30 May 1928 – 29 March 2019
Photographer, screenwriter,
film director,
of film & documentaries, artist.

Childhood and early years

She was born on May 30, 1928, in Ixelles, Belgium, with the slightly different name of Arlette Varda. Her father is Greek, and her mother is of French origins. She escaped from Belgium in 1940 to go live in Sète, France, with her family where she spent her teenager years.
Later she studied at the École du Louvre with a focus on art history and photography at the École des Beaux-Arts. She then went on to work at the Théâtre National Populaire in Paris as a photographer, which was directed by the famous French actor and filmmaker Jean Villar.
While working at a photographer, Varda became interested in making a film, although she stated that she knew little about the medium and had only seen around twenty films by the age of twenty-five.
Now I’ve seen many films, and many beautiful films. And I try to keep a certain level of quality of my films. I don’t do commercials, I don’t do films pre-prepared by other people, I don’t do star system. So I do my own little thing.
I just didn’t see films when I was young. I was stupid and naïve. Maybe I wouldn’t have made films if I had seen lots of others; maybe it would have stopped me. I started totally free and crazy and innocent.

Filmmaking career

Varda liked photography but was interested in moving into film. After spending a few days filming the small French fishing town of La Pointe Courte for a terminally ill friend who could no longer visit on his own, Varda decided to shoot a feature film of her own.
She said she wrote her first screenplay “just the way a person writes his first book. When I’d finished writing it, I thought to myself: ‘I’d like to shoot that script,’ and so some friends and I formed a cooperative to make it.”
La Pointe Courte
La Pointe Courte was shot in a small fishing village in the south of France, and tells two stories concurrently, the themes never intermingling: the struggle of the fishermen against the economic domination of the big combines, and the story of a young man from the village who comes home with his Parisian wife in an attempt to save his marriage.
To further her interest in character abstraction, Varda used two professional actors, Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret, combined with the residents of La Pointe Courte, to provide a realistic element that lends itself to a documentary aesthetic inspired by neorealism. Varda continued to use this combination of fictional and documentary elements in her films.
The film was immediately praised by Cahiers du Cinéma
There is a total freedom to the style, which produces the impression, so rare in the cinema, that we are in the presence of a work that obeys only the dreams and desires of its auteur with no other external obligations.
André Bazin
An experimental work, ambitious, honest and intelligent.
François Truffaut
But the film was a financial failure, and Varda made only short films for the next seven years.
Cléo de 5 à 7
With the feature Varda took her place among the New Wave directors who had recently made such a splash. The film, divided into chapters using Tarot cards, which symbolise fate, observes two hours in the life of a pop singer as she waits for the medical verdict on whether she is to live or die. Every trivial incident takes on a new significance for her, and Paris is seen as if for the last (or first) time.
On a deeper level, Cléo from 5 to 7 confronts the traditionally objectified woman by giving Cléo her own vision. She cannot be constructed through the gaze of others, which is often represented through a motif of reflections and Cleo's ability to strip her body of "to-be-looked-at" attributes. The film mixes documentary and fiction, as had La Pointe Courte.
Le Bonheur
The advertisement-style prettiness of Le Bonheur (Happiness) created an ambiguity and ironic reflection on the film’s title. It tells of a carpenter who wants his wife to accept that he can be happily married and love his mistress. The wife kills herself and he lives happily ever after with his mistress and children.
The film’s amorality provoked controversy, added to which the male lead’s real family played his wife and children. Varda called Le Bonheur, which won the special jury prize in Berlin, “essentially a pursuit of the palette”.
Sans toit ni loi
In 1985, Varda made Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond), a drama about the death of a young female drifter named Mona. The death is investigated by an unseen and unheard interviewer who focuses on the people who last saw her.
The film is considered one of Varda's greater feminist works because of how the film deals with the de-fetishization of the female body from the male perspective.
Visages Villages
In 2017, Varda co-directed Visages Villages (Faces Places) with the enigmatic street artist and photographer JR. The film follows Varda and JR traveling around rural France, interviewing and creating portraits of the people they come across.
The film was screened out of competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival where it won the L'Œil d'or award.

Varda was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for this film, making her the oldest person to be nominated for a competitive Oscar.
“I didn’t want to be a woman who makes films. I wanted to invent cinema.”

