Agnes Varda Invented the French New Wave. Why Didn’t She Get the Credit She Deserved?
“I think she was a woman,” said Rosalie Varda, the director’s daughter and the producer of Varda by Agnes, “and they were not very interested in films directed by a woman.”
The movie Vagabond, a huge hit in France when it debuted in 1985, opens on a young girl named Mona, dead in a ditch and dusted by frost, as police take photos, zip her into a tarp, and cart her off. “No one claimed her body,” a voiceover admits. “I knew little about her myself.” The movie, called Sans toit ni loi (“No shelter, no law”) in French, then meanders through Mona’s backstory, drawing from documentary-style interviews with people who hated her, and long traveling shots of the enraged loner leaving home, wandering, smoking, drinking, stealing, hitchhiking, camping, vomiting, meeting people, fighting with people, kicking walls, taking things she wants, rarely saying thanks, not washing her hair, eating sardines out of cans, until, somewhat abruptly, she dies.
Like Mona, when the director of that movie, Agnes Varda, died this year, she was not especially well-known. Varda, whose new and final documentary, Varda by Agnes, hit theatres Nov. 22, alongside a retrospective of her work at Lincoln Center from Dec. 20 to Jan. 6, made French movies and documentaries. She was the kind of director that maybe people heard about in a college film class, or from a friend who took a college film class, and either wrote off as pretentious or niche, or got around to watching at some point, saw her footage of dried potatoes or the movie where 40-year-old Jane Birkin has an affair with a 14-year-old gamer, and had their minds blown. But with different luck, Varda could have been a household name. Her first film, La pointe courte, which she made at age 26 on a budget of $14,000, is now widely thought of as patient zero of the French New Wave—the ’50s and ’60s movement which helped popularize many of the techniques (tracking shots, jump cuts, improvised dialogue, breaking the fourth wall) now used in movies everywhere.
Varda’s crowd skewed famous—Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and François Truffaut were all friends. Some of her work had traction in movie circles, and many were groundbreaking. In Cléo From 5 to 7 (1961), she shot a pop star during a single two-hour period, descending into fear she has cancer; in another, One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1976) she told the story of two friends securing an abortion before the procedure was fully legal; and in 1968, she filmed the Black Panthers for a short that was later suppressed by the same French television network that had commissioned it. But Varda’s spotlight arrived late and small. In 2017, she received an honorary Oscar, and in 2018, a nomination for her documentary Faces/Places. “I think she was a woman and they were not very interested in films directed by a woman,” said Rosalie Varda, the director’s daughter and the producer of Varda by Agnes. “Those [New Wave] guys were always in the cinematheque looking at films together and Agnes was never really in that movement. She was with [her husband] Jacques Demy; she was good friends with Jean-Luc Godard, Rivette, all of them. But she was on the side. I don’t think she was frustrated. She didn’t look frustrated.”
Varda by Agnes is not frustrated either. The documentary isn’t concerned with correcting history, so much as jumping around in it and pointing out things to look at. If the film cared much for chronology, it might mention that the director was born in Belgium in 1928, fled to France during the war, grew up in Paris, studied photography, worked a brief stint taking photos for Jean Vilar when he founded the Avignon theatre festival in 1948, made La pointe courte, married director Jacques Demy, had two children, spent two extremely productive periods in Los Angeles, disappeared for a decade after her husband’s death, and then transitioned to making visual art.
It doesn’t, though. Instead, the movie opens in a crowded theatre. Varda sits onstage in a director’s chair, marked AGNES V. Barely 5 feet tall, Varda’s legs dangled off every seat she sat on. She dressed in colorful pajamas almost all of the time. For decades, she wore a perfect bowl cut. When her hair went grey at the roots, Varda dyed the rim red, like a cartoon monk. Addressing the crowd, Varda starts to tell her story, skipping over origins and her genre-making first film, to a short called Uncle Yanco. She shot it in California in 1967, while tracking down a lost relative, a painter who lived on a houseboat outside Sausalito. What follows is a meandering little movie, zigzagging across her career as a filmmaker, lingering briefly on her photography years, and jumping to her work as a visual artist, where she makes houses out of old movie reels and triptychs of dried potatoes.
The film is anchored by footage from one of Varda’s many masterclasses, but it isn’t a lecture. Varda disliked the term “masterclass,” writing in an artist’s statement: “I don't feel like a master and I never taught.” It’s more of a primer to her deeply weird and observant repertoire. Like an Anthony Bourdain or a Studs Terkel, Varda always foregrounded the stories of working people, convinced that simply watching someone work could be a window into their world. The documentary dives into those—jumping from the L.A. mural artists she followed in Murs Murs (1980), to the foragers she met in The Gleaners and I (2000), to the dock workers’ wives she painted in gargantuan size on shipping containers in Faces/Places.
Varda often appears in her movies, or finds common ground with their subjects. In The Gleaners and I she often draws comparisons between gleaning and the act of scavenging a shot or scene. But in Varda by Agnes she fully flips the script, focusing on one working person in particular and one kind of work, namely, her own. It’s not an egomaniacal or indulgent flourish. Varda had the eye of a tiny Martian, fresh off the spaceship, and perpetually interested in how humanoids, especially the downtrodden ones, do their thing. Here, she’s merely probing how she did hers.
At one moment, Varda reveals that Vagabond, unlike its protagonist, was not lawless. In truth, the movie followed several extremely particular laws. “The structure was quite precise,” she says. Vagabond has exactly 13 tracking shots total. Each lasts one minute. All move right to left. (It’s “jarring,” Varda says, “because it’s the opposite of how we read in the West.”) The shots begin following Mona in some farm landscape and end on a nearby object like, say, a yellow tractor. The next one arrives exactly 10 minutes later, starting on a similar object like, say, an orange tractor. There’s an odd, nearly mathematical logic to the whole thing, like some code out of a Dan Brown mystery. It’s an Easter egg, an arcane visual puzzle that no one, other than maybe Varda, could decipher. “I enjoyed setting up an enigma,” Varda says in the documentary, “for which only I knew the secret.”