how her blurred vision, cognitive lapses, and aging body spark new and unexpected forms of creativity. This includes the scene on the steps of the Bibliothèque Nationale, in which cinematographic techniques and the movements of a group of actors holding letters to resemble an eye examination are manipulated to resemble the world as Varda visually encounters it, and JR’s production of enormous prints of photographs of Varda’s eyes and toes, which are pasted onto oil tankers to take Varda’s body where it has never before been. In both cases, the film documents the image-creation process, demonstrating Varda’s directorial control over the visualisation of her body as she sees and experiences it. Relations of care for Varda in her age and illness are implicitly important here and—as indicated above—the time and space of the filmmaking are shaped around them, but the cared-for body is not made into a disempowered spectacle of vulnerability to be contemplated and consumed by the viewing subject. Though entwined in feminist discourses of aging, work, and care, her body is never objectified as a site of suffering to be turned into political or emotive rhetoric. At every stage, Varda is shown consenting to and participating in the image-making processes, taking active decisions over what will be shown and not shown.

The respect and compassion for the filmed subject modelled here is further extended to the documentary’s other participants. In her work on Varda’s feminist politics of authorship in her documentaries, Gail Vanstone emphasises ‘intersubjective dialogue,’ combining a first- and second-person address, as a characterising component of Varda’s documentary voice (2018: 58). In this way, the film makes visible and deconstructs conventional hierarchies between the filmmaker and filmed subjects, both through Varda and JR’s agreement to open themselves up to enquiry as subjects of the documentary, and through the film’s accounting of how the ‘active participation’ of all of its filmed subjects is negotiated. In its making-visible of its own creative processes, the documentary also emplaces this participation within wider intersubjective networks. Varda and JR film communities bound by relations of work and care, but the images and artworks never just ‘happen:’ they are always exhibited in the process of their own contingent and subjective construction, acknowledging the collective labour that goes into it, and the auxiliary functions around this—not just the creatives, but also caterers, childminders, scaffold-builders, and so on. This attention to ‘bringing to light’ creative and other labouring processes also calls attention to the fact that bodies themselves do not just ‘happen.’ Subjectivities, communities, works of art, and other products of labour emerge from intricate webs of care and embodiment that are often officially invisible, whether this is the ‘invisible histories’ of the eroded community of the mining terraces, the invisible labour of the wives of the dock workers, the inter-species caring practices of the goatherd who will not compromise the corporeal integrity of her animals for increased profits, or the everyday acts of care engaged in between Agnès Varda and the Ciné-Tamaris team during the making of the film. Visages Villages is invested in giving voice to and celebrating these unseen relations. It is equally important, however, that this making-visible is done through a feminist visual politics of intersubjectivity in which the sovereignty of the viewing subject’s desire to see and to know the other does not exceed the filmed subjects’ right to privacy, self-possession, and bodily autonomy. Whilst the importance of these ‘unseen’ acts and communities of care are never questioned, they are not subject to excessive demands to perform. The processes by which they become known and seen is intersubjective rather than objectifying and can also be refused and reshaped.

‘Regarde pour Moi’: An Aesthetics of Care, Compassion & the Unseen View

Whilst issues of caring communities and how they are visualised are consistently and multiply present throughout the film, the following examples are particularly illuminating with regard to how the ‘ethics of the unseen’ operate within the ‘narrative’ content selected for the documentary and its visual form. The first of these is an example in which the film’s aesthetic choices and its feminist politics are very well aligned and mutually constitutive. It relates to the ‘caringscape’ of which Varda herself is at the centre, demonstrating not only the interweaving of acts of personal care and compassion with creative production, but also the ways in which the spatial and temporal dynamics of the film aesthetics participate in them. For one of their artworks, Varda and JR visit a fish market together, using close-ups of the produce reminiscent of the local fish, meat, and vegetable stalls that Varda filmed at the beginning of her career for L’Opéra-Mouffe, from which they create enormous printouts of the fish, which JR pastes onto a water tower. After the artwork is completed, the film pauses on a triptych image of the decorated tower (an allusion to Varda’s experimentation with triptych forms in her installation art), over which JR asks Varda if she knows where they ‘caught’ these fish. Varda responds that she cannot remember. The montage then shifts its temporal sequence to respond to this disclosure, returning to the scenes of JR and Varda at the fish market. As Bénézet points out, Visages Villages uses film ‘to counteract the memory lapses that come with old age’ (2017: 409). This in itself constitutes an act of care that does not just prosaically compensate, but sparks new forms of creativity, pausing and reassembling time into a ‘mosaic’ of images and associations that generates new images and new communicative links between them.

