Often referred to as the ‘godmother of the French New Wave’, Agnès Varda has been quietly surpassing expectations for well over half a century. A restless, ever-curious filmmaker, consistently drawn to social margins and feminist issues, she’s moved effortlessly between drama, documentaries, short films and art installations, creating a uniquely personal artistic legacy.
Varda’s most celebrated films include New Wave-era classics Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Le Bonheur (1965), her mid-career masterpiece Vagabond (1985) and the brilliantly unique latter-day documentaries The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnes (2008). But there are plenty of riches to be found amid her more obscure work too. Here are five favourites to look out for.
Diary of a Pregnant Woman (1958)
Part documentary, part personal essay, this exquisitely rich, 17-minute short is set in Rue Mouffetard, a working-class street in Paris’s Latin Quarter. It chronicles a day in the life of a pregnant woman (played by Varda herself) as she observes her surroundings. Within titled sections, Varda films everything from carefree young couples to the bleary-eyed vagrants and drunkards of the city. Inventive, distinctly feminine and peppered with absurdist humour, as when Varda cuts from a shot of a woman’s pregnant belly to a large, ripened pumpkin being sliced open, Diary of a Pregnant Woman offers a bite-sized encapsulation of the director’s enduring themes and style.
Elsa la rose (1966)
Varda’s lyrical, tender documentary delivers a captivating portrait of the French poet and novelist Louis Aragon and his wife and muse of 40 years, Elsa Triolet, who describe their early courtship through archival footage and re-enactments of significant moments in their relationship. Unlike Aragon, who wistfully reminisces about his all-consuming passion for his wife, Elsa reflects instead on the process of ageing and on the concrete details of her remarkable life. By challenging the clichés of ‘love poetry’ and deconstructing the fetishisation of female beauty, Varda encourages a subtle critique of female agency and empowerment in the process.
Black Panthers (1968)
Filmed in Oakland, California, amid Black Panther Party demonstrations to protest the arrest of co-founder Huey Newton for allegedly killing a policeman, this one provides a sympathetic, first-hand window into the cultural complexity of the movement. With her film’s blend of interpersonal relationships, alliances and international politics, Varda soaks up the atmosphere and the rhetoric, capturing distinctive details alongside an illuminating interview with former Panthers press secretary, Kathleen Cleaver. Cleaver speaks passionately about black notions of beauty and the increasing importance of women in positions of authority.
Réponse de femmes (1975)
When French TV station Antenne 2 gave seven female directors seven minutes to answer the question ‘What does it mean to be a woman?’, Varda chose to reply with her cine-leaflet, Réponse de femmes. Here, she focuses on a group of women from infancy to old age, debating sex, desire, maternal ambivalence and the objectification of women in advertising, while addressing the audience on the impact of gender stereotyping and how women are defined and constrained by society. It’s a proud, audacious and witty piece of second-wave feminism, which delivers its message with passion.
Varda has called her short feature Documenteur her favourite of her own films. It’s a languidly poetic work of autobiographical fiction about her separation from husband Jacques Demy, which doubles as a meditative portrait of urban isolation. Documenteur revolves around a recently separated woman, Emilie (Sabine Mamou), as she wanders L.A. in search of a home for herself and her son (played by Varda’s own son, Mathieu Demy). Commenting on her fragile state of mind via a reflective inner monologue, Emilie struggles quietly, searching for escape and a sense of identity in her new surroundings.