Her cinematic style

Agnès refuses to follow the textbook formulas, to play psychologist or fill in a backstory that could account for her characters’ actions, to signal which are the bad guys and which the good, to play God or deliver retribution.
Over the course of nearly 40 films – features and shorts – Agnès has disrupted the conventions, mixing film and video, colour and black and white, documentary techniques and fiction, still photography and motion, “real people” and actors.
I don’t want the world to be segregated. For me it’s necessary to reconcile all this because I love it all. I’m trying to do work that’s multidisciplinary and open to experiments.
Watching her work, you realise just how many other films function as fairy tales for adults, reassuring us that life is fair, that virtue gets rewarded, that the lonely find love. Agnès doesn’t traffic in all that.
No wonder she hasn’t been recruited to direct the next Mission: Impossible. She has built an audience on her own terms.

Involvement in French New Wave

Varda is considered the grandmother and mother of the French New Wave. La Pointe Courte is unofficially but widely considered the first film of the movement. It was the first of many she made that focus on issues ordinary people face.
Late in her life, she said that she was not interested in accounts of people in power but "much more interested in the rebels, the people who fight for their own life".
Her pioneering work was central to the development of the widely influential French New Wave film movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Her films focused on achieving documentary realism, addressing women's issues, and other social commentary, with a distinctive experimental style.
Varda and other Left Bank group of New Wave filmmakers crafted a mode of filmmaking that blends one of film's most socially motivated approaches, documentary, with one of its most formally experimental approaches, the avant-garde.

Feminist filmmaker

In this misogynist culture women have been exploited by so many ‘masters’ in their ‘masterpieces’ to express the male artists’ own troubles. Look at Bergman – a great filmmaker. But all his women are consumed with his anxiety.

The only remedy is more art by “a great variety of women”. The movement would need radical lesbians, theoreticians, angry women…
When I started my first film, there were three women directors in France. Their films were OK, but I was different. It's like when you start to jump and you put the pole very high - you have to jump very high. I thought, I have to use cinema as a language.
Varda's work is often considered feminist because of her use of female protagonists and her creation of a female cinematic voice.
“I'm not at all a theoretician of feminism. I did all that — my photos, my craft, my film, my life — on my terms, my own terms, and not to do it like a man.”
She formed her own production company, Tamaris Films – it became Ciné Tamaris in 1977 and is still the entity behind all her work – which enabled her to circumvent any authority issues she might otherwise have encountered as a woman in charge on a film set.

Personal life

In 1958, Agnès met Jacques Demy, a fellow filmmaker who is best known for Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort). In 1962, they married, and Demy adopted Rosalie, who was five at the time (her father was an actor with whom Agnès had been involved).
The family moved to Los Angeles in 1967, where they lived for two years while Demy worked for Columbia Pictures and Agnès made a series of shorts about aspects of American culture that piqued her curiosity – the Black Panthers, hippies, outdoor murals by Southern California street artists.
In 1972, back in Paris, Agnès gave birth to their son, Mathieu, now an actor and film director.
Agnès and Demy separated for much of the 1980s. Soon he was diagnosed with Aids. Increasingly debilitated, Demy stayed home, writing about his childhood, showing her the pages at night. When she told him his memories would make a good film, he told her she should make it, he didn’t have the strength.
So she directed Jacquot de Nantes on location in his hometown, in the garage where he worked as a boy. Demy was there during the shoot.
Varda died from cancer on 29 March 2019 in Paris, at the age of 90.

Among those who attended her funeral were Catherine Deneuve, Julie Gayet, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jane Birkin, and Sandrine Bonnaire
“I cannot plan anything. I have to have the desire to make a film. Then it's a joy. You have to pick something you believe in. You have to believe it's worth it, and that it makes sense for you to do it. If I don't have that much passion, I won't work.”
He died, at 59, in 1990, 10 days after they finished filming. Jacquot de Nantes, their first and only collaboration, is heartbreaking in its attempts to preserve what Agnès could of his presence.
I seriously doubt that Agnès Varda ever followed in anyone else’s footsteps, in any corner of her life or her art. Every single one of her remarkable handmade pictures, so beautifully balanced between documentary and fiction, is like no one else’s — every image, every cut… What a body of work she left behind: movies big and small, playful and tough, generous and solitary, lyrical and unflinching… and alive.
Martin Scorsese
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