Remembering Agnes Varda

From 2017’s Faces, Places


(This article by Hoai-Tran Bui originally appeared in The Boston Globe.)

Agnès Varda, a Belgian-born filmmaker often called the ‘‘godmother of the French New Wave’’ for early works such as ‘‘La Pointe Courte’’ and ‘‘Cléo From 5 to 7,’’ which broke hidebound narrative traditions and influenced future directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, died at her home in Paris. She was 90.

A spokesman, Thomas Chanu Lambert, announced March 29 that she died overnight. The cause was cancer, he said.

The French New Wave, which most conspicuously launched with Godard’s international hit ‘‘Breathless’’ (1960), was not characterized by a cohesive style or single formula. Instead, it was a rebellion-minded movement that sought to challenge Hollywood (and Parisian) cinema’s established approach to acting, plot, and pacing.

Ms. Varda, who received an honorary Oscar in 2017 and whose 2017 road trip documentary ‘‘Faces Places’’ was Oscar nominated, had long worked in the shadow of New Wave directors such as Godard, Resnais, and François Truffaut. But she nonetheless was credited with inspiring many of the hallmarks of the movement: nonlinear narrative, an emphasis on mood over story line, and often-jarring editing.

The New Wave found enthusiastic followers among later generations of moviemakers,

including Bernardo Bertolucci, Jim Jarmusch, and Quentin Tarantino, who named his production company after a Godard film (“Bande à Part,’’ or ‘‘Band of Outsiders”).

Ms. Varda was, by any definition, an outsider when she began making movies in 1954: as a woman but also as a photographer without professional training in cinema. Before she picked up a movie camera, she claimed to have seen only five movies, among them Disney’s ‘‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’’

A former art and philosophy student, she spent her early career in Paris as the official photographer of the Thétre National Populaire. Resnais, a friend who was making well-received documentary films, urged her to try moviemaking.

The French film-production unions were hostile to amateurs, so Ms. Varda and a small crew working on a minuscule budget left Paris for the French Mediterranean fishing village of Sete, where Ms. Varda grew up. The 1955 film ‘‘La Pointe Courte’’ combines two parallel story lines and filming styles.

The villagers’ customs and struggles are told through documentary-like sequences, while the story of the visiting Parisian couple whose marriage is crumbling unfolds like a traditional drama. The film starred Philippe Noiret, an actor with Thétre National Populaire, in his first leading role. Resnais served as editor.

With ‘‘La Pointe Courte,’’ Ms. Varda was determined to approach her first film with as much freedom as a novelist — letting the narrative meander and expunging expository dialogue.

‘‘It’s like a stream of feelings, intuition, and joy of discovering things,’’ Ms. Varda said of her directing method in a 2001 interview with IndieWire. ‘‘Finding beauty where it’s maybe not. Seeing. And, on the other hand, trying to be structural, organized; trying to be clever.’’

This method of ‘‘cine-writing’’ was adopted by many New Wave directors, including Resnais, who made such enigmatic masterworks as ‘‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’’ (1959) and ‘‘Last Year at Marienbad’’ (1961). Resnais, who died in 2014, said that Ms. Varda’s debut film heralded the gathering forces of the oncoming New Wave.

‘‘La Pointe Courte,’’ released in 1955, was not a commercial success, but it was embraced by some critics for its daring style. Film scholar Roy Armes noted the work’s ‘‘balance between the personal and the political, the theatrical and the documentary,’’ all trademarks of Ms. Varda’s later works.

Ms. Varda spent the next eight years making documentaries, several commissioned by the French tourism office. Her next feature was ‘‘Cleo From 5 to 7’’ (1962), which she wrote and directed.

Shot in real time in Paris, ‘‘Cleo From 5 to 7’’ follows its title character (played by Corinne Marchand) as she awaits the results of a biopsy. Cleo is a callow pop star who seeks comfort from friends and lovers but is disappointed by everyone except a stranger she meets in the park — an Algerian soldier who accompanies her to the hospital.

The film took a subdued, even aloof portrayal of its main character’s quiet suffering — toning down Hollywood-esque emotion in favor of imagery meant to evoke existential despair.

When asked by a New York Times reporter whether any of the film was autobiographical, Ms. Varda replied, ‘‘Well I wasn’t tall, blonde, or cancerous. I wanted to combine the idea of death — and I think cancer is the psychosis of our century — and the fear prevalent in the female as she becomes increasingly emancipated.’’

Reaction to the film was mixed. A Time reviewer wrote that Ms. Varda ‘‘mistakes pulp

for pith and winds up only with pretension.’’ Nevertheless, ‘‘Cleo From 5 to 7’’ won the Prix Melies in 1962 — the French Union of Film Critics’ film of the year award.

After ‘‘Cleo From 5 to 7,’’ Ms. Varda was bombarded with offers for what she referred to as ‘‘more pictures about dying blonde singers.’’

Instead, she took a break from features to make ‘‘Salut les Cubains,’’ a 1963 short documentary on daily life during the Cuban revolution told through thousands of still photographs. Her political sympathies also led to her participation in the pro- Communist, antiwar protest film ‘‘Far From Vietnam’’ (1967) with Godard, Resnais, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, and other directors.

In 1969, Ms. Varda made her American feature debut, ‘‘Lions Love.’’ The quirky and mostly improvised film starred Andy Warhol performer Viva and the authors of the rock musical ‘‘Hair,’’ James Rado and Gerome Ragni, as Hollywood bohemians ostensibly trying to make a movie when they are not making prank telephone calls (“Hello, Bank of America? I’d like to order $200 to go.”) It also worked in a sequence about the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy.

Film historian Jeanine Basinger said Ms. Varda ‘‘broke down the barriers of what would be considered proper and classical narrative style’’ but did not like being pigeonholed with the New Wave crowd. ‘‘By the time the New Wave came along, she was already starting to move away.’’

Arlette Varda was born in Brussels on May 30, 1928, to a Greek father and a French mother. Her family fled to Sete during World War II, and she changed her first name to Agnès at 18.

In 1962, she married director Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”), with whom she had a son. Earlier, she had a daughter with actor Antoine Bourseiller, and

Demy adopted her. She leaves her children, Mathieu Demy and Rosalie Varda.

Ms. Varda’s interest in the feminist movement deepened in the 1970s. She made a short documentary about women, ‘‘Réponse de Femmes’’ (1975), and followed with several feminist-themed feature films.

‘‘I am the queen of the margins,’’ she told the New York Times in 2009, remarking on her lack of name recognition from a commercial standpoint. ‘‘But the films are loved. The films are remembered. And this is my aim — to be loved as a filmmaker because I want to share emotions, to share the pleasure of being a filmmaker.’’