Agnès Varda died on March 29th at the ripe old age of 90, leaving behind a formidable filmography spanning six decades. Known affectionately as the “grandmother of the New Wave,” she was a pioneer in the creation of a truly female cinematic language and voice.
From her earliest days as a champion of feminist ideals to her later years as a documentarian and icon of eccentric style, Varda’s body of work is a veritable embarrassment of riches that demands to be seen, mulled-over and savored by every movie lover--old, young and in-between. Following are ten of her most important films.
10 La Pointe Courte (1956)
Varda’s career begin in when she transitioned from still photography to film with this study of a marriage gone to pot. Juxtaposing the struggles of a couple (Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noire) reconsidering their relationship with a docu-style realistic portrayal of the day-to-day trials and tribulations of the locals in the tiny fishing village in which they live, Varda’s desire to depict the world as she saw it around her rather than adhering to classical standards was first crystallized here, and La Pointe Courte is now considered one of the progenitors of the French New Wave.
9 Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962)
It’s arguable that in Corinne Marchand’s singer, drifting throughout Paris awaiting the results of a biopsy, Varda created the first cinematic rendering of a truly female gaze. Unfolding in real time (give or take thirty minutes), the director's first bona fide masterpiece charts Cléo’s coming to terms with her mortality in the blend of verité style and drama she concocted in La Pointe Courte.
Unlike leading ladies in the works of Varda's male contemporaries, Cléo is an objectified woman who is looked upon, but chameleonic and unknowable to all but the viewer through the filmmaker's cinematic eye, which is fully a projection of her workaday heroine’s perspective and emotional landscape.
8 Le Bonheur (1965)
In this provocative tale of a young father, François (Jean-Claude Drouot) who engages in an extramarital affair with an attractive postal worker, Varda uses an unexpectedly blithe tone to make mock of and critique the self-centered, pleasure-seeking tendencies of men at the expense of their wives.
When Françoise reveals his infidelity to his wife, Thérèse (Claire Drouot), and assures her that there’s enough of him for both of them, she kills herself in shame, after which he re-marries the postal worker and romps through sunny, autumnal fields and forests with she and the kids. Varda’s biting anti-comedy is a gynocentric nightmare in which happiness is a finite resource dependent on marital stability, but for men, “le bonheur” flows free, and there’s always more just around the corner.
7 Les Créatures (1966)
Despite starring two of France’s biggest stars (Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli) and landing smack dab in the middle of the New Wave, Varda’s fourth feature film was a failure upon release and is still underseen and appreciated--so much so that the director, herself later “recycled” it into a successful installation piece.
Yet, this story of a woman who has lost her voice in a car accident and communicates with her science fiction author husband through writing was ahead of its time, a predecessor to the works of such directors as Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. Hypnotic and subliminal, full of jarring inserts and reality-bending digressions, Les Creatures is a metafictional rumination on creativity and how reality can bend, blend, and break in the mind of the artist.
6 Daguerréotypes (1976)
In this documentary portrait of the shopkeepers in Rue Daguerre, Varda narrates a tour through the Paris neighborhood that was her home for over 50 years. As she observes and documents the traditional crafts and trades of the locals, she creates a sense of the joyously ephemeral in celebrating a way of life that has all but disappeared.
As in so many of Varda's documentaries, the whole is greater than the parts, and her casual cataloging of these quaint Parisian people is an exercise in humanism that captures the magic of the everyday.
5 L'Une Chante, l'Autre pas (1977)
In some ways, this feature-length thesis and rallying cry is Varda’s most overtly feminist work, placing the fight for women’s rights center stage by following the lives of two friends (Thérèse Liotard and Valérie Mairesse) over the passage of fifteen years.
Laid back and meandering, this gentle series of vignettes champions female agency and treats both of the lead’s respective journeys as equally vital and valid. Abortion, activism, and female friendship are Varda’s concerns here, but she makes it all go down so easy with wit, humor, and a little music in what may be her most charming (but no less important) cinematic endeavor.
4 Sans Toit ni Loi (1984)
This dystopic meditation on freedom begins with the frostbitten body of a young drifter in a ditch (Sandrine Bonnaire) and then turns back the clock to piece together the events that lead to her death.
Recounted by a largely non-professional cast playing those who encountered the mysterious wanderer in a pseudo-documentary style, the film is a neo-realistic study of a young woman who places personal autonomy above all else. Varda nabbed the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for this austere and poetic stunner, and Bonnaire received a César for her enigmatic performance.
3 Jacquot de Nantes (1991)
Varda evokes her husband Jacques Demy’s formative years and celebrates his contributions to a cinema in this achingly personal tribute to a fellow filmmaker and life partner.
A similarly underappreciated luminary of French cinema, Varda’s collage-like approach retells his childhood through fictional recreations and weaves in clips from his films and documentary interludes from the dying Demy for a moving and affectionate tribute to his life and work. A cinematic love-poem unlike any other.
2 Les Plages d’Agnès (2008)
All good filmmakers’ work is a reflection of themselves, but Varda is one of the few cinematic artists whose body of work is truly an extension of herself. Made at the age of 80, this inventive visual autobiography is warm, impactful silly, and fill with setpieces of whimsy and wonderment.
For most artists, the notion of creating a documentary about one's own life would seem like a ridiculously self-aggrandizing move, but Varda is the subject that she, herself knows best. Les Plages d’Agnès is a tapestry made of memory that makes a case for artists telling their own stories, at least if they're as smart and self-reflective as Varda.
1 Visages Villages (2017)
This Oscar-nominated cross-generational road documentary sees Varda join the much-younger photographer “JR” on a road trip through rural France that’s soulful, wise, and the perfect send-off to her brand of artistry. As the duo traverses the countryside photographing locals, the themes that have always possessed Varda--populism, feminism, creativity, impermanence--prove as piquant and sticky as ever, but its the unexpected friendship at its center that is the key to the film’s pleasure and weight.
Seeing ourselves on screen, celebrating the plurality of human identity and embracing the diversity of lived experience is what cinema is all about, and for a director who did more than any other to validate the female perspective on film, her final documentary is a joyful and poignant swan-song that reminds us that that the boldest piece of art a human can create is a life well-lived.