Through the Lens of Agnès Varda

Through the Lens of Agnès Varda

One of my favorite things of studying cinema history, over various cinema courses I took through the years, was the opportunity to delve into the work of a renowned filmmakers around the world and explore their work. 

Each time I discover an auteur's filmography, it feels like embarking on a unique journey, almost like exploring a new city. The first film you encounter from a particular filmmaker often shapes your perception of them and/or their work. It offers insights into their film personality, allows you to identify distinct cinematic traits, and deepens your connection with them - if the film resonates with you emotionally. Something I say quite often is that you never know where each movie will find you. The same goes with filmmakers. 

The first film I've ever saw from Agnès Varda was Vagabond. Around 2016, I had my first film seminar, and this was one of the films that we had to watch as a part of our European Cinema course. This was my introduction to Nouvelle Vague, my favorite film movement, and of course Agnès Varda, my favorite female filmmaker. So, the first "Through the Lens of" reading couldn't be anything else.

Agnès Varda wa born on May 30, 1928, in Ixelles, Belgium. She was a French-Greek director and photographer renowned for her groundbreaking contributions to cinema, as well as her strong position on female empowerment and feminism in general. Having studied at the Sorbonne and the École du Louvre, Varda initially pursued a career in photography. During her time as the official photographer of the Théatre National Populaire from 1951 to 1961, she developed a keen interest in both theater and film.

When Agnès Varda embarked on her filmmaking journey in 1954, she unequivocally stood as an outsider in multiple aspects.

Not only was she a woman entering a predominantly male-dominated field, but she also lacked formal training in cinema, having originally pursued a career as a photographer. Prior to delving into filmmaking, she purportedly had minimal exposure to cinema, citing having seen only five films. Among Godard, Resnais, and François Truffaut, pioneers of the French New Wave, Agnès was acknowledged for instigating numerous defining features of the movement, such as non-linear storytelling, prioritizing mood over plot, and employing editing techniques that frequently introduced unexpected transitions. 

La Pointe-Courte

Facing hostility from French film-production unions towards amateurs, Varda, along with a small crew and a meager budget, relocated from Paris to Sete, a French Mediterranean fishing village where she spent her childhood. The resulting 1955 debut feature film, La Pointe Courte, intertwines two distinct narrative threads and filming styles.

The customs and challenges of the villagers are portrayed through documentary-like sequences, while the story of a Parisian couple, grappling with a failing marriage, unfolds in a more traditional dramatic manner. The film marked Philippe Noiret's debut in a leading role, with Resnais serving as the editor.

In creating La Pointe Courte, she aimed to approach her debut film with the same creative liberty as a novelist, allowing the narrative to wander and minimizing expository dialogue. 

‘‘It’s like a stream of feelings, intuition, and joy of discovering things’’ - Agnès Varda, IndieWire (2001)

Upon its release in 1955, La Pointe Courte did not achieve commercial success; however, it garnered praise from certain critics who admired its audacious style.

From 1985 to 1963, Agnès Varda made several short films including Ô saisons ô chateaux, Du côté de la côte, Salut les Cubains, where in between, she filmed one of the most influential film of her career, Cléo from 5 to 7.

Cléo from 5 to 7

Filmed in real time on the streets of Paris, Cléo From 5 to 7 chronicles the experiences of Cléo, portrayed by Corinne Marchand, as she anxiously awaits the results of a biopsy. Cléo, a young and shallow pop star, turns to friends and lovers for solace but finds disappointment in their responses. Then, she encounters with a stranger in the park – an Algerian soldier who offers her companionship to the hospital.

The film adopts a subdued and detached portrayal of Cléo's internal turmoil, avoiding Hollywood-style melodrama in favor of imagery aimed at evoking existential despair.

The outcome of her work is frequently characterized by a personal touch, occasionally drifting into the intimate realm, and bearing an occasional homemade quality. 

For instance, in Uncle Yanco (1967), an 18-minute documentary chronicling her discovery of a previously unknown Greek uncle residing on a boat in Sausalito, California, Agnès Varda captures a poignant moment as she embraces him, framed by a large red cellophane heart held by two children. 

In 1977, Varda established her own production company, Ciné-Tamaris, with the aim of exerting greater control over the processes of filming and editing.

Throughout her extensive career spanning nearly 40 films, including both features and shorts, Agnès Varda has consistently challenged conventional norms. She has innovatively blended various mediums, including film and video, as well as experimented with the interplay of black and white, color (Le bonheur, Lions Love, One sings, the other doesn't) and both (Les créatures)

She has seamlessly integrated documentary techniques with fictional storytelling, mixing still photography with motion, and blurred the boundaries between "real people" and trained actors (Daguerreotypes, Black Panthers, Women Reply)


And here comes VagabondAgnès Varda's acclaimed masterpiece from 1985, presents a cinematic portrayal of a nomadic woman shaped by the individuals she encounters prior to her death. The narrative revolves around Mona Bergeron (portrayed by Sandrine Bonnaire), who embarks on a quest for liberation from the confines of a mundane existence as a wage-earning secretary.

However, instead of discovering true freedom, Mona confronts the societal constraints imposed upon women solely by virtue of their gender. Her existence, devoid of financial bindings, becomes defined by an unsafe harness on her own resourcefulness and the intermittent kindness of strangers.

"You chose total freedom, but you got total loneliness."

This film is one of the most tragic narratives to ever portayed on the big screen. The experience of womanhood itself is depicted as inherently terrifying. You need only a glance at the headlines to witness women being stalked to their homes, subjected to violence for rejecting advances, or unjustly labeled as criminals for asserting control over their own bodies. Within Varda's consistently feminist body of work, this unsettling truth is poignantly articulated nowhere more explicitly than in Vagabond, and these are only a few reasons why this film stuck with me throughout all these years.

Jane Birkin & Agnès Varda

In 1987, Agnès Varda and Jane Birkin embarked on a collaborative film project, leading to the simultaneous production of two films. The duo's creative endeavor resulted in the creation of Jane B. par Agnès V and Kung-Fu Master!. Both films that Varda crafted alongside Birkin hold a deeply personal significance for both artists, as they feature several of Birkin's relatives, including her children, brother, and parents, as well as Varda's own son, intertwining their family connections within film's narrative. 

Jane B. par Agnès V. serves as an "imaginary biography" of Jane Birkin, according to Varda. In this film, Varda adopts a documentary-like approach, incorporating interviews and film clips. However, it's worth pointing out that the diverse and vivid clips showcased in the movie were entirely fabricated for this project, with the exception of specific clips from Kung-Fu Master!. These clips portray Birkin assuming various traditional yet unconventional female roles, ranging from a melodramatically oppressed Dickensian mother to a Spanish flamenco dancer, and even portraying Joan of Arc.

Kung-Fu Master! stemmed from Birkin's idea of portraying a mother who develops romantic feelings for an adolescent boy. The boy, who is nearly 15 years old, spends his time hanging out with friends, smoking, engaging in mischief, and playing video games. Mathieu Demy, Varda's son with Jacques Demy, portrays the boy. Birkin's short hair and casual clothes lend her a boyish appearance, creating a dynamic where she almost assumes the role of an older brother, fostering a connection with her own experiences of cross-gendered adolescence.

Agnès & Jacques

While attending a short film festival in Tours in 1958, Varda crossed paths with her future husband, Jacques Demy. They remained married from 1962 until his passing in 1990. Varda had two children: a daughter named Rosalie Varda from a previous relationship with actor Antoine Bourseiller, who starred in Cléo from 5 to 7, and a son named Mathieu Demy (born in 1972) with Jacques Demy. Despite Demy's undisclosed bisexuality, she constantly supported him, choosing to reveal his battle with AIDS only after his death.

In 1991, in the wake of her husband's passing, Agnès Varda crafted the film Jacquot de Nantes, a poignant exploration of his life and death. Initially structured as a portrayal of his formative years, passionately marked for various aspects of filmmaking such as animation and set design, the film seamlessly blends elements of recreation with documentary. She interweaves clips from Demy's own films alongside footage capturing his final moments, offering a multifaceted tribute to his legacy. While the film echoes Varda's recurring theme of embracing mortality, at its core, Jacquot de Nantes stands as a heartfelt homage to her late husband and their shared artistic journey.

The Beaches, Faces & Places of Agnès 

A groundbreaking point during Agnès' filmmaking journey was when she used digital cameras for the first time in her career, in the film The Gleaners and I (2000) a documentary centers on Agnès Varda's encounters with gleaners, individuals who gather leftover crops in the French countryside, and artists who create artwork using recycled materials.

From 2000 until 2019, alongside short films, TV movies, and short videos that marked her last years on earth, Agnès made three remarkable documentaries; The Beaches of Agnès, Faces & Places with JR and Varda by Agnès. 

Faces & Places follows Agnès Varda and JR as they journey through rural France, capturing portraits of the individuals they encounter along the way. Varda's nomination for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for this film was notable, as it made her the oldest person ever to be nominated for an Oscar.

In 2008, she made her first personal docu-biography with The Beaches of Agnès where she delves into her memories, largely following a chronological structure. It incorporates various elements such as photographs, film clips, interviews, reenactments, and contemporary scenes of her narrating her own story.

Her last film before she died in 2019 was Varda by Agnès. In the film, Agnès Varda is depicted watching and reflecting on her own films and artistic endeavors. Across her 60-year journey in photography and filmmaking, she narrates the significance of three fundamental concepts: inspiration, creation, and sharing.

Inspiration. Creation. Sharing.

This was Agnès Varda.

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