The poster for the seventy-second Cannes Film Festival, held in May 2019, used a photograph taken during the shooting of Agnès Varda’s first film, La Pointe Courte, in 1954. Wearing rolled-up trousers, a shirt, and a straw hat, the director stands barefoot on the back of a crouching male technician, looking intently into the viewfinder of a camera. The poster takes this image out of its original context to place it over a seascape in lurid orange and indigo, making Varda tower over the horizon. It encapsulates both her pioneering status as a female filmmaker in postwar France and the youthful, imaginative nature of her filmmaking.
For her own part, Varda tended to reject the category of “woman filmmaker.” In a 1962 interview, for example, she was adamant that a director’s gender was a “false problem.” She added, “A man finds as many problems as I do . . . What is difficult is to make free cinema.” But she did identify as a feminist, in a way that Alison Smith perceptively qualifies, in her 1998 book on the filmmaker, as “committed rather than militant.” And her films were, from the beginning of her career, imbued with her gendered perspective, her interest in the lives of women, and her singularity as an artist. She was well aware of the complexity of her position; as she explained in a 1976 interview with the Belgian feminist journal Les cahiers du GRIF, her work had always been concerned with showing how “a woman would look for her own image, her own truth, within the [heterosexual] couple,” with “dissecting clichés” and myths pertaining to women.
The Cannes tribute to Varda—who died on March 29, 2019, less than two months before the festival—represented recognition that was long overdue. None of her films had ever received an official jury prize there; she had to wait until 2015 to be given an honorary award. Yet from the very beginning of her career, influential critics saluted Varda’s work. In January 1956, Martine Monod wrote of the “birth of a cineaste” in her review of La Pointe Courte in Les lettres françaises. In April 1962, Jean-Louis Bory asserted in Arts, “Cléo from 5 to 7 is a masterpiece.” Around the same time, the film historian Georges Sadoul, also in Les lettres françaises, urged spectators to see Cléo if they wanted “a true film, a modern film, profoundly of our era.” It wasn’t truly until feminist critics, beginning with Sandy Flitterman-Lewis and her 1990 book To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema, explicitly inserted gender into the analysis of Varda’s work that she was put properly on the film-history map, and particularly that of the New Wave. Many other studies followed, and Varda is now regarded as the paradigmatic French female filmmaker. Her twenty-first-century films attracted a new generation of feminist scholars, epitomized by the North American online publication Cléo: A Journal of Film and Feminism, named in honor of Varda’s 1962 heroine.
Thanks to an artistic, bourgeois family background and studies in philosophy and art, Varda was steeped in painting, theater, and literature as a young woman. She began her working life as a photographer in Paris, including as the official photographer for the prestigious Théâtre national populaire (TNP). The period immediately after World War II, when Varda emerged as a young professional, was an exciting and contradictory time for women in France. As elsewhere, the war had accelerated the modernization of the country and the emancipation of women, who had finally been granted the vote in 1944. At the same time, the symbolic emasculation of a generation of French men by their traumatic defeat and occupation by Germany triggered a backlash against women. These tensions were evident, for example, in the fact that the late forties witnessed both Christian Dior’s regressively feminine New Look fashion and the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking feminist book The Second Sex.
“From her training as a photographer, she retained both a taste for documenting the world and a talent for inventive composition.”
Under the Napoleonic Code, French women were still shackled by patriarchal institutions: marriage, education, work, and the media were all male-dominated. Nevertheless, women were on the march to greater freedom, and the young Varda, like Beauvoir, was able to make her mark on the world. She did not share the feminist philosopher’s hostility to motherhood (and eventually had two children), but as a woman of the left, she fought for women’s right to control their own bodies, an important cause in the context of France’s postwar natalist policies. In the early fifties, Varda joined a group lobbying the wife of the Communist Party’s leader to challenge the party’s opposition to legal contraception. Twenty years later, she was one of the celebrities who signed the notorious April 5, 1971, “Manifesto of the 343,” in which the signatories declared that they had each had an illegal abortion.
