The friends and family of Agnès Varda – among the untarnished greats of postwar French cinema – can draw consolation from the awareness that she died while part of the cultural conversation. In 2017, her singular documentary Faces Places premiered to acclaim at the Cannes Festival. It went on to secure an Oscar nomination and Varda – wearing a variation on the same monkish bob she had sported since the late 1950s – became one of the faces of that year’s awards season. She was then 88, but her interviews were as spicy and subversive as those of any nominee a quarter her age. She had never gone away. That late bloom helped, however, to confirm that she was the most versatile and durable of the filmmakers who emerged in the French New Wave.
Varda was born nearly 91 years ago in Brussels. Her mother was French. Her father was Greek. After a war spent mainly in southern France, she went on to study literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne. She had plans to be a museum curator, but soon became captivated with the still image and ended up with a job as official photographer at the Théâtre National Populaire.
Her early films emerged before the fabled Nouvelle Vague had got going and she could, thus, be seen as a John the Baptist figure (or his feminist equivalent) to the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Released in 1955, La Pointe Courte starred Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort as "a couple reconsidering their relationship [in] a village that is trying to resolve several collective problems of survival".
It was, however, Cléo from 5 to 7 in 1962 that really announced her to the critical community. Starring Corinne Marchand as a singer who, as she wanders Paris, contemplates current social discontents, the tenets of existentialism and her own fragile mortality. The film is more full of life and experiment than anything by Godard and Truffaut. Over the succeeding five decades its reputation soared and Cléo from 5 to 7 is now rated among the jewels of its era.
Common themes could be traced in Varda’s work. She remained a clear-eyed feminist in an artistic community that – for all its leanings to Marxism and Maoism – continued to demean and patronise women. “I’ve been with the feminist movement for years,” she said a few years ago. “And we have always said: ‘Speak out, complain, scream.’ I have been marching in the street often since the 1960s and 1970s.”
I've never in my entire career felt that people have loved a film of mine as much as this one
Her formal approach was harder to characterise. The excellent Vagabond from 1984 starred the charismatic Sandrine Bonnaire as young woman who wanders towards oblivion in the French wine country. "Vagabond burns in the memory, lucid and unsentimental, like the challenging gaze of Sandrine Bonnaire," David Thomson wrote.
Varda was married to Jacques Demy, director of the legendary The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, from 1962 until his death in 1990, and she treated his career obliquely in the brilliant Jacquot de Nantes from 1991.
In 2000, her documentary The Gleaners and I, concerning French farm workers, attracted some of the best review in an already lengthy career. “I’ve never in my entire career felt that people have loved a film of mine as much as this one,” she said.
Varda received an honorary Palme d’Or from Cannes in 2015 and then, in 2017, hit a delightful late Annus mirabilis. The Academy granted her an honorary Oscar. A few months later, she became the oldest person nominated for a competitive Academy Award when Faces Places landed in the best feature documentary category. Promoting that film, in which she accompanied the artist JR about small French communities, she secured a delightful last (as it transpired) taste of unfettered adoration.
“I was curious,” she said of her career. “Curiosity is a good thing. And I was curious about different people.”
Agnès Varda is survived by her daughter Rosalie Varda, who produced Faces Places, and by her son Mathieu Demy, an actor and director.