The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
“Je résiste. I’m still fighting. I don’t know how much longer, but I’m still fighting a struggle, which is to make cinema alive and not just make another film, you know?”
—Agnès Varda, “An Interview with Agnès Varda,” The Believer, October 1, 2009
Summing up Agnès Varda is nigh impossible; reducing her down to a single quote futile. There are words I might use to describe her—creative, ambitious, whimsical, pragmatic—but these feel remissive in their temperance. Simply put, Varda’s work is what epitomizes her, each feature, short film, photograph, and installation a breath of life. In elaborating on her concept of cinécriture, or “cinematic writing,” she affirms that it’s not “illustrating a screenplay, not adapting a novel, not getting the gags of a good play, not any of this. I have fought so much since I started… for something that comes from emotion, from visual emotion, sound emotion, feeling, and finding a shape for that, and a shape which has to do with cinema and nothing else.”
But before all this, she was born, on May 30, 1928, in Ixelles, Brussels. Her mother, Christiane, was French; her father, Eugène, Greek. Varda’s delicate facial features, bold, defined brows, and dark hair (typically set in that now-iconic bowl cut, which became two-toned as she aged) reflect her heritage. Originally called Arlette, she was the third of five children. Unlike many of the French New Wave filmmakers with whom she’s associated, Varda didn’t begin as a film critic. When she made her first film, La pointe courte (1956), she wasn’t even particularly cinephilic, claiming to have seen only three or four films up to that point. Rather, her background was in literature and photography. She studied the former at the Sorbonne and the latter at the l'Ecole Technique de Cinématographie et de Photographie; she also studied psychology while at the Sorbonne and art history at the Ecole du Louvre. For ten years, Varda was the official photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire (TNP) in Paris, under the tutelage of theater director Jean Vilar. During this time she moved to Rue Daguerre in the 14th arrondissement, where she spent the rest of her life (except for two sojourns in Los Angeles) and first met Alain Resnais, who not only edited La pointe courte, but introduced Varda to cinephilia and the cinephiles whom would later become her contemporaries, such as Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard. She is considered part of the New Wave’s Left Bank group, along with Resnais, Marker, and Varda’s later husband, Jacques Demy; furthermore, she’s the only female director affiliated with the New Wave.
La pointe courte is a decidedly auspicious debut that portended the New Wave proper by several years, leading many to consider Varda the “mother” or “godmother” (or, more frustratingly, the “grandmother”) of the movement. A mix of neo-realistic, avant-garde, documentary, and fictional modes, Varda’s debut is structured similarly to William Faulkner’s 1939 novel The Wild Palms. In the film—set in the titular fishermen’s district in Sète—Varda combines two disparate stories: In one, a man (Philippe Noiret), who was born in the area, and his Parisian wife (Silvia Monfort) attempt to mend their broken relationship; in the other, the locals experience the joys and trials of daily life as they’re forbidden by authorities from fishing in a nearby lagoon allegedly due to there being bacteria in it. Noiret and Monfort were both actors at the Théâtre National Populaire, while the locals, whose scenes arguably comprise the best in the film, were all portrayed by non-actors. Varda’s Brechtian approach with Noiret and Monfort (likely a result of Vilar’s influence) stands in stark contrast to the naturalistic performances she elicits from the villagers. No less than André Bazin himself was an admirer of the film, writing that “[e]verything in it is simple and natural and at the same time, shorn and composed.” One might even notice a particularly stylized shot that’s similar to one in Ingmar Bergman’s later Persona (1966). With La pointe courte also came Ciné-Tamaris (known as Tamaris Films until 1975), the production and distribution company that Varda founded and which has produced or distributed, or both, many of her films, along with some of those made by Demy and their son Mathieu.
