Written by: Agnès Varda
Starring: Sabine Mamou, Mathieu Demy, Tina Odom, Lisa Blok, Tom Taplin
Pouring so much of oneself into a film project takes bits and pieces of the people making it to the point where the final product reflects more of the creator than originally intended. The unplanned beauty of this revelation creates some awe-inspiring work, which Agnès Varda does with Documenteur. Meditative and melancholic, this film pierces through the struggle to provide and create.
Emillie (Sabine Mamo) has left her husband and has decided to live in uncharted plains for the first time in her life with her son Martin (Mathieu Demy). This leads to her living and working in Los Angeles, as she tries to make everything work.
Stories utilizing a plot set up such as this one tends to fall into melodrama of it all, where a single mom tries to make it in the big bad world and must struggle to take care of her kids as well. Thinking of this allows a whole host of films to spring to mind. Documeteur, on the other hand, allows for a more meditative approach, as it gets filmed similarly to a documentary and harbors some genuinely emotional moments. Emilie’s livelihood comes from her writing and finds a gig working as a typist for another writer. Not the most creative outlet for a writer, but she still manages to do something she has a passion for and make some money from it.
As the film shifts between the relationship of Emilie and her son along with her working as a typist, a good portion of the movie follows the protagonist wandering on the beach and the rest of the surrounding area. The different murals receive plenty of attention from the camera, which helps express the way Emilie feels and also displays the culture of this city. With it being filmed in the 1980s, Los Angeles has a different feel and look to it as compared to today, and this capsulated experience shows what it means for this woman in this specific stage in her life.
Learning how this film evolved as Agnès Varda created it speaks to the power of making art. Something not meant to be as self-reflective as the end result displays, seeing it overall as a project shows the destiny of the story. Considering she has her editor portray Emillie and her own son play the son shows the personal connection she has to this story. It certainly helps in displaying the core feelings expressed. Vulnerability becomes integral to see the emotional ailments Emillie goes through and while the story is not fully autobiographical, some of it may reflect on Varda’s own experiences with motherhood. The battle to be a mother and pursue her art carries plenty of weight in Emillie’s heart and probably had the same impact on Varda herself, as she led the charge on the French New Wave and provided such a vital female voice to this movement in filmmaking. Something men rarely have to deal with but gets dropped on women to take on because of the gender roles instilled into our society.
Whether it be finding interest in different men or kickstarting a more permanent way to support her son, this journey causes isolation for Emillie, which may be common with single mothers out on their own for the first time. Friends who said they would be there if things went awry suddenly forget about their promises and sides being taken makes this time vital for self-reflection in order to process the feelings of the change and how to move forward. Emillie does not get the benefit to focus completely on herself because she has a child to take care of. This automatically stunts the potential progress, which gets displayed on multiple occasions in this somber story.
Through the directing style and performances, this film feels unabashedly human in how it depicts its lead character. Sure, it does not reach the heights of Varda’s masterpieces but it carries a bit of her heart within it, as she inadvertently opens up to the world to her insecurities through the character of Emillie. Very melancholic and moody throughout, Documenteur has gained so much respect from me, as I continue to learn the personal impact it has on one of my favorite filmmakers to ever live.