The recent death of French filmmaker and artist Agnès Varda is a poignant reminder of her significance as an artist and as a woman. Born in Belgium in 1928, Varda’s professional career spanned five decades. With her first film, La Pointe Courte, being released in 1954, and her most recent movie Faces Places receiving awards upon its release in 2017, the importance of her output as an artist cannot be understated.
Often referred to as the “grandmother of the New Wave” despite only being in her 30s at the New Wave’s height, Varda’s work was and still is influential for many filmmakers. La Pointe Courte was a precursor to much of the work that was to be produced by New Wave auteurs. Like other New Wave and Left Bank directors, Varda constantly subverted traditional cinematic forms, embracing more unusual filming, editing and narrative techniques.
Varda’s oeuvre is as varied as it is vast, although there are certain characteristics and techniques that typify her work. Using documentary-style filming, Varda constantly pushed to capture those living in the margins of society; amongst other things, her films addressed homelessness, poverty, womanhood, illness and death. She made two documentaries in 1968 about the Black Panthers, was openly against American involvement in Vietnam and, in 1971, signed The Manifesto of the 343, admitting that she had had an abortion despite it being illegal at the time. Clearly, Varda had no issue standing out from the crowd.
However, my personal admiration for Varda is not only inspired by her open acts of resistance, but her quiet and compassionately rebellious nature. It is through her kindness and her interest in others that Varda’s work became subversive. Her focus on those in the margins in films such as Vagabond (1985) and The Gleaners and I (2001) treat those living on the fringes of society with care and respect. While she was never afraid to address darker themes, Varda was not in the habit of exploiting or exaggerating the suffering of others for show. Instead, her films are often careful and lingering, acting to humanise her subjects.
An example of one such film is One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), a musical set to the backdrop of the Women’s Movement in the 1970s. Addressing themes such as abortion and female bodily autonomy, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is in many ways an obviously political film. However, Varda herself once commented that her personal experience of this movement was that “the women were very joyful and friendship was the main word.” Her focus on joy and friendship are not symptomatic of disengagement or naivety; quite the opposite. Treating those who are victims of oppression with dignity and representing them in happiness as well as in distress is a way of salving social ills. It is Varda’s ability to represent both the pleasure and pain in life that makes her work so poignant.
In an interview with The Guardian’s Owen Myers last September, Varda was asked how she wanted to be remembered. She answered that she “would like to be remembered as a film-maker [who] enjoyed life, including pain. This is such a terrible world, but I keep the idea that every day should be interesting. What happens in my days – working, meeting people, listening – convinces me that it’s worth being alive.” While Agnès Varda’s death has been felt keenly by those who are fans of her work, she has left us the greatest of gifts. One need only watch one of her films to be reminded of the beautiful mundanity of the world around us.
Image: Harald Krichel via Wikimedia Commons