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Viva La Varda!: In Honor of the Queen of the French New Wave


Illustration by Harris Singer

Of the 134 Honorary Oscar Recipients, only 5 have been awarded to documentary filmmakers. Of those 5 rare honorees, only one ever has been presented to a woman. In 2017, Agnes Varda received the award at the age of 89 years old after over 50 years of making films. While she received the award for her documentary contributions, Varda is known for being an auteur who has worn many hats (as well as now iconic brightly-colored knit shawls) over the course of her career. She is known to many as a pioneer of the French New Wave, again the lone woman among names like Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais. However, Varda’s career spans decades past the New Wave. Her last film, Varda by Agnes, marked her 24th feature length film, and debuted in 2019, the same year Varda passed away. Her films range and blend narrative, documentary, and experimental styles that defy traditional awards categories or movements. Her non-traditional story lines and avant-garde approach to plot result in films that defy genre and resist categorization. Many of her films were made and produced independently in her home studio that she established with husband and fellow filmmaker, Jacques Demy. They showcase Varda not only as a director, but as an editor, writer, and cinematographer (sometimes all within the same film). For such an accomplished and varied filmmaker, anyone familiar with Varda’s work can see why it’s taken so long for American media to recognize her contributions; even to solely look at her career as a documentarian feels reductive. An honorary Oscar in that field is perhaps more of a long-awaited commemoration to Varda’s singular voice in cinema. 

In 2017, the Academy had been facing much public criticism at their lack of inclusion, most famously the #OscarsSoWhite on Twitter, calling out the lack of non-white nominees and industry professionals attending and being honored at the Oscars. In the same year, Harvey Weinstein was expelled from the Academy and the #MeToo movement was stressing the importance of space for women to safely work on and off screen in Hollywood. The Academy started to respond by making a conscious effort towards diverse representation, breaking their previous records for POC nominees, and by Varda being the first female director to receive an honorary award. While western media has still just begun examining the contributions Varda has made towards progressing cinema as an art form, it is crucial to understand that these contributions are indelibly tied to Varda working from the female perspective. 

Varda embodies the very idea of gender and class diversity in film by making these themes topically and visually present throughout all of her work. Instead of studying film and trying to emulate her male contemporaries, Varda did not take an interest in film until her early 20s and made projects for her own enjoyment. Where she focused her lens was largely informed by her upbringing as a daughter of immigrants and by living in France through World War II. She was emboldened by the feminist movement and rising class consciousness, opting to capture how this impacted life around her without being hindered by a need to adhere to classical film standards, which was greatly emphasized in film schools at the time. Instead of trying to create commercial successes, what resulted is an entire catalog of films that showcase themes that were never so explicitly talked about on screen before, constructed specifically through a woman’s gaze. 

After experimenting with some short art films and getting the hang of the medium, Varda released her first feature film, La Pointe Courte (1955) at age 27. La Pointe Courte is a meandering and intimate look into life in the small fishing town the movie gets its name from. Half of the film is centered on various townspeople; here Varda hones what will become part of her signature style of weaving documentary footage into a narrative film. The black-and-white handheld footage she employs centers on real villagers such as merchants and dock workers going through the motions and daily activities such as tying fishing nets or walking through the cobblestone streets by the coast. It is through this table-dressing that Varda lays out the second half of her film; a glimpse into a married couple struggling to decide whether to stay together or divorce. At the center of this conflict are the gender roles of the 1950s. Women are expected to do the domestic work and men are expected to work outside of the home and provide for their family. Varda’s savvy decision to frame the portrait of this couple’s struggle within “business as usual” goings-on in the town invites the viewer to question the systems at play that impact their everyday existence. The film’s female protagonist, Elle (Sylvia Monfort), gives voice to real concerns women were facing at the time. She contends with the reality of taking on domestic roles like mothering and cooking, while also hoping for romance to continue to be present in her relationship. Pollution and policing are also present in the story, creating challenges for the general townspeople. 

Film scholar and historian Georges Sadoul deemed La Pointe Courte the first film to mark French New Wave filmmaking. Indeed, employing actors and non-actors together and utilizing a location as a character in a film was groundbreaking. However, just as groundbreaking was Varda’s incorporation of the post-war climate and how it affected even the smallest of towns through awareness of environmental strain and gender inequality. She would continue to be inspired by the lives of those around her, basing her most successful film, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), on a newspaper article from her local paper. Social struggles would also remain prevalent in her work. Varda visited California in the late 1960’s for some fresh inspiration. There she became acquainted with the Black Panther movement and created a short documentary since their actions and philosophy were not well known in France. French New Wave author Richard Brody describes her films as concerned with “personal experience, political insight and activism, an ardent vision for landscape, an intense curiosity about the lives of others, and frank confrontations with intimacy, romance, and love”. Many of her film’s protagonists are women contending with topics like pursuing their dreams in a male-dominated world, and the limits of what personal freedom can actually look like. 

In One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), all these themes are present and surround the topic of abortion. In France at the time, it was still illegal for women to have an abortion and the topic itself was completely taboo. The protagonists of this film are two women from completelydifferent social backgrounds and ambitions, yet are inexplicably bound by profound and lifelong friendship. The film is Varda’s love letter to the hippie movement and an ode to the necessity of female friendship. Through the rebellious counterculture represented in the film, the women are able to find communities based on liberation and equality that accept them completely. Throughout the film, the characters are completely autonomous and their decisions are viewed with empathy, their motives never questioned or minimized. Varda also put to screen the physical transformation of pregnancy and shows one of the characters breastfeeding at a time where it was rare to show nudity in a nonsexual way. 

Agnes Varda’s films are more than just stylistic and technical feats. They are a testament to the artistic possibilities waiting to be discovered when women make art for themselves and tell stories centered around themselves and their communities. The world’s within her films are vivid and often devoid of shame, inviting the viewer to observe with openness and curiosity rather than impose themselves into the narrative. Though she never had much commercial success (she chose to never explicitly pursue it), it’s about time filmmakers and critics alike acknowledged her extensive contributions to the art of independent filmmaking. By awarding her an honorary Oscar and retroactively crediting her hand in conceiving the French New Wave, a female auteur becomes canonized in film history. Modern filmmakers including Greta Gerwig, Miranda July, and Kelly Reichardt are among the vast list of artists who credit her as an inspiration. To celebrate her films is to celebrate independent and experimental endeavors, new and more honest types of roles being available to actresses, and to legitimize the excellency of female directors, writers and editors. Viva Varda!

Agnes Varda, December 1997 (Jim Garret via Getty Images)


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