Born Arlette Varda in Belgium in 1928, Varda renamed herself Agnès at the age of eighteen and trained as a photographer in France before directing her first film La Pointe Courte in 1954. She lived in the same apartment on the Rue Daguerre in Paris for almost seventy years; she died March 29.
Varda’s background as a photographer and love of painting informed her aesthetic as a filmmaker, but as memorable as the distinctive visual language that characterizes her films are the varied people who populate them: shopkeepers and fishermen, hippies and potato farmers, painters and singers, Black Panthers and Cuban revolutionaries, women on the road and in the city, family and friends. Varda’s films evince a love of, rather than mere fascination with, people.
Her films often depict women drifting alone. In Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), which cemented her reputation as a leading figure of the French New Wave, the camera accompanies the glamorous self-absorbed heroine through Paris as she waits to receive the results of a medical test. Varda conveys the way anxiety dilates time, portraying the kinds of quiet fears and subjective dramas that might be preoccupying any stranger passing on the street but to which we ordinarily remain oblivious.
Documenteur (1981) is also about a woman in pain. Sabine Mamou plays Emilie who has recently broken up with her partner. She wanders around Los Angeles with her young son (played by Varda’s son Mathieu), trying to find a place to live, trying to keep going when all she wants to do is stop.
Varda shows how enormous and enveloping everyday sadness can feel. But despite focusing on individual interior experiences, these films suggest that the lives of the ordinary people glimpsed in the laundromats, cafes, and parks of the cities through which Cléo and Emilie move are just as profound and complicated as those of the films’ protagonists.
Tauter and tougher, Vagabond (1985) also depicts a solitary woman walking. In contrast to the sunshine of Varda’s California films, Vagabond, set in the wintry countryside of southern France, is all grey skies and muddy landscapes, smoky blues shot through with scarlet.
Rather than shooting from the position of its itinerant and destitute protagonist, Mona, Varda’s camera keeps its distance. The audience thus shares the partial perspective of the strangers who briefly cross Mona’s path. Varda does not provide explanations or judgments of Mona’s life — which we know from the very beginning will be cut short — she just shows her living it, treating Mona with dignity, not sentimentality.
In Varda’s most recent films she turned the camera on herself. With her signature bowl haircut, purple clothing, and friendly demeanor, she cut a kooky and eccentric figure but was conscious of the persona she was portraying, which she described wryly in The Beaches of Agnès (2008) as “a little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative.”
Although her works are often fun, playful, and ebullient, bursting with color and vitality, they are not whimsical or naive. Often in Varda’s films a sunflower is just a sunflower, but her work was also consistently political, as she reflected in a 2009 interview: “Je résiste. I’m still fighting.” She traveled to China as a photographer in 1957, contributed one of seven sections to the collaborative antiwar film Far from Vietnam (1967) and shot the 1968 documentary Black Panthers at a demonstration against the imprisonment of Huey P. Newton in Oakland. She described her film Salut les Cubains, composed from photographs taken in Cuba in 1962, as “socialism and cha-cha-cha.”
Varda was one of the signatories of the “Manifesto of the 343,” a 1971 petition to legalize abortion in France. Reproductive rights figure as a major theme in her most explicitly feminist feature film One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), a joyful meditation on a friendship between two women. After a long separation, the friends are reunited at a rally against abortion laws where one sings “Biology isn’t fate! Papa’s laws are out of date!”
A commentary on capitalist waste and excess, Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I (2000) approaches a global system by zooming in on the scavengers at its edges, focusing on people who find and eat discarded food. For the first time Varda worked with a digital camera, which allowed her to film without a large crew, and thus facilitated her efforts to forge a sympathetic rapport with the marginalized people she encountered picking through abandoned vegetables.
Later in life Varda branched out from cinemas into art galleries, producing installations and multiscreen works for festivals and exhibitions. “Patatutopia,” created for the Venice biennale in 2003, sprouted out of her interest in gleaning. She created portraits of potatoes changing over time, tracing how they continued to grow after becoming inedible. As in much of her cinematic work, she found meaning in the seemingly useless, mundane, and unspectacular: “They are rotten, they are finished, they are green, but the life is there … this is the pleasure of looking very carefully at things existing.” Varda sought out the life in everything.
After learning of Varda’s death, I thought of a moment from her last film Varda par Agnès (2019), which reflects on the making of Jacquot de Nantes (1991), the first of three films she made about her husband Jacques Demy in the years following his death. As he was dying, Demy began recounting tales from his childhood, inspiring Varda to make a film about his formation as a film director.
Interspersed throughout a narrative of his youth are shots of Demy in extreme closeup, as if the camera were gently caressing his hands, his cheeks, his chin, his hair. An interviewer asks Varda if this was an attempt to arrest time or forestall death. She replies that her intention was quite the opposite: she wanted to move with time, tenderly savoring life while it lasted rather than dwelling morbidly on its end.
Jacquot de Nantes opens with a line from a poem by Charles Baudelaire, which Varda reads aloud and which could equally apply to her own extraordinary body of work: “I know the art of evoking happy moments.” Those moments live on.