Agnes Varda: French New Wave Pioneer and Feminist Icon

Celebrating the Life of the Legendary Filmmaker

Agnes Varda, the Belgian-born director who earned the title “grandmother of the French New Wave when she was barely 30 years old, died on March 19 at age 90, leaving behind her distinctive brand of wise and deeply personal masterpieces such as “Cléo from 5 to 7,” “Vagabond,” and “The Gleaners and I”.

Varda was born in 1928 to a Greek father and French mother in Brussels, Belgium, but the family moved to southern France during World War II, near the sea. The young Agnes grew up with an abiding interest in the arts and later moved to Sorbonne in Paris, earning a degree in literature and psychology before embarking on a career as a photographer. Her interest in literature and photography wound up informing her work throughout her long career. “Photography has never ceased to teach me how to make films,” she once said. As the official photographer of the Theatre National Populaire from 1951 to 1961, she discovered an interest in both theatre and film. Varda’s first film, La Pointe Courte, which she made at the age of 26, proved her to be an original artist. The drama, shot in a distinct visual style with a documentary feel, alternates between two narratives: a young couple examining their troubled marriage and a fishing village dealing with its collective problems. 

The outsider artist became a prolific filmmaker whose style - which she coined ‘cinécriture’ to illustrate her unique storytelling techniques - broke with Hollywood and conventional European cinematic structures, paving the way for directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais. Her acclaim spans from 1955’s La Pointe Courte and 1962’s radical Cleo From to 7 up to 2000s The Gleaners and I, and in recent years, she created a series of increasingly personal documentaries including 2017’s Faces and Places, a road-trip documentary with the artist JR in which they drove around France, capturing interesting people and places along the way. She premiered her latest autobiographical documentary, “Varda by Agnès,” at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. The film was described by critic Guy Lodge as a “blend of memoir and cinematic TED talk,” full of whimsy and reflection.

Although discovery, provocation and striving to reach an understanding of society and humanity are all hallmarks of her films, Varda refused to be restricted to only one genre or style. Over her more than 60-year career in which she made 24 feature films, Varda effortlessly mastered personal and essay cinema, drama, satire, and documentary. On the subjects she captures she said: “I love filming real people; I love to connect with the kind of people we don’t know so well.”  Her iconoclasm meant that she did not shy away from addressing taboo topics, which exhibited a formal daring that retains the ability to astonish, with her use of the camera, cuts, and montages, the mixing of documentary and fiction.

Varda was also one-half of one of the most famous directorial duos in French cinematic history, working alongside her husband, director Jacques Demy, until his death in 1990. She worked on a number of his directorial masterpieces, including "Bay of Angels," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "The Young Girls of Rochefort," and regularly documented life on set.

An icon of feminist cinema, she was acutely sensitive to oppression and many of her movies center on women. In a 1975 interview with a French magazine, she said she didn’t have any more problems than her male cohort; making movies is difficult for everyone. At the same time, she was aware of her standing as the lone female director in the New Wave and how her presence could be used — as she put it — as an “alibiassuaging the consciences of the men.” But there were also rules. “As long as I was ‘little Varda,’ ‘little Agnès,’ the exception,” and she didn’t get in anyone’s way, she said, she was “helped out, supported and appreciated by my colleagues and companions.” 

Female artists of Varda’s generation were discounted or marginalized in their lifetimes then “rediscovered” years later, long after they can enjoy the recognition. However, Varda lived long enough to see herself celebrated as the feminist lodestar she was by generations of younger women. Daniella Shreir, co-founder and editor of the feminist film journal Another Gaze, said Varda will be "remembered for her representation of overlooked social movements, communities and cultures.” Shreir also points to Varda's placement of her own body on screen as a resounding feature of her work. "Throughout her self-reflexive documentaries, she put her middle-aged and then old-aged body on-screen, both confrontational and ludic at the same time. She utilized this playfulness until the end. When was unable to attend events in the last couple of years, she instead sent along a life-sized cardboard cut-out of herself, sometimes with a cardboard cat on her shoulder," she said.

In 2015, Varda became the first woman to win an honorary Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival,  and in 2017 the documentary Faces Places earned Varda her first Academy Award nomination, making her the oldest competitive nominee in the ceremony’s history. She also became the first woman to win a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars a few months before. With ironic modesty, Varda described herself to a German interviewer as “a little queen at the outskirts of film.” She often repeated that she didn’t care too much about the awards. “I have a lot of awards. I don’t know if it’s compensation — the money was not there,” she told Vulture. “But awards? I have a full closet.” 

Cannes Film Festival expressed its "immense sadness" at Varda's death. The festival wrote on Twitter: ”For almost 65 years, Agnès Varda's eyes and voice embodied cinema with endless inventiveness. The place she occupied is irreplaceable. Agnès loved images, words, and people. She's one of those whose youth will never fade.”

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