A maker of 'home movie' masterpieces * — and much much more
Agnès Varda (1928-2019)
By Peter Hulm
Two pages for her obituary in Le Monde on 31 March 2019. Had Agnès Varda finally been admitted to her rightful position as the unacknowledged Queen Mother of the Nouvelle Vague?**
In fact, Agnès Varda, who died a few weeks before what would have been her 91st birthday on 30 May 2019, had been crowned several times. But it never stuck, with the public or with her behaviour, which was always as an active artist who shrugged off the patina of nobility.
For example: as early as 1960, as the Le Monde obituary reminded readers, critic/filmmaker Jean Douchet declared in Arts: "The young cinema (Le jeune cinéma) owes her everything."
This was five years after La Pointe courte, her first feature, but just after François Truffaut's Les 400 Coups (1959), Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and even Jean-Luc Godard's A bout de souffle (1960).
La Pointe courte innovated by mixing the inhabitants of a village near Sète with the fictional narrative of a problematic couple, Philippe Noiret and Silvia Montfort. It may have looked backwards to Italian neo-realism but also forward to Michelangelo Antonioni (as Resnais said to her).
But Varda, who proclaimed herself ignorant of cinema before she made the film, referred critics to literary sources, to William Faulkner — always more appreciated in France than the U.S.A. for his later works — and Bertolt Brecht, the master of alienation effects.
What resonated with the New Wave was Varda's approach to filmmaking: using a cooperative, a minimal budget, and location shooting. It was very much the way Chantal Akerman, another Belgian woman director, made her first masterpiece, Jean Dielman, 30 years later (1975), now acclaimed as a feminist masterwork. In contrast, Godard's real-life insertions into Breathless — for example, an interview with Jean-Pierre Melville (another director!) — seem pretty much a jeu d'esprit.
Several of the film makers inspired by Varda imported the documentary dimension as a major background element of their work (Truffaut and Resnais but also Chris Marker as well as Akerman and Pialat), or used the documentary for its theatrical characteristics (Godard and Jacques Rivette). Varda, however, passed intuitively from fiction to documentary and back without inhibition or hang-ups.
Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962), recognized quickly as a masterpiece and usually as her first (La Pointe courte was too variable in tone for most critics), is an (almost) real-time 86-minute fiction of two hours in the life of a young pop star (Corinne Marchand) who awaits the results of a medical test that she fears may reveal cancer. The events even have an exact date — 21 June 1961 (the end of spring and start of summer) — as well as indications of the exact time passing (5-7 pm).
In Varda's description of her second feature film (it took seven years for her to find the money for more than short features), this docufiction on loneliness in the crowded streets of Paris was designed as a "subjective documentary".
Le Bonheur, two years later, had absolutely no documentary elements but won the Prix Louis Delluc. As Cléo was for black and white filming, this 1964 masterpiece shone with colour, at the same time as Varda's cool view of a marriage presented from a unthinking male viewpoint put into question all its gorgeousness (scenery, music and photography).
She did not need to display such magisterial control and professional craft again, and never did. Her later films combined an improvised and personal air with a humanism that brought her always close to the people she reported on, whether her partner Jacques Demy (another specialist in gorgeous filming) or the gleaners of Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse/The Gleaners and I (2000), her most popular film with the public and justifiably praised by critics for putting a spotlight on a neglected side of French society, its "agricultural scavengers".
But Agnès Varda never vaunted her position in French cinema, whether as part of the "Left Bank" set (her real place) or in the New Wave. In Les Glaneurs she showed her aging self, filming her wrinkled hand. About the innovations she introduced with La Pointe courte she declared that it was the manifestation of "a movement that would have existed anyway" (Resnais was her editor on the film, by the way).
In 1985 Sans toit ni loi/Vagabond received the Venice Film Festival's top award, the Lion d'or. Clarisse Fabre in Le Monde rightly describes it as "visionary", both in its non-linear depiction of a homeless woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) with 47 episodes, and its ecological warning (by Macha Meril) about the death of the Midi's plane trees, which 30 years later is still in evidence.
A César went in 2007 to Les plages d'Agnès, a film so "small" in its ambitions you might miss how much better and warmer it is than most of the personal documentaries you will see on television.
In November 2017, 50 years after several pioneering films made in the U.S.A., she finally received an Oscar for her career achievements on the occasion of "Faces Places/Visages Villages", produced, again in improvisatory fashion, with fellow artist JR. She was the first woman to receive the Academy's Honorary Award. The film also won a Cannes prize.
A stills photographer at the start of her career, she returned to its pleasures and challenges late in life with a homage to Chris Marker, and discovered herself as an installation artist, a rather grand title for her exploratory approach to creative work.
* Sorry about the term. I couldn't find a gender-neutral equivalent. And Varda never wanted to be labelled.
** Fabre and wikipedia indicate that Varda was born Arlette Varda in Ixelles, Belgium, on 30 May 1928. Her father came from a family of Greek refugees from Asia Minor. Her family fled the country in 1940 and settled in Sète, France (where her mother came from). She lived through the Second World War on a boat with the rest of her family (she was the third of five children).
She died of cancer on 29 March. She had two children. Rosalie Varda, born in 1958 from a union with the actor/producer Antoine Bourseiller, and Mathieu Demy, born in 1972. She met Jacques Demy in 1958. They moved in together in 1959 and married in 1962. Demy died at 59 on 27 October 1990 from the complications of AIDS.
wikipedia records some of her awards:
In 2002 she received the French Academy prize, René Clair Award. On 4 March 2007 she was appointed a Grand Officer of the National Order of Merit of France. On 12 April 2009, she was made Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur. In May 2010 Varda received the Directors' Fortnight's 8th Carosse d'Or award for lifetime achievement at the Cannes Film Festival.
On 22 September 2010 Varda received an honorary degree from Liège University Belgium. On 14 May 2013 Varda was promoted to Grand Cross of the National Order of Merit of France. On 22 May 2013 Varda received the 2013 FIAF Award for her work in the field of film preservation and restoration. On 10 August 2014 Varda received the Leopard of Honour award at the 67th Locarno Film Festival. She was the second female to receive the award after Kira Muratova. On 13 December 2014 Varda received the honorary Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the European Film Academy. On 24 May 2015 Varda received an honorary Palme d'Or, the first woman to do so. On 16 April 2017 Varda was promoted to Grand officier de la Légion d'honneur.
Clarisse Fabre. 2019. Agnès Varda, Cinéste, Le Monde 31 March 2019, pp 16-17.