Varda’s next films—Ô saisons, ô châteaux; L’opéra-mouffe; and Du côté de la côte, all made in 1958—augured another important part of her career: her shorts. Some of these account for her best work, the compact form giving her the freedom that feature-length filmmaking did not. Furthermore, as Kelley Conway notes in her book on Varda for the Contemporary Film Directors series, “[f]rom the 1940s through the 1960s in France, short films were ubiquitous, initially because they were quite profitable. A 1940 law had outlawed the double feature and put in place a mechanism whereby 3 percent of the gross receipts of a full program (the short plus the feature film) would go to the producer of the short film.” Ô saisons, ô châteaux and Du côté de la côte were both commissions by the French Government Tourist Office, intended to promote tourism in their respective regions. In these we find a continuation of Varda’s dialectic of documentary and fiction, with a focus on places and the people in them, specifically laborers and other neglected figures. As Sandy Flitterman-Lewis notes in the 1996 edition of her book To Desire Differently (still considered a definitive evaluation of Varda’s work), “Varda regarded neither film as a serious cinematic statement; she did, however, view the situation pragmatically, concluding that this might be a way to obtain recognition and financial backing from producers wary of the experimental nature of La pointe courte.” L’opéra-mouffe, filmed on Rue Mouffetard when she was pregnant with her first child, Rosalie, is an essay film which speaks to the more avant-garde motifs that punctuate her work. Per Flitterrman-Lewis, it also “marked a turning-point for her, as she began to see the cinema as an ideal means to express what she was coming to perceive as her own personal—and feminist—vision.” Flitterrman-Lewis likewise notes that “[Varda] views each [of her shorts]… as a sort of ‘experimental laboratory’ or ‘exploration,’ and from these earliest films to the later examples she demonstrates an astonishing originality and versatility in matters of both subject and of treatment.”
In 1958, Varda met Demy at the Festival de Tours, a short film festival where Ô saisons, ô châteaux was screening. They married in 1962, the same year Varda released her second (and possibly best-known) feature, Cléo from 5 to 7, considered by many a key feminist cinematic text. The titular Cléo (Corinne Marchand) is a vain pop star waiting for test results from her doctor—the duration of the film (90 minutes rather than the two hours indicated in the film’s title; Andy Warhol liked the film but reportedly told Varda that he would have really made it between 5 and 7 p.m.) consists of Cléo going about her day while she waits. She shops with her assistant, meets with her songwriters (one of whom is played by Demy’s frequent collaborator Michel Legrand), visits with a friend working as a nude model, and, finally, meets Antoine, a soldier on leave from the Algerian War. More than a mere character study, it’s a depiction of a character’s evolution, as an insipid woman who cares for little beyond youth and beauty comes to better know herself and the world in which she lives. Varda intertwines feminism and existentialism to examine not just what it means to be a person, but what it specifically means to be a woman, this woman. As Flitterman-Lewis writes, “[t]he film traces the process by which Cléo, the woman-as-spectacle, becomes transformed into an active social participant, rupturing the oppressive unity of identity and vision and appropriating the gaze for herself in a new appreciation of others in the world around her.” Within the film is another film, Les fiancés du pont Macdonald (1962), playing at the theater where Cléo’s friend’s boyfriend works, in which Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina appear. Cléo effectively launched Varda’s career and remains the film by which many viewers discover her work.
Varda’s background as a photographer informs her filmmaking, from how she hones in on specific subjects to her incisive shot compositions. Her photo work comprises some of her best achievements, and it’s nakedly on display in her 1963 short Salut les cubains, made after a trip to Cuba at the invitation of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos. Varda took over 4,000 photos there, and 1,500 of them appear via stop-motion style animation in the documentary. Varda’s first political film, it was made four years after Fidel Castro rose to power; he appears in the film, and Varda says in voiceover narration that “[h]e incarnates Cuba the way Gary Cooper incarnates the wild west.” The film pares the Cuban Revolution down to “socialism and cha-cha-cha”; in her essay on the film for cléo journal’s Varda issue, Sarah-Tai Black astutely notes that it “leaves much to be desired in terms of its lasting political efficacy. As a study of Varda’s filmic architectures, however, it remains a necessary example of the harmonies between political idealism and the eclectic intimacies of image-making.”
Almost in direct contrast, her next film, Le bonheur (1964), Varda’s first feature in color, relies on bright, Technicolor compositions to portray a nuclear family in quiet disarray. One of her most controversial works, it depicts a man (Jean-Claude Drouot, whose real-life wife, Claire Drouot, and their children also star in the film) who blithely has an affair, resulting in his wife’s death by suicide, after which he briefly mourns, then takes up with his mistress as if nothing had happened. Many consider the film one of Varda’s best, with the director herself having some of the most interesting opinions about it. In a 1965 interview with Jean-Andre Fieschi and Claude Ollier for Cahiers du cinéma, she said, “What’s for sure is that I didn’t make the film thinking about what peoples’ reactions would be and their reactions have been pretty difficult for me.” She continued: “I started out with very minimal impressions, very small feelings: family photos. In one you can make out a group of people sitting around a table, under a tree, their glasses raised, smiling at the camera. When you see the photo, you say, ‘That’s happiness.’ It’s the first impression. When you look more closely you get an uneasy feeling; all these people, it’s simply not possible, there are fifteen people in the picture, old people, women, children; it’s not possible they could have all been happy at the same moment… Or else you wonder, what is happiness since they all look so happy?" The film represents other, less-discussed facets of Varda’s persona: her occasional tendency toward darkness and her capricious pragmatism, which are at odds with the naif personality audiences (especially those familiar mostly with her later work) ascribe to her.
