Agnes Varda was a tiny woman with dimming eye-sight who left a huge mark on the world cinema through her career that spans over 60 years. The Belgian-born filmmaker and the so-called “Grandmother of the Nouvelle Vague” (a term she despised as it was first given to her in her early 30s) embodied the idea of radical cinema in both her life and her work, and her vital solar energy kept her going strong well into her 90s.
Agnes Varda died this year, on March 29, at her home on Rue Daguerre, Paris, only a few months after releasing her last film, Varda par Agnes. Her seminal cinematic work contributed to the birth of the Nouvelle Vague, but Varda wasn’t only a filmmaker, as her passionate spirit could not be contained and it spilled into many other art forms. Both her career and her life are worth exploring and admiring.
Photographer & Filmmaker & Installation Artist
Before becoming a filmmaker, Varda studied photography in Paris. Her fondness for photography eventually manifested itself throughout her entire career in various forms, be it cinema, or later in life, visual installations.
It was during this period that she became interested in trying her hand at making a film, although she was in no way a film buff, she had only seen around 20 films by the age of 25.
Her first film, La Pointe Courte, a drama with the aesthetic of a documentary, became the precursor of the Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave.
The experience of embarking on this ambitious project without any previous film training shaped Varda into a relentless powerhouse who fearlessly delved into any artistic field that attracted her.
Thanks to the success of this first film, edited by her friend, Alain Resnais, she could skip the mandatory years of working as an assistant and work alongside her male counterparts as a film director from the very beginning.
Her filmography includes fiction films, shorts, documentaries, and everything in between. In 1961, she released her most famous work, Cleo from 5 to 7, the story of a beautiful and successful pop singer who awaits the results of a biopsy. Varda follows Cleo through the streets of Paris in seemingly real-time for two hours, and we see her as she struggles with her own mortality.
Many of her films explore the theme of illness and death (Vagabond, Le Bonheur), but none more than Jacquot de Nantes, her homage to her late husband, fellow filmmaker, Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990. The film lovingly recreates Jacques’ childhood in Nantes.
The Little Old Lady Who Loved Life (and Cats)
In her most recent interviews, Varda often called herself “a little old lady”, but one who is still alive and loves to work. All her movies are infused with a joy for living, adventure, and the common people, but none as much as Faces Places, the 2017 documentary she directed along with French muralist, JR.
The film explores their trip through rural France in JR’s van, a van that is equipped with a photo booth that prints photographs on the spot. The unlikely pair, Varda, an 80-something icon, and JR, a 30 something muralist and street artist, form a friendship that is heart-warming, sincere and full of child-like candor.
They are both driven by an unstoppable love for their subjects, the men, women, and children they meet along the way, and an endless curiosity for each individual’s story.
The film earned Varda her first Oscar nomination, and also the title of the oldest person to receive a nomination. The film didn’t win, but she received an honorary Oscar the same year.
“I received my honorary Oscar [in 2017] with joy and modesty. It was interesting to know that I exist as a film-maker in Hollywood, even though I never made a blockbuster.” – Interview with the Guardian
Varda didn’t care much about distinctions and accolades. She was determined to follow her passion for the common people, her cats, the beautiful beaches she loved, and even heart-shaped potatoes she used to create her surrealist installation, Patatutopia. She filled entire rooms with potatoes, and even came dressed as one!
“I see myself as a heart-shaped potato—growing again.”
She was very amused by the fact that she was a “beginner” installation artist in her late eighties, and she rejoiced in the freedom she found yet again through a new artistic pursuit.
What You Should Remember
Agnes Varda left behind a body of work that is worth exploring and (re)discovering. She was a feminist icon, trailblazer, and rebel who generously shared her unique worldview, enriching the cinematic experience with a sense of poetry and fun. She never lost her undying curiosity for the world of the mundane which she infused with a magical touch and an overflowing feeling of love.
Although she never became a household name and she never directed a blockbuster, her films are loved and shown all over the world. This mattered to her more than any award. Agnes Varda may have died, but her irreverent, punk cinema still remains. Goodbye, grande Dame Patate!