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‘Lions Love (… and Lies)’ (1969): A Study into the Gorgeous Cinematography of Agnes Varda10 min read

11 June 2021 7 min read


‘Lions Love (… and Lies)’ (1969): A Study into the Gorgeous Cinematography of Agnes Varda10 min read

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The 30th of May this year marked the late, great French filmmaker Agnès Varda’s 93rd birthday. Dubbed the godmother of La Nouvelle Vague, she was one of few female directors of the French New Wave (FNW), and remains one of its most influential, embodying the movement’s values in her works and continues to leave a mark today. 

The French New Wave marked a monumental shift in the trajectory of global cinema, in how film was produced and appreciated by audiences everywhere. Varda, although a prominent figure in the movement, is often excluded from the list of filmmakers immediately associated with the French New Wave  — see Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol. In today’s retrospective piece, we examine her 1969 film Lions Love (…and Lies) to understand her uniquely riveting cinematographic style and its place in the movement that continues to have a strong influence over films today.

Unlike many of her contemporaries of the FNW who mostly started out as film critics and journalists, Varda had her roots in photography and museum curation. Before she started making films, she worked as a professional photographer. The fluid relationship between still photography and motion picture is evident in her filmography as her films have a picturesque quality about them. 

Lions Love blurs the lines between documentary and fiction. The film is best described as an encapsulation and exhibition of Varda’s own perception of Hollywood in the 60s. With her intensely unique personal style, she provides a two-hour peek into her own mental construction of this legendary era according to how she had seen and experienced it for herself. 

The film stars Viva, hailing from Andy Warhol’s Factory and one of his favourites, playing a fictionalised version of herself living in a ménage-à-trois arrangement with James Rado (as himself) and Gerome Ragni (also as himself), writers of Tony award-winning broadway musical Hair. Varda’s camera gets up close and personal with the three as they lounge and josh around their sun-soaked rental apartment overlooking Hollywood, musked in a delightful atmosphere of play and a devil-may-care attitude. They have as a house-guest real-life director Shirley Clarke, who is — you guessed it — playing herself, as well as functioning as a proxy for Varda. 

The characters interact, play, and love, and there is little to no plot structure to the film as most of the scenes are improvised. But this blithe hedonistic amusement, this nothingness, is backdropped by the chaos of the 60s’ political and social scene. There is a sense that outside of this Eden-like bubble in which the characters retreat, the air is highly charged with forces of change, and that these are revolutionary times. 

Lions is not one of Varda’s better-known films, and it’s definitely not one of her more critically-acclaimed ones. The film has received mediocre to negative reviews, with most of the complaints being about the film’s lack of a plot, making it ‘boring’, ‘a movie about nothing’, and even a ‘waste of time’. I concur that the film is not for everyone, and can be a draggy watch. It’s certainly not for anyone looking for a plot-driven storyline. However, what Varda presents is intriguing and enjoyable because it lacks a narrative element. She transports us into the 60s’ Summer of Love, and the way she does it with both her directorial as well as visual and cinematographic style makes for a visceral and deeply immersive viewing experience.

Directorial and Narrative Technique: Telling a Story About Everything by Telling a Story About Nothing

As a female filmmaker, Varda’s filmography has a distinctly feminine touch, and she is known to make films with female-centric narratives. While this sort of softness in storytelling is by no means indicative of a film made by a woman, Varda owns this angle and unapologetically frames her subjects with her conspicuously feminine gaze. Varda deploys haptic visuality — the way her camera comes close to and almost grazes the subject invites viewers to experience the film in a tactile, multisensorial way, which gives them a sense of intimacy with her characters. Lions features its three main characters in every stage of undress imaginable, yet it doesn’t once objectify or sexualise them. It’s a gaze that feels empathetic rather than voyeuristic, seeing rather than just looking.

Varda also employs cinéma vérité liberally throughout the film. There are several instances where characters break the fourth wall and speak directly to the camera. The fly-on-the-wall stance enables her camera to observe how the characters interact with their space and with each other, making the film all the more personal because we feel as if we are consigned to a role of another guest at the apartment, plainly watching as things unfold. 

