Remembering Agnès Varda, The Pioneering French New Wave Filmmaker

I met Agnès Varda five days before her 90th birthday in May last year. Was she planning a party, I asked? “No, I think we will just go to the beach and eat some oysters,” she replied, smiling. “A few friends and the ocean. When I celebrated my 80th, there was a big party which I show at the end of my film The Beaches of Agnès. There were a lot of people. A lot of noise. I could not top that. So now I try to make it discreet, but where I feel good. Near the sea.”

I thought about her plans for a quiet celebration when I heard the news of her death. For seven decades this leading light of the French New Wave had made films that quietly and thoughtfully changed the way we saw the world. “In my films I want to make people see deeply,” she said. And she did, reflecting her own generous, passionate, curious qualities in stories and documentaries that changed everything.

She was busy until very near her death, from the complications of breast cancer. She received an honorary Berlinale Camera award at the Berlin Film Festival in February, where she presented her latest film Varda By Agnès. Which was also characteristic. The day we met in Paris, sitting in the quiet flower-filled courtyard of the house that she had shared with her late husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, she was tired. But that was because she was shouldering a workload that would have felled a woman half her age, trying to finish two films about her life, while at the same time working on art installations and other projects.

In 2017, she was nominated for an Oscar for Faces Places, becoming the oldest nominee in the process, and considerably enlivening events by sending a cardboard cut-out of herself to the nominees’ lunch. “You cannot exactly refuse the Oscars,” she told me. “But on the other hand, I cannot play the Hollywood game. So I did it my way. I made a little speech, very clear, saying that I had never made money or provided ways for producers to get rich, but I had won a lot of awards for my work.”

No wonder she had. The films she made are wonders. Her first film La Pointe Courte (1955) kickstarted the New Wave, with its stark black and white depiction of a failing marriage, set in Sète, the town where she spent part of her childhood and peopled by its real inhabitants. In 1962, she made her next feature, Cléo From 5 to 7, in which a pop singer waits for the results of her tests for cancer. Later came Vagabond, a devastating study of marginalisation and misogyny, tracing the story of a young woman wanderer back from the moment her body is found frozen in a ditch.

What binds these early masterpieces with her later documentaries such as The Gleaners and I, which celebrated the people who use the objects and food others discard, is their empathy and their originality. Varda looked very hard at the world, bringing both poetry and realism to what she saw. Her liking for knobbly potatoes summed up her ability to find beauty in unexpected places – and to notice things that others overlooked. She was both kind-hearted and tough-minded and you see both qualities on screen. “Everywhere I deal with passion and trying to find a structure,” she said to me. “I am always trying to construct a way of telling and not only telling a story. That is what makes me different.”

She was an instinctive feminist who fought hard for women’s rights. In 1971 she was one of 343 women to sign the Manifesto of the 343, a French petition admitting they had had abortions and thus making themselves vulnerable to prosecution in a campaign to change the law. Her feminist musical One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, made in 1977, had a 20-strong crew equally divided between men and women, and she insisted on parity long before it was fashionable to do so. The focus of her films is often on women; it is hard to imagine them being directed by a man. When a journalist from The Guardian remarked on this, she said: “I am glad. I am a woman. I think I have the spirit, the intelligence and dare I say the soul of a woman.”

She never doubted her own right to be a filmmaker – even though she came to see the New Wave of directors who followed her as something of a boys’ club. “I always believed that I could do it. That was my thing. I had a brother and I didn’t know why my brother would have rights that I wouldn’t have. The day I decided I would make a film, it came from nowhere.”

On the other hand, she never wavered in the value she placed on love, her family and her friends. Her devotion to Demy, until his death in 1990 is revealed in the remarkably tender and wise Jacquot de Nantes, a documentary about his life, made just before he died. “I never had a plan, what should I do next year or in five years. I always waited for something strong to push me to do a film. It had to feel like an emergency in a way. The rest of the time I took pictures, I wrote, I took care of people. I had a real life with Jacques and the kids so my life and my work and my ideas have been mixed.”

There’s a wonderful story that when she was feeling constricted by the responsibilities of motherhood, after giving birth to her son Mathieu Demy (now an actor; she also had a daughter, the costume designer Rosalie Varda Demy), she had an electric line of 300 feet for her camera and her microphone run from her house. With this, she made the glorious Daguerréotypes, a documentary about the shopkeepers and her neighbours on the Rue Daguerre.

The image captures Varda herself: she was a vital force, full of fun, of questions, of life. Even though 90 is a good age at which to die, it seems impossible to imagine her dead. I shall think of her by the ocean, on the beach she loved, with her friends and some oysters. And I shall remember her through her remarkable legacy of film, some of the greatest ever made.


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