Varda’s next feature was one of her biggest critical and commercial flops. A quasi-science fiction tale, Les créatures (1966) stars Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve as a married couple. After a car accident at the beginning of the film, Deneuve’s character becomes mute, and Piccoli’s character, a writer, spends his days wandering around the island of Noirmoutier where they live (and where Varda and Demy had another home) until he inexplicably becomes embroiled in the sinister goings-on of a local crackpot. It’s an interesting failure, if it should even be termed as such; New Yorker critic Richard Brody, in a recent re-evaluation of the film, wrote that “Varda transformed science fiction into a subject in her own image—she did so even more radically and more personally, and the extremes of her ideas may be exactly why Les créatures has wrongly fallen by the wayside of film history.” The film assumed another life as the walls of one Varda’s “cinema shacks,” installations which she created from old 35mm release prints of this film and Le bonheur to re-appropriate films once considered failures.
Varda and Demy moved to Los Angeles in 1967 when Columbia Pictures gave Demy the opportunity to make a film in America. There, Varda explored 1960s American counterculture by way of two short films, Uncle Yanco (1968) and Black Panthers (1970). The former, in which Varda reunites with a distant relative on her father’s side, is a barrage of color and freedom. (“I met Yanco, this marvelous man, one Thursday,” Varda said in a 1982 interview with François Aude and Jean-Pierre Jeancolas for Positif, “and we filmed Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. It was a wrap! During the whole thing I was emotionally engaged and happy to be filming. We shot the film while I was in the throes of imagination.”) Black Panthers, another of Varda’s forays into political filmmaking, provides an outsider's perspective on the revolutionary organization; Varda documents gatherings and protests held in response to Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton’s arrest for the alleged murder of a police officer. Conway notes that the film adheres to “an expository style that bears little trace of the reflexivity and performative quality of her other documentaries,” which, given the subject, feels appropriate.
Also made while she was in Los Angeles, Lions Love (... and Lies) (1969) is, like Les créatures, another one of the sporadic, incoherent texts that accent Varda’s oeuvre. Featuring Warhol superstar Viva, Hair co-creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado, and independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke, it’s a freewheeling look at the agony and the ecstasy of the era, as the stars revel in their respective creative and sexual pursuits against the backdrop of civil unrest, specifically the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Flitterman-Lewis writes that “Varda prefers to think of [it] as a ‘film-collage’ in which a variety of intersecting elements, from movie myths and the American underground to psychodrama and political assassination, combine to produce an analysis of the peculiar intertwining of sex and politics that forms American cultural ideology.”
Back in France, Varda made Nausicaa (1970), a story about Greek exiles, for French television. It was censored at the time due to its implicit critique of Greece’s military regime. In 1972, Varda and Demy’s son Mathieu was born. The films she made during this period—Réponse de femmes (1975), Daguerréotypes (1976), and One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)—center on home and family, and, in some cases, a woman’s right not to pursue them. Réponse de femmes, originally formulated as a sketch for an Antenne 2 program called “W is for Woman,” focuses on women's bodies, with images of women in various stages of life depicted nude. Daguerréotypes, a quintessentially Varda-style documentary about her neighbors and life on Rue Daguerre, is the filmmaker’s fullest appreciation of her beloved home. Working from her house (as a young mother would be wont to do), Varda appropriated a long electric line that she referred to as an umbilical cord to interview neighbors and local shopkeepers within a 90-meter radius.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) is a full-fledged feminist musical about two friends as they grow into womanhood. It’s among Varda’s more expressly political works, as it was made partially in response to (and, to some extent, even re-creates, with feminist lawyer Gisèle Halimi appearing) the landmark 1968 Bobigny abortion trial, during which Varda herself was one of the 343 women who co-signed a manifesto that appeared in the magazine Nouvel Observateur declaring they’d had an abortion. Flitterman-Lewis writes that while Varda’s “more avowedly feminist films… are quite explicit in their concern with women’s issues, they fail to offer a serious challenge to dominant structures of representation, a challenge which forms the core of any alternative cinema,” citing Cléo from 5 to 7 and Le bonheur as films that do so. Varda might disagree: “That’s why I had to take on this subject: an all-out attack on maternity,” she said in a 1977 interview with Jean Narboni, Serge Toubiana, and Dominique Villain for Cahiers du cinéma. “Access to abortion free of guilt. Giving up children for adoption. The horror of parental authority. Love of children, others’ children as well. Contraception. New laws. Sex ed. Love of men. The desire to have a child. Paternal tenderness. Broken families. The beauty of pregnancy. The right to one’s identity with or without children. It’s no longer a film, it’s an encyclopedia.” Varda also traveled to Iran with two of the film’s stars to shoot scenes for the movie, and the short film Plaisir d’amour en Iran emerged as a result.
