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Agnès de ’28 à ’19: Remembering Agnès Varda

“I had a world. I don’t think I had a career. I made films.”

Agnès Varda

Today the world woke to sad news. Celebrated Belgian-born filmmaker Agnes Varda had passed away at the age of 90, following a short battle with cancer. Varda was a significant figure in the French New Wave scene, with a career that span upwards of 50 years. Although, Varda never received an Oscar for best director, in 2017 she was awarded an honorary Oscar (something that was way best due). She also received she received honorary Palme d’or and won a Golden Lion.

Many would consider Varda to be the mother of the Nouvelle Vague. In fact, her very first film La Pointe Courte (1955) was described by Georges Sadoul, as “the first film of the Nouvelle Vague”. This was a whole 3 years from  Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958), which is traditionally credited as the first New Wave feature. Varda’s  La Pointe Courte was 4 years prior to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and 6 years before Godard’s Breathless (1960). Proving something that we have all known…men always take the credit for a woman’s work!

“Good cinema is good cinema. It makes you feel like you need to work. Just yesterday I saw a good film, but even if I’d seen a bad one, I’d feel, “Oh my god, what a bad job, I can do better.”

Agnès Varda

Agnès was born Arlette Varda in the Ixelles quarter of Brussels, the daughter of Eugène Varda, an engineer, and Christiane. During the second World War, Varda lived on a boat in Sète with the rest of her family. When she was 18, Arlette legally changed her name to Agnès. Varda attended the Lycée Victor-Duruy and received a Bachelor’s degree in literature and psychology from the Sorbonne. She described her relocation to Paris as a “truly excruciating” one that gave her “a frightful memory of my arrival in this grey, inhumane, sad city.”

At first, Varda intended to become a museum curator and studied art history at the École du Louvre. However, she decided to study at the Vaugirard school of photography instead. Varda began her career as a still photographer. This left her unsatisfied, stating that “It was so silent. What is before and after the snapshot intrigues me.”  However, she would maintain an interrelationship between photography and cinematic forms: “I take photographs or I make films. Or I put films in the photos, or photos in the films.’’

She became interested in making a film, although she would admit that she knew little about the medium and had only seen around twenty films by the age of twenty-five. Varda would later say she wrote her first screenplay “just the way a person writes his first book. When I’d finished writing it, I thought to myself: ‘I’d like to shoot that script,’ and so some friends and I formed a cooperative to make it.”

“In my films I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don’t want to show things, but to give people the desire to see. “

Agnès Varda

After spending a few days filming the small French fishing town of La Pointe Courte for a terminally ill friend who could no longer visit on his own, Varda decided to shoot a feature film of her own. This film would become La Pointe Courte. The cast largely consisted of real people doing their work alongside two professional actors (including Philippe Noiret making his film debut) as an unhappily married couple. La Pointe Courte would come to be regarded as a precursor to the Nouvelle Vague movement. Varda, said she found it easy to break the rules of filmmaking because she never knew them in the first place.

“La Pointe Courte was immediately praised by Cahiers du Cinéma. André Bazin called it “a miraculous film.'”

The film was edited by Varda’s friend and fellow Left Bank filmmaker Alain Resnais. At first, he was reluctant to work on the film. This was because it was “so nearly the film he wanted to make himself” and its structure was very similar to his own Hiroshima mon amour (1959). Still, the two of them would remain lifelong friends. Although, Resnais would state that they had nothing in common “apart from cats.”

La Pointe Courte was immediately praised by Cahiers du Cinéma. André Bazin called it “a miraculous film. In its existence and in its style” and François Truffaut called it “an experimental work, ambitious, honest and intelligent.” Varda said that the film “hit like a cannonball because I was a young woman, since before that, in order to become a director you had to spend years as an assistant.” However the film was a financial failure and Varda only made short films for the next seven years.

After making several documentary short films; two were commissioned by the French tourist office, she would go on to film the excellent Cléo de 5 à 7. The film follows a pop singer through two extraordinary hours in which she awaits the results of a recent biopsy. At first glance, the film is about a woman coming to terms with her mortality, but it also confronts the concept of the mal gaze and how women are traditionally objectified.

“Wait, pretty butterfly. Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I’m beautiful, I’m even more alive than the others.”

Florence ‘Cléo’ Victoire, Cléo de 5 à 7

After Cléo de 5 à 7, Varda would go on to direct Le Bonheur (1965), followed by Les Créatures (1966), which failed at the box office. With the commercial failure of Les Créatures, Varda, found it difficult to put together another film in France, and made her next film, Lions Love (1969), in Los Angeles. There would be a near decade long gap, until Varda would make her next feature, L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, The Other Doesn’t) (1977), a film which came out of her involvement with the women’s movement.

In the 1980s, Varda and her husband Jacques Demy, went out to Hollywood, in an attempt to ‘make it’. Demy made one critical and commercial failure, and Varda didn’t even get that far. When a Hollywood producer pinched her cheek, she responded by slapping him. “It was disgusting to do this to me. I slapped him. But he deserved it.”

In 1984, Varda made Vagabond, a drama about the death of a young female drifter named Mona. The death is investigated by an unseen and unheard interviewer who focuses on the people who have last seen her. Vagabond is told through nonlinear techniques, with the film being divided into forty-seven episodes, and each episode about Mona being told from a different person’s perspective.

“Varda did often focus on women’s issues thematically and never tried to change her craft to make it more conventional or masculine. “

Varda’s work is often considered feminist because of her use of female protagonists and creating a female cinematic voice. Varda was quoted stating, “I’m not at all a theoretician of feminism, I did all that—my photos, my craft, my film, my life—on my terms, my own terms, and not to do it like a man.” Though she may have not been actively involved in any strict agendas of the feminist movement, Varda did often focus on women’s issues thematically and never tried to change her craft to make it more conventional.

In the long gaps between her fiction features, Varda made imaginative and moving documentaries. In 1991, shortly after Jacques Demy’s death, Varda created the film Jacquot de Nantes, which is about his life and death. The film is structured at first as being a recreation of his early life, being obsessed with the various crafts used for filmmaking like animation and set design. But then Varda provides elements of documentary by inserting clips of Demy’s films as well as footage of him dying.

She would follow this film with another documentary, Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000). The film focused on Varda’s interactions with gleaners (harvesters) who live in the French countryside, and also includes subjects who create art through recycled material. In a 2014 Sight and Sound poll, film critics voted The Gleaners and I the eighth best documentary film of all time. In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Wilmington wrote, “In its frames, we see [Varda’s] empathy, skill, curiosity, wit, poetry and passion for life: everything she has gleaned from a lifetime of love and movies.”

“In a 2014 Sight and Sound poll, film critics voted The Gleaners and I the eighth best documentary film of all time.”

In 2008, Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès) was released. The film is an autobiographical essay where Varda revisits places from her past, reminisces about life and celebrates her 80th birthday on camera. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote that “the emphasis is on her own life and the images and memories that, with time, have blurred together. … The images are as delightful, unexpected and playfully uninhibited.”

Although upon the release of Les plages d’Agnès, Varda claimed it would be her last film, she would go on to make Visages Villages (Faces Places) in 2017. The film follows Varda and JR, the enigmatic street artist and photographer, around rural France, interviewing and photographing people. Amy Taubin of Film Comment called the film an “unassuming masterpiece”, describing it as “both personal and populist, a celebration of artisanal production (including cinema), worker solidarity, and the photographic arts in the face of mortality.” It would go on to be nominated for best documentary feature at 90th Academy Awards

“Varda was someone who didn’t conform to the mainstream, even in her old age.”

Varda was the solitary woman director in the Nouvelle Vague, who didn’t see herself “as a woman doing film but as a radical film-maker who was a woman. Slightly different.” Varda was someone who didn’t conform to the mainstream, even in her old age. She was the type of person who would send a cardboard cutout of herself to the Oscar nominees’ lunch because she was otherwise engaged.

She was an icon, an inspiration, a trailblazer who helped pathed the way for so many female filmmakers. In Varda’s own words, “When I started my first film, there were three women directors in France. Their films were OK, but I was different. It’s like when you start to jump and you put the pole very high – you have to jump very high. I thought, I have to use cinema as a language.”


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