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Reckonings with Loss in the Works of Camille Laurens, Agnès Varda and Sophie Calle



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Mansell, Kathleen Jezebel Cecil 



This thesis considers expressions of grief in works by contemporary women artists. It looks at the duty to reckon with loss, and at how suffering might be articulated beyond linguistic means. The works considered here explore grief across different media, emphasising silence and fragmentation over neat resolution. In contrast to work that has relied on psychoanalytic approaches, showing grief as private, and suffering as ‘overcome’ through creative output, this thesis examines the potential of moving through grief rather than ‘moving on’ from its cause. Creating through grief is considered as a political means to connect with the other, forming compassionate ties between the lost loved one, those left behind, and a community of readers and viewers. With a framework of contemporary women theorists, notably Judith Butler and Adriana Cavarero, this thesis ultimately proposes that women writers and artists are offering alternative, feminist engagements with loss, dependent on an acknowledgment of the other as beyond our comprehension but desirous that their story be told.

The argument is sustained by a consideration firstly of Camille Laurens’s negotiation with the death of her son in Philippe (1995) and Cet absent-là (2004). The works highlight the importance of naming, while suggesting that language is an inadequate vessel for the communication of such suffering. They thus point to an enduring struggle to find ‘the right words’ to write the other. This chapter contends with the duty to speak of those we have loved and lost, even when words falter. The thesis moves from the loss of a beloved child to the death of a young woman reviled by society, as it examines Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ni loi (1985). Sara Ahmed’s work on disgust, and Catherine Malabou’s work on wonder, serve to highlight Varda’s call for compassion. From an incitement of love and care within a wider community, the thesis turns to consider her reckoning with the death of the love of her life, Jacques Demy. In Quelques veuves de Noirmoutier (2005), Varda demonstrates her isolation while remaining open to other negotiations with loss by allowing space for the speech of others. Processes of grief are therefore investigated as spaces for compassion and for reaching out towards the other.

Another form of loss is explored in Sophie Calle's Prenez soin de vous (2007), as exceptionally, this loss is due to a break up rather than death. This section examines the possibilities and limitations of entrusting another with one’s own story, again emphasising a desire for public narratives of intimate moments. I then consider Calle’s ongoing reckoning with the death of her mother in Rachel, Monique... (2016), which is characterised by plurality and open-endedness, and questions traditional Western rituals of mourning the dead.

The conclusion applies Edward Saïd’s concept of ‘lateness’ to a contemplation of the cultural significance of Varda’s late work in the context of her death in 2019. If the loss of the other implies a loss of the self, I question the ways we might understand the physical loss of self, regarding a woman artist who continued to create and share her work until her death.





Wilson, Emma


Sophie Calle, Agnès Varda, Camille Laurens, Loss


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge