AUTOBIOGRAPHY: At 90, French New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda reflects on her career and a creative philosophy of community and empathy.

Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: April 30, 2019

 «Where are all the female directors?» is a question belatedly gaining traction amongst an industry only now conscious of its structural gender bias; a shift to redress decades of tunnel-visioned attention on a supposed canon of big-league male auteurs.

Along with calls that more be done to equal the playing field in supporting women-helmed films, a reevaluation of the past is also underway. Female filmmakers previously sidelined from cinematic history are being brought back into the spotlight for a new generation to appreciate.

Maverick outsider

Admiration of Agnès Varda, now a sprightly 90, has only recently gone mainstream. She was at the vanguard of the French New Wave, and one of the first women behind a camera to really make a mark on European arthouse cinema. Only recently embraced by the Oscars, and when she turned up to the award ceremony last year in silk pyjamas and trademark, punkish two-tone bob – the oldest nominee in history for her road-movie documentary Faces Places – social media erupted in a rush of adoring tweets. A maverick outsider, a light of joyful mischief, a self-proclaimed feminist, and the real genius deal, Varda has been embraced as a vital burst of creative energy that, locked out of the official narrative, has been in all too short supply.

It is a fitting opening for a film that foregrounds her creative practice and its primacy in connecting her with others.

Varda by Agnès had its world premiere at the Berlinale, and is rumoured to be the Belgium-born auteur’s last film (but who can tell with someone whose irreverent playfulness is as alive as ever, and whose creative practice seems so inextricably bound to how she relates to the world). Part masterclass, as she talks us through clips from her prodigiously innovative career, and part deeper reflection on her heartfelt philosophy, the film is effectively a primer on her life’s work and an ideal entry point for her newest fans –  carried off with all the imaginative charm we would want from a film about her life. After all, as a strong-minded creator in a world run by men, she probably knew better than anyone than to end up with a film that is true to her essence, so the canny approach would be to make it herself.

Varda by Agnès Director: Agnès Varda

We first see Varda in her signature director’s chair, «AGNES V.» printed on the back, facing an audience of budding filmmakers looking to her expectantly. It is a fitting opening for a film that foregrounds her creative practice and its primacy in connecting her with others. She is not the wife and mother who just happens to make movies (though her love for late husband and fellow

New Waver Jacques Demy and children is anecdotally woven into the film’s fabric).

An all encompassing way of life

Here, we come to understand cinema as an all-encompassing way of life. It is not portrayed as a narcissistic calling in the vein of conventional «tortured genius» framings of larger-than-life auteurs, which would have us believe their nearest and dearest must suffer in the name of enabling masterpieces. Rather, what comes through is Varda’s deep affinity and empathy for humanity in all its manifestations, and art as a great healing force for community.

Varda has long tapped the possibilities of cinema as activism amid her ongoing concern for body politics. Societal fear of cancer, reflections on mortality, and the objectification of women in Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), and abortion rights are central to her free-spirited musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) – made against the backdrop of the Women’s Movement in France. Through all her films, women are not content in fitting any rigid, bourgeois mould («I wanted to film freedom and filth», she says of making 1984’s Vagabond, about an angry loner), and are given space to try out different lifestyles, and to find themselves.

«Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love»

Even when not at its most directly political, her practice is one of inclusion and community; cinema as a way back to life affirmation and dignity. «I play the role of a little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative, telling her life story. But it’s others that interest me more,» she says, as archly astute as she is whimsical and self-effacing. Her open-minded, gentle curiosity underlies many of the encounters we see, often with society’s toiling classes, eccentrics or marginalised: from the relationship she builds with a man foraging for parsley in the bins of a farmer’s market in The Gleaners and I (2000), to an enthusiastic digression filming «trainopaths», adults with an extensive collection of toy trains. «Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love; if you find them extraordinary, as I did,» she says.

In a world of increasingly entrenched and at-war identities, Varda’s legacy is one of the unconventional and infectiously joyous celebrations of humanity’s multiplicity.


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