The full title of this feminist manifesto is Réponse de femmes: Notre corps, notre sexe — and from the start, it should be noted for non-Francophones that the French word sexe, in itself, conflates sex-as-gender and sex-as-genitalia. Varda’s film follows this linguistic lead entirely uncritically; even beyond this highly contestable conflation, its rhetoric comes across like a time capsule from the heart of second-wave, Western feminism.
Jennifer Stob has an excellent essay, forthcoming in my co-edited volume The Sustainable Legacy of Agnès Varda (Bloomsbury, release date TBD), that further explores the conundrum of viewing Varda’s feminist essentialism from a contemporary perspective that has grappled with queer, trans*, and non-binary perspectives on gendered bodies. I won’t retread Stob’s argument here, as I couldn’t do it justice in such a brief post. But it must be acknowledged that Varda’s binary view on gender is a problematic issue, and Stob explores it in detail by connecting it to Varda’s training in art history.
Personally, what strikes me most in watching this film (for the first time!) are its similarities to L’Opéra Mouffe, Varda’s 1958 short that I have often used in the classroom. Réponse is about half as long, but like L’Opéra Mouffe its contents are punctuated and organized by handwritten notices that recall the intertitles of silent cinema. Here, these placards are more integrated with the moving images, particularly the human figures Varda puts in front of her camera. They are also phrased as questions, setting the film up to deliver the responses that the title suggests, which all revolve around the core question of what it means to be a woman.
Varda’s visual interest in the human face comes once again to the fore; here, she intersperses these close-ups with shots that capture women’s bodies, often nudes, from head to toe. In another echo to L’Opéra Mouffe, one of these figures is heavily pregnant, and the issue of maternity is a key concern in Réponse. The conflict it presents about motherhood is anchored in a woman’s individual desire to pursue or refuse it, and in true second-wave form, Varda aims to validate both of these choices as potentially feminist.
Réponse de femmes is now screening as part of the Voilà Varda series on MUBI: https://mubi.com/films/women-reply-our-bodies-our-sex