The Beaches of Agnès (2008), the first feature I saw by Agnès Varda, is arguably both the best and worst place to begin watching her body of work. To put it another way, it’s a great farewell, but also a perfect primer for this titan of world cinema who died on March 29th at the age of 90. Varda directed the movie many consider to be the first French New Wave film, La pointe courte (1955), which also began a six-decade-plus career for her in filmmaking. She made documentaries, scripted fiction, gallery installations, and numerous experiments somewhere in between the two. She was married to another major French New Wave director, Jacques Demy. Her family was a key component of her cinema, giving roles to her children Mathieu and Rosalie, as well as collaborating with Demy on Jacquot de Nantes (1991) as he was dying of AIDS. To return to The Beaches of Agnès, the Sight & Sound obituary written by So Mayer is a reminder that we should be grateful we can return to that film now in this period of mourning:
Beaches is one of the fullest accounts of a full life given by any filmmaker, and it is hard to say more about Varda than, ever honest, reflective and playful, she said about herself; that film is now joined by Varda par Agnès (2019) (sharing its title with her 1994 catalogue raisonée published by Cahiers du Cinéma, ranging across her thoughts alphabetically), which will now be her final film.
The editorial board of cléo, the feminist film journal named after the title character of Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), encapsulated Varda’s style and ethos in a single, perfect paragraph:
The cinema of Agnès Varda is built on a radical, egoless curiosity. From spotlighting women taking command of public space (Cléo de 5 à 7, Vagabond) to documenting political activism (Women Reply) to revelling in the limitless possibilities of chance encounters (The Gleaners and I, Faces Places), Varda never seeks to lay claim to her characters, stories, or the worlds they inhabit in the manner we usually associate with the boys’ club known as the “great auteurs” of the French New Wave. Rather, she is a facilitator, with a reverence for all stories (especially women’s) and a drive to capture how people are shaped by their surroundings; her penchant for an empathic, shared cinema is her auteurist touch.
Alexandra Schwartz’s remembrance for the New Yorker describes the uniqueness of Varda’s career trajectory:
Varda has long been called the Godmother of the French New Wave; when she made her first two films, “La Pointe Courte,” in 1955, at the age of twenty-six, and “Cleo from 5 to 7,” in 1961, both considered proto-examples of the movement, she effectively wrote the headline of her obituary. The truth is that, in more than sixty years of filmmaking, she charted a course unlike any other. Her wave was her own. Female artists of Varda’s generation, discounted or marginalized in their lifetimes, are often in the position of being “rediscovered” years later, long after they can enjoy the recognition. Varda lived long enough to see herself celebrated as the feminist lodestar she was by generations of younger women, though she was not entirely satisfied with this distinction.
The most famous of all Varda films, for now, is surely Cléo from 5 to 7. Our own Marc Saint-Cyr thinks highly of the film:
I'll find myself returning to the moments I've cherry-picked as my favorites over the years, skipping across the linear sequence of events that follow the titular singer (Corinne Marchand) across Paris as she waits for the results from a medical examination within the film's designated timeframe (minus half an hour, as the film famously ends at the ninety minute mark). More than for any other film, engaging in these mental replays feels very much like replaying the events of a day I had once experienced myself long ago—albeit one that I’ve been able to revisit and come to know nearly by heart, complete with all of my favorite moments and details waiting in their proper places, so often have I gone back to that June 21st in Paris, 1961.
Vagabond (1985) is considered another peak of Varda’s career. Writing for Reverse Shot, Justin Stewart explains why he’s fascinated with it:
Vagabond is tailored to interpretation because it’s structured around the varying subjective, subconsciously agenda-driven perspectives of strangers on an ultimately unknowable, taciturn, and barely named enigma. Any themes you throw at it might stick, but they can’t or shouldn’t be divorced from the remarkable aesthetic merits of this righteously bleak, powerful film.
Varda was an all-time favorite for the critic Kathleen Sachs. She wrote about Jacquot de Nantes for Cine-File:
The primarily black-and-white representation of his youth is sporadically pierced with brief interludes of colorful footage, a technique that merges Varda's sense of refinement with Demy's playfulness. His whimsy and her pragmatism work together in a way that must be reflective of their 28-year marriage, as their mutual respect is evident in this joint effort.
While reading Manohla Dargis’ tribute for the New York Times, I have to admit I was shocked to learn that the critic lunched with Varda on occasion:
For the past few years, my friend Joan Dupont and I would have an annual lunch with Varda at her home, eating and talking while periodically visited by one of her cats. She was predictably funny and warm and brilliant, but also sharp and strong and willful. During our lunch last year, Varda said she was tired. But she was as voluble as ever and filled with plans.
I’m generally reluctant to mention the Oscars, especially in the final paragraph of an auteur remembrance like this one, but it must be said that Varda’s nomination for Faces Places (2017), which makes her the oldest nominee for any competitive Oscar, did give her access to a new, larger American audience than she’d had since the '60s. American film lovers who may have been only loosely conversant with world cinema began to realize that this director of almost 90 years of age was still at it, still had the touch, and still mattered to tastemakers.
MORE TO WATCH, MORE TO READ
- Sheila O’Malley recalls one of her favorite Varda anecdotes, involving the making of Vagabond, which perfectly captures the auteur’s gift for giving actors direction.
- A video tribute by Pamela Hutchinson.
- David Hudson, the master of the review round-up, knocked his collection of writing on Agnès Varda out of the park.
- Lastly, a roundtable discussion at Another Gaze on Varda’s life and legacy featuring Kiva Reardon, A. S. Hamrah, the acclaimed novelist Sheila Heti, and several others.
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation. It is written by James Kang, who works on MUBI’s critics reviews section, a large database of movie reviews that seeks smart writing.