Essays · Movies

Celebrating the Life and Films of Agnès Varda

The French Left Bank icon and feminist film pioneer will be deeply missed.
Agnes Varda
By  · Published on March 30th, 2019

Agnès Varda was nothing short of a cinematic legend. She approached her work, whether it was documentary or narrative, with a distinct eye and an ability to tease out a tenderness from any subject. She was playful, curious, warm, honest, and a million other descriptors that would never manage to fully capture her incomparable spirit. Varda’s passing at the age of 90 is a tragic loss and the responses from fellow filmmakers and cinephiles have been a reminder that she is truly irreplaceable. Whether you’ve seen one of her films or dozens, to know Varda in any capacity is to know that she was a true gem. No need to have known her personally to understand what I mean when I say this one hurts.

Varda’s passing brought to mind a quote from The Young Girls Turn 25, a documentary she made about returning to the French town of Rochefort to celebrate the anniversary of The Young Girls of Rochefort, the 1967 musical made by her late husband Jacques Demy:

“The memory of happiness is perhaps also happiness.”

So many of us love Varda because of the happiness she brought us. To honor her, let’s all try to remember that happiness. To celebrate Agnès Varda, the Film School Rejects team put our minds and hearts together and came up with eight films that stand out to us in Varda’s incredible and diverse filmography.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

I hated almost every minute of French New Wave in college, but Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 was the exception. As a member of the Left Bank, Varda’s sensibilities weren’t quite in line with the Cahiers du Cinema that I loathed so, and Cléo embodies the best of these traits. The film’s deliberate, almost neorealist portrayal (the film was shot on location) of the titular Cléo’s meanderings and musings on life and death is emphasized by a distinct lack of non-diegetic sound, and the usage of the death tarot motif, which in classical tarot represents not death but rather a dramatic change, fits the story beautifully. — Hans Qu

Black Panthers (1968)

Agnès Varda explored justice and beauty in her concise portrait Black Panthers. Filmed during Huey P. Newton’s imprisonment in August and September of 1968, her camera moved through rallies and listened to political platforms. With spare voiceover exposition, the film offers a primer from Newton and Kathleen Cleaver on the party tenets, but also its aesthetics. Varda loved imagery and iconography and rhythm and movements — both physical and intellectual. She noted the fashion and music and gender dynamics of the party. She was undoubtedly sympathetic to Newton, whose conflict with police was indicative of institutional racism. To me, the film is about the layered beauty of revolution. It’s about vigilant hope, about new consciousness, about new links to power. Varda absorbed and relayed information well, but she conveyed spirit better. And Black Panthers ends with “the story is not over.” — Katherine Steinbach

Daguerrotypes (1976)

Agnès Varda made people-watching high art, and nowhere is that gift of hers more exquisitely showcased than in Daguerréotypes, her very first documentary feature. Trailing an extension cord from her own door on the Rue Daguerre, Varda set her ever-inquisitive eye on the nearest horizon possible, interviewing and observing the shopkeepers and artisans with whom she shared the street. Clockmakers, perfumiers, and butchers who carve their customers’ meat on open-plan shop floors – these long-extinct sights are all the more captivating for seeming, even in 1976, like relics of a bygone era.

Such an unassuming backdrop makes Daguerréotypes feel like a slice-of-life piece, but more than that, it’s a living, breathing document of Varda’s empathy and attentiveness, and the delight she took in knowing the lives of others, no matter who they were. As is typical of her, it’s the stories of the “silent majority” she cherishes most in Daguerréotypes; at a time when other luminaries of the French New Wave had turned their attention to the explicit and the inflammatory, here was Varda, training her lens on the meek, the female, the senile, and the migrants whose footprints left Rue Daguerre’s pavement, in her words, “smelling like soil.” Varda’s generosity of spirit and affection for these people, her beloved neighbors, brims over; it’s pure, it’s near-holy, and it’s impossible to come away from Daguerréotypes without feeling like a little bit of that love has rubbed off on you. As with so much of her work, then, this is a film that showcases Agnès Varda’s superpower: making better people out of her audience. — Farah Cheded