We may wonder why Varda made the move from photography to film, certainly an unusual choice for a woman in 1954. In her 1994 book Varda par Agnès, she explains it as both accidental—she was lent a small camera to record the landscape around Sète, the commune in the South of France where she had spent her adolescence during the war, for a dying friend—and aesthetically motivated: film added to photography the crucial dimension of time. From her training as a photographer, she retained both a taste for documenting the world and a talent for inventive composition. This duality, in evidence in her first film, works as a thread throughout her career.
La Pointe Courte was shot on location in the small fishing neighborhood in Sète from which it takes its title, in the summer of 1954. As Varda put it in a 1962 interview, “My total ignorance of beautiful old films or recent ones allowed me to be both naive and daring.” Indeed, her combination of fresh outlook, artistic confidence, and cultural capital enabled her—four years before the first features of Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alain Resnais (who edited La Pointe Courte) began appearing—to anticipate New Wave filmmaking, in terms of independent production, modernist narration, and an embrace of a distinctive authorial voice. Shot in luminous black and white, La Pointe Courte counterpoints a quasi-ethnographic depiction of the villagers, their work and family life, with the solemn conversations of a Parisian intellectual couple (played by Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret of the TNP) trying to work through a crisis in their relationship. Throughout, self-reflexive filmmaking asserts itself in the theatrical delivery of the actors, the modernist music, and the arresting visual compositions, in which everyday items (a piece of wood, the hull of a boat, fish) function as objets trouvés, in the surrealist tradition.
Varda’s bold experimentation in intertwining the two very divergent strands of her story was literary in inspiration (avowedly borrowed from William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms), but it placed her at the vanguard of the new cinema, anticipating similar features in New Wave films, notably those of Resnais. Her sensitivity to women’s everyday concerns, desires, and perspectives on the world, on the other hand, is a feature that sharply distinguishes her from her male New Wave colleagues, with the exception of Resnais and Jacques Demy. In La Pointe Courte, her gaze at the central couple is equally split between the woman and the man, and her portrait of the villagers puts at least as much weight on the labor performed by women as it does on that of the fishermen. From the very start, she took women’s experiences and struggles seriously.
La Pointe Courte was never properly distributed and thus had little public impact. Nevertheless, Annette Raynaud wrote a positive review of the film in the December 1955 issue of Cahiers du cinéma, and it was admired by major film writers, including Georges Sadoul and André Bazin, the latter of whom called the film “miraculous” and praised its “total freedom” of style. And yet Varda was not taken up by the emerging Young Turks, including Truffaut and Godard (at the time still Cahiers critics), for reasons clearly connected to her gender. In Varda par Agnès, she recounts how they ignored her after a screening of La Pointe Courte: “They quoted thousands of films and suggested all sorts of things to Resnais . . . I seemed to be there by mistake, feeling small, ignorant, and the only woman among the guys from Cahiers.” A few years later, in July 1959, Cahiers would publish its famous roundtable discussion of Resnais and Marguerite Duras’s Hiroshima mon amour, in which the participants praise Resnais for that film’s pioneering counterpoint narration and attribute the innovative structure of La Pointe Courte to his editing, thus symbolically erasing Varda’s work.
In the wake of La Pointe Courte and its botched distribution, Varda had to rely on filmmaking commissions. In the 1958 nonfiction films L’Opéra-Mouffe, Ô saisons, ô châteaux, and Du côté de la côte—the latter two commissioned by the national tourism board—she documented three distinct corners of France: the market at the bottom of rue Mouffetard in Paris, the châteaux of the Loire Valley, and the Côte d’Azur. One can trace in these shorts the aesthetic and political preoccupations that arose in La Pointe Courte: the counterpointing of social realism with artistic concerns; the play with “found objects,” whether pumpkins, tree trunks, or twigs; the self-reflexive mise en abyme of representation (for instance, the Sunday painter in Ô saisons, ô châteaux); and, crucially, the focus on women.
