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Eccentricity is a quality that can take on wildly different connotations based on its context. From Tesla to Dali to Jobs, when applied to male creatives the term tends to sublimate the strange into the merely unusual. But the female eccentric is more often remembered first for her strangeness, and secondly for her art, with the latter rarely received as high. It is perhaps for this reason that a filmmaker like Agnès Varda — who died last March at 90 — has not been valorized as High French New Wave, as have Godard, Truffaut, and Varda’s late husband, Jacques Demy, even though she was making films before them and continued to do so decades after they died (or, in the case of Godard, crankily fled to the countryside).
Varda’s filmography is vast, eclectic, sometimes a bit precious or gauche (1988’s Kung Fu Master orbits a 40-year-old woman in love with a 15-year-old boy). In her later years the director bleached her signature bowl cut platinum blonde and dyed the ends burgundy, a Debbie Harry-esque play on Franciscan monk. With her devotion to cats and heart-shaped everything, Varda personified adorably unconventional thinking — without apology or apparent self-consciousness.
But there is also the Varda who studied philosophy at the Sorbonne under Bachelard, the Varda who in 1969 teamed up with Susan Sontag to discuss the ethos of a violent time, the Varda who received the rare blessing to document the Black Panthers at their Oakland headquarters. In 2019, the world of cinema finally seemed to embrace the director’s eccentricity as part of her genius and activism, not at their expense. In December, the Lincoln Center began a Varda retrospective, and Varda by Agnès, the director’s final film, produced by her daughter Rosalie Varda, hit theaters across the country. With its languid, flute-filled opening credits accompanying a montage of film stills spanning 60-plus years, Varda by Agnès presents a portrait of an artist as an eccentric, but with a tenderness and depth that complement the breadth of her craft and force of her legacy.
“I was next to her for 10 years,” recounted Rosalie in an October phone conversation, “to give her more energy for her projects. We were very good partners, and we had a lot of fun.” As CEO of Cine-Tamaris, the company her mother started in 1975, Rosalie is best known for the Oscar-nominated Faces / Places of 2018, a whimsical documentary chronicling her mother’s creative travails with French photographer and muralist JR. Referring to her mother by her first name, Rosalie repeatedly championed Agnès’s joie du vivre and her earnest activism, emphasizing the extent to which one informed the other:
She was smart enough to be a real, real feminist, trying all her life the most she could to help with laws on contraception, abortion — everything. But she knew, too, that if you yell too much, you don’t get anywhere. In 1976, when she did the feminist musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, the situation with women’s rights was much more difficult than it is now, even though now the situation is going backwards. She thought, “I have to get men to go to the film, and not say ‘it’s a feminist film so I won’t go and see it.’” So she made the music incredible, and compared women to the laborers and men to the bourgeoisie.
Interspersed with a series of lectures the director gave throughout her final decade, Varda by Agnès features highlights from One Sings and many more of her films, from the lesser known Daguerrotype (1976) — a verité doc that lingers on the labor of the bakers, butchers, and merchants of her home on Rue Daguerre (now home to Cine-Tamaris) — to her iconic New Wave narrative film Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962). A sense of youthful levity swells from Varda’s octogenarian talks — alongside a sagacious optimism. “Nothing is trite if you film it with empathy and love,” she says of her interest in filming ordinary people doing ordinary things, what she calls the “silent majority.” On her decision to include the oddities of everyday life (a busker swallowing multiple frogs, a woman lying still on the beach with a Bible over her chest) within a fictional diegesis, she explains, “We were open to filming things we didn’t understand, because in cinema and elsewhere, it’s important to feel, to experience.”
The documentary also pays tribute to how vehemently — and consistently — Varda tested her own creative boundaries, be they shifting from experimental shorts like Diary of a Pregnant Woman (1958) to feature films starring such major Hollywood actors as Robert de Niro to a documentary on rural and urban “gleaners” who scavenge rejected produce. During the making of Gleaners (2001), while examining the potatoes marked too deformed to sell, the director kept three heart-shaped spuds and watched them age, sprout, and shrivel. What could seem an offbeat penchant for the humble tuber inspired her first foray into the visual arts at the 2003 Venice Biennale, the multimedia installation Patatutopia, at which she greeted gallery-goers in a giant potato costume on the opening day.
According to Rosalie,
She said, “Look, I don’t care what people think about me. I do whatever I want, and that’s all.” The liberty of age gives you the liberty to be even more precise about what you don’t like and what you don’t want to do. She was free in her mind and free in action, and very joyful about that. She didn’t think it was difficult to live her life.
As the second half of Varda by Agnès reveals, Varda’s shift in her late 70s from filmmaker to artist was fairly seamless, almost inevitable. In 2005, for the first of her “cinema shacks” installed at Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain (2006), the Lyon Biennale (2009), LACMA (2013), and Galerie Nathalie Obadia (2018), respectively, she crafted a luminous shelter out of nine film reels from her earlier oeuvre. For Paroles de squatters, part of a 2012 exhibition in Nantes, she invited the public to the second floor of a condemned building where, in a room containing only a mattress, wood stove, and microwave, she installed videos of people who had been evicted from their homes. Each individual tells his or her story to the camera as though confiding in a neighbor, as Agnès clearly gains their trust.
“She always, always, always was speaking very clearly on the side of the woman, and of those who had less,” stresses Rosalie. “She was very definite all her life, to struggle for that. But you know, it’s a long journey.” When asked how her mother fearlessly entered a field that to this day proves so inhospitable to women, the producer barely paused. “She thought, ‘I want to do a film, so I’m doing it.’ When I was growing up, she always told me, ‘You drive the car of your life. You can have a job, a family, a husband, a love. You’re not obliged to choose. You can have everything.’”
Varda took on as much as possible in her life, embracing her final chapter as yet another creative opportunity. Yet Rosalie doesn’t mince words on how lucky her mother was to gain notoriety at all.
Of course the New Wave movement was started by the men of Cahiers du Cinema, who met and discussed film all day in the coffee shops. In fact, they were not interested in Agnès. Agnès and Jacques Demy’s affair in 1968 was how she got involved in their circle. Godard’s producer asked him about other movie directors, and so he recommended Demy, and then Demy recommended Varda. Don’t forget the history of cinema is written by men, and so many women disappear. Like Alice Guy-Blaché, who made 500 films, and was owner of a studio. It’s only in the last 5 to 10 years that we are even hearing about her, but it’s like, “Who’s writing the story? Who’s telling the history of film?”
With Varda by Agnès, at least one chapter gets its due.