Remembering Legendary Filmmaker Agnès Varda
Portrait of Agnès Varda while filming Sans toit ni loi, France, 1985. Photo by Micheline PELLETIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Agnès Varda, the Belgian-born filmmaker whose 1962 film Cléo de 5 à 7 earned her the title of “grandmother of the French New Wave” and sparked an illustrious career that spanned six decades, died at her home on Thursday at age 90. Her family reported that the cause of death was cancer-related complications.
In the decades since Cléo de 5 à 7, Varda remained active as both a filmmaker and a visual artist. She accrued major accolades as an octogenarian, receiving an honorary Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, and becoming the first woman to receive an honorary Academy Award in 2017. Last year, she became the oldest person ever nominated for an Oscar, when her film project with artist JR, Faces Places (2017), was up for best documentary feature. At the time, Varda told IndieWire that Faces Places may be her last film.
“I’m not sure I’ll make another film,” she said. “It’s like boxing—they do an additional match they shouldn’t do. I’m not sure I should do another one. But I also do exhibitions, installations. I’m not going to bed.” In the end, she made just one more: a self-reflexive look back at her filmmaking career titled Varda by Agnès (2019).
Agnès Varda directing a scene of her film Cleo from 5 to 7, 1961. Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images.
Born Arlette Varda in 1928 in Ixelles, an upscale section of Brussels, Varda and her family fled Belgium in 1940 and settled in the Mediterranean coast town of Sète in the South of France. She eventually moved to Paris to study photography at the École des Beaux-Arts and art history at l’École du Louvre. In the early 1950s, Varda became a theater photographer before returning to Sète in 1954 to shoot her first film, a feature: La Pointe Courte (1955). The film juxtaposes scenes of daily life in the fishing village with the shifting dynamics in a deteriorating relationship between a local man and a Parisian woman.
Though Cléo de 5 à 7 remains Varda’s best-known film, La Pointe Courte has come to be considered a proto–New Wave film that anticipated many of the movement’s stylistic and thematic hallmarks years before they were formalized and championed (largely in the work of Varda’s male peers). Varda told The Guardian last year that she didn’t feel that she had been treated differently because she was the French New Wave’s lone female director.
“I didn’t see myself as a woman doing film but as a radical film-maker who was a woman. Slightly different,” she said.
Varda went on to make dozens of documentary and fiction films, including Les Créatures (1966), Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse (2000), and the magical-realist autobiographical film The Beaches of Agnès (2008). Throughout her lifetime, filmmaking, personal relationships, and family constantly informed one another. In 1991, she released Jacquot de Nantes, a dramatization of the childhood of her partner of many years, Jacques Demy, who died in 1990 of AIDS-related complications. Demy and Varda had one child together, Mathieu Demy, who is an actor and filmmaker (his mother was a producer on his first feature, the 2011 film Americano). Varda also had a daughter from a previous relationship, Rosalie Varda, who works in cinema as a costume designer and producer (she served as a producer on Faces Places).
In a 2015 interview with Film Comment, when asked about her approach to documentary filmmaking, Varda said:
“We are interpreting all the time, and cinema and photography are a reproduction of reality. It’s not reality, it’s a reproduction. And the way we look at it, we make another step, by interpreting what we see, and discovering meanings that maybe were never in that image or never in the situation. But with a simple situation, you can make it a drama, because you noticed she had a strange look and you start to build some meaning. I think besides cinema and photography, everybody’s relationship with images is very important. What you build is based on your own personality, no?”
Even as she gained international acclaim for her films, Varda remained an active photographer, and in her seventies, she began to show her art more regularly. Her immersive exhibition “Patatutopia,” which incorporated still and moving images, premiered at the 2003 Venice Biennale. In 2017, Blum & Poe staged an exhibition of her work in New York, including pieces dating as far back as 1949, as well as newer sculptural work.
“I’m lucky, in a way, to have discovered another form of expression in the last part of my life,” Varda told Artsy at the time.