CineMasters: Agnes Varda


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If you make your way through Paris’s 14th arrondissement and cut along a colourful, open air market street called rue Daguerre, you’ll find a pink studio with a photograph of a purple-haired lady pasted inside the window, facing out on passersby. Through that door is where Agnès Varda lives and works and has done so for 50 odd years – even documenting her neighbourhood’s shopkeepers in 1976’s Daguerrotypes and appearing in her abode with her cat and a cup of tea in her latest, 2017’s Faces Places.

It’s surely unusual that, as the so-called grandmother of the French New Wave and a pioneering member of the Left Bank Group, she is so readily available to fans of her work (please inform where someone could as easily locate Jean-Luc Godard’s home or studio address). However, this accessibility is remarkably suitable to Agnès Varda as a filmmaker and artist: she has selected across her oeuvre to turn outwards rather than inwards, observe others, engage in conversations, ask challenging social and political questions, and document her findings. She visibly continues to keep her curious, mischievous eye out on the rue Daguerre.

Despite her surprisingly easy availability to any such pilgriming fans, as well as her substantial output, Agnès Varda has been largely unavailable within the film canon itself. Her work is not as well-known, publicly lauded, or deeply studied as many of her male contemporaries[1]. This may be because she is a woman and tells her stories with a female subjectivity, or because she often works in documentary, or even because her subject matter follows her curiosity wherever that may lead – whether that be an analysis of marriage or of goats’ horns. But as Varda says herself: “When you start to have curiosity about a filmmaker, retrospectives allow you to dive into them. If you see one film, fine, but if you allow yourself to see five films by the same person you may notice something.”2 That being said, there’s no better starting place to pay just tribute to her work, engage one’s own curiosity and ‘notice something’ than at a retrospective such as this one.

Critic Jonathan Romney describes Agnès Varda’s career as “a crammed micro-history of modern French bohemianism,”3 and even a quick skim of her subjects across her seven working decades makes this ring true. Whether ahead of the historic curve or churning out apt work in the midst of it, Varda has an exceptional talent for thematic, socio-political, and technological relevance. 

Varda’s curiosity in people and places led her to meander from a 1950s documentary background in still photography, to defining the French New Wave with her first filmmaking escapade, La Pointe Courte (1955). Her creation is a restless, subtly-crafted portrait of a fading relationship set in a failing fishing town and is her first – to be repeated many times over – exercise in blending fiction (the lovers) and documentary (the real-life town and its people). This debut is also an early example of Varda’s shrewd eye for evoking meaning through textures: her poetic fascination with hands, feet, and the lines of faces contrasts strikingly with the rough, industrial materials of manual work, just as the lazy, intellectual quarrelling of the lovers contrasts with the injustice of the fishermen being told what they can and cannot catch.

Though Varda’s heavenly 1962 classic Cléo de 5 à 7 demonstrated her interest in female stories, it was the controversial Le Bonheur (1965) that asked a timely, and definitely thorny, question: what are women agreeing to when they marry, and just how far-reaching is this social contract? Though saturated with irony and devised as an emotional fable, at the time of its release Le Bonheur was often taken at face value, to the detriment of its reputation and popularity. However, to those who spotted the wink, the film publicly signalled Varda’s commitment to 1960s and 1970s socio-political activism. Her direct engagement would later branch to the feminist movement (Varda’s pro-choice stance on abortion is beyond blatant in 1977’s sprawling musical One Sings, The Other Doesn’t), Californian hippie culture (such as 1969’s Lions Love), and the Black Panther movement (in 1968 shorts Black Panthers and Huey).

 A by-product of Varda’s political activism was a tendency to unforgivingly confront her viewer with our rougher social truths, and demand both reflection and action. This approach is at its clearest in 1980’s Vagabond, a tough drama following strong-headed Mona, a woman unsettled with our poisonous social contracts, as she ventures alone only to be found frost-covered in a ditch. Varda inserts herself into the story by interviewing various characters regarding their experiences with Mona, lending the film a pseudo-documentary style and an added layer of identification, two devices that rally a feeling of social responsibility when it comes to marginalized figures: how can we see this reality so starkly, and yet do nothing?

The Gleaners and I (2000) similarly intersects politics and filmmaking, again putting social issues in extreme close-up and focusing on a marginalized community: those who ‘glean.’ The gleaners are those who scavenge a field after harvest, an alley for abandoned treasure, or a dumpster for cherished refuse – or, who sifts through a community for her next film’s subject! The digital era of hand-held filmmaking enabled Varda to seek inspiration solo and play with form and angles in a way previously impossible; without the need of a crew, she was able to engage with her documentary subjects on a more personal level. And, by working alone, if she chose to spend some time examining her new gray hairs, she could indeed follow that whim.

Which brings us to the other end of Romney’s so-called micro-history. In the contemporary Faces Places, sprightly, 89-year-old Varda and her co-conspirator, the charming, young, and inaccessibly-dark glassed JR, rollick around the French countryside, embarking on a photo installation project in a camera/printer/truck. With only a vague idea to set them on the road, the delightful dynamic of a comedy duo, and the unspoken commitment to treat every ordinary person as a muse, Varda and JR create a fascinating study of age and memory, artistic and familial legacy, and what the stuff is that holds us all together. 

Varda’s diverse oeuvre is nonetheless tied together by a series of single threads. One thread is a fundamental interest in people – taken as they are and viewed in kindly close-up. Another is an underlying need to rally social responsibility – to take care of these people that we learn from observing. And a last is an appeal to enjoy ourselves – to be impish and curious, to follow our fancies and to celebrate faces. In the words of Truffaut, “Agnès Varda has fun making her films, so we may have fun watching them.”4 Indeed – let’s.

Sophie Tupholme
Freelance writer


 [1] 2 Reardon, Kiva. “’Curiosity is a good thing’: An Interview with Agnès Varda.” cléo journal, vol. 6, issue 1, 2018. http://cleojournal.com/2018/04/11/curiosity-is-a-good-thing. Accessed 27 August 2018.

3 4 Romney, Jonathan. “Film of the Month: The Beaches of Agnès.” Sight and Sound, 20 December 2011, http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/review/5146. Accessed 27 August 2018.


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