Cinema was invented to observe life in action. This simple truth may be lost to us in this digital age where images don’t reproduce reality so much as replace it, but it was one that Agnès Varda understood better than most. The term “pioneer”, so infrequently used today on someone whose accomplishments reached the scope it implies, seems at once fitting and reductive in its description of her, so generously broad and transcendent was the breadth of her vision.
Everything you needed to know about her could be found in that smile, that wide mischievous curve that only seemed to grow with each passing year, and in those kind, perceptive eyes, perpetually animated with a spark of curiosity that silently beckoned you to tell her more. No matter the subject, documentary or fiction, her filmmaking was always warm, playful and empathetic, firmly rooted in act of listening and observing. Where so many French New Wave directors used film as a material for experiments with space, time and politics, Varda used it as a writing form through which she recorded people’s lives, dreams and feelings.
This “cinécriture” (cine-writing), as she called it, began in 1955 with La Pointe-Courte, where she combined documentary aesthetics with avant-garde visual narrative to examine the decline of small provincial working-class communities in the face of post-war Parisian centralization. By juxtaposing the inhabitants’ dashed hopes (child death, bureaucratic fishing regulations) and daily joys (boat jousts, young love) with the death and rebirth of a young inter-class couple’s marriage, Varda dramatized France’s geographical disparities with a compassionate kind of radicalism that her subsequent career continuously built upon.
A photographer by training who came into filmmaking with little knowledge or film-watching experience, Varda nonetheless set the groundwork for the New Wave’s stylizations with her use of use both of professional and non-professional actors, intellectually poetic dialogue and evocative montage that occasionally broke with geography to underline the characters’ mindset. Not as explicit or provocative in their expression as fellow feminist contemporaries Chantal Akerman and Delphine Seyrig, Varda’s politics manifested themselves as radical empathy for the marginalized and misunderstood, expressed as much in music, rhythm and sound as in her actors’ faces.
This philosophy reached an artistic peak in 1962’s Cléo From 5 To 7, which follows the titular self-absorbed young singer (Corinne Marchand) through a day in her life as she awaits medical test results that will determine whether or not she is dying of cancer. In the film’s emotional high point, Varda’s camera slowly arcs towards Marchand’s face as an irritable Cléo starts practicing her new recently-composed song, a mournful ballad of lost love titled “Sans Toi” (“Without You”). The closer the camera approaches her face, the more the background fades to black, echoing her mood shift as the fear, frustration and sadness she’s been harbouring for hours find a temporary outlet. In this brief moment of Cocteau-esque onirism, the impersonal commercialism of French chanson is given unexpected soul, informed by the travails of its performer and of the culture she navigates.
Most of Varda’s subsequent work would consist of documentaries, both features and shorts, which explored ordinary people’s lives and wider political issues with equal unprejudiced curiosity and wit. From her interviews of Black Panther activists in Black Panthers to her linkage of Persian architecture with a couple’s love life in pre-Islamic Revolution Iran in Pleasure Of Love In Iran, Varda showed an acute understanding of the symbiotic relationship between politics and private lives without lecturing or grandstanding.
Nowhere did this quiet political consciousness find a more perfect expression than in her 1985 Sandrine Bonnaire-starring masterpiece Vagabond. In a narrative structure reminiscent of Citizen Kane and Rashomon, Varda, an unseen yet clearly felt presence, tries to assemble the portrait of a deceased homeless woman by interviewing various locals who met her before she died. From a rich woman’s maid to a Tunisian migrant worker, each testimony, informed by its orator’s social perspective, paints a picture that contradicts or complicates the next and challenges the viewer’s preconceptions, calling them to a greater awareness of their own social ecosystem. In doing so, Varda fulfils the structure’s deeper philosophical implications in a manner that completes and surpasses her film’s illustrious narrative predecessors.
As she grew older, Varda’s output remained as productive as ever, with standouts including One Hundred And One Nights, The Gleaners And I, and The Young Girls Turn 25, which she made in tribute to her late husband Jacques Demy, the visionary director behind The Young Girls Of Rochefort. Her last film, Faces Places, poignantly synthesised her approach to life, art and politics through a road trip across rural France with artist JR (who co-directed the film) during which the duo use photography and art installation to connect villagers, workers and pensioners with their communities, their past and their personal identity. At a time when profound geographical and social disparities within French societies are causing violent unrest, the unassuming generosity of Varda’s last work gives it an especially powerful resonance – a final act of civic artistry in favour of those forgotten by the metropolitan elite.
“Saint Agnès Of Montparnasse”, as critic Roger Ebert affectionately called her, exemplified the fundamentally communal purpose of cinema. As revolutionary as Godard (with whom she shared a love of wordplay) but more people-focused than he ultimately became, she used her camera as a means to uncover the unseen greater significance behind everyday acts and happenings. Her cinema was one of militant kindness that emphasized the humanity shared between artist, subject and audience and encouraged a stronger connection between them. It was this humanism, more than any new technique or style, that defined the best of what the French New Wave, and indeed cinema itself, could be at its best. For that, we owe Agnès Varda an unpayable debt.