The way that Varda’s lens takes the time to linger on each scene does make for a very slow-paced film, but it also makes the audience privy to the way in which she beholds the world she’s situated in. An extended sequence where Viva, James and Gerome laze in bed arguing over who should get up and make coffee is sped up and used in its entirety, with zero camera cuts. This scene, as well as many others, like one in which the camera slowly pans across a group of children passing a cigarette around by an empty pool watching the trio recreate a theatrical scene, does not make for the most exhilarating viewing experience, but it does make for a very vivid one that obliges the audience to pay close and undivided attention.

Varda herself even steps in during one scene where Shirley Clarke’s character is supposed to be attempting suicide but the actress can’t seem to deliver, so she intervenes and does the scene by herself. This particular sequence solidifies Varda’s assertion of her directorial agency and makes the film even more conspicuously hers.

These narrative (or lack thereof) choices gives rise to a film that feels overtly like a home movie Varda made during her time in America, which was not something unusual for her. Lions is the third and only feature-length film she made during her first stay in California, when she was accompanying her husband, fellow FNW filmmaker Jacques Demy, as he shot his first American film. Uncle Yanco (1968) is another such example, as it is a recreation of her first meeting with her much older cousin living in California, an encounter that she was deeply moved and inspired by. Lions, although veering more towards fiction, can be seen as an extension of this need to pick up her camera and express herself through film. It is, after all, a French woman’s perception of Hollywood in the 60s on screen. 

Nevertheless, though it can feel as such at times, the film is far from a directionless home movie. Varda curates her shots and strategically inserts real-world actualities to give rise to a subtle social commentary embedded in a film that, on the surface, appears to be about nothing in particular. 

Scenes of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination play out on the TV while Viva receives a phone call informing her that her friend Andy Warhol has been shot, all while Shirley lies unconscious right in front of her after an overdose of sleeping pills. Varda condenses the emotions of the 60s: drowsy hippie culture, political and social restlessness come together in a cloud of confusion and mass disorientation. Varda’s satire hints at a sense of disenchantment with the peachy Summer of Love, and a recognition of hippie culture as a reaction to the turbulence of their times.

Visual and Aesthetic Identity: The Allure of Decadence and Excess

Despite the turmoil, Lions’s depiction of this era remains deceptively rosy. In signature Varda fashion, the scenes play out in vibrant, highly-saturated colours which makes for a picturesque and visually pleasing film. The natural daylight she shoots in outlines each subject with a dazzling glow, giving them an angelic quality most apparent when they are in their sun-lit apartment, a sort of heavenly retreat from the wretchedness outside. 

The film also features an array of eclectic imagery, which are often drawn attention to in a series of still shots. These outlandish, strange objects give the final accent to this brazenly 60s setting. Delectably campy, there is an air of playfulness and gaiety that offsets even the gruesome realities of the world outside the apartment. There is no shortage of references to 60s pop culture as we hear the characters talk about it, have deep connections with the artistic bourgeoisie, and watch endless hours of television that serves more as our window to the outside world than theirs. Even newspaper headlines are featured in a quirky way: their bold letters flash across the screen to a rock and roll soundtrack. 

Despite its loose narrative structure, Lions Love is where Varda’s experimental creativity shines, and she successfully takes a very personal snapshot of Hollywood towards the close of an era, one that is distinctively from her point of view. Richard Brody of The New Yorker calls the film “a living aesthetic model for revolutionary times.” In the film, Shirley is on a car ride through Hollywood when she muses, “I don’t know the difference, whether I’m in a movie or making a movie… you know, which comes first, the movie or reality?” For a film that captures the spirit of the 60s in all its hippie euphoria and pandemonic societal state, the line between art and reality is exceptionally fuzzy in this whimsical tale of once upon a time in Hollywood.

Lions Love (… and Lies) is now available for streaming on MUBI.

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Celeste is a daydreamer - she's in love with anything art, film, tao sar baos, and trying to put all that into words.
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