Maria Düster remembers French New Wave icon Agnès Varda in a heartfelt elegy.
Arlette Varda was born to Greek and French parents in Belgium in 1928. She changed her name at the age of 18 to Agnès – she didn’t like names that ended with “-ette,” the imposition of girlishness they possessed. At 19, she put a bowl on her head and told someone to cut around it – she kept the same haircut until the day she died. From adolescence until her passing, Agnès Varda possessed a joyful playfulness – never self-serious – and an indestructible sense of self.
Varda started her career in photography, studying at the Vaugirard School of Photography before eventually serving as the principal photographer at friend Jean Vilar’s Théâtre National Populaire from 1951-1961. Her first feature film, La Pointe Courte (1955), was inspired by photos taken for a friend in Sète of the fishermen’s quarter. Setting up her own co-op, Varda began production, the film so low-budget the crew couldn’t be paid. Seven years later, Varda released Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), a film that follows its titular protagonist in “real time” as she waits to hear the results of a cancer scan. Both films were critically successful, the latter cementing Varda’s place in the New Wave movement, a singular voice among her male peers.
Agnès made nearly fifty short films, documentaries, feature films, and television movies over the course of her career. Her subjects ranged from murals in Los Angeles to post-revolutionary Cuba to housewives, divorcées, and vagabonds. She blurred the lines between documentary and fiction. She experimented with style and direction constantly – double narration, photo documentary, continuous shots, autobiography – and squeezed cinema for all it was worth. Her films took place all over the world, in cities and towns and beaches, on walls and houseboats, and in the faces of her actors. Varda’s work stands alone in its ability to match genuine empathy, creativity, and emotion with technical skill and vision.
The scene in Documenteur where Emilie is lying on the bed staring at her naked reflection. That moment of aloneness / loneliness that Varda gifts us. I look at her and see myself / women, always looking at ourselves and past ourselves.
Le Bonheur. When François visits Émilie for the first time and she opens up the door and the shot flips back and forth and back and forth and back and forth between their faces, eyes meeting upon the threshold of transgression. The sickening sweetness of the children playing in the meadow.
Uncle Yanco and Agnès’ “first meeting” – she approaching as he greets her, followed by another take of her approaching, then another. A wall is broken, the moment is rehearsed. We’re asked to reconsider everything we know.
Cléo standing at the piano with Michel Legrand playing next to her. The lightness of his body next to her dread. The opening shot of Black Panthers. Agnès crying in Faces Places when Godard plays his trick. JR touching her shoulder. Agnès at Jacques’ grave in Beaches of Agnès. “He is the most cherished of the dead.” They are together now.
And all of the colors, of course, which I could never even begin to describe.
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Varda’s films made little money throughout her career. Vagabond was the most commercially successful and the only film for which Varda was nominated for directing at the Cesars. The majority of the filmmaker’s accolades came towards the end of her life; in 2015, Varda became the first woman to win an honorary Palm d’Or and the first female director to ever win an Honorary Oscar in 2017. Often overshadowed by her male peers in the New Wave, the praise bestowed to Agnès was often belated and muddled with an equal share of criticism – too radical, too emotional, not feminist enough.
I remember someone telling me that if I didn’t like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, I wasn’t a feminist. The commodified version of feminism pervasive in mainstream pop culture can be tiring – narratives about women still being written and/or directed by men, female protagonists only deserving of funding if they’re “strong” and “inspiring.” Agnès’ work stands antithetical to this; her films feature women who are unlikable, who love their husbands no matter how much they are abused; women who are lonely, sexual, languid; women who are disposed of by men, who break down, who kill themselves. There was no interest in presenting an ideal type of woman but rather placing female protagonists in different spaces and engaging with the complexity of – and the inherent contradictions within – womanhood. Varda spoke of a common denominator within the universality of film: our experiences, no matter how different, eventually “cross a middle knot” – this knot is bound by our emotion and feeling, perhaps what we don’t have words for yet. I watch Thérèse and Mona and Jane and Cléo and Agnès and I get closer to finding them.
Nothing seems to be enough to convey what Agnès meant to me and so many others. I find myself constantly battling with the type of woman I am -am I a bad woman? Is the work I do (and want to do) necessary? Do I have anything valuable to provide this world besides my pain and my body? Womanhood is a constant state of imposter syndrome. I get lost for a moment. Agnès reels me back in.
I will miss her silliness. She was a saucy minx, a friend remarks to me, and I smile. Her legacy lives on through her films and the shades of pink and blue and yellow within them and the people she touched with them. In the space between truth and imagination, Agnès rests.