Why this might not seem so easy
Agnès Varda may bear the intimidating title of ‘grandmother of the French New Wave’, and be lauded as a pioneering member of the Left Bank, but her work is surprisingly accessible. She was an endlessly curious filmmaker whose interest in the margins of society and female subjectivity, together with her vocational background in photography, resulted in a playful and fiercely political body of work.
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She coined her own term for the kind of cinema she makes, cinécriture, to illustrate her unique storytelling techniques. Unlike many of her peers, Varda wasn’t a film buff when she started out. Instead, she looked to her imagination, taking inspiration from literature, music, art, single images, real life, cats and heart-shaped potatoes. On the subjects she captures she said: “I love filming real people; I love to connect with the kind of people we don’t know so well.”
Discovery, provocation and striving to reach an understanding of society and humanity are all hallmarks of her films, yet Varda refused to idly sit in one genre or stick to one style. Over the course of her more than 60-year career, she effortlessly switched between feature-length fiction, documentary and shorts. Her work can be self-reflexive, referencing the deeply personal, but there’s also rich historical detail embedded in her hugely empathetic and mischievous films.
“Chance has been my best assistant”, claims Varda who cannily utilises her locale, community, family and friends to forage for inspiration wherever she lays her free-spirited hat, whether that be LA, Normandy or the street where she lives, rue Daguerre in Paris (her home there has appeared in many of her films or doubled as a set). To some, her methods may seem haphazard, but it all adds to the charm of her infectiously eccentric output.
The best place to start – Cléo from 5 to 7
On the surface Varda’s second feature, 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7, may seem simple. It’s a real-time portrait of a singer, Cléo (Corinne Marchand), who’s awaiting the test results of a biopsy, doing everything she can to distract herself by visiting old friends, taking in a short film and going for a wander in the park. A lively record of early-60s Paris, this multilayered French New Wave classic is also a profound reflection on the inner life of a woman fearing death. Cléo is just one example of the kind of complex women that inhabit Varda’s fiction films.
What to watch next
Perhaps the best known of Varda’s mid-career films is Vagabond (1985), an emotionally hard-hitting film that mixes fact and fiction to provoke a reaction from the audience by forcing viewers to question their social responsibility. It won multiple awards and critical acclaim for its confrontational approach, with Varda stating that this is the first film where she felt her politics and filmmaking intersected to satisfying ends.
Mona, a beautiful rebel without a cause, is the focus of this vérité drama, which traces the last few days of a homeless drifter who – at the start of the film – is found dead in a ditch. A committed lead performance from Sandrine Bonnaire as the foul-mouthed and unapologetic teenager is mesmerising. Varda spent time researching for Vagabond by meeting with vagrants (a few appear in the film), and one particularly touching moment occurs when an older gentleman converses with a homeless woman (a young female drifter Varda met on the road) and they find out they have more in common than expected.
Another crucial stop-off is feminist musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), which remains timeless in its themes of women struggling to claim agency over their bodies. It should touch a nerve with modern audiences. The female friendship at the centre of the film is beautifully constructed, with the women sharing their interests and intimate secrets, resulting in one helping the other to raise money for an abortion.
Reality feeds into the film and again highlights Varda’s firm political beliefs. A reconstructed protest outside the Bobigny abortion trial in 1972 features a cameo from lawyer Gisèle Halimi, who defended women who openly admitted to having an abortion and supported Simone de Beauvoir’s Manifesto (signed by 343 women – Varda included).
Among the most significant of Varda’s documentaries, The Gleaners and I (2000) found her embracing new technology, picking up a digital handheld camera and playing with form and angles to craft a socially conscious meditation on art and consumerism. It’s partly inspired by Jean-François Millet’s oil painting, The Gleaners, and the people she witnessed visiting the food market after closing to forage for food. Varda takes to the road to meet with people who live off scraps and reject societal norms, finding commonalities along the way.
By this time you should have a feel for everything Varda, so a trip to The Beaches of Agnès (2008), a reflective self-portrait, should pique further interest. It elegantly skims over her career and affinity with the coast, adding in film clips and personal details about her time growing up in Sète – where her debut film La Pointe Courte (1955) is set. Included are extracts from Jacquot de Nantes (1991), her touching childhood biopic and tribute to her late husband Jacques Demy; Daguerréotypes (1976), a portrait of her local Parisian shopkeepers; and Documenteur (1981), a raw and intimate LA-set character study featuring her son Mathieu Demy.
Where not to start
Varda’s third feature, Le Bonheur (1965), is an astute film, but one that caused controversy upon release due to its depiction of a male utopia where affairs are no big deal and women are interchangeable. Varda filmed in the lush gardens of Île-de-France where the delicate landscapes awed the Impressionists, presenting a paradise for men and a dystopia for obedient women. If you’re not familiar with Varda’s sense of humour, this may cause confusion or even rage, with some claiming Le Bonheur is anti-feminist. Yet its catalogue-style visuals suggest otherwise, hinting at a fabrication of happiness. As Varda herself said: “Humour is such a strong weapon, such a strong answer. Women have to make jokes about themselves, laugh about themselves, because they have nothing to lose.”