The filming of the artwork demonstrates the working environment as one that is shaped by care for labouring bodies and their differences. JR ascends in a cherry picker to do the physical pasting, while Varda sits with her cane at ground level and helps to direct the process. Their positions—determined by their physical capacities—provide dual, simultaneous views of the work that are respectively close and distant; a camera remains with each of the artists and invites the audience to participate in both perspectives (close-up and extreme long shot), whilst also looking back at the other. Despite the physical imbalance, mutuality is established through the camerawork, allowing the two artists and the viewers to share the process of creation in a way that does not disavow difference but allows it to inform the aesthetics through which the creative process is made visible. This co-creative view is reflected in Bye’s description of their shared working method: ‘Varda plays an important role in connecting with and building on people’s responses and reactions. In JR’s words, he “could focus on the pasting while she could focus on seeing what was happening around”’ (2019: 84). Neither view offers a ‘complete’ or mastering image of the work, of each other, or of the complex communities around them, but the ‘mosaic’ view of the process emerges from the encounter between the differing perspectives.

In the following scene, the artists attempt to climb the winding staircase of a neighbouring tower to view their finished work. The viewpoint of the camera is at some distance and moves only on the same vertical axis as the stairs. JR runs on ahead, easily scaling the staircase and soon disappearing off the top of the frame. The camera makes a brief move to follow him, before pausing and waiting for Varda; she climbs slowly, pulling herself along with both hands on the banister. JR’s shadow continues to run up the stairs, but the camera remains focused on Varda (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1: Varda follows slowly behind JR’s shadow.


The camera shoots the entire scene in an unbroken take, shaping the time and space of the film to match Varda’s encounter with it. JR encourages her to hurry, saying that the view from the top is beautiful. Varda reminds him that stairs are painful for her and tells him to ‘regarde pour moi’ (look for me), stopping halfway up the stairs, in the middle of the frame. However, instead of continuing to occupy the higher frame, JR returns to share the filmic frame with her. He runs back down to meet her, and they look together from there instead of the top, where the most epistemologically and aesthetically satisfying view is promised. The camera tracks slowly away, following their eyeline to reveal the fish installation on the tower in long shot, and still from the lower position. In fact, the water tower artwork is never filmed from a higher angle. The subsequent sequences and still photographs of the water tower capture it in a low angle or remain at the eyeline level that Varda is able to reach. Like Varda, therefore, we are denied the ideal vision. Instead, we stay to ‘be with’ Varda, accompanying and sharing with her within her physical limitations. Here, the film makes a subtle call upon us to relinquish a desire for epistemological mastery in the name of being, feeling, and seeing with the other. Varda’s generous offer to ‘regarde pour moi’ (look for me) is answered with a compassionate decision to ‘regarde avec moi’ (look with me). The imminently perfect sublime view of the tower remains an ‘unseen,’ and the film asks us to accept this; what becomes seen instead is a small act of care and dignity, and in seeing this, we are invited to participate in it.

‘La Personne la Plus Célèbre dans Bonnieux’: A Failure of Ethical Vision

The episodes of the water tower and Varda’s eye surgery are representative of the ethics of intersubjective care and creativity that characterise the aesthetics and ethics of the film overall, which include the right to refuse and to maintain sites of privacy and bodily autonomy, as well as the right to be seen. These ethics underpin the relations to the vast majority of the film’s subjects; but they are not airtight, and the film includes one episode that stands out as a stark exception herein. The second example on which I will focus is an episode that marks an ethical failure in the creation of the initial artwork, which stands in direct tension with what I have so far discussed as the film’s moral aesthetics. It is perhaps the only point in the film in which the artists’ desire to inscribe their participant in the perfect image overshadows their respect for the subject’s right to privacy and agency. However, the terms of this failure, and the ways in which the aesthetics of the film respond to it, are worth considering.

