'A master of the film-essay format' – a tribute to Agnes Varda

Melissa Gronlund reflects on the life of the French filmmaker and remembers the four days she spent working in her Paris apartment

French director Agnes Varda at the 69th Berlinale film festival in Berlin earlier this year
French director Agnes Varda at the 69th Berlinale film festival in Berlin earlier this year

Years ago I did my dissertation on the work of Agnes Varda, interested in her on the strength of one film that had become an unexpected arthouse success: The Gleaners and I, an essay-film from 2000 in which the French New Wave director researched the history of people who scrounge for food.

With her signature pageboy haircut and visible curiosity, Varda picked potatoes from fields, rummaged with anarchists in dumpsters, and filmed collectors who wanted to let nothing go. Improbably, this idiosyncratic tale reached general distribution, entered into the competition at Cannes, and won awards across the globe.

Varda, who died today at the age of 90, was born in 1928 in Belgium, and came of age in Paris as a filmmaker among the generation of the 1960s New Wave – of early Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Jacques Demy, whom she married in 1962. Her early film La Pointe Court (1955) anticipated the on-location shooting that became such a hallmark of that period, and she followed too the shift in Left Bank concerns from filmmaking to social justice.

Agnes Varda photographed in 1960
Agnes Varda photographed in 1960. Photo: AFP

She was one of the co-directors on the collaboratively made film Loin du Vietnam in 1967, which protested the Vietnam War, and she filmed the Black Panthers and newly communist Cuba, the latter in a short work comprised solely of photographs that only appeared years later in Cinevardaphoto (2004). And in Vagabond, a 1985 commercial success that followed a young homeless woman in France, she retained a commitment to political and feminist aesthetics.

But it would be wrong to characterize her solely as a New Wave filmmaker. If the nouvelle vague was fascinated by the institution of film – Hollywood codes, the romance and the glamour of leading ladies, the potential for nostalgia in its stories – Varda’s interests were more formal.

As in Cinevardaphoto, with its breaking up of the flow of film, she was enraptured by the idea of time. Varda’s second film, Cleo from 5 to 7, made in 1962, follows the character Cleo from 5pm to 7pm as she waits for the diagnosis of medical tests. The film is exactly two hours, aligning the drama’s time with that of the person watching it. A radio playing intermittently in the scenes keeps track of the minutes passing, while also broadening out the political horizons of Cleo's world to include the news of the Algerian War and the Vienna Conference that were being reported at the time.

Around 2003, when she was invited by the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist to show in the Venice Biennale, Varda started working more in the art world. Her video installations and photographs were eventually shown at sites such as the Centre Pompidou, the Cartier Foundation and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Here, her interest in time segued into one of space, with monitors and photographs of seas, self-portraits and film reels, organized into displays that experimented with scale and positioning towards the viewer.

The works were received well, but they lack her voice – interrogative, charming, understated – that gives her films such warmth and idiosyncrasy. Her choice of film genre, whose unpopularity never seemed to give her pause, was perfectly suited to these strengths. Varda was a master of the film-essay format, which she indeed helped define: the quasi-first person, quasi-nonfiction form that allows subjective emotions to unfurl unsentimentally. Her 1991 tribute to her late husband, Jacquot de Nantes, made as a film-essay, is a case study for love, classiness and independence.

 Agnes Varda arrives for the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony last year. Photo: Mike Nelson
Agnes Varda arrives for the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony last year. Photo: Mike Nelson

Back when I did my MA, online portals such as Vimeo, Ubuweb, or Youtube didn’t exist or were just starting to come about. I couldn’t find Varda’s films anywhere – and particularly not among the fussy old libraries of Oxford where I was studying. I wrote to her production company, Cine-Tamaris, to ask where I might view them, and to my surprise she wrote back, saying she had them all in her living room. Why didn’t I come over and watch them while she was away?

It was Valentine’s Day when I arrived and her son – Mathieu Demy, a well-known actor and filmmaker in his own right – let me into the sunny little house in an area of Paris that I don’t recall any more. He made me a cup of coffee, showed me how the VCR player worked, and left me to it.

I had the same feeling as when I used to babysit: a stranger alone in someone else’s house, with an imposter syndrome of responsibility. They’ve left me in charge of these? I got out about four notebooks so that I could look especially studious if Demy came back (he didn’t). And I just stayed there, over the course of four days, watching and rewinding.

I recognised the clock with no arms on the mantlepiece from its appearance in The Gleaners and I and it politely failed to keep pace as I slowly worked my way through her the dusty little stack of her oeuvre. When I was finished I left a note and a bottle of wine – a lowly sort of thank you for a woman who was open to every request, image, and invitation, and who let this principle guide her life and work.

Published: March 29, 2019 06:12 PM


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