Vagabond (1985)

A woman’s corpse (Sandrine Bonnaire) settles in a ditch. We begin with her frozen end. Varda provides the narration, interviewing those that saw her last, inquiring on the events that led to such an abysmal, callous conclusion. We learn that this drifter survived on handouts and brief encounters with strangers. She’s labeled a tramp and a leach. The Vagabond’s very existence is an affront to society; she is a vicious visible horror that devalues our wants and desires. We would trap her in domesticity, and judge her death as an inevitable, pathetic end. By telling her story, Varda condemns the voyeur instead. — Brad Gullickson

Jacquot de Nantes (1991)

Jacquot de Nantes is many things. It’s a touching depiction of Jacques Demy’s cinematic influences, a tribute to his life and work, a meditation on loss, and a deeply personal glimpse at the intense love shared between him and Varda. In the months before her husband’s death, Varda captured footage of him as he was. This is cut together with reenactments of his childhood and the scenes in his films that his life inspired. We trace, for example, his family’s garage and its counterpart in Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This serves to memorialize Demy’s singular cinematic vision and his personal connection to his work, but what really makes this film worth watching is the palpable sense of adoration shared between Varda and Demy. She captures him with a tenderness that is incomparable. It’s clear that Varda, who in her films constantly displayed her ability to feel deeply, felt some of her deepest emotions with Demy. — Anna Swanson

The Gleaners and I (2000)

When people talk about Varda being meditative, it is often in the context of The Gleaners and I. Gleaning, the traditional practice of scavenging the imperfect, abandoned residue of the harvest, has long been protected in the French constitution. The true gleaner herself, of course, is Varda, who at 72, wields a new tool — a digital camera — with infectious delight. She is the déchets queen; stomping through potato fields in search of heart-shaped spuds, elegizing transport trucks, and befriending like-minded lovers of leftovers. The stakes of Gleaners have only clarified with time as we continue to make more and use less. — Meg Shields

The Beaches of Agnes (2008)

Authors write autobiographies all the time, but for some reason, filmmakers rarely do the same with their own medium of choice. Sure, they’ll do long interviews for celebratory documentaries produced by other people, but for whatever reason, few have taken a truly autobiographical turn the way Varda does in The Beaches of Agnès, a project she undertook in light of her 80th birthday that’s nostalgic in all the best ways. In this deeply personal, wonderfully whimsical, and masterfully crafted film, Varda shows not just incredible talent but bravery in her willingness to put herself under the microscope of her own camera lens. You’ll laugh, you’ll learn, you’ll feel your heartstrings tugged. And if you’ve ever wondered what makes Varda such an icon, you’ll never ask that question again. It’s also in this documentary that Varda shares the immortal words, “I tried to be a joyful feminist, but I was very angry.” While The Beaches of Agnès was not ultimately Varda’s final work as originally intended, it still remains a fitting swan song for an incredible career and a truly iconic filmmaker. — Ciara Wardlow

Faces Places (2017)

Faces Places was the second-to-last film of Agnès Varda’s decades-spanning, landscape-altering career. The delightful documentary features Varda and photographer JR traveling in rural France and photographing the ordinary people whom they meet and deeply connect with along the way. Throughout Faces Places, Varda ruminates on her life and career (even gifting JR the anecdotes he desires about Jean-Luc Godard, recalling that she was one of the only people who could get him to take off his glasses) and speaks frankly about how she knows this will be her last film and how she feels that the end of her life is approaching. Like with all of her films, in Faces Places Varda somehow manages to address every aspect of the human condition in under two hours. Her films — and this one in particular — mean so much to me because they remind me, through their simplicity and truthfulness, of the beauty of everyday life and the power of human connection. More so than anything though, Varda’s films are like eternal testaments to the magic of filmmaking, and I will always be grateful to her for having shared her passion with us all. — Madison Brek

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.