This is their encounter with Nathalie, a waitress JR meets in Bonnieux. They paste a large portrait of Nathalie sitting barefoot with a sundress and parasol and looking out to sea on the wall opposite her workplace. The image itself has since proved artistically successful: the film evidences its popularity amongst locals and passers-by, and this segment of the film has been particularly popular academically and commercially. Bénézet reflects on the interesting interplay of ‘image-making and transmission wrapped in one single shot’ as Nathalie’s children take enthusiastic selfies for Instagram in front of the mural (2018: 413). The sequence featuring the children’s reactions as they pose with and compliment the image of their mother, and tickle her printed feet, is one of the most prominent clips of the film used in Varda par Agnès, and in the promotional trailers for the film. Clearly, the charm and joy of the children’s reactions resonates. But something is missed here.

Erased from these accounts is Nathalie’s own reaction. Nathalie is the only subject within the film who expresses more unease with her image than pleasure. The film includes footage of the shoot itself, which appears awkward: Nathalie seems self-conscious, and there is tension as the filmmakers direct her bodily positioning for the photograph. She occasionally refuses and resists, jokily telling them to make up their minds as they disagree about distancing. Her response to the experience is dissimilar to the other subjects, who react with deep emotion and pleasure throughout the process. After revealing the image, Varda interviews Nathalie and to her surprise and dismay, Nathalie expresses profound ambivalence over the overwhelming size of the mural, the attention it draws to her, and the discomfort of having her image endlessly photographed and shared without her control. The much-shared images of her children’s pleasure in her likeness are problematised here: whilst Varda, JR, and much of the film’s audience appear gleeful about the children’s engagement of Instagram within the art-creation process, this is precisely where Nathalie fears seeing her own image objectified. Furthermore, the printed and pasted feet that the children adorably tickle across numerous trailers, screens and promotional spots are highlighted by Nathalie as a site of uncanniness and self-alienation for her. In her to-camera dialogue with Varda (heard, but unseen behind the camera), Nathalie is positioned crouching in close-up against the enlarged image of her bare feet on the wall. Visualised within this space of her own discomfort, she comments that ‘it’s weird to have [her] head smaller than [her] foot,’ and uneasily mentions that she ‘didn’t realise the picture would be so big.’ Nathalie has therefore been made too visible by the filming process, and the filmmakers’ desire to share and to know has on this occasion compromised her bodily privacy and autonomy.

Perhaps part of the reason for the unique disjuncture of this episode is that they have taken less care to listen to and contextualise Nathalie’s experience. The motivations, care, and depth of this image set it apart from the others we see created over the course of Varda and JR’s adventures. The images created for, with, and of the other subjects ground them in meaningful and personal histories, whether this is placing them in a labouring culture with a strong identity and a political statement of values and resilience (such as Jeanine’s abiding emplacement within the former mining community, the goat farmer who refuses to mutilate her herd in the name of efficient production, the unseen labour of the dockers’ wives, or the night and day shift workers of the factory whom the artwork brings together); affirming intimate emotive memory and connecting them across time with loved ones who have passed away (the ‘love story’ between Emilie and Emile on the house of their great-granddaughter, and the ephemeral seaside pasting of Guy Bourdin, which creates an emotional reconnection between Varda and her old friend); or emplacing them within a shared landscape of care, production, and creativity (the farmer who is aggrandised on the side of his barn, or the collaborative communal artwork bringing to life an ‘unseen’ community in the unfinished village of Pirou-Plage). The sense of meaningful connection between artwork, subject, and place that is collaboratively made visible through these artworks is not the case for Nathalie; she does not share the same sort of connection to her work and its situation (we learn that she has only worked at the café for a few months, in the busy season of a tourist economy). Furthermore, the way she is directed and styled for the shoot asks her to perform other people’s tastes, histories, and identities: the dress she wears is borrowed from another woman, and the umbrella is the bridal parasol of the bellringer’s mother. Bénézet writes that ‘[d]espite this hodgepodge of props, they produce a surprisingly harmonious portrait which although contemporary to the film could almost pass as “vintage”’ (2018: 413); yet this ‘harmony’ is produced in the relation between aesthetic elements, not between the aesthetic of the image and the substance of the subject. In an opposite movement to the water tower scene, a desire to create the perfect image of Nathalie has eclipsed a generous commitment to looking with her. Though the creation of the artwork is intended as an act of compassionate attention to and celebration of an ‘ordinary’ woman, on this occasion—and in contrast to the film’s other episodes—it is not an intersubjective collaboration, but the more individualistic compassion of a subject extended towards an object who has not been heard. Nathalie has been ‘brought to light’ when she should have had the right to remain unseen.

