Essays

How Agnès Varda Continually Reinvented Herself and Her Work

It’s a blow to both the art and film worlds that there will be no more work from this tireless artist.

The Beaches of Agnès (2008) (still courtesy Ciné-Tamaris)

It is well-nigh impossible to encapsulate the depth and breadth of Agnès Varda’s art. Spanning seven decades, made in various mediums (photography, cinema, installation), the work is so rich, so vast — brimming with philosophical quandaries, formal experimentation, and sociopolitical observation — that it begs for deep and continual consideration. So it comes as quite a shock that the legendary filmmaker, who just recently premiered Varda by Agnès (2019) at the Berlin International Film Festival last February, has passed. At the age of 90, she died early morning on March 29 from breast cancer complications. It’s a blow to both the art and film worlds that there will be no more work from this tireless artist.

Theatrical poster for Varda by Agnès (2019) (still courtesy mk2 Films)

Varda trusted her own instincts and interests and let them fuel her creativity, which took on many forms. Photography was her first love. From 1951 to 1961 she was the official photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire. Then she switched to filmmaking, creating singular films despite having seen only a handful of movies before picking up a camera. Watching her first feature, La Pointe Courte (1955), a neorealistic chronicle of a fishing village and a couple’s deteriorating relationship, or Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), the real-time tale of a pop star’s reaction after learning she has cancer, we see Varda stretching herself, creating stylistically heterogenous works from film to film.

Corinne Marchand as Florence “Cléo” Victoire in Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) (still courtesy Janus Films)
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) (still courtesy Janus Films)

Varda’s early movies fit in with the French New Wave: they drew upon memory, radically played with form (jump cut edits, switching from color to black-and-white cinematography), and were set in actual locations. While other filmmakers associated with the movement were shooting films in their late twenties and early thirties, Varda released Cléo at 34, earning her the moniker of “Grandmother of the New Wave.” Although, she wasn’t associated with François Truffaut nor Jean-Luc Godard — the wing of New Wave filmmakers who wrote for the iconic magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and influenced by Classical Hollywood. Rather, she fraternized more often with Left Bank directors, such as Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Jacques Demy (an outlier who adored Hollywood musicals and was married to Varda) — figures who drew more from literature and other art forms beyond cinema.

The Gleaners and I (2000) (still courtesy Ciné-Tamaris)

Flash-forward a few decades and Varda reinvents herself once more. In 2003, at the age of 75, she had her first exhibition at the 2003 Venice Biennale called Patatutopia. The piece is made up of three screens projecting the tubers in different states of decay, as tons of the actual starch lay on the gallery floor. Adding a touch of playfulness to the proceedings — a persistent trait of her later work — Varda dressed as a potato while greeting visitors. Along with cats and the sea, the potato is a kind of talismanic object tying the stages of her oeuvre together. In her free-roaming masterpiece, The Gleaners and I (2000), among the people she interviews are those toiling in French provincial fields, picking crops — a type of manual labor that dates back centuries and can be seen in Jean-François Millet’s 1857 painting “The Gleaners.” At a 2017 talk with Renaud-Clément at Manhattan’s French Institute Alliance Française, Varda likened herself to a heart-shaped potato. It’s perhaps a symbol of her rootedness with working-class people and their pragmatism, combined with a compassion for whatever she does, whomever she talks to.

Agnès Varda, “Pomme de terre coeur” (1953), vintage silver print mounted on hardboard, 11 3/8 x 8 5/8 inches (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Varda had a genuine interest in people, which can be felt in the very fiber of her art, for it is full of humanity and warmth, never judging people from all walks of life. “In documentaries, or when I make a portrait, I feel it is important to have a feeling for the individuals I’m looking at — empathy, sympathy, tenderness or curiosity,” she told Sabine Mirlesse for Bomb. The titular singer in Cléo is given the same deep consideration as the fated wanderer in Vagabond (1985). More often than not, she focused on female characters and feminist issues (such as abortion rights in the 1977 musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) — still something of a rarity in mid-century European art house cinema. Varda also frequently inserted herself in the work. One of her most personal films is The Beaches of Agnès (2008), in which her fascination with beaches, recounting moments spent off the coasts of Arles, Belgium; Noirmoutier, France; and Los Angeles, California, leads to a free flowing account of her life story. And even then, she contradicts herself, preferring the narratives of others. “It’s others I’m interested in, others I like to film. Others who intrigue me, motivate me, make me ask questions, disconcert me, fascinate me,” she says. By turning the camera on herself, she discovers a person made up of others — a community of friends, loved ones, and artists.

Sandrine Bonnaire as Mona Bergeron in Vagabond (1985) (still courtesy Ciné-Tamaris)
JR’s murals in Faces Places (2017) (still courtesy Ciné-Tamaris)

After 2010, while still making work that recycles and reflects on her past, Varda’s public persona became a kind of catchall for whimsy on the internet.  Photos circulated of her rolling a giant beach ball down a street, a gimmick tagged to the theatrical release of her and photographer JR’s Faces Places (2017). When that film — in which the duo takes a road trip and encounters the marginalized in rural France — was nominated for a 2018 Oscar, Varda sent cardboard cut-outs of herself to the award ceremony’s luncheon, which were photographed with celebrities. With her two-toned hair, polka dot uniforms, and diminutive stature, Varda turned into a meme.

Agnès Varda at the Berlinale, 2019 (via Martin Kraft on Wikimedia)

To know Varda only from this perspective, as a kooky artist, would be a disservice to her legacy. Indeed, there is a playfulness to her work, but it’s tempered with a sense of looming mortality (Cléo’s cancer, Demy’s AIDS-related death, the demise of Sandrine Bonnaire’s vagabond, Varda pondering her own end in Faces Places). Whether in photography, films, or installations, her work seamlessly synthesized differences in a daring, open aesthetic that never seems without thought. “I’m interested in contradiction — the inner contradiction — which makes everybody three persons at the same time, everybody is able to be so different from one moment to another, from one feeling to another,” she told Film Quarterly. Her diverse inner lives reflect the variety of her many-splendored and diverse works. Varda contained multitudes. 

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