In September 2018, I screened Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places for the Michigan State University Film Collective. We had a lively discussion that went past the scheduled ending time. As I was getting ready to leave, a student from my documentary history and theory course approached me. She’d never spoken in class, perhaps because, being an international student from China, she was still training her tongue to create the intricate English sounds that came so naturally to her classmates. Faces Places, however, had unleashed a world of ideas inside her. When she was done sharing her impressions, she asked, “What kind of film was that? It’s exactly the kind of film I want to make.” “That’s an Agnès Varda film,” I replied, “and that’s exactly the kind of film many of us want to make. The question is how to do it.”
They called Varda the grandmother of the French New Wave. So unique and propulsive was her vision that she could be said to be her own ancestor and her own progeny. At the same time, of course, she has countless creative heirs, particularly among women filmmakers—my student became just the most recent of them that evening in 2018. To me, Varda has always been a fairy godmother. She not only uses her wand to create her own magic but hands that wand over to us, as the Lilac Fairy does to the princess in Donkey Skin (directed by Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy). I realize that talking about fairy godmothers and princesses may seem infantilizing, overly romantic, and sexist, but the wand that Varda offers us does not lead to a handsome prince but rather to permission to tell the stories that live inside us, no matter how peculiar a form they may take. The fairy godmother, one of the few positive female archetypes that we share with children, opens doors for fellow women. We understand her power from the moment we begin to consume and process stories. This direct connection to the viewer is at the heart of Varda’s work; she once explained that she had developed a cinematic language that “continually sets up new relationships between the person who envisions and creates the film and the person who sees it.” She tried to work from an emotional palette that viewers would be able to recognize. One way she achieved the authenticity and intimacy required for that connection was by drawing from her own life for her films, including in them portraits of herself and of the people closest to her.
How do we know which of the moments that evoke a universe of tenderness or regret in us will do the same for people who didn’t live through them? It is a question I often ask myself as a filmmaker who also draws from her own experiences. It is a question that Varda found answers to over and over again. Her films invite us to explore what is distinct and compelling about our own lives as they portray universal experiences as seen through her inimitable personal lens. We all want to make Varda films, but only Varda could make Varda films. She offers us the wand not so that we can mimic her but so that we can find our own style that displays with honesty and idiosyncrasy what it means to be us and what the world looks like through our eyes. Magic indeed.
Varda was only twenty-six when she made her first film, La Pointe Courte, in 1954. She had no filmmaking education or experience. She knew very few people who might give her funds to shoot the script she had written. One of them was her mother, who sold what Varda described as “un petit truc” to help her. That translates to “a small thing,” but for me, a native Spanish speaker, the word truc doesn’t evoke a thing but rather a truco de magia. A magic trick such as when a dove flies out of a hat—the very truco a magician performed on my sixth birthday, to my friends’ amazement. Or a truco in which an empty bowl of rice suddenly overflows, as performed by Mystag, the magician in Varda’s Daguerréotypes (1975).
“It is fitting that she made her first film with help that came from her family, because her work consistently pays homage to her roots and to the beings she brought into the world.”
A truco of maternal love helped a daughter spread her creative wings with five million francs. The other five million came from an inheritance Varda received. It is fitting that she made her first film with help that came from her family, because her work consistently pays homage to her roots and to the beings she brought into the world, her two children, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy. Although she would later find outside funding, she never had large budgets, no matter how many awards she received or how influential she became. As someone who, like Varda, struggles to finance my films, I don’t want to romanticize the lack of funds, especially when it comes to telling women’s stories, which remain scarce on the silver screen and its digital iterations. And yet Varda managed to find advantages in the situation, the most vital being creative control over her work. She didn’t need to alter her vision to please funders’ whims, and she kept the rights to her oeuvre, revisiting her footage in later films and controlling how her work was restored and distributed. She kept everything tied to her own production company, Ciné-Tamaris. She worked intimately, with small crews, and everyone’s voice was welcome. She often encouraged other women to learn some aspect of the film trade, in part so she could hire them. When she found women with whom she worked well—such as cinematographer Nurith Aviv and editors Marie-Josée Audiard and Sabine Mamou—their collaborations were likely to span multiple films, and sometimes decades. The smallness of her crews and budgets led those involved to put more of themselves into her films, resulting in lyrical bonds between the storytellers and what ended up on the screen. The car the doctor drives in Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) belonged to one of the crew members, while Cléo’s necklaces, including the one she puts on as she begins to take control of her life halfway through the film, belonged to Varda herself. As Cléo walks down the Paris streets with a newfound sense of freedom, she wears close to her heart a necklace that Varda had worn. And, of course, Cléo’s heart is in fact the heart of actor Corinne Marchand. This multilayered connection enriches the film, whether or not we are aware of it.
