French cinema is an area of filmmaking I’m really enthused by, and since learning about it as a student, the sheer novelty of the New Wave has always remained an area of fascination. Like many before me, I have a lot of respect for Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (1960), Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), to name a few. However, Agnès Varda seems to have been something of an unsung hero in my experience, never quite getting the recognition she deserved in mainstream French New Wave history lessons. Thankfully her reputation precedes her; with her passing this week it’s clear she was a legendary figure in French New Wave cinema, and I’m beginning to understand just how impactful her career really was on cinema in the second half of the twentieth century.
I’m saddened to think that it takes specialist knowledge for a rounded appreciation of Varda’s films — but at the same time, it’s heartening to know that she was a prolific filmmaker and that her legacy lives on, with more and more outlets becoming aware of her films. For anyone else who really feels they should know more about Agnès Varda, you’ve come to the right place! This first-timer’s guide will take you through what you need to know about the wonderful director’s history and some of her work.
Who was Agnès Varda?
Belgian-born Varda was born Arlette Varda on May 30, 1928, in Brussels. The daughter of an engineer, she had no real connections in the film industry and a lot of what she achieved was rather more happenstance than anything she’d planned. She moved around a lot with her family as a child, and after gaining a bachelor’s degree in literature and psychology at the Sorbonne, Paris, she intended to study art history in order to eventually curate museums. Instead, she was drawn to photography and started making a living as a still photographer. Even without much money behind her, began shooting films. Her first film, La Pointe Courte (1955) threw her into the spotlight.
From 1955-2017, she directed over fifty films, ranging from features to shorts and documentaries, which is a serious achievement for any artist. She was known as a feminist filmmaker — not so much because she religiously stuck to the rules of any feminist teachings, but rather that her films focused on female protagonists, or refused to conform to male standards. Her most iconic oeuvre comes in the form of Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), about a model’s excruciating two-hour wait for the results of a biopsy; Le Bonheur (1965), about a man whose uncomplicated family life is suddenly uprooted; and Vagabond (1985), about the death of a teenage wandering vagrant, told in nonlinear episodes from multiple points of view. These films showed that she wasn’t afraid to think beyond the norms of filmmaking and push boundaries when it came to filming her protagonists.
Varda was known as much for her work as she was for her sprightly personality. With a signature two-tone bowl-cut — something that wasn’t in fashion when she opted for the haircut, but which has become synonymous with her non-conformist personality — she continued to live life without limits into her final years. She even had Instagram!
Her marriage to Jacques Demy was a fixture of the movement, and I love the way she describes it: as if they exist in separate worlds. And I feel as though the two artists worked well together, complementing each others’ work while having definitively unique creative outlets. She was also a vocal feminist and activist, for example becoming one of the Manifesto of the 343, a group of women who signed a petition in 1971 to acknowledge they’d experienced an abortion and calling for it to be legalised.
Most recently, she was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2017, and, when she couldn’t attend the 2018 Oscar nomination ceremony, she sent life-sized cutouts of herself instead, to the delight of those attending. She was also known for creating a stir at Cannes, taking part in a stand of solidarity with other female film personnel to expose the lack of recognition for female directors.
I’m making a start with her 2017 film Faces Places — and though her well-known work from the 1950s and onwards New Wave movement merits closer discussion, Faces Places is a more recent and accessible intro to her work. It’s also streaming on Netflix right now, which means you too can become an instant expert in Varda!
Visages Villages/Faces Places is firstly brilliant because the wordplay works in both French and English. Isn’t that cool? Language aside, it’s also a documentary looking at different residents of rural France, taking a holistic approach by both photographing them in the present and looking at the history and legacy of geographical locations. The purpose of the film is to explore both artists’ innate curiosity for people and their stories, finding extraordinary tales in the most unlikely and unassuming of places.
Produced with French filmmaker and photographer JR, a characteristically private figure who chooses to remain unseen behind his glasses, it’s both playful and serious in tone. Varda’s sprightly personality isn’t confined by her age and with a signature multicolored bob, she’s not afraid to express herself or to express her jovial nature. What inspires me the most about Varda is her capacity to embrace her true self and to fully explore everything that by which her curiosity is piqued. Throughout the course of the film, Varda intently talks to members of the public whom she meets: looking at them, it feels as if she truly sees them, listens to their stories, and with the help of JR, transforms them into murals on walls to celebrate their lives.
They photograph factory workers’ wives, placing three images of the women onto palettes hundreds of feet tall. They photograph a half-built village fallen into disrepair, employing a whole community of people to bring new life to the decaying buildings, pasting hundreds of faces on houses. On a beach, they superimpose images of Guy Bordin, Varda’s old friend, cradled by a fallen bunker. The tide washes it away by the next day; Varda philosophically remarks that the sea always wins. One day, we’ll all be washed away. It’s both a look at the brevity of life and the power of art to live on beyond us and, with the 55-year age difference between Varda and JR ever-present, it makes me feel like the film is a polemic, encouraging people to make the most of their art during their lifetime.
The onscreen magnetism between Varda and JR is wonderful: despite the differences in age, they share an eye for beauty and a playful spirit. One delightfully fun sequence sees them racing through the Louvre, JR pushing Varda in a wheelchair, poking fun at Godard’s film Bande a Part. In attempting to break a record for the fastest tour of the halls, they tear through the room, jumping and laughing with abandon. In a voiceover, Varda expresses her admiration for the painters she passes. Bellini. Del Sarto. Lorenzo Costa. Botticelli. Arcimboldo. I’d recommend watching the film just for these few minutes!
What’s also fascinating about this film is the way in which body parts are photographed and translated onto the big screen. JR takes great delight in photographing Varda’s toes, for example, and, bizarrely, pasting them on the side of a train. “Why?” asks an onlooker. “The point is..the power of imagination,” Varda replies after some thought. “JR and I gave ourselves the freedom to imagine things, to ask people if we could express ourselves on their turf.” And without exception, people across rural France are welcoming. If the deeper subtleties of the art are reserved for the filmmakers, their murals certainly attract attention through thousands of photos shared online, through conversations sparked with onlookers, through proud (sometimes even shy) participants.
There’s a bittersweet twist at the end which I think only heightens the sensitivity of the film and shows the true virtuosic streak of the artists. It only works with Varda and JR together, and while I can’t help but feel that it was unexpected during the filming process, it seems to fit the tone of the piece remarkably well. Life isn’t always what it seems, and the past has to sometimes be left to remain in the past, but there is a beauty to be found even in sadness.
It’s sad indeed that Agnès Varda is no longer with us, but the legacy that she leaves is undeniably powerful, aware of the cultural shifts taking place and alert to the new possibilities of filmmaking. Her work with JR shows both her capacity for warmth and empathy towards others and her visionary, artistic eye for detail. As she mentioned in an interview with Cléo Journal: “My films never made money. They never brought money for me or the company. But they’re loved. […] Sometimes Faces Places plays and people applaud: I think it’s because it touches people and makes them understand they can share. […] It’s just a little drop in the world of art, and in the world of creation.”