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PRINT Summer 2019

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AGNÈS VARDA

IN THE SPRING OF 2017, I accompanied two friends on a visit to Agnès Varda’s home on the rue Daguerre, in Paris, where she lived from the early 1950s until her death on March 29 at age ninety. In 1954, Varda mounted her first photography exhibition in the narrow, light-filled courtyard that bisects this house on a street named for the pioneering nineteenth-century French photographer. You may have seen the space in one of her documentaries: Varda seated on a plant-lined stone stairway with a cat nearby, talking to the camera, drawing us into her cinematic world. The house was filled with images and objects gleaned from her personal and professional life. She had lived here with her children, Rosalie and Mathieu, and her filmmaker husband, Jacques Demy, who died in 1990. The offices of Ciné-Tamaris, the company through which she produced all her films—from the first, La Pointe Courte (1955), to the last, Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès, 2019)—occupied several rooms. Over lunch, we talked about movies, art, and politics. At some point, the conversation turned to the French New Wave, that transformational corps of French-language filmmakers, among whom Varda was the only woman and one of the last still working. Varda remarked that there was a lot she wanted to do, but she had no argument with death. “It will be an ending,” she said.

Agnès Varda, Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7), 1962, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes. Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) and Cléo (Corinne Marchand).

Born in Ixelles, Belgium, in 1928, Varda grew up in Sète, a seaport in southwest France. She studied art and philosophy in Paris and got a job as a staff photographer for Jean Vilar’s Théâtre National Populaire, the leftist counterpart to the Comédie-Française. Varda’s portraits of the Théâtre’s great stars—Gérard Philipe and Maria Casares among them—and her images of friends and neighbors, of landscapes and seascapes (“If we opened me up, we’d find beaches,” she says in 2008’s auto-biographical Les plages de Agnès [The Beaches of Agnès]), evince her precocious talent as a still photographer. The pictures are not only elegantly composed but also reveal an empathy with her subjects that is rare in someone so young. But having seen only about ten movies in her life, and not liking some of them—for example, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1939), because it valorized its heroine for cleaning the seven dwarves’ house without pay—she decided to use a small amount of family money to make a narrative film. A love story set in Sète, the fishing village she knew well, and shot in black-and-white, La Pointe Courte mixes documentary and fictional elements, setting in motion the filmmaking strategy that would define her practice almost in its entirety. She recruited her friend Alain Resnais, more sophisticated than she about film history and aesthetics, to edit. Like the other directors who would comprise the French New Wave, Resnais was still a few years away from making his first feature, which would be Hiroshima mon amour (1959). La Pointe Courte became the first film of the movement, likely the reason Varda was dubbed “the mother” and sometimes even “the grandmother” of a group of filmmakers who were roughly the same age as she. She was also referred to as “the little Varda,” which, she understood, was a way to infantilize a woman whose films were as powerful and visionary as those of her colleagues.

Agnès Varda, Le bonheur (Happiness), 1965, 35 mm, color, sound, 85 minutes. François (Jean-Claude Drouot) and Émilie (Marie-Françoise Boyer).

It took her seven years to make a second feature, Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962). The film has been celebrated for its use of real time to make us aware of subjective time—specifically, how time slows and quickens for Cléo, a pop star who is waiting for the result of a breast-cancer test. But the fetishiziation of this striking formal aspect shields us from what is truly radical about the film: the depiction of the terror women feel when dealing with the possibility of having cancer, and breast cancer in particular. (Nearly sixty years later, Varda died of the disease.) The heroines of New Wave movies were hardly immortal, but they died with their beauty intact. Only Varda could read a newspaper article about women and cancer and decide that she needed to make it the basis of a narrative movie.

Agnès Varda, L’une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t), 1977, 35 mm, color, sound, 120 minutes.