It was chance and motherhood that led Varda to make Daguerréotypes, her first feature-length documentary. Having toddler Mathieu at home, she sought a project that would allow her to stay close to him, and chose to feature the businesses near her house and the people who ran them. As she explains while pulling a cable out of her mailbox and walking along rue Daguerre, where she lived her whole adult life, in 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès, she used her own electricity run through that very cable to power the filming. Since the cable—which, she says, someone suggested was an umbilical cord she didn’t want to cut—was ninety meters long, she could film only the businesses closest to her, the ones owned and frequented by her nearest neighbors.
In Daguerréotypes, Varda intercuts shots of the shopkeepers performing their work with the magic of Mystag, whose show they all attend together, whimsically creating a link between Mystag’s awe-inspiring tricks and the quieter magic of providing one’s neighbors with nourishment and objects for their daily lives. While Mystag places lit torches in his mouth and blows rings of fire into the air, the baker arranges burning coals in his oven. While Mystag transforms the ashes from a burned piece of paper into seven bills, the baker rolls dough into cylinders that the coals turn into golden baguettes, sold to customers by his wife. The dough, like Mystag’s ashes, becomes the bills that sustain the baker’s family.
The documentary radiates with love stories. When asked about her romance, the baker’s wife, standing before the oven, remembers how, as a young girl, she would impatiently wait for Wednesdays, when her future husband would deliver the bread. It’s hard not to imagine that some of that history goes into their bread, adding something to its flavor. As the seamstress cuts fabric, she recalls meeting her own husband, the tailor, at a dance hall. He picks up the story, thimble and needle in hand, remembering how he left his date behind in order to dance with the woman with whom he now spends his days crafting clothes that, viewers can imagine, feature in the couple’s customers’ own romances. The relationship of another pair, Marcelle and Léonce Debrossian, unfolds slowly throughout the film. They own the haberdashery and perfume store where Rosalie buys jasmine water in the opening scene. Léonce tells us they’ve been together for fifty years. As he recalls how they met, Marcelle paces and looks out their display window, barely glancing at the client who comes in to buy three buttons. She is a lot more interested in a mother and daughter who come seeking to buy some makeup, however. As they look at lipstick shades, Marcelle sneaks behind them. The camera tilts down, and we see her hand feeling the soft texture of the girl’s white coat, seeming to revel in the sensation, much as my five-year-old does with my blankets when he wakes me up in the morning. The mother and daughter are momentarily taken aback by this breach of etiquette but proceed as if nothing has happened, while we, the audience, come to realize that Léonce looks after not only his business every day but also his wife of half a century, whose mind seems to be lost in some gentle struggle with aging. Varda unravels their story gradually, over the course of the film, through small, poignant gestures that make their love resonant for viewers, so that it lingers long after the movie is over.
“Varda’s self-exploration is often linked to the attachment we feel to those dearest to us.”
The filmmaker brings the same gentle, playful spirit to her scrutiny of her own life. In The Beaches of Agnès, a documentary in which she explores her past and memory, she confesses that she feels no nostalgia for her childhood but does like to look at photographs from that time. In one photo, she wears a striped bathing suit, and in another, a large white bow. As if the Lilac Fairy had waved her wand, we cut to footage of two little girls dressed as she once was, playing among artificial flowers. Varda is by their side but tells us, “I don’t know what it means to recreate a scene like this. Do we relive the moment? For me, it’s cinema. It’s a game.”
Varda’s use of her films to ruminate on her life and career can result in some magnificently outlandish moments. In the 1969 fiction film Lions Love (. . . and Lies), made in California, where Varda, Demy, and Rosalie were living for a time, the New York–based experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke plays herself, in the midst of negotiations with a Hollywood studio to make a feature. In the story, Clarke becomes increasingly frustrated with the studio’s refusal to grant her creative control and decides to overdose on sleeping pills. After she takes the first pill, she stares into the camera and says, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it, Agnès.” She explains, “I certainly wouldn’t kill myself over not being able to make any goddamn movie.” The one thing she cares about, she says, is her daughter, Wendy. She walks off camera, and we hear her and Varda discussing the scene. Then Varda appears in Clarke’s shirt and takes the pills, while Clarke reminds her that her advice was always for Varda to play herself, because this, after all, is her story.