Varda later returned to Los Angeles and made Mur Murs (1980), a documentary about murals in the city, the colorful tableaus a fitting subject for her. She also made the feature Documenteur (1981), about a young, French mother (played by her frequent editor Sabine Mamou), recently separated from her partner, as she attempts to move on in Los Angeles with her son, played by Mathieu. Conway notes in her book that “[t]he film remains Varda’s personal favorite, offering further elements of fragmented self-portraiture at a time when Varda’s prodigious creativity was offset by a painful isolation,” referring to a several-year separation from Demy. (The two reunited in 1988.) There are references to the former film in the latter; together the films comprise a double feature that again represents Varda’s ongoing convergence of documentary and self-reflexive modes, even across films.
Back in France, she made a series of shorts: Ulysse (1982); Les dites cariatides (1984); and 7p., cuis., s. de b., ... à saisir (1984). In the first, Varda re-evaluates an old photograph she had taken in 1954 that depicts a nude man and child near a dead goat that had fallen off a cliff onto the beach. In an interview with François Wera for Ciné-Bulles, Varda connects the concept of the film to that of cinema overall. “What interested me was not only to question my memory and time,” she said, “but to question the image itself, the representation of memory, to question the relationship between memory and representation. And that is what the cinema is all about: a re-examination of time, movement and especially the image.” Les dites cariatides, a commission for French television, explores the elegant caryatid statues around Paris, a visual journey complemented with poetry from Varda’s favorite poet Charles Baudelaire. Finally, 7p., cuis., s. de b., ... à saisir is a surrealistic endeavor that Varda called a “totally free film.”
In 1985 Varda made one of her most critically acclaimed and commercially successful films, Vagabond. Sandrine Bonnaire stars as Mona, an opaque young woman sans toit ni loi—without shelter or law, as the original French title is often translated. The film could be thought of as a feminist Citizen Kane, as the story is structured similarly to that of Welles’ masterpiece, except that the substance of Mona’s character development is conveyed through documentary-like idylls with people who encounter her in her travels. The film begins with someone finding her dead, then goes backward in time. “In its move from narrative fragmentation to cohesion,” writes Flitterman-Lewis, “its final revelation of the answer to Mona’s death, Vagabond brings us no closer to her ‘truth’ that to a satisfying resolution: The interweaving of interpretations, the critical engagement with meaning, the experience of a diverse social tapestry are all of much more consequence to our participation in the text.” Varda’s cinematic grammar is on full display here, as left-to-right tracking shots and musical interludes serve as ellipses representing the inherent discursiveness of Mona’s existence.
A few years later, Varda made another portrait of a woman, this time decidedly less opaque. In contrast to to a film about a girl nobody knew, in Jane B. par Agnes V. (1988), Varda pulls back the curtain on a woman everyone thinks they know, actress and singer Jane Birkin. Out of this film, in which the women together envisage Birkin in various fictional scenarios, came another: Kung-Fu Master! (1988). Based on a story by Birkin, this audacious film imagines a romantic relationship between a 40-year-old mother and a 14-year-old boy, played by Varda’s son Matthieu. It was filmed during a break from Jane B. par Agnes V., the latter resumed after Kung-Fu Master was completed. Alison Smith notes in her 1998 book Agnes Varda for the French Film Directors Series, “Kung-Fu Master! is thus, temporally, surrounded by, or wrapped in Jane B., and rather than to refer to them as twins one should perhaps think of them as mother-film and offspring—an image which obviously fits the subject.” The practice precedes both films, but Varda’s casting of friends and family is particularly conspicuous here.
