Cíara Dempsey looks back on the life and career of Agnés Varda
It’s difficult to articulate just how beloved prolific filmmaker Agnès Varda was. Varda’s death in March of this year left cinephiles around the world bereft. With the recent release of her final film, Varda by Agnès, a film which truly embodies her unshakeable spirit and her truly unique approach to filmmaking, now is perhaps the best time to look back on the life of Agnès, and the true blessing that it is to watch her films.
Born in Belgium in 1928, Agnès Varda rose to prominence as a photographer and filmmaker primarily during the French New Wave, alongside other filmmakers, such as Jean-Luc Godard, who was also a personal friend of Varda’s. Varda was also a key figure of the Left Bank cinematic movement, and her first film La Pointe Courte is widely cited as one of the most emblematic films of the Left Bank group. Varda’s filmic work traverses the realms of fiction, documentary and self-reflexivity. Always concerned with exploring the confines of the film form and pushing boundaries, all of her films bring something entirely new to the form. Perhaps her most well-known film, Cleo from 5 to 7, tells its story in almost real-time, a ninety-minute film which spans two hours of Cleo’s life, in the Paris in which Varda spent much of her career. Stylistically, the film draws from both fiction and documentary elements, a mode of filmmaking that reoccurs in Varda’s oeuvre.
Even beyond Varda’s revolutionary use of film form, the themes which reappear in her filmmaking are worthy of praise alone. Varda was concerned with femininity and feminism, and many of her films, such as Cleo, deal with women exploring the confines of their own femininity. Moreover, Varda was an incredibly important feminist voice. She signed the Manifesto of the 343, a petition where French women admitted to having had abortions in a time when it was still illegal in France. Her feminism prevails across her filmmaking; notable examples include moments in The Beaches of Agnès, where she notes that, “I tried to be a joyful feminist, but I was very angry,” a sentiment which resounds with any feminist.
Varda’s radical and revolutionary spirit is evident across her documentary work; she spends time with the Black Panthers, travelled to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro and was involved in anti-fascist movements in Greece. Her activism and radical politics are as important to her filmmaking as her subversion and expansion of film form, and even so, she always managed to retain a sense of personability. The spirit of Agnès Varda, and her uniquely personal style is absolutely unmistakable. Varda set up her own film production company, Ciné-Tamaris, so as to truly retain her own auteurial voice and her approach to filmmaking uses what she herself called “cinécriture,” or “writing on film.” Her work merged and blurred the roles of writer, director or indeed, any crew member; Varda’s filmmaking was collaborative and cohesive which is likely why her auteurial voice is so clear.
As much as Varda explored her own life on screen, she was also often concerned with people on the fringes, which is made most clear in her films Vagabond and The Gleaners and I. Varda was truly fascinated with people and their lives, and reached out to document the lives of ordinary people with as much vigour and passion as she had for her politics and artistry. No other filmmaker could perhaps capture such genuine explorations of life as Varda did, and no other filmmaker could do so with such warmth.
Varda herself has said “I live in cinema. I feel I’ve lived here forever,” and truly, Agnès Varda will live in cinema forever. Her on-screen presence, both in a literal sense and in her directorial voice is perhaps the most endearing of any filmmaker and truly seems to embody her own personality. There seems to be no disparity between the true life of Agnès and the self that she puts on screen. Her talent, genuineness, and passion have resonated with audiences since her first film, and have only increased in doing so with her self-reflexive work, such as Varda by Agnès and Faces, Places. Her work will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come. Truly, we are all lesser for having lost her, but simultaneously, we are all incredibly privileged to have lived at the same time as one of the most important filmmakers of her generation. Merci, Agnès. You will be sorely missed.