Throughout much of Agnes Varda’s long and extraordinary career in cinema, I often felt her work was a bit undervalued. As a key figure in the French New Wave, her work was typically eclipsed (in reference, not quality) by Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and even her husband of 28 years, Jacques Demy.
It’s hard to say exactly why. Varda’s deep commitment to naturalism – shooting on location and often using non-actors – probably kept her films from reaching the level of international sensation that her peers achieved. I don’t doubt on some level there was some sexism that played into it. I know growing up as a young cinephile I seldom heard Varda’s name mentioned first, second, or even third when discussions of the French New Wave were had.
Which is perhaps, despite my love of all things film, I came to her work a bit late. In 1985 when Vagabond was released, Varda had already been active on film for 30 years. Her breakout movie, Cleo From 5 To 7 was nearly a quarter of a century old. She had hopped between fiction and documentary work with ease and aplomb for years. She was acclaimed, but to me, unknown.
Siskel & Ebert changed that for me. In America, there were no greater champions of Vagabond. They raved when they reviewed it. Both held it on their top 10 list for the year and all but begged people to see it. I never missed an episode of the windy city critics, and while I often disagreed with one or both of them, their passion for Vagabond was undeniable. I simply had to see it.
Starring the great Sandrine Bonnaire, Vagabond begins with a woman’s body frozen in a ditch. Then over a series of 47 chapters, Varda shows to us the conditions of her life that brought her to her death. It is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. Stark, realist, inventive, and profoundly feminist. Throughout the film, Bonnaire’s Mona is viewed through the eyes of others. At times it feels almost like a thriller. You think constantly while viewing the film, “if only this might have happened.” Knowing the outcome spares you no tension or grief. The inevitability only enhances the horror. I was simply shattered at the end of it.
Vagabond did well in its native country. It came in 36th on the yearly box office ledger and was nominated for four Cesars (Bonnaire winning for best actress). Still, it might have been many years before I would have seen it without the reverent advocacy of Siskel & Ebert. From there came a word of discovery for me. I simply had to see everything I could after that. Never once was I disappointed.
This diminutive in height – but massive in stature – French (by way of Belgium) woman with a trademark bob cut (that I’ve never seen a photo of her without) continued making movies into her 9th decade on earth. More often in documentary than fiction, but peerless in either pursuit. 1991’s Jacquot de Nantes – a love letter to her departed Demy – and her Oscar-nominated (at the age of 89, she was the oldest person ever to be nominated for a competitive Oscar) documentary from 2017, Faces Places are my favorites. To some degree, by outliving her contemporaries – and continuing to produce remarkable films – Varda’s legacy has been burnished further over recent years. The Academy awarded her an honorary Oscar (the first female director to receive the award) for her body of work in 2018.
Her final creation came just this year. A documentary series on her career directed by herself called Varda by Agnes. Imagine the confidence you must need as a filmmaker to make a film about yourself. To do so well, you would need to be unsparing, brave, and unflinching. Agnes Varda was exactly that for all of her days.
I suppose I could go on at greater length, but I think the best thing to do at this juncture is simply share this lovely statement from our greatest American director, Martin Scorsese.
Truer words have never been spoken.
“I seriously doubt that Agnès Varda ever followed in anyone else’s footsteps, in any corner of her life or her art…which were one in the same. She charted and walked her own path each step of the way, she and her camera. 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. I saw her for the last time a couple of months ago. She knew that she didn’t have much longer, and she made every second count: she didn’t want to miss a thing. I feel so lucky to have known her. And to all young filmmakers: you need to watch Agnès Varda’s pictures.“
Agnes Varda died today. She was 90 years old.