Varda’s next several films center on Demy, who passed away in 1990: Jacquot de Nantes (1991), an affecting documentary-fiction hybrid about his childhood; The Young Girls Were 25 Years Old (1993), centered on the making of Demy’s 1967 film The Young Girls of Rochefort; and The World of Jacques Demy (1993/1995), about his illustrious career overall. This portends the later part of Varda’s output, in which the director’s life is explicitly on display. Varda’s love for her late husband would become a continuous preoccupation, whether in her films, in interviews, or on social media. In his review of Jacquot de Nantes, Roger Ebert eloquently writes of the film, which was made while Demy was dying, “[It] begins and ends with Demy on the beach, looking out at the sea, and then with closeups of the grains of sand that run out through his fingers. It is not a sad film, however. It is a film about a boy lucky enough to discover how he wanted to spend his life, and to spend it that way.”
In 1995, Varda made One Hundred and One Nights, another less-than-successful outlier, but a fun one all the same. It’s a who’s who of classic international cinema: it stars frequent Varda collaborator Michel Piccoli as Simon Cinema and celebrities such as Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Fanny Ardant, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Robert De Niro, and Gérard Depardieu, among many others. It’s more incoherent than text, but its film-buff profligateness represents a coming of full circle for Varda, the reluctant cinephile. Along these lines, almost ten years prior, she made a tribute, T’as de beaux escaliers, tu sais (1986), to the Cinémathèque française on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary.
A new millennium harkened a new style of shooting. In 2000, Varda shot digitally for the first time to make an essay film called The Gleaners and I, about people who sustain themselves on the refuse of others. She produced a follow-up, The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002), expounding on the subjects and themes of the former. B. Ruby Rich, in a review of The Gleaners and I for The Nation, observes, “Why has The Gleaners and I struck such a chord? I suspect it’s due in considerable part to Agnès Varda’s own presence,” touching on a core appeal of Varda’s later career. In 2003, Varda entered the last phase of her artistic evolution when she presented her first multi-media installation at the Venice Biennale. Inspired by the terrain explored in Gleaners, the exhibition, titled Patatutopia, involved a triptyque of screens on which footage of decaying potatoes appeared, while a pile of the tubers themselves sat on the floor below.
In 2003 and 2004, respectively, she made the short films Le lion volatil and Ydessa, les ours et etc..., and in 2006 the exhibition L’île et elle, which included several of her installation works, including Ma Cabane de l’Échec (one of her aforementioned cinema shacks); Le Tombeau de Zgougou, in tribute to her beloved, deceased cat; and Les veuves de Noirmoutier, about the widows of the island where she and Demy regularly vacationed. This was adapted into a feature-length documentary for France’s ARTE channel called Quelques veuves de Noirmoutier (2006).
Varda wrote an auto-biography, Varda par Agnès, in 1994; it was never translated into English and is now out of print. In the absence of such a text, her remaining features—The Beaches of Agnès (2008); Faces Places (2017), co-directed by the French visual artist JR; Varda by Agnès (2019) and her 2012 documentary series Agnès de ci de là Varda—collectively make-up a cinematic memoir. The Beaches of Agnès and Varda by Agnès compose a primer of sorts; in contrast, Faces Places and Agnès de ci de là Varda revolve around Varda’s travels and the people she encounters along the way, including Marker and then-102-year-old filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira. To echo B. Ruby Rich’s assertion with regards to The Gleaners and I, it’s Varda’s very presence in these that so enraptures audiences.
On March 29, 2019, months before what would have been her 91st birthday, Agnès Varda passed away from complications due to breast cancer. Over the course of her career, Varda and her films have received numerous awards, including the Directors' Fortnight's 8th Carosse d'Or award for lifetime achievement from the Cannes Film Festival, the Leopard of Honour from the Locarno Film Festival, an honorary Palme d'Or and an Academy Honorary Award. (She was the first female director to receive the latter two honors.) She leaves behind a legacy in her work and in those she inspired, specifically female filmmakers. To watch her films, observe her photographs, or admire her installations is to know Varda; to know Varda is to seek these things out, keeping her art, and thus cinema, alive.