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The Cinematic Mastery of Agnès Varda

Features - Film

The Cinematic Mastery of Agnes Varda

Agnès Varda made more than 40 films, paved the way for the nouvelle vague, shattered taboos, fought for political justice – and kept her sense of humor throughout it all

Words by Serge Kaganski
Images courtesy of Ciné-Tamaris

Even though it has already been four years since Agnès Varda left this world to join her husband Jacques Demy in the land of cinematic eternity, she is still omnipresent in our earthly reality. She seems more alive than ever thanks to the work of Ciné-Tamaris, a productive little beehive on Rue Daguerre founded by Varda in 1954, which is kept busy by her daughter, Rosalie Varda, and her son, Mathieu Demy. Its mission is to carry on the spirit and work of the great (in terms of talent), little (physically) artist in the least museum-like way possible.

Says Rosalie: “While presenting retrospectives around the world after Agnès’s death, I realized that the screening rooms were filled with young people – sometimes very young. At each screening, I would ask who had already seen the film being shown or any film by Agnès Varda. Three-quarters of the audience would say no. It made me realize that the younger generation felt close to her anyway and that if we wanted to pass on her spirit of curiosity and freedom and her talent as a filmmaker, we had to organize living projects, as if Agnès or Jacques were still here with us.”

That Agnès Varda’s personality and work speak to the younger generation is hardly surprising, given that she was a pioneer in every respect and that her artistic, political and social instincts are now more than ever in tune with the times. The most important quality in Vardaland is freedom. The daughter of a bourgeois family, she wasted no time in breaking with convention and the path laid out for her by her father. When she met the actor and director Jean Vilar in Sète through a mutual friend, the ceramist Valentine Schlegel, Varda proved herself to be a talented photographer by taking pictures of Vilar’s two emblematic settings, the Théâtre national populaire (T.N.P.) and the Festival d’Avignon.

She was also exercising her freedom when she used her father’s money to produce her first feature film, La Pointe courte, in 1954. Does the world realize to what extent she shattered all the codes, customs and expectations of the time? La Pointe courte kicked off the Nouvelle Vague five years before François Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) and six years before Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de souffle (Breathless).

She was a woman director at a time when they were very rare. And, by her own admission, she was not a film buff, had seen few films and knew little about cinema. She presented herself as a total autodidact. She took the plunge anyway, throwing herself wholeheartedly into the film. Her freedom of action is fully reflected in its artistic creativity, an incredible blend (for its time) of theatricality and neorealism, combining a documentary portrait of a modest fishing village and a modern movie examining a couple in crisis, all done with admirable control in its framing and the composition of shots.

Even today, La Pointe courte offers a lesson in boldness and freedom for many celebrated filmmakers, whose aesthetic innovations pale in comparison to Varda’s masterstroke. The author of La Pointe courte took advantage of this freedom throughout her career, using all available techniques (16mm, 35mm, black and white, color and digital beginning in the 2000s), alternating or mixing genres (documentary, fiction, essay, visual arts) and using all formats (feature-length, medium-length, short installations).

“With each film, she reinvented the narrative method,” says Rosalie. “She reshuffled the cards on how to film and how to establish a point of view. And she produced and financed her own films, which guaranteed her freedom. She used to say, ‘Chance is my best assistant.’ She edited her films at home, so she could stop whenever she wanted to see friends or make ratatouille.”

This freedom gave rise to films as beautiful, powerful and different as Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7), Le Bonheur, Daguerréo-types, Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond) and Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I). What filmmaker today could boast such a powerful, free and protean body of work?

Fantasy is freedom’s close cousin. Varda always worked hard, but she always had a smile on her face. She imbued her films with her sense of humor and playfulness, demonstrating that you could have fun while making art. She was serious about her work but hated serious, vain and pretentious people, those who give themselves more importance than they really have.

Traces of this joyous spirit abound in her work. In Cléo from 5 to 7, she added a (fake) short, silent burlesque film, Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald (The Fiancés of the Bridge Mac Donald), starring Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard. In Lions Love, she embraced the carpe diem spirit of hippie California, filming an ordinary life literally made up of love, idleness and fresh water (and a little marijuana). In Daguerréo-types, she tenderly poked fun at the characters and shopkeepers in her neighborhood. In Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès), she went so far as to create a sandy beach on her street in Paris and move her offices there – Alphonse Allais may have advocated moving cities to the countryside, but Varda invented “Paris by the Sea.” Her playful spirit runs throughout her life and work, right up to “Patatutopia,” an exhibition on the theme of the potato at the 2003 Venice Biennale, for the opening of which she arrived dressed as a potato. She had a joyful, childlike way of being at one with her work.

Toward the end of her career, Varda transformed herself into an aesthetic icon, a cartoon character, with her stubby figure and two-tone bowl cut in shades of mauve. “Even I was flabbergasted by that haircut,” admits Rosalie. “Agnès was a punk – in fact, my kids called her ‘Mamita punk’! She understood that creating a look, a character, helped cancel out her age.”

