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Agnès Varda. Photo: Martin Kraft/Wikipedia.
Agnès Varda. Photo: Martin Kraft/Wikipedia.

Agnès Varda (1928–2019)

Agnès Varda—the French New Wave director whose curious spirit and merging of radical politics with personal life made her one of contemporary filmmaking’s most inspiring figures—has died at ninety years old. According to a statement released by her family, Varda passed away in her home on Thursday, March 29, due to complications from cancer.

Born Arlette Varda on May 30, 1928, in Ixelles, Belgium, Varda changed her name to Agnès when she was eighteen years old. She studied art history at the École du Louvre and photography at the École des Beaux-Arts and worked as the official photographer for Jean Vilar’s Theatre National Populaire before transitioning into filmmaking with the groundbreaking La Pointe Courte (1956), considered to be the first film of the Nouvelle Vague. The work—a precursor to films by Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard—was produced by Varda’s own small company, Ciné-Tamaris, with a budget a tenth the size of French films at the time, according to Criterion. Varda made La Pointe Courte with no formal training and used a mix of professional and amateur actors.

Varda’s second feature, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)—which follows a singer waiting to hear the results of a medical test—screened at the Cannes Film Festival and received international recognition. Many inventive works followed, including the musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977); Vagabond (1985), which won the Golden Lion in Venice; and Kung-Fu Master (1988), which explored generational divides through a fictional tale of a forty-year-old divorcée who falls in love with her daughter’s fourteen-year-old classmate. 

Varda married director Jacques Demy in 1962 and relocated to Hollywood, where she made Lions Love (1969) and filmed the short documentary Black Panthers (1968). After Demy’s death in 1990, she made three films in honor of his legacy: Jacquot de Nantes (1991), Les Demoiselles Ont Eu 25 Ans (1993), and L’Univers de Jacques Demy (1995). A longtime women’s rights activist, Varda was one of the 343 women to sign the 1971 Manifesto of the 343, a French petition endorsed by women who declared that they had abortions when it was still illegal in France. In addition to reproductive rights, her films approached taboo subjects such as death and the female body.  

Varda fully entered the art world in 2003, when she participated in the Venice Biennale (she arrived dressed as a potato, a reference to her beloved 2001 documentary The Gleaners and I). Discussing her first installation in the United States, Varda said in a 2009 interview with Artforum: “I’ve been making films for so long, for over fifty years now, but I really think I have two paths of work—cinema and installation.”

In 2017, Varda became the first female director to receive an honorary Oscar, and in 2018, her documentary Faces Places, a collaborative project with French artist JR on the heroism of daily life, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Her final film, Varda by Agnès, an autobiographical work, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year. In a review of the festival for Artforum, Travis Jeppesen called it “a breathtaking self-portrait of an artist at the height of her powers.”

“It seems that my films stay in people’s memories, or in people’s minds, as meaning something,” Varda told the feminist film journal cléo. “For me that’s the best thing: to exist in other people’s minds.” She continued: “The world is difficult and things go to pieces very often. But to create things, to make people witnesses of links, we don’t hurt anybody with this.”