From La Pointe Courte on, Varda turned repeatedly to the device of juxtaposing “real” women with their fictional counterparts. In L’Opéra-Mouffe, the predominantly old and destitute women shopping at the market are contrasted with a beautiful young woman (Dorothée Blank), naked in bed with her male lover, as well as with a mysterious pregnant woman (opinions differ as to whether it is the body of Varda herself, who was expecting her daughter Rosalie during the production, that we see). In Ô saisons, ô châteaux, female hospitality staff and women in village streets are paralleled with beautiful models sporting Paris fashion. Du côté de la côte alternates views of “normal” tourists on beaches with glimpses of the glamorous stars Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren. In the 1964 documentary Salut les Cubains, ordinary women of all shapes and ages are seen next to sophisticated young dancers, along with the filmmaker Sara Gómez. While the early films of Truffaut, Chabrol, and Godard fetishize women as objects of desire (however charmingly), Varda sought to render their subjectivity and the materiality of their lives. She illuminated not only the continuum between young and old, beautiful and plain, rich and poor, but also the constructed nature of femininity.
Fortunately, Varda did not give up on the possibility of making her own features, and she eventually returned to fiction filmmaking with remarkable insight and brilliance. She remained close to Resnais and, along with filmmaker Chris Marker, the two of them came to lead the so-called Left Bank New Wave, the part of the movement that was more committed to leftist politics. Demy, also a member of the Left Bank circle, became Varda’s husband (they married in 1962). Varda’s commitment to auteur cinema proved unshakable, and she invented the term cinécriture to describe it: “Cinécriture is the total concept, the filmmaker’s imprint from the writing of the scenario to what occurs during the choice of decor, location scouting, the actual shooting, and the editing process.” This vision of full authorial control was, of course, central to the New Wave, and Varda throughout her career adhered to it in all its manifestations: writing original scripts, using film as a means of personal expression, and deploying consistent themes and stylistic motifs.
Varda’s next three fiction films—Cléo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur (1965), and Les créatures (1966)—are among the sixties’ most original and penetrating cinematic portraits of women. They all embody the filmmaker’s quest to show how “a woman would look for her own image, her own truth,” and to “dissect feminine myths,” through a promotion of the female gaze, a focus on women’s experiences and their roles in relationships with men, and attention to the female body. Beginning with these films, women are for Varda no longer the fascinating objects of the gazes of the male characters/spectator/director but autonomous, desiring subjects in their own right. This female subjectivity is most notable in Cléo from 5 to 7, where, in her first use of a strategy that would have resonance for the rest of her career, Varda projected her heroine’s gaze onto others. As Jean-Louis Bory noted in Arts in 1962, in the moment when Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a beautiful singer who is waiting to hear the results of a medical test to find out whether she has cancer, rejects the control of her songwriting team—pianist Bob, played by real-life composer Michel Legrand, and lyricist Maurice (the filmmaker Serge Korber)—violently removes her wig, and goes walking about Paris, she is transformed from a “capricious, coquettish, perfectly selfish, sweet music-hall doll” into a woman who finally “sees others.”
In Cléo, Varda celebrates female friendship over liaisons with men. Cléo’s close confidante is her secretary, Angèle, and, in the second half of the film, Cléo gleefully drives through the streets of Paris in an open-top car with her friend Dorothée, who expresses warm concern for her. By contrast, Bob belittles her talent, and her briefly glimpsed male lover is a caricature (the friendly soldier at the end, played by Varda’s former partner Antoine Bourseiller, is the only sympathetic male figure). Similarly, in Le bonheur, the “problem” is the man, not the rivalry between women. Moreover, her female characters frequently earn a living—as a pop singer and an artist’s model in Cléo, as a seamstress and a post-office worker in Le bonheur—and they are embedded in specific locations (Cléo in Paris; Le bonheur, in the suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses; Les créatures, on the island of Noirmoutier), all of which adds to the concreteness of their representations.
“While Varda foregrounds the irreducible significance of the body to women’s lives, she never confines their identity to it.”
Varda’s centering of the male-female couple may appear heteronormative by today’s standards, but in postwar French culture, the (middle-class) couple was a figure of modernity, especially as women were moving into the labor market. Intellectual and artistic celebrity couples—such as Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, or Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet—were in the public eye. Varda’s films demonstrate the ways in which the couple is often biased in favor of the man, who roams the public space freely while the woman is confined at home, bent to repetitive tasks. This dynamic is less apparent in Cléo than in Le bonheur and Les créatures—Cléo does not live with a man as part of a couple. But even she is able to reclaim public space in the second half of the film, after she has shaken off the hold of the men in her life.
