Agnes Varda was one of the most influential and provocative filmmakers to emerge from France in the mid-1950s. In defiance of cinematic conventions, Varda made his first film Short Point in 1954, although she had seen about twenty films in her life. His desire to make films stemmed from his work as a photographer, and the two mediums continued to interact closely throughout his career. She once said, “I take pictures or I make movies. Or I put films in the photos or photos in the films.
Varda employed his friend and fellow Left Bank filmmaker Alain Resnais to edit Short Point, whose constant references to other filmmakers Varda hadn’t heard of prompted her to go “to the Cinémathèque to find out what he was talking about”. The director then made her next feature in 1962, the seminal French New Wave classic. Cleo From 5 to 7. Over the following decades, Varda would create a series of feature films and short films, either fiction and documentaries, or sometimes an amalgamation of the two.
The director has always been an advocate for underrepresented groups, once stating her preference for filming “rebels, people fighting for their own lives.” Short films such as Women’s response: our bodies, our sex and black panthers demonstrate Varda’s involvement in feminist and civil rights movements, which she documented with sensitivity and empathy. Varda approached her subjects with a proudly feminine gaze, once saying, “I did it all – my photos, my profession, my film, my life – on my terms, my own terms, and not to do it as a man.”
Varda was unapologetic in his experimental approach to cinema, helping to change many people’s perception of the potential of cinema. She demonstrated that you don’t need an extensive set-up or a very detailed knowledge of cinematic conventions to create amazing films. The director threw herself into her films with passion and bravery, and the results were magnificent. Sadly, Varda passed away in 2019, at the age of 90. However, her impressive filmography spanning seven decades ensures that she will never be forgotten.
The six definitive films of Agnès Varda:
Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962)
Varda’s Pioneering Feminist Tale Cleo From 5 to 7 was released in 1962, making it an early contribution to the French New Wave movement. We follow Cleo (Corinne Marchand), a self-obsessed singer who awaits the results of a medical test that will reveal if she has cancer. The film explores themes of existentialism and mortality while exploring perceptions of women and female identity. Varda also makes numerous allusions to the Algerian war, with reports playing of Cleo’s taxi ride and protesters lining the streets as she tries to get to her next destination.
Marchand gives a fantastic performance as the blonde, beautiful Cleo, whose preoccupation with her looks (“as long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive”) begins to fade as she comes to terms with her mortality. Cleo From 5 to 7 is a powerful exploration of what it means to be a woman and is just one of many examples of the complex female characters that dominate Varda’s work.
Many critics misinterpreted the irony of Varda’s film Happiness (“Bonheur”) when it was released in 1965. The Perfect Film is one of Varda’s finest and most idyllic. Yet she does this to convey artificiality and to poke fun at her male character, François, who is happily unfaithful to his wife. Varda’s film asks its audience many questions about family structures and the true meaning of happiness.
Happiness was Varda’s third film, cementing her as one of France’s most influential filmmakers. She was the only female director aligned with the French New Wave, and her treatment of female characters and gender politics differed vastly from her contemporaries. Happiness works like a domestic horror movie and genuinely upends expectations. Emotional and complex, Varda paints a pastel-colored vision of terror where the main villain is the patriarchy.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)
One sings, the other doesn’t is Varda’s powerful and visually stunning feminist feast, which explores the friendship between two women, Pomme and Suzanne, in search of ownership of their own bodies. The film features several musical numbers written by Varda, no doubt influenced by her husband Jacques Demy, the mastermind behind Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The feeling behind One sings, the other doesn’t still rings true today as women seek bodily autonomy.
In the context of the women’s movement of the 1970s in France, Varda was uncompromising in her representation of women’s rights to abortion. In one scene, the couple attend a protest based on a real-life protest that took place in France, with Varda forcing the women to “carry banners in support of ‘343’”, prominent women – including Varda – who had signed a manifesto attesting that they had had illegal abortions. One sings, the other doesn’t is radical and daring – just another example of Varda’s unwavering confidence as a filmmaker.
Over the decades, Varda has continued to create innovative films that shine a light on the underrepresented. Vagabond stars Sandrine Bonnaire as Mona, a homeless young woman who wanders the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region during the winter. The film opens with an image of a dead woman lying in a ditch, prompting an unseen interviewer, voiced by Varda, to ask the townspeople about the identity of the body. From there, the film details how Mona met her untimely fate, describing her encounters with different locals and her quest to survive.
Varda’s fusion of documentary and fiction—characters often turn to the camera to comment on Mona—makes her story realistic, greatly heightening the emotional impact. Bonnaire’s performance is breathtaking and she won a César for the role. Vagabond forces the audience to question their responsibility to others, and Varda treats Mona’s story with a touch of delicacy – aided by her time researching homelessness by encountering wanderers, some of whom appear in the film.
The Gleaners and me (2000)
With a new millennium came Varda’s foray into new technology – a portable digital camera. Inspired by painting The gleaners by Jean-François Millet, Varda traveled around France to interview various gleaners who do so for necessary or artistic reasons. Varda plays with the sense of gleaning and becomes involved in the documentary, showing her wrinkled hands and graying hair and comparing the lines of her skin to those of discarded potatoes.
The Gleaners and me is one of Varda’s most impressive documentaries due to its warm spirit. She eloquently interviews those who eat out of garbage cans and live off caravans, as well as the arrogant winemakers who forbid gleaning on their property. Varda mixes humor with deep explorations of class and poverty, art, mortality, consumerism, capitalism and gender. She even revisited some of her subjects in a follow-up documentary, The Gleaners and Me: Two Years Later.
Agnès Beaches (2008)
Varda was not one to shy away from mortality, and to celebrate her 80th birthday, the director made an autobiographical film revisiting key moments from her personal life and career. Although she believed the movie might be her last, she followed it up with Faces Places in 2017 and Varda by Agnès in 2019. However, Agnès Beaches is arguably Varda’s best personal piece – both gloriously fun and emotionally poignant. “I’m alive and I remember,” she says at the end of the film.
The film mixes mediums in typical Varda style, such as stills and DIY, bringing together images of important people, places and elements of his life. It explores his journey as a filmmaker, his time in Sète, his relationship with Demy, shooting movies in LA and more. The film will no doubt pique the interest of Varda fans old and new.
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