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In 1969, VALIE EXPORT broke out her Action Pants, a pair of trousers absent of fabric at the crotch, and scandalized the crowd at a Munich art-house cinema whose clientele was, evidently, uncomfortable with female nudity offscreen. That same year, Carolee Schneemann began her Sexual Parameters Chart, surveying real-life encounters in scientific detail, but devoting questions to the matters of female pleasure that medical science often declined to confront. Then came Lynda Benglis’ 1974 centerfold ad in Artforum, nude and confrontational and so controversial that Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson left the magazine and founded October, a straight-laced theory journal, just to get away from the publication that deigned to print it. It was against this backdrop that, in 1975, Agnès Varda released Women Reply: Our Bodies, Our Sex when a television station granted her seven minutes of airtime to answer the question: what does it mean to be a woman?

Women Reply is unmistakably Varda, full of her characteristic flair: the short film centers on a group of women who take turns answering questions posed by the filmmaker, vivifying their varied experiences of womanhood. Some want children while others wish motherhood wasn’t expected of them; several voice their discomfort with the sexualization of women’s bodies in advertising; all share the common lamentation that being female, whatever this is taken to mean, obliges them to follow arbitrary social stipulations as to how they should express their sexuality. Intertitles are painted in loopy cursive on panes of glass so as not to obscure the bodies that stand behind them; playful singing and humming that might as well be diegetic play in the background; the editing is kinetic, cutting quickly to reaction shots of men unamused, often to humorous effect. But these jaunty maneuvers never obscure the film’s confrontational streak. The women that populate Women Reply are framed head-on, their gaze at the camera rarely relenting. Varda occasionally takes advantage of tight framing, but heads and faces are just as central as nude, detached body parts—diametrically opposed to both the calculated cooptation of sexuality by advertising and the abstracted close-ups of Varda’s contemporaries Brakhage and Schneemann. Occasionally, the women respond to a taunting male voice as it lobs misogynist platitudes—women aren’t truly female unless they’re constantly child-rearing—from offscreen. Men appear in the film only twice, and only as abbreviated reaction shots, juxtaposed as clueless-looking punchlines against a cluster of eloquent women. In both instances, the men are silent.

It ought to go without saying, however, that the question of what it means to be a woman is far too large to successfully resolve in a seven-minute short. This was equally as true in 1975 as it is in 2018, but now, perhaps, this truth is slightly more obvious, or more insistently foregrounded in mainstream feminism. As the gender binary—and the very notion of gender itself—become retrograde, the film’s visual vocabulary, with its emphasis on anatomy, is jarringly insufficient to fully characterize womanhood. From its opening line, proclaiming that “to be a woman is to be born female,” Women Reply is heavily invested in the premise that gender difference is a function of biology, and if its casting is to be taken literally, the film sketches out a conception of womanhood constituted not only by anatomy, but by whiteness. Of course, the issues that Varda does address fulfilled the popular demands of a particular historical moment, and staged the discussions of more nuanced issues to come.

Crucially, in its upcoming run at Metrograph, Women Reply is contextualized as one film in an expansive series, one understanding of womanhood among many. While Varda’s film is perhaps the most overtly directed toward the question of what womanhood means, others in the series, from The Salt Mines to Suzanne, Suzanne, add texture and diversity that challenge any stable answer. Necessarily incomplete as it is, then, Varda’s portrait offers a corrective to the oftentimes even more egregiously inadequate representations that preceded it. “Women must be reinvented,” insist the ones on-screen. Now, it’s clear that it isn’t so much women that warrant reinventing, but our understanding of womanhood itself.
Women Reply (1975) screened with Delphine Seyrig’s Sois Belle et Tais-Toi (1981) at Metrograph as part of “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories,” programmed by Nellie Killian.