It is important, however, that Varda and JR leave in the footage of her negative responses and include the act of directing her to pose in all of its awkwardness and dissonance (Figs. 2 & 3).


Fig. 2: Nathalie is asked to perform for the camera.


Fig. 3: Nathalie appears agitated by the direction.


Though it by no means erases her discomfort, they can return at least some smaller degree of Nathalie’s subjectivity to her by including her dissent from their vision, thereby including their own ethical compromise alongside their artistic success. And it is significant here that the interview in which Nathalie expresses her ambivalent reaction to the image and Varda responds with sadness is left unmediated and unresolved. Varda and JR have since commented on this episode in interview, emphasising the multiplicity of viewpoints; when asked why they included the footage of ‘the girl who wasn’t happy with her photo,’ Varda replies that it was ‘important’ to include it (Owen 2017). JR adds:

Not everyone wants to be put up on the wall to be famous. We put the images there to start a discussion … These people have the right to paste the photos and these people have the right to take it down. This is democracy and let’s enjoy it. People reinterpret the images based on their own story. (Owen 2017)

This is, however, something of a fallacy. Nathalie might be able to take the photo down (and even this is uncertain, given the image’s size and the cost of scaffolding or machinery to reach it in its entirety), but she has little power to edit the film, nor the proliferation of media and marketing images around it. The subjectivity that the film does allow her to retain, however, is her displeasure, and it is worth noting that the film’s aesthetics underscore this dissonance rather than attempting to erase or minimise it in the name of a totalising vision of their artworks as triumphantly affirming. The inclusion of the ‘real’ Nathalie in interview footage speaking and moving alongside the artwork affirm the distance between subject and image. Whereas the other subjects imitate and re-embody their pasted representations in the ‘finished’ shots, Nathalie makes herself physically different from hers. The montage that follows this expression of disharmony also suggests some sympathy with Nathalie’s reaction. In the culminating shots of most of the installations featured in the film, their subjects are filmed alongside their representations, in a shot that shows the complete artwork; the recording of the still images in film makes time as well as space a subject of the shot, foregrounding the agreement of the subject to ‘be with’ their image, and making visible their co-creation of its meanings. In the footage of Nathalie’s reflection on her artwork, on the other hand, the frame fragments the image that she refuses to accept as an affirming self-representation: in the longer shots that encapsulate the ‘entire’ image, Nathalie is not co-present with it. The camera in the reflection shots in which she appears remains ‘too close’ to offer more than a partial image (making visible its cracks and imperfections), much as it has ventured ‘too close’ to Nathalie herself (Fig. 4).


Fig. 4: Nathalie is ‘too close’ to her image.


For the most part, as Bye puts it, ‘JR’s spectacular, Instagrammable pastings draw on the visual language of celebrity and consumerism in order to turn these concepts inside out’ (2019: 84); the radical intention of the pastings and the documentary is to reference the form and Barthesian mythology of celebrity in all its hyper-visuality in order to venerate often invisible communities and relations of care, work, and creativity. However, Nathalie’s is the most similar to conventional commercial images in its aesthetics and its function. The inclusion of Nathalie’s uneasy response to her image subtly recontextualises the film images that surround it. Her expression of self-alienation in seeing the image (with which she does not identify) replicated endlessly and distantly on Instagram introduces an undercurrent of critical anxiety to the clips of anonymous tourists lifting their phones and posing for ephemeral selfies with it (Fig. 5).


Fig. 5: Strangers pose for selfies in front of Nathalie’s image by the ‘Office de tourisme’.


