Well-known for her short documentaries, narrative feature-length films and work in the French New Wave movement, Agnès Varda has amazed global audiences for decades with her ability to tell stories through memory, gesture and humor. Much of her work marries solitude with freedom, death with love and controversy with poetry.
In between long, slow moments, Varda’s childish humor peaks through the shadows of the scene and reanimates her audiences. Her work wears many faces, from the solemn portrait of a traveling young woman in “Vagabond” to the hilarious and colorful mockumentary of “Uncle Yanco” to the critical commentary of stereotypical depictions of happiness in “Le Bonheur.”
Despite her lack of formal training, Varda led a fruitious career and maintained her place among her peers in the French New Wave movement. She was the first French and first female director to receive the honorary Palme d’Or, a lifetime achievement award, at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. Varda’s work was influential to the French New Wave movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which embraced the director’s interpretation and visual experimentation.
Varda was called the mother of French New Wave since her work is highly regarded in this period of cinema that was largely male-dominated. She is also well-known for making feminist claims in her work, such as in “Réponse de femmes: Notre corps, notre sexe,” which makes direct statements about women’s rights and the experience of being a woman in a patriarchal society.
On March 29, 2019, Varda passed away at the age of 90. As a tribute to her 65 years of filmmaking, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, ran a series from Dec. 31 to Feb. 28 on Varda’s work called “Agnès Varda: An Irresistible Force.”
Despite her lack of formal training, Varda led a fruitious career and maintained her place among her peers in the French New Wave movement.
Susan Oxtoby, the senior film curator at BAMPFA, said she chose to compose this film series in celebration of Varda’s work. While the retrospective is incomplete, it does feature a substantial breadth of her work. The chronology of this series also emphasizes the relationships between Varda’s early and late works.
“It’s nice to look at a career forwards and backwards. Her first film, “La Pointe Courte,” is a really amazing accomplishment and a highly influential film,” Oxtoby said.
The films following this showing of “La Pointe Courte” move to her most well-known film, “Cléo from 5 to 7,” to her other feature-length narrative and documentary films such as “Vagabond” and “Faces Places.”
Varda’s work stretches cinematic possibilities; it varies in style, form and expression, asking her audiences to adopt a flexible mindset about what is beautiful. Many of her subjects do not ask to be the focal point, and yet Varda’s composition and artistic framing allow them to take up space on film and reveal themselves in striking yet ghostly ways. It is in these cinematic vignettes and memories that Varda speaks to larger societal issues.
In her 2000 film, “The Gleaners and I,” Varda uses the stories of gleaners and garbage pickers to draw her audience’s attention to the abundance of society’s food waste. Gleaning, Oxtoby commented, is a great metaphor for the traditional French lifestyle.
“I think between ‘The Gleaners and I’ and ‘Vagabond,’ there is this beautiful sense of Varda showing the French landscape. And I felt that it would run beautifully with this idea of being out on the land, which is why we chose these films for the same series,” Oxtoby said.
“Vagabond,” which depicts a young woman named Mona traveling through the French countryside, makes no real attempts to develop the main character but instead depicts the tensions between freedom and loneliness through each of her companions along the way.
“It’s a narrative that circles back on itself so that some of the characters that the protagonist encounters then end up being interviewed in the film, it’s very beautifully constructed,” Oxtoby added.
Beyond the abundance of work that Varda produced during her lifetime, Varda also showed an eye for very careful detail, showing deep reflections of human nature through small, ordinary gestures. In her final film, “Varda by Agnès,” Varda guides the audience through the creation of her films and explains her fascination with ordinary but delicate expressions of humanity.
Whether it’s videotaping her aged hands in “The Beaches of Agnès,” or filming a single woman at a gas station touching her greasy hair with care, Varda’s work cleverly tells sentimental and transformative stories through very plain yet evocative imagery.
“She was incredibly intelligent. She really knew from a young age as a 24 or 26-year-old making first films, and of course she was very focused and very clear about how to shape things. She put a lot of expression into her films” — Susan Oxtoby
“She was incredibly intelligent. She really knew from a young age as a 24 or 26-year-old making first films, and of course she was very focused and very clear about how to shape things. She put a lot of expression into her films,” Oxtoby said.
Varda began her artistic career as a photographer, and it is likely this training and knowledge allowed her to make her films very emotionally affecting and cognitively stimulating. In “The Beaches of Agnès,” Varda cites the reason she moved from photography to filmmaking: that she wanted more words, dialogue and narrative to describe the ways of her film subjects.
Oxtoby explained that in many of Varda’s films we see Varda directly interacting with the camera: “She was very hands-on. We see lots of her behind the camera and setting up the shots … and throughout her career, she was such a good, sensitive photographer.”
For more than 60 years, Varda made films both small and large, and in many of her works she appeared, giving an ode to her camera. By making these comedic gestures and appearances in her work, Varda’s touch always reached her final product.
It’s these little glimpses of Varda that make her work radiant with expression and character as well as simultaneously stunning and horrifying. Although Varda passed away in March 2019, her figure is still as vibrant as the characters in her frames and as subtle as the ghosts in between them.