Le bonheur is explicitly about a happy, “normal” couple, François and Thérèse, and their two adorable children. The family is played by the actor Jean-Claude Drouot and his real-life wife and children—Varda’s choice was inspired by a magazine feature on Drouot’s “perfect” family. François falls in love with another woman, Émilie, and wishfully believes that he can simply add her to the existing setup. Thérèse initially agrees but is later found drowned (Varda leaves unclear whether this is by suicide or accident), and Émilie gradually replaces her. Under the apparently unruffled surface of the film, with its pastel colors and pretty images of nature underlined by classical music, Varda makes an incisive critique of the patriarchal family structure. Les créatures, too, has a couple at its center: Mylène (Catherine Deneuve), who is mute as a result of a car crash brought about by the criminally irresponsible driving of her husband, Edgar (Michel Piccoli). The husband and wife live on the remote Noirmoutier, where she is locked in the house while he has the run of the island. We gradually understand that he is writing a novel, although the film deliberately blurs reality and fiction. At the end, Edgar finishes his book, while Mylène gives birth to a boy, whereupon she recovers her voice. The film thus seems to equate woman’s procreation with male artistic creation.
Varda’s emphasis on the female body and on motherhood has been more controversial, from a feminist perspective, than the other strands of her engagement with women’s issues, as it runs the risk of gender essentialism. But while she foregrounds the irreducible significance of the body to women’s lives, she never confines their identity to it. Cléo at first superficially equates disease and death with the loss of her beauty but embarks on a journey of self-discovery. In Le bonheur, the “shocking’” substitution of Émilie for Thérèse acknowledges motherhood as a social, not purely biological, function. And the self-conscious theatricality of Les créatures precludes a literal reading—the real conclusion of the film is that Mylène recovers her ability to express herself and, potentially, to escape her husband’s domination.
The three features met with varying degrees of success in their own time. Cléo was much admired when it came out for its penetrating portrait of a woman at a pivotal moment in her life, for its innovative handling of “real” time, and for its historical significance—as Sadoul said, “Ninety minutes in the life of a Parisienne contain the anxieties and preoccupations of a nation.” It was, however, destined to be eclipsed for two decades by the films of Truffaut, Godard, et al. But in the wake of Flitterman-Lewis’s work, it has continued to rise in the firmament of the New Wave, with numerous articles and two books devoted to it (by Valerie Orpen and Steven Ungar). Le bonheur has had a more checkered history. Initially attacked, including by feminists, for perpetuating retrograde patriarchal myths about femininity, it has subsequently been reappraised and is now better understood. By contrast, Les créatures was a critical and box-office flop, despite its starry leads, and remains relatively unknown.
It is remarkable to observe that, even in the earliest days of her career, when Varda was herself young, her interest in women was capacious and prescient enough to include older women—the most invisible category of people in Western culture, as Beauvoir showed in her pioneering 1970 study of aging, The Coming of Age. In L’Opéra-Mouffe; Ô saisons, ô châteaux; Salut les Cubains; and other films, Varda’s camera focuses repeatedly on old people, and especially old women. After Les créatures, she made the short documentary Elsa la rose (1966), in which she dissects the myth of the muse by placing the writer Elsa Triolet, then nearly seventy, at the center of the film, rather than her more famous partner, the surrealist poet Louis Aragon.
In the seventies, the interest in women’s experience that had always been evident in Varda’s films would become more explicitly politicized, and she made films that directly address the impact of the women’s movement—notably, the 1975 short television “cinétract” Réponse de femmes and her 1977 musical about reproductive rights and female friendship, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. The motif of her centering of older women would also evolve in a natural way: into the late-career string of self-portraits she made as an aging woman in The Gleaners and I (2000), The Beaches of Agnès (2008), Faces Places (2017), and Varda by Agnès (2019). Remarkably, in these films, as in all her work, she avoids pathos and sentimentality; no matter how serious a social issue or personal tragedy she is dealing with, she injects it with her playfully ironic perspective, grace, and humor. Over the course of more than six decades, Varda successfully brought together her feminist politics, her social conscience, and her original artistic practice, resulting in a unique, profoundly meaningful body of cinematic work that was always in search of “a woman’s truth.”