Yet Varda’s whimsy did not prevent her from being serious, melancholy and aware of life’s shadows. Let’s not forget that Cléo from 5 to 7 recounts the wanderings of a distraught woman awaiting the results of a medical examination for a possibly fatal disease; that in the sunny and colorful Le Bonheur (Happiness), a woman literally dies of love; that Documenteur is about Varda’s own depression; that Vagabond accompanies the dead-end drifting of a homeless woman; or that The Gleaners and I focuses on people who scavenge for free food. Varda was polite enough to never dwell on the dark side and to always use humor and creativity not as diversions from existential or social problems, but as a source of resistance and resilience to better confront and overcome life’s thorny problems.

"Agnès had a great talent for being in the right place at the right time and filming the right people." Rosalie Varda

Another of Varda’s enduring legacies is her commitment. Like a precise seismograph of all social and political evolutions, the author of L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, 1976) was progressive, feminist and environmentalist. Her commitment has never been dogmatic, aggressive or exclusionary; on the contrary, it has always been joyful, nuanced and an integral part of her artistic approach. In the United States, she documented the Black Power movement (Black Panthers) and hippie hedonism (Lions Love). She also paid homage to the Castro revolution (Salut les Cubains), participated in a collective documentary against the war in Vietnam (Loin du Vietnam, or Far from Vietnam), chronicled the reinvention of the couple (Le Bonheur), feminist struggles (Réponse de femmes, or Women Reply, and One Sings, the Other Doesn’t), precariousness (Vagabond), consumer waste and the proper use of recycling (The Gleaners and I). She paid homage to the Righteous of France who saved Jews during World War II (through an installation at the Panthéon in 2007) and gave leading roles in virtually all her films to women playing strong characters.

Varda was never a party activist and never made ideological speeches, but she was always committed to minorities and the disenfranchised through her art.

Rosalie remembers her mother’s almost infallible flair: “Agnès had a great talent for being in the right place at the right time and filming the right people. She was in the United States in ’67 during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and she met and filmed the Black Panthers in Oakland. She had the strength to put her cinematic desires into action through images.”

Rosalie has an intelligent view of her mother’s commitment. “I asked myself: ‘What was it like to be a feminist in 1951? To rebel against your family, to take up a camera and set up your own business?’ After Agnès’s stay in America, her feminism became more collective, with Planned Parenthood, Movement for Freedom of Abortion and Contraception, fighting for the right to birth-control pills and abortion. She discovered sisterhood, meeting Chantal Akerman and many other committed women, and holding meetings in her home. She and Jacques Demy also loaned out their home for clandestine abortions. And then she had Mathieu. Don’t forget that having a child at the age of 45 was a rare occurrence then. Agnès was a firm but cheerful feminist.”

In mentioning Mathieu, Rosalie points to another essential aspect of Agnès Varda: total coherence between her life and her work. Such coherence is not easy to achieve, and many artists do not behave in accordance with what their work would suggest (hence the need to separate artists and their work); their attitude is “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Varda was open and progressive in her work, and her life itself was almost a libertarian, independent, feminist work. Judge for yourself: she took up photography and then cinema (hyper-masculine circles at the time) without any training or experience whatsoever, had an affair with her youthful friend Schlegel, dressed as a man at the beginning of the 1950s, made decisions that were a male prerogative in the ’60s, conceived Rosalie with Antoine Bourseiller and then dumped him to raise her daughter alone (in 1958!). Then she had a long-term affair with Jacques Demy, who was bisexual, the two of them forming a magnificent artistic couple who was also a free couple, going through separations and reunions while each continued to do his or her own work. And, like Éric Rohmer, who founded Les Films du Losange, Varda created a company that guaranteed her artistic independence and freedom, Ciné-Tamaris.

Today’s youth may not realize it, but Varda cleared the way for them, breaking down a great many taboos, codes, rigid rules, customs and conservative attitudes. Most of their demands today simply endorse and reiterate things the pioneering filmmaker constructed and deconstructed.

On the subject of her legacy, we’ll leave the last word to her daughter: “At the end of her life, young people would stop her in the street. I’m not sure they’d seen her films, but they’d seen and heard about her in the media, or read something she’d written and remembered a phrase or an attitude. They’d say, ‘We love you.’ I found that very moving. She exuded love for others, and people loved her for more than just her work. She was capable of paying as much attention to an anonymous person in the street as to Martin Scorsese. I’d say that what remains is her freedom, her curiosity and her humanism. Agnès wasn’t an intellectual. She liked to relate to others. She didn’t know how to analyze a film. She said that critics, academics and researchers knew her cinema better than she did. Godard once said, ‘I don’t make films, I make cinema.’ I think Agnès did, too.”