The Prehensile Eye: Haptic Perception in the Works of Agnès Varda

Morghan, Sage, French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Levine, Alison, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia

In his 1901 work Late Roman Art Industry, the art historian Aloïs Riegl, distinguishes between the haptic and the optic modes of perception. He qualifies the optic as distant or long-ranged vision and the haptic as close or tactile vision. While Riegl devoted his work on the haptic to the domain of art history, in recent years, scholars such as Vivian Sobchack, Laura Marks and Martine Beugnet have given much attention to haptic perception in film theory. Their works resonate with the existential phenomenology developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose theories respond to Cartesian dualism and emphasize a direct and primitive contact between the lived body and the world. For Merleau-Ponty, perception does not lead to the truth. Rather, it is truth. Consequently, the body and the senses become primal to our experience of the world. Within this schema, he privileges the sense of touch as the point of first contact with our physical environment. Merleau-Ponty’s writings and Riegl’s notion of the haptic influenced a theoretical shift toward a phenomenological and haptic film criticism in the 1990s. Such an approach to cinema, through its emphasis on the sensing body, both of the viewer and the film, on materiality and on an intersubjective and embodied spectatorship, has been invaluable in deepening our understanding of film as a phenomenological experience and in forging new points of entry into works that may not easily lend themselves to unilateral theoretical approaches. In this dissertation, I maintain that Agnès Varda’s extensive and varied artistic corpus, which includes her films and her installations, falls under the umbrella of such works.

Since her very first cinematic endeavor, La Pointe Courte (1954), Varda’s films and art installations have exhibited a synesthetic and haptic quality, engaging the spectator bodily as multisensory events. Among the senses, touch is constantly privileged in works centered on the material presence of objects, on the textures and contours of the physical world and on the bodies that inhabit this world. My purpose in this project is to shed light on a body of work that, since its origins, has demanded to be read haptically, but which has largely been neglected by haptic scholarship. By bringing to the forefront Varda’s haptic aesthetics and proposing an alternative way of reading her works that speaks directly to those aesthetics, I hope to widen our understanding and appreciation of a substantial oeuvre that is deeply concerned with portraying the human experience as linked to the material world and thus, has always existed as matter for a phenomenological approach. This dissertation examines the haptic, material and embodied manifestations of time, memory, mourning and death in a number of Varda’s films, including but not limited to Cléo de 5 à 7, Jacquot de Nantes, Les Plages d’Agnès, Les Cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma, Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, Ulysse, and Quelques veuves de Noirmoutier. Additionally, by incorporating analyses of a number of Varda’s installations, this project explores her larger artistic oeuvre as constituting an intratextual and rhizomatic corps within which the body and the lived experience of the filmmaker/artist are implicated. I conclude with a inquiry into what a haptic and phenomenological study of Varda’s corpus reveals about her work and how these revelations address the limitations posed by other approaches to an extensive creative project that exerts a presence in the world and is also firmly present to the world, as a body among others.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Agnès Varda, haptic perception, existential phenomenology, film, French, cinema, New Wave
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