In this scene, we see two women filmmakers resist the studio system together and process what it means to work outside it. For me, however, it’s the mention of Wendy, the daughter Clarke loves, that generates the exchange’s greatest emotional heft. Varda’s self-exploration is often linked to the attachment we feel to those dearest to us—in her case, her husband and children. In The Gleaners and I (2000), she films her aging hands and her white hair, gently moving the camera in extreme close-up into what becomes an abstract meditation on the passage of time. In the film’s sequel, made two years later, she shares that, while interviewing her, writer Philippe Piazzo had mentioned that the close-ups of her hands and hair reminded him of the shots she’d captured of Demy in Jacquot de Nantes (1991).
Varda made Jacquot based on the childhood recollections Demy wrote down as he was dying of AIDS, intercutting reconstructed memories with the clips from his films they’d inspired. He would come to the set and watch his own past unfold before him, as staged by his wife. She also added intimate moments she filmed of her husband’s last days, trying to capture as much as she could of the man she would soon lose, and miss for the rest of her life. Her camera lovingly moves from close-ups of his graying hair to his skin, wounded by disease, to his eye, still luminous and observing the world. When Piazzo mentioned the connection between her own and Demy’s images, Varda cried, realizing she’d inadvertently mirrored her filming of Demy. The two movies, she says, are linked by a thread she didn’t intend to create but that was clearly visible to others. Now she could see it as well, and be moved by it. Some bonds leave imprints that go beyond our conscious understanding, digging deep into the most arcane corners of our being.
For me, the most poignant song in Demy’s body of work is sung by his wife’s untrained voice. At the end of Jacquot, she sings a lullaby about tides, seaweed, and wonder as she films him watching the sea, which her camera also turns to. She turns back to him, singing about two waves that have stayed in his eyes, two tears she can drown in. He smiles at her camera, and it’s impossible not to feel the tenacity of their connection and mourn its impending end. Demy died nine days after they finished shooting the film.
She wove her children and their sons just as deftly into her filmmaking. When we are introduced to them in Beaches, they’re dressed in white and appear a little translucent. They glow and blend into the trees behind them, while Varda, dressed in black, approaches them. She tells us that, though they are her happiness, she doesn’t know if she understands them. “I just go toward them,” she says, but she ends the scene before joining them, as if she’s never able to reach them but is thankful for the chance to try all the same.
It wasn’t until I had my first son that I learned to film images that reached viewers’ emotional cores. After he was born, I had many complex and undeniable feelings for this being that words could not explain, and I needed the camera and its prowess at capturing visual metaphors to help me untangle my love for him. In Documenteur (1981), I see Varda grapple with the same need to digest the intensity of motherhood. Mathieu plays Martin, the son of Émilie (editor Sabine Mamou). In the opening narration, Varda tells us that the woman is “most likely me” but that she doesn’t recognize herself in her. As Émilie sits on a pier next to her young son, Varda goes on, “There’s one face that bears every name for her: the face of this child.” And yet, like millions of mothers and children around the world, Émilie and Martin must learn to tame the intensity of their bond without losing it, to remain united while claiming their individual paths.
As Mathieu, now a director and actor, plays the role with such wistful authenticity, one imagines that he and his mother are working through similar issues as they collaborate on this project. Varda filmed her son throughout her career, bringing out honest and authentic performances in him, and no doubt continuing to work through what it means to give life to children and then watch them walk into adulthood—independent and yet attached through umbilical cables as they make their way in the world we can no longer protect them from.
Rosalie, a costume designer and the producer of Varda’s later projects, also appears in a few of her parents’ films. In One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), the story of a long friendship between two women, Pomme and Suzanne, she plays the seventeen-year-old Marie, Suzanne’s daughter, whom we first meet as a toddler plaintively crying at her father’s burial. Although her father’s suicide no doubt marked her, Suzanne—with Pomme’s help—has managed to raise Marie to be a self-assured feminist who takes charge of her sexuality and dreams of becoming a photographer or a Chinese interpreter. In the film’s final scene, we watch Pomme and Suzanne together, as Varda, the narrator, tells us “they’d fought to gain the happiness of being a woman.” They succeeded and opened doors for younger women, like Marie. As the camera pans to Rosalie, sitting pensively in the countryside, Varda says, “No one thought it would be easier for her but perhaps simpler and clearer.”
Like Pomme and Suzanne, Varda spent her life creating a world where generations to come would have a clearer path toward love, creativity, and enjoyment of life in all its whimsy and strangeness. It’s hard not to feel as though we’re all Rosalie when we watch that scene. We are the future that Varda worked toward. She has handed us her magic wand, and every time I watch one of her films, I know what I must do. I pick up my camera and record what the world looks like through my eyes.