In the clip above, renowned (and beloved) French filmmaker Agnés Varda holds a TED talk in Venice Beach back in 2017. In it she talks about her career and the three themes that have guided her in life – inspiration, creation and sharing – and what that means in practice. Varda held this lecture on many occasions and it forms the basis of her last film, the documentary Varda by Agnés, which I saw at a press screening just two days before she died at the age of 90 last Friday. It’s a good introduction to her life’s work.
Born in Brussels, Agnés Varda spent World War II together with her family in southern France, where her mother came from. She studied at the Sorbonne (an unhappy experience), and later at a school of photography. The art of still photography came to shape much of her career, as a filmmaker (her movies often featured still photos) and as an artist, her work the subject of museum exhibitions in various countries.
Varda made her first movie, La Pointe Courte, in 1954 because she became interested in the medium. Having virtually no experience, she learned the craft. The film was seen as a precursor to the French New Wave, and Varda was indeed suited for that style, approaching her films from a feminist and realistic perspective – her films would come to blend fiction with documentary. La Pointe Courte was talked about, but not a hit in theaters, so it took many years for Varda to make another feature film. But she did get to know another New Wave icon at this time, Alain Resnais, who was reportedly very impressed by La Pointe Courte.
In 1962, Varda made what would become her most famous film, Cléo from 5 to 7, where we follow a woman waiting for the results of a medical test. The film was shown at the Cannes festival and has become a feminist New Wave classic, that also featured cameos by Jean-Luc Godard, Michel Legrand and Eddie Constantine. Once again, fiction and documentary become one and Cléo’s perspective felt fresh at the time, not least since New Wave films were usually made by men.
Over the years, Varda emerged as a feminist icon primarily thanks to her work, launched a production company and married the love of her life, fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy; in 1991, the year after his death, she chronicled his life and art in the film Jacquot de Nantes. In 2008, she made the documentary The Beaches of Agnés, the first of several very creative autobiographical films, followed by the Oscar-nominated Faces Places in 2017 and then Varda by Agnés in 2019. These movies also endeared us to her as a charming, sweet and very intelligent person in front of the camera, not just behind it. In the clip above from Faces Places, she pokes fun at Godard while speeding through the Louvre, aided by her partner in crime, JR.
Agnés Varda received an honorary Palme d’Or and Oscar; her film Vagabond also won the Golden Lion at the Venice festival in 1985. On the news of her death, her legacy was celebrated by many, perhaps most touchingly by Ava DuVernay on Twitter:
Last year at Cannes, Agnès Varda invited me to breakfast. She spoke of how she was in the last year of her life. About choices. And change. I told her what she meant to me. She held my hand as I did. Merci, Agnes. For your films. For your passion. For your light. It shines on. pic.twitter.com/NP2FSJACY9
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) 29 mars 2019