The Restless Life and Oeuvre of Agnès Varda

The Daily — Apr 1, 2019
Agnès Varda in 1970

Agnès Varda passed away on Thursday at the age of ninety, and she leaves behind one of the most varied and restless oeuvres in cinema, ranging from urgently political work and intimate portraits of family and friends to films that played with new possibilities in the medium. “I hate to repeat myself, I hate it!” she told Nick Dawson in a 2009 interview for Filmmaker. “I’ve never made a career, I’ve made films.” And yet each of those films is immediately recognizable as a work by Agnès Varda. Martin Scorsese puts it this way: “Every single one of her remarkable handmade pictures, so beautifully balanced between documentary and fiction, is like no one else’s—every image, every cut.”

Having studied literature, psychology, and art history, Varda was working as a professional photographer when she decided to turn one of her projects into a film. She claimed to have seen maybe ten movies in her life before she began shooting Le Pointe Courte (1955), the story of a troubled marriage framed by a documentary-like depiction of day-to-day lives in a fishing village on the southern coast of France. “There, at the start,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “Varda combined the elements that would inspire her entire career: personal experience, political insight and activism, an ardent vision for landscape, an intense curiosity about the lives of others, and frank confrontations with intimacy, romance, and love.” As John Anderson points out in the New York Times, La Pointe Courte established Varda “as a maverick cineaste well before such milestones of the New Wave” as François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). In Cahiers du cinéma, André Bazin called La Pointe Courte “a miraculous film,” and Alain Resnais, who edited her debut, encouraged Varda to catch up with work by the likes of Visconti and Antonioni at the Cinémathèque français.

Varda made a handful of shorts before turning to her second feature, a true New Wave classic, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962). Featuring music by the late Michel Legrand, Cléo follows a singer (Corinne Marchand) in real time as she wanders the Paris of the early ’60s and nervously awaits the results of a biopsy. Writing for Slant in 2003, Eric Henderson noted that Varda “films the city with a completely unique vision. Her framing teems with life at every corner: kittens wrestling in Cléo’s apartment, a child playing a tiny piano in an alleyway, and quarreling lovers in a café. She demonstrates an unerring eye for complex compositions that still manage to delineate between foreground and background planes. And in the bargain, every one of the film’s gorgeously designed set pieces enhance our understanding of the character and amplify Cléo’s understanding of herself.”

Le bonheur (1965) is the story of a husband and father who takes a mistress and insists that there is “more than enough happiness to go around” for all parties involved to welcome the arrangement. It’s Varda’s first feature in color, and as Amy Taubin observes in the essay that accompanies our release, Varda “seems determined to invent her own ABCs for its use . . . More than Le bonheur’s feminist politics and the fact that they were slightly ahead of their time, it is on the level of form that the film is so unsettling and calls up so many contradictory interpretations.” In her next film, Les créatures (1966), starring Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve as a writer and his mute wife who seem to exert an inexplicable control over the inhabitants of their isolated village, has been praised as an underseen major work by Richard Brody. “In effect,” he wrote last year, “Varda turns the blend of fantasy and realism into a wild science-fiction-plus-neo-realist parody of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Deneuve had become an international sensation with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), the deeply romantic musical directed by Jacques Demy, whom Varda had met in 1958 and married in 1962. When Demy heeded Hollywood’s call, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Demy made Model Shop (1969) and Varda, invigorated by the California sun and the vibrant counterculture, shot a series of films that reflected her fascination with the idiosyncrasies of the state. In Lions Love (. . . and Lies) (1969), James Rado and Gerome Ragni, the creators and stars of the musical Hair, and Viva, known for her work in Andy Warhol’s films, lounge in and around a house in the Hollywood Hills talking about art, love, and fame before they’re joined by a Varda surrogate played by the great underground filmmaker Shirley Clarke. “Lying somewhere between fiction and documentary, comedy and tragedy, narrative and abstraction,” writes Michael Koresky in our essay, “Lions Love is Varda’s ultimate California film, an alternately caustic and guileless but always sun-drenched portrait of the gratifications and limitations of free living.”

Returning to France with her daughter, Rosalie Varda, in time to give birth to her son, Mathieu Demy, Varda refused to be pinned down by the duties of motherhood. She began documenting the lives of the shopkeepers on the street where she lived, the Rue Daguerre in Paris, and interviewing just about anyone she met along the way. Daguerréotypes (1975) is “casual anthropology with a strongly humanist bent,” wrote Jesse Cataldo in Slant in 2011. Little White LiesDavid Jenkins notes that Varda “enters into these meandering conversations with no thesis to establish [and] no axe to grind. This project appears to be about allowing a film to grow naturally, and for the characters to blossom in imperfect, but no less beautiful forms.”