After she has spoken, a brief image is shown of a couple taking a photograph of the artwork at a distance, from the café in which Nathalie briefly worked. This is followed by a close-up interview with the café owner, positioned alongside a rack of commercially generated images in the form of the postcards he sells, in which he talks enthusiastically about how many people have taken pictures of the work, and declares Nathalie ‘la personne la plus célèbre dans Bonnieux.’ An ambiguity is left here: whilst it is certainly possible to share in the joy in image-making and image-sharing, and the aesthetic pleasures of the pasting (as many viewers and critics of the film clearly do), it is also possible to recognise in this sequence of the clips that it is the business-owner, and not Nathalie, his precarious employee and reluctant subject of the image, who reaps the rewards of public recognition and financial benefit. The failures, of course, are not undone in simply showing them—it remains the case that Nathalie’s employer and the film itself have benefitted commercially from an image of her in which she takes no pleasure—yet it is important that they are shown. Though it is far from a complete rectification, the film allows its contradictions to exist and be seen without trying to erase or resolve them.

This conflicted episode might act as a reminder that while the cinematic gaze may celebrate and make visible the invisible as a compassionate act, it is also capable of disempowering through demanding forms of visibility that speak over the looked-at subject’s desires and right to self-possessing privacy. The transgression of intersubjective recognition and privacy in Nathalie’s being made too-visible, therefore, is responded to with an ethical decision not to erase the ambivalence of the encounter. Ethical acts of care and compassion, after all, are not transactional: Varda and JR make images generously and in good faith, but this does not mean that their participants ‘owe’ it to them to perform gratitude in the way they desire or expect. In allowing Nathalie some ownership of her response to the image—if not the image itself—within the film, the film enacts a form of complex consideration for the other that validates the emotional autonomy of the subject even in its difficulty and difference from the self. Accepting and accounting for moments of failure, harm, and disappointment in fact also come to be an important part of accepting the loss of a ‘perfect vision’ or complete and satisfying mastery.


These are just two of many occasions and ways in which Visages Villages demonstrates how questions not only of what is seen, but what is not seen are vital to a feminist ethics of cinematic vision. The use of ‘unseens’ and ‘unshowing’ in Visages Villages is sometimes playful, sometimes profound, and always political; the film’s points of view model an ethical view of the world and way of being in it and being with others. This is important for feminist film scholars to think about: a feminist gaze should invite intersubjectivity and consists not only in what is shown and how, but also in what is not shown and not seen. We as viewers are then called upon to respond in kind, and to accept sometimes not seeing and not knowing in the name of respect for the otherness of the other. Seeing and knowing thereby becomes a dialogue of mutual consent and compassionate being-with that does not seek to possess the other.


[1] JR is a renowned multimedia artist, photographer, and filmmaker, specialising in large public murals and installations. His work is often participatory and engaged in activism and issues of social justice. See his webpage at for further information on his career and projects.

[2] I have in mind here examples such as her work with non-actors, including lawyer Gisèle Halimi, the feminist musical group Orchidée and participants in collective abortion trips to Amsterdam in L’une chante, l’autre pas (1977), which I have discussed elsewhere (Oliver-Powell 2020: 34-35).

[3] The question of whether or not Varda is ‘seen’ in L’Opéra-Mouffe is in fact contested. Although it is often assumed that the partially visible pregnant body shown at the beginning of the short is Varda’s, Delphine Bénézet determines that ‘Varda does not play the role of the pregnant woman herself and [the fact] that she keeps this film in the third person is important too’ (2014: 13). Tim Palmer, in this issue, suggests that the woman may be either Varda herself, or ‘her regular model, Maria G’ (2023). Certainly, the woman’s face remains obscured or out of shot, and, as Bénézet further argues, the presence and nature of any associations between this figure, the pregnant woman featured later in the film, and Varda herself are made deliberately uncertain (2014: 13-14). Already in evidence in this early work, then, is Varda’s play with both the aesthetics of the visible and its relationship to objective knowledge.

[4] ‘Meet-cute’ is a (largely Hollywood-associated) screenwriting term for the contrived and often charming and funny first encounter between a future couple in a romance film.

[5] All translations are my own unless otherwise stated.


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Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès) (2019), dir. Agnès Varda & Didier Rouget.

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