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  • Ravi Swami

"Les Creatures" - Dir: Agnes Varda, 1966

I've been digging deeper into the work of Agnes Varda and after watching the documentary "The Beaches of Agnes", which details her early life and later career as a director I settled on her 1966 film "Les Creatures" (Eng: "The Creatures").

It's described as being a science-fiction film though there are no clues going forward at the outset - the film starts with a car accident as husband & wife, played by Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve, head to a French coastal town for a holiday with the intention of renting a house - an accident that both survive but where Deneuve's character is rendered dumb, and where Piccoli, playing a writer, escapes, but with a very conspicuous vertical scar on his forehead.

Before watching the film I had no clue as to the plot - it seemed like a typical French New Wave film, perhaps about relationships, and the scenario seemed to mirror that of Polanski's film "Cul De Sac", at least superficially.

As background - and this is covered in "The Beaches of Agnes" - the film was a commercial failure and her disappointment over its reception and rejection, both by audiences and critics at the time inspired her to create an art installation many years later in the form of a "room" where the walls were comprised of hanging strips of the film print, as a kind of "Memento Mori" of the film.

Viewed in the light of our present-day familiarity with concepts such as virtual worlds that a player can influence, digital avatars and holograms the film seems very ahead of it's time.

In terms of genre - science fiction isn't automatically associated with the French New Wave of which Varda was a part and of which her husband, Jacques Demi, to whom the film is dedicated, was a founding member, but don't forget that Chris Marker's "La Jetee" and Jean Luc Godard's "Alphaville" are both explorations in the genre.

The film's plot can be illustrated by a simple experiment - place a series of random objects in front of a set of people and they will try and associate one item with another in order to make "sense" of them, and more imaginative people might even build a story around these random unconnected items - we try and make sense of randomness by seeing patterns, perhaps as a basic survival mechanism, and every person's personal interpretation is as valid as the next, and Varda is suggesting that this process is a vital aspect in developing a story.

But that is only one level on which the film's plot works - on another level it offers the intriguing notion that a writer, in this case Piccoli, can project himself into the evolving narrative, rather like in a virtual reality game, and also that one of the "agents" in his evolving plot is actually a mirror of himself, but as a different character and one with whom he is in conflict .

Varda gives no clues to the audience and like Piccoli's character formulating a plot for his science-fiction novel using characters he sees around him, there is some detective work required on the part of the viewer to decipher the narrative - in a Hollywood science-fiction film there would always be an "intermediary" character, eg a scientist, who, for the benefit of the audience, would spell out what is happening and why - Varda chooses to leave this out, though Deneuve's role as the mute wife stands in for this role via clues in books she reads while Piccoli is out trying to figure out the plot of his novel.

In terms of structure of the film, Varda switches from scenes that are clearly "reality" and scenes that are purely the result of Piccoli's imagination, with no obvious prior demarcation or forewarning for the benefit of the viewer apart from a visual "cue" - the B/W image suddenly becomes tinted red, and this in turn is woven into the science-fiction plot of his novel, where an "engineer" living alone in a building with a tower is controlling the lives of the townsfolk of the fishing village by means of metal disks and to whom the townsfolk are mere puppets - or "Creatures" - to serve his cruel and perverse intentions.

The plot has some parallels to the U.K TV series "The Prisoner" in its exploration of ideas like mind-control and there is a recurring motif of a chequerboard pattern that refers to a chess "game" that the fictitious engineer invites Piccoli to play and where the pieces are the actual townsfolk - a device that anticipates the "holographic chessboard" seen in the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars and seamlessly realised using visual effects.

To descibe the plot as being about "mind-control" is an over-simplification - Varda is really suggesting that a writer will determine the fate of his characters like a puppeteer but outcomes can often not be pre-determined, or may evolve as a story takes shape as products of chance - this is made explicit in the chess game sequence where the "Engineer" chooses to steer the destinys of the townsfolk, seen via a TV screen behind the chessboard, towards progressively cruel outcomes, for example like destroying relationships or acting in various anti-social ways, whereas Piccoli chooses to steer them towards happier outcomes, despite being egged on by the amoral engineer - the Engineer establishes early on that the stakes are that Piccoli's now pregnant wife will die if he wins the game but at the last throw of the dice the outcome - the teenaged daughter of a local shopkeeper is trapped by a respected elderly hotel owner who is a sexual predator - is unacceptable to Piccoli and he pr0tests, smashing the machine and attacking the engineer, and after fighting him accidentally kills him as he plunges to his death from the tower.

We soon realize that all this is simply Piccoli playing out the story for his novel in his head and where, as the author, he must steer a course through moral and amoral choices, between humanity and random cruelty.

As the film reaches its conclusion we discover that the mysterious "engineer" had in reality committed suicide out of loneliness and Piccoli's character, like the viewer, is left wondering about the intersection of reality and fantasy - the film's closing shot is the birth of his and Deneuve's child and Varda makes the point that this is the start of another chapter or "story" and draws parallels between literal birth and the birth of a story, be it in a book or a film.

"Les Creatures" must have seemed unsettling and confusing for audiences on its release, with its red-tinted scenes of cruelty, which no doubt contributed to it being under-appreciated and ignored in its time, but in many ways it was actually far ahead of its time for it to be appreciated now by contemporary audiences as a result of elements that seem familar, like virtual reality and holograms - it's also a rare example of a filmmaker with a distinctive voice tackling a genre not generally associated with women filmmakers.


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