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.