Final fade-out for Varda - a force of nature

New Wave pioneer 'never bankable' but much treasured

by Richard Mowe

Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda Photo: Unifrance
Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda Photo: Unifrance
The death of pioneering filmmaker Agnès Varda at the age of 90 leaves only renegade Jean-Luc Godard, 87, as the only surviving member of the New Wave which in the Sixties put filmmaking into free-fall. She has been variously described as the “mother,” “godmother” or “grandmother” of the Nouvelle Vague.

Despite failing eyesight and infirmity, she kept going until the end and last year received an honorary Oscar for Faces Places, made with the installation artist known as JR, which also had been in contention for best documentary in the Academy Awards.

I met her in Paris last year when she held court, talking with infectious enthusiasm about the film in which she described JR and herself as “like go-betweens, capturing pieces of life everywhere, taking pictures, filming and making a portrait. We brought our imaginations to the world of work. We had such fun with meeting people. It was a bit like a sociological work but made with joy rather than seriousness. By choosing different places we added a whole variety of experience.”

The film was shot one week a month over 18 months. She admitted that she was not so strong that she could shoot for any longer at any one stretch. Her daughter Rosalie worked as a costume designer and producer and latterly had accompanied her mother on trips to Los Angeles and to various festivals and awards ceremonies. She died in Paris after a short battle with cancer, surrounded by family (including Rosalie and son Mathieu Demy, an actor and director) and friends.

Agnès Varda holding court in Paris in 2018
Agnès Varda holding court in Paris in 2018 Photo: Richard Mowe
As the only female director associated with the New Wave, Varda was always assured of unique place in the annals of le cinéma français. She studied art history at the Sorbonne in 1946. She made her first film La Pointe Courte in 1954, edited by Alain Resnais, which is regarded as “the first film of the Nouvelle Vague”.

She struggled as a single mother in the Paris of the Fifties, when not only were birth control and abortion illegal, but also legal distinctions were made between legitimate children and illegitimate ones. Her partner was the director Jacques Demy, whom she lovingly portrayed after his death in Jacquot de Nantes, in 1993. Demy's film career ran in tandem with Varda's for 40 years until his death from AIDS complications in 1990.

Varda, whose father was Greek and mother French, was born in Brussels on 30 May, 1928. She and her family fled to France from the occupying Germans and she grew up in the Midi. She began her career as a photographer for Jean Vilar’s Avignon Festival. She continued to live with her beloved cats in the original family home in the Rue Daguerre in the 14th arrondissement near Montparnasse where she and Demy set up the production and distribution company Ciné Tamaris. The buildings around a courtyard first served as a studio for her photographic activities - it was there she took portraits of such luminaries as Delphine Seyrig, Gérard Philippe and Sami Frey.

“I come from the generation who were taught never to throw things out. I like the idea of hanging on to things and repairing items rather than discarding them. It’s not a question of money, more to do with guarding resources and not being wasteful. My children laugh at me when I sit darning a pair of socks,” she said.

Agnès Varda and JR: 'We were like go-betweens, capturing pieces of life everywhere'
Agnès Varda and JR: 'We were like go-betweens, capturing pieces of life everywhere' Photo: UniFrance
She put that notion into her documentary The Gleaners and I and its sequel and followed them with The Beaches Of Agnès, an autobiographical essay in which Varda at 80 revisited places from her past. It was thought it might be her last cinematic foray, until she found a new collaborator in JR who helped to guide her through Faces, Places. “There is a 55-year age gap between JR and myself but we shared the same feelings,” she told me.

Asked to cite her most memorable film she chose Cléo from 5 to 7 - a portrait of a woman filmed in real time - rather than the celebrated Vagabonde (about a homeless young girl played by a then unknown Sandrine Bonnaire). “Cinephiles everywhere love Cléo” she said proudly. She had most fun, she declared, working on 100 Nights, a film for the centenary of cinema. “The casting was incredible - Delon, Deneuve, Belmondo, Moreau, Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli and Julie Gayet. I enjoyed doing it so much but nobody went to see it.”

She had once lived in California in the Sixties to make Lion’s Love and was bemused and bewildered to be back there for that honorary Oscar. “I have never made any money from my films but I have won prizes and recognition. I have been on the margins forever. They all came to see me receive the award - there was Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Richard Gere and so on. I was imagining what they would all be worth in money terms. You see I was never bankable, I could not bring any money ever to the table. I like the friendships and, yes, the admiration but I don’t want to make a big fuss about it.”

Agnès Varda: 'I like the friendships and, yes, the admiration but I don’t want to make a big fuss about it'
Agnès Varda: 'I like the friendships and, yes, the admiration but I don’t want to make a big fuss about it' Photo: Unifrance
In bestowing the award Angelina Jolie said in tribute: “We need to draw strength from artists like Agnes … those women who went first, who took that first step, showed the way for all of us."

Friendships were important to Varda, as evidenced by the tribute she gave to us on the death of Michel Legrand when she wrote: "Michel and Jacques having left now across the ferry bridge that leads to a mysterious planet where one hears at times the sirens from the harbours of Cherbourg and Nantes, I'll stick with these few words and think of them with infinite tenderness."

Varda was determined “to go on working as long as I am able.” Her most recent documentary Varda by Agnès shed light on her experience as a director, bringing a personal insight to what she calls “cine-writing”, traveling from her based in Rue Daguerre in Paris to Los Angeles and Beijing. It was screened in February at the Berlin International Film Festival. And this veritable force of nature succeeded in fulfilling this ambition until the final credits rolled.

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