A piece of journalism also inspired her masterpiece Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985). A brief report about an unidentified homeless woman found frozen to death inspired a film that examines the social contract, namely its implicit rules of behavior and action for women, and the mortal danger in refusing to comply. Varda opens with the discovery of the corpse and then reconstructs the last months in the life of a young woman, whom she names Mona, through the impressions she made on people she encountered while wandering a desolate rural area near the sea during the off-season. Mona is embodied by a defiant, angry Sandrine Bonnaire (Varda gave the fledgling actor license to inhabit the character as she saw fit), but the strangers she meets are played by a mix of professionals and nonactors, giving their interactions with Mona a near-documentary spontaneity. These scenes are bracketed by thirteen extended lateral tracking shots that move from right to left, i.e., into the past of a woman with no future. As in Cléo, the formal constraint lends the film its gravity. Mona cannot escape the prison of patriarchal expectations, and her attempts to do so make her demise a tragic inevitability.

Agnès Varda, Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès), 2008, digital video, color, sound, 110 minutes. Agnès Varda.

“People are at the heart of my work,” Varda explained. “Real people.” More often than not, they were women.

It would be wrong to define Varda’s work through her masterpiece. “I live in cinema,” she said, and her restless journey through that world inspired an oeuvre that is large and wildly varied. What is consistent is the eye of the woman behind the camera; Varda sometimes explained, “People are at the heart of my work. Real people.” More often than not, they were women. Thus among her features are Le bonheur (Happiness, 1965), both a scathing depiction of heterosexual marriage and the first proof of her brilliance as a colorist, and L’une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, 1977), in which she took on what was then and still is the feminist movement’s most crucial and vexed issuea woman’s right to control her body, specifically her reproductive system. (Varda was one of “the 343” prominent women who signed a 1971 manifesto publicly admitting that they had had illegal abortions.) There are two films about her husband, Jacquot de Nantes (1991) and L’univers de Jacques Demy (The World of Jacques Demy, 1995), which are almost as revealing of the woman behind the camera as of their subject in their insistence that cinema connects us in life and in death.

Agnès Varda, Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond), 1985, 35 mm, color, sound, 105 minutes. Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire).

And there is Daguerreotypes (1976), the exquisite documentary about the people who live and work on her street, which now seems like a precursor to the series of movies she made in this century, when small digital cameras allowed her to travel all over France, filming strangers as easily as she would talk to them. She was ever curious and therefore gregarious, and the smaller devices let her communicate with her subjects without the imbalance of power that heavy film cameras inevitably create. As a documentary, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 2000), shot with an early digital camcorder, is a revelation. The Beaches of Agnès and Visages Villages (Faces Places, 2017), the latter a collaboration with the photographer JR, are joyously humanist works. As she reinvented her filmmaking practice, Varda also began making installations that combined moving and still images and concrete objects. The first, Patatutopia, 2003, which showed the life cycle of the heart-shaped potatoes she discovered while making The Gleaners and I, was exhibited at the 2003 Venice Biennale. She attended the opening costumed as a potato. Her series of “Cabanes du cinéma” (Cinema Shacks, 2006–18), constructed of 35-mm celluloid strips clipped from prints of her films, gives new life to materials rendered nearly obsolete by digital projection. Le tombeau de Zgougou (The Tomb of Zgougou, 2006), a video of the flower-and-seashell-covered grave of a much-loved cat, is permanently installed in a wooden hut in the garden of the Fondation Cartier in Paris.

Agnès Varda, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I), 2000, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes. Agnès Varda.

Varda’s final film, Varda par Agnès, premiered at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, where she was given a lifetime—achievement award, one of many such tributes she received in recent years, including an “Honorary Oscar” in 2017, the first given to a woman. In the film, she sprints through her entire oeuvre, editing together film clips, photos, onstage conversations and lectures, and tête-a-têtes with friends. Toward the end, she’s on the beach with JR, setting up a shot for Faces Places. “The sea has the last word, and the wind, and the sand,” she says in voice-over. “JR and I imagined ending the film this way. Disappearing in a sandstorm. I think this is how I’ll end this chat. Disappearing in the blur. Leaving you.” And so she did, leaving everyone whom she guided through this lovely last work drenched in tears.

But not so fast. The poster for this year’s Cannes Film Festival featured an image of Varda behind the camera, balancing on the shoulders of a burly assistant as she lined up a shot for La Pointe Courte. Huge blowups of the poster were plastered on the facades of the participating theaters. Never again “the little Varda,” she is forever a giant in the world of the cinema, the world in which she lived. 

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.