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) is a far more urgent project but also “one of the most appealing films” Varda had yet made, as Roger Ebert noted when the film arrived in the States. In 1971, Varda had signed the Manifesto of the 343, a public declaration by 343 women that they had had an illegal abortion. Their act of civil disobedience eventually led to partial legalization. One Sings opens in 1962, when Pomme, an aspiring singer, helps Suzanne abort a pregnancy she can’t afford. Separated for ten years, the friends reunite at a demonstration for women’s rights. Writing for Film Comment last year, Jonathan Romney called One Sings “intensely optimistic, even utopian—a word that the film periodically uses unashamedly, indeed with pride.”

Dan Callahan, writing for, is among the many who consider Vagabond (1985) to be Varda’s “masterpiece.” It begins with the discovery of a drifter (Sandrine Bonnaire) frozen to death in a ditch and recounts a life of defiant independence via the testimonies of those whose paths she crossed. “This is the one Varda film that has no use for charm or the pleasures of waywardness,” writes Callahan, adding that it’s “a film that sees the dark side of chance, and Varda’s own style was never more deliberate or less prone to chance itself.” For David Jenkins, if Varda “had only made this one film, it would have been enough to cement her legacy as one [of the] all-time greats, but it now exists as merely the pinnacle of lifelong project which stands alone in its heartfelt and lightly eccentric grandeur.”

Varda’s penchant for whimsy returned in two features she shot simultaneously with her close friend Jane Birkin, the dual portrait Jane B. by Agnes V.—Varda often noted that the names in the title could just as well be reversed—and Kung Fu Master, in which Birkin plays a woman who falls in love with a fourteen-year-old video game-loving boy played by Varda’s son, Mathieu. Shortly after these films were released in 1988, Jacques Demy began dying due to complications brought on by AIDS. Varda drew on Demy’s autobiographical writings for Jacquot de Nantes (1991), a portrait of the artist as a child in Occupied France, experimenting with a handwound camera he’d found in a junk shop. The period sequences are interspersed with closeups of the ailing Demy reflecting on a life spent doing what he loved most, making films.

For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, Jacquot de Nantes “is ultimately in a class of its own, fusing cinephilia and emotional gentleness in a moving and original act of love.” Varda followed up on Jacquot with The Young Girls Turn 25, a celebration of Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) and the documentary The World of Jacques Demy (1995). Noting that Varda never directed another fictional feature after Demy’s death, So Mayer, writing for Sight & Sound, suggests that A Hundred and One Nights (1995), “her dazzlingly inventive celebration of one hundred years of cinema, embodied by Michel Piccoli as Simon Cinéma, invents its own genre, a kaleidoscopic catalogue.”

With the dawn of a new century, Varda seemed to be starting out all over again. As Alexandra Schwartz writes for the New Yorker, “the advent of cheap, portable digital cameras, in the early two-thousands, heralded her remarkably fruitful late period, in which she made some of the most inventive and humane documentaries of her, or anyone else’s, career.” The Gleaners and I (2000) tracks down foragers hunting for perfectly edible food looked over or tossed away by a wasteful consumerist society. Paving a new path for the filmmaker, it ranked at number eight in a 2014 Sight & Sound poll of the greatest documentaries of all time. The film is “both a diary and a kind of extended essay on poverty, thrift, and the curious place of scavenging in French history and culture,” wrote the New York TimesA. O. Scott.

2017 Artforum interview

The diary aspect of Gleaners and its 2002 sequel began to take on more prominence in the documentaries that followed. The Beaches of Agnès (2008), Varda’s reflection on turning eighty; Faces Places (2017), the critically acclaimed road movie made with the artist JR; and Varda by Agnès (2019), a lecture punctuated by clips and interviews which premiered just weeks ago at the Berlinale, are all, each in their unique way, attempts at turning self-portraiture into vehicles for passing along to current fans and future generations essential lessons on how to live and make art. Particularly in Varda by Agnès, she emphasized the connections between her films, her photography, and her more recent installations in museums and galleries. “I would like to be remembered as a filmmaker [who] enjoyed life, including pain,” she told the Guardian’s Owen Myers last fall. When Myers asked about the best piece of advice she’d ever received herself, she recalled meeting the renowned photographer Brassaï. “He said, ‘Take your time, look at things. Look carefully.’ I liked the idea that it’s not the act; it’s what you have in mind before you take a picture.”

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