“You decide you do something, then you are totally ready for things to happen.” Agnès Varda, on YouTube
Film director Agnès Varda was talking about her process for creating documentaries, but she might as well have been talking about her storied career as the only female director of the French New Wave. Over her 63 years (and counting) of filmmaking, Varda has created a vast body of work composed not only of documentaries, but also short films and features. She is also an accomplished photographer. And now, at age 89, Varda has a new film and a new honor to add to her crowded list of awards and recognitions.
Earlier this year, Varda’s latest film, Faces Places (Visages Villages), codirected with artist JR, won the Golden Eye prize for best documentary at the Cannes Film Festival, and the film has been playing to great acclaim around the world ever since.
In addition, on Nov. 11, at the 9th annual Governors Awards ceremony of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), Varda will receive an honorary Oscar. This recognition from the American film industry, which has never nominated Varda for anything, is long overdue.
Varda’s record of accomplishment includes 47 awards, notably, a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for her third feature film, Le Bonheur (1965), and a 2009 César Award, France’s Oscar, for her autobiographical documentary, The Beaches of Agnès.
That same year, AWFJ honored her enduring artistry with an EDA Award for Perseverance for The Beaches of Agnès, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award—a full eight years ahead of AMPAS.
FILMMAKING HER WAY
The principal figures of the French New Wave are largely known for a grounding in intellectual cinephilia—several were film critics—before they ever picked up a movie camera. Varda, on the other hand, studied art history and was a photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire. She claims to have seen only 20 films before she made her first feature, La Pointe Courte (1954), at the age of 26. The film had a major influence on the style of the French New Wave, but her own emotionally resonant storytelling and realistic depictions of women set her feature films apart from her New Wave contemporaries. “I am an artist,” she has said. “My work is an investigation as well as a conversation.”
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) demonstrates her sympathetic understanding of a female character who might have been dismissed in other films as a self-centered airhead. She looks beyond the image of Cleo, a pop star with frivolous tastes and desires, to reveal a young woman waiting anxiously for the test results that may reveal she has cancer. Varda interrogates the illusion of celebrity and objectified femininity by presenting a flesh-and-blood woman whose talent, money, and beauty cannot save her from death. Cleo’s embrace of her own humanity allows audiences to gain meaning from her story.
In Vagabond (1985), Varda again takes on the mystique of femininity, but grounds her unknowable heroine, Mona, in the sordid life of a homeless drifter. Like the found objects that seem to fascinate Varda—for example, her collection of oddly shaped potatoes figures in The Beaches of Agnès—Mona is an encounter, a strangely comported alien who defies description or alteration by the people who cross paths with her. As with Cleo, however, her death in the first scene defines her basic humanity; thus, Varda forces viewers to accept women as equals with men because of our shared, inevitable fate.
FACES OF THE PRESENT
With Varda’s latest film, Faces Places (Visages Villages), she returns to her roots in photography, working with JR as they travel through the French countryside in his mobile photo booth to produce monumental photographs of the people (and goats) they meet and paste them on the sides of walls, rocks—even shipping containers piled high on a dock in Le Havre.
The playful tension between Varda and JR—he ribs her about her two-tone hair after she complains for the umpteenth time that she needs to see the eyes behind his ever-present sunglasses—adds to their creative collaboration and mutual affection. As with most of Varda’s work, however, the pain of the past, Varda’s encroaching blindness, and the nearness of mortality add an existential weight to this endearing film.
Thus, Varda continues to work near the height of her powers with the same insatiable curiosity that has driven her throughout her life. “You have to be in the film, inventing the film every day,” she has said. “And always open to meet people and understand that these people interest not only me, but the eventual audience. I hope the film reflects that diversity of what we deal with in everyday life.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER
In an industry and film movement dominated by men, Agnès Varda chose to follow her own path to creating films and images that respect her emotional life and those of women in general. Her continuing curiosity, creativity, and desire to communicate to others what she has learned has kept Varda at the forefront of the world’s cultural conversation. Her films will remain vital artifacts of her artistry, and her mentorship of others will ensure that the lessons she has learned will live on in film culture for many decades to come.