“L’opéra-mouffe” (1958) – Agnès Varda


L’opéra-mouffe is an early essay film by Agnès Varda, a free-associative exploration of the neighborhood around the street La Mouffe in Paris, a small network of back alleys, fruit markets, and charmingly rundown apartment buildings. Varda divides the film into segments with iconic titles indicating the subject of each part of the film. "On Lovers," "On Pregnancy," and "On Drunkenness" are surely obvious enough in terms of their topic, but Varda also includes more oblique headings. "Dear Beloved" is followed by an image of a wall covered in photographs, mostly of old men drinking and seemingly having fun, suggesting that this is a segment on remembrance and mortality, on nostalgia for old friends who are no longer around. In "Greetings," children in animal masks romp and play in an empty courtyard, their hidden faces evincing a reluctance to engage or introduce themselves.
Throughout all these chapter headings, Varda explores a variety of ideas and images, especially concentrating on pregnancy and the life cycle — from an image of a chick hatching out of an egg, to masked children running, to the heavily lined faces of the old women walking in the market, captured in poignant closeups by Varda’s camera. Even the opening of the film suggests the continuum of human life and nature, when Varda cuts from a shot of a woman’s pregnant belly to a large, rotund pumpkin being sliced open, its guts extracted. It’s a gesture both playful and disturbing, drawing the link between motherhood and the larger natural world, but also casting darker shades on pregnancy.
This is a minor but still enjoyable early short in Varda’s filmography, reflecting a real warmth for the people of the neighborhood markets, who represent the opposite end of the life cycle from the unseen developing baby that opens the film and underpins its frequent symbolic